Benn must survive barrage

Gerald McClellan specialises in quick-fire stoppages. Harry Mullan predicts another
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The Independent Online
WHATEVER the outcome of his World Boxing Council super-middleweight title defence against Gerald McClellan at London Arena on Saturday, Nigel Benn has earned the respect of the boxing trade simply by agreeing to the fight in the first place. The 27-year-old American is one of the most feared fighters in the business, and despite McClellan's recent elevation to the mandatory challenger position, Benn could have side-stepped him and taken someone less demanding.

You have to go all the way back to 1961, when Floyd Patterson (against advice) gave Sonny Liston a crack at the heavyweight title to draw a parallel. That precedent is not, from Benn's point of view, a happy one: Liston destroyed Floyd in the first round, and there is a solid weight of evidence that a similar fate may await Benn.

McClellan, a product of Emanuel Steward's famous Kronk gym in Detroit, has a punch that would flatten heavyweights. Of his 31 professional fights he has won 29, 27 inside the distance. An astonishing 20 of those victories have come in the first round. In fact, 10 of his last 13 opponents have been beaten inside a round, including the former world champions John Mugabi and Julian Jackson. As WBC middleweight champion, a title he relinquished in order to secure Saturday's fight with Benn, he won all three of his championship defences in the opening round. Only Joe Louis had ever scored three consecutive first-round title wins before.

Benn is a decent puncher himself, although he is perhaps flattered by the 32 wins inside the schedule on his 42-fight record. The bulk of those (including his 13 first-round successes) came in his early, middleweight days, and his last three title fights have gone the distance. Even so, the "Sudden Impact" label, which the co-promoters Frank Warren and Don King have given the match seems for once less like hype than a statement of the truth. I have yet to talk to anyone in boxing, on either side of the Atlantic, who believes the fight can go more than three rounds either way.

McClellan certainly has no doubts. "I'm always looking for a quick knock- out and I know a knock-out will happen," he said. "I hear that Nigel is questioning my stamina if the fight gets to the later stages, but I won't need stamina this time."

The British cruiserweight champion, Dennis Andries, knows McClellan well, having roomed with him in Detroit when they were gym-mates and frequent sparring partners at the Kronk. "I don't believe Gerald can go more than five or six rounds," he told me. "If he doesn't get you out of there inside that time, he's in trouble. He's only been eight rounds twice, and he lost both of those.

"But he's a mighty puncher. People talk about his right to the head, but that isn't the one that does the damage - it's those little short left hooks to the ribs that really hurt. I like Benn, and I don't usually bet on fights, but I'm getting my money on Gerald in the first two rounds."

Benn is well aware of McClellan's capabilities. He is taking a calculated gamble: if he wins he will hugely enhance his bankability in America, where he now lives and he would step into a unification match with the International Boxing Federation champion, Roy Jones. The situation is much as it was when, as World Boxing Organisation middleweight champion, he took on the fearsome Iran Barkley in Las Vegas and stopped him in a round. That win, over a man who twice beat Thomas Hearns and who rebounded from the Benn loss to win two more world titles, remains Benn's finest achievement.

Barkley was then a terrifying figure with an awe-inspiring reputation for unmitigated violence, but whatever fear he inspired in Benn was channelled into aggression which vindicated the late Cus D'Amato's theory on the subject. "Fear is your best friend and your worst enemy," said the man who discovered and moulded Mike Tyson. "It's like fire - if you can control it, it can cook for you, it can heat your house. If you can't control it, it will burn everything round you and destroy you. If you can control your fear it makes you more alert, like a deer coming across the lawn."

Benn blitzed Barkley with an all-or-nothing attack, but if he tries the same against McClellan he will surely be caught as he comes forward; and McClellan need only connect once. Benn has acquired ring-craft and guile over the years, and he will probably try to keep the fight at long range in the hope that the American's stamina is found wanting. But 12 rounds is a long time to hold him off, and sooner or later the challenger's extraordinary hitting power will surely tell.