For Gerald McClellan, it's always "the lights are out" or "the curtains are drawn." Some explanation like that. The darkness is annoying to him, all right, but he always has a reason for it. Might just be night. Who's to say what time it is for him, eating pancakes at 3 a.m., drifting off to sleep at 8 a.m., his three sisters at his side in changing shifts? He was always a night owl anyway. No light, never any light. It could be just the hours he keeps. It makes sense.
Then again, it doesn't always, such as when he wants to watch the tape of his fight against Nigel Benn, and one of his sisters must remind him he's blind. That doesn't happen so much anymore. Mostly it happened right after he came out of the coma and began reconstructing his reality, shaping it to lit his needs, keeping those facts that did not destroy him entirely and ignoring those that might. But a year after the fight there are still times when the world McClellan has remade for himself defies his fragile logic. Now why, when he thinks about it, would it be dark 24 hours—three sisters' worth—a day? It's odd.
And being between fights this long—odd, too. "You know what my job is, don't you?" he'll ask the nieces and nephews who visit him. "You know what I do for a living." He's a boxer, of course, the former WBC middleweight champion of the world, 31-3 with 29 KOs (28 of them within three rounds), but strangely inactive these days. The fight schedule is vague but certainly in place. "If I give you tickets for my next fight," he'll ask a visitor, "will you come?"
Sometimes one of his sisters will employ this delusion in his rehabilitation, telling him he's in training and has to get on the treadmill. "C'mon," says Lisa McClellan, "you're in the Kronk gym." Most times it works. His short-term memory is shot, bombed out of his brain by Benn, along with his vision and a lot of hearing and who knows what else. Occasionally, however, something floats up—smells or sensations from his past, from when he was whole. Then the little ploys don't work. The Kronk: Emanuel Steward kept the heat in that old Detroit gym at about 95°. Gerald will stop right there on the treadmill, some part of his brain recalling the closeness of the air, hearing the pop of leather, the heavy bags twisting on their chains, and he'll recover something of himself. "This ain't no Kronk!" he'll yell. Sometimes he cries.
If boxing is unique in sports, it isn't for the tragedies it so routinely presents but for the way it compounds their cruelty. It's not enough that McClellan, whose fierce ring persona and startling talents promised him unlimited success, now sits in Freeport, Ill., in the darkness of the house he bought in 1991 for $20,000—and may sit there for the rest of his life. Because this is boxing, in which rage and greed combust to provide such violent spectacle, he must be victimized again and again.
His family must be split apart beyond the possibility of repair, his small finances must be further diminished by a bitter custody dispute, the mother of his infant daughter must be banished from his home by outsiders, his father must be cast out, too. McClellan must become the unwitting cause of elaborate intrigues that, to hear the various parties tell it, are either hatched against some of the MeClellans by promoter Don King or hatched against King by the FBI. Sitting in the dark, not remembering much from day to day, McClellan is a ruined battleground on which people fight over $5,000 or even less.
He is not neglected. But he is lost in the confusion, alone in this unpleasant chaos. McClellan is not subject to any particular outrage, any condition that cries for correction. Some people around him even have his interests at heart. But their agendas have seemed to replace his. Is it just human nature? That terrible night of Feb. 25, 1995, in London—where McClellan's savage fight with Benn, the WBC super middleweight champion, ended when McClellan suddenly fell to his knees, wincing, in the 10th round and then, after being counted out and led to his corner, collapsed—has become the fulcrum upon which the feuding relatives balance their resentments and dreams, and McClellan seems beside the point.
Physically he may not be the mess many people suppose, although his sisters allow very few visitors to see him and decide for themselves. In London, where he had emergency brain surgery immediately after the bout and spent two months in a coma, McClellan had two strokes and, supposedly, a heart attack. Yet, according to sister Lisa, 27, who serves as a family spokesperson and is one of her brother's three principal caregivers, he has come much further from those traumas than doctors imagined he could. "They said he'd always be comatose, never be able to walk, never be able to remember who we were," Lisa says. "Well, those are things he now does. It's a slow process, but every day's been positive. Every day we see more improvement."
What's more, McClellan has recently begun to come to grips with the idea that he is blind, although he doesn't know how he got that way. Edgar Oppenheimer, the real estate agent who sold McClellan his house and still visits him, says the fighter asked, "I'm blind; aren't I?" but thought he had lost his sight "in a fight against Julian Jackson."
"He is repressing the Benn fight, but he has made a major improvement," Oppenheimer says. "He had not even known he was blind. I see improvement each time I see him. His upper-body strength is still there. I don't want to be around when he realizes what happened in the Benn fight."