On the eve of the April 26 Boxing Writers' Association's dinner in Manhattan, former WBC middleweight champion Gerald McClellan and current undisputed middleweight champ Bernard Hopkins met in a Times Square hotel room. "Tap me," said McClellan, raising Hopkins's fist to his own chin. Two of the most exciting boxers of their times, they stayed for a moment in this classic pose, worthy of a fight poster. This, however, was a different kind of photo op.
McClellan, 34, hasn't boxed since Feb. 25, 1995, when he fought Nigel Benn and sustained a brain injury that sent him into a coma for two months. When McClellan awoke, he was blind, 80% deaf and wheelchair-bound (SI, March 4, 1996). Since then McClellan has survived under the 24-hour care of his sisters Lisa and Sandra at their tiny two-bedroom home in Freeport, Ill. McClellan's medical insurance ran out a few months after the Benn fight and despite a 34-bout career and a two-year title reign he, like most retired boxers, has no savings and no pension.
The meeting with Hopkins happened during McClellan's first trip out of Freeport since the coma. He and Lisa had traveled 19 hours by train at the request of his close friend Teddy Blackburn, a longtime boxing photographer who got an award at the boxing writers' dinner. McClellan didn't know it—he rarely knows where he is, or even the time of day—but Blackburn was being feted for helping raise money for McClellan and his caretakers. "We need to be reminded of fallen fighters like Gerald," says Lou DiBella, a boxing promoter who brought two young fighters to meet McClellan. "It's no secret that our sport could do more to help our own."
Or as Blackburn says, "I'd like to think that Gerald's case could help change some things in boxing, but will it? I don't think so. The best you can do is help one boxer. Gerald was a champion, and we can't just let him slip off the face of the earth."
McClellan doesn't seem to remember the Benn fight, one of the most brutal of Ms career. McClellan absorbed a fair number of blows to the head but had knocked Benn down and appeared to be winning when he suddenly collapsed in the 10th round. Neither does he have much short-term memory. "Is he a champ?" McClellan mumbled to Lisa after being introduced to Hopkins.
"Yes," said Hopkins, leaning close to McClellan's ear.
"Say it again. Louder."
"Yes. Middleweight champion of the world, just like you, brother."
The next day Lisa helped McClellan get into a tuxedo and took him to the awards ceremony, where he was wheeled onto a stage with Blackburn. The two received a standing ovation. All in all, McClellan's stay at the banquet lasted less than half an hour, enough time for him to have a glass of juice and a few bites of steak. Then he and Lisa left the table and went to get ready for their long ride home.