BOXING : Watson's example can encourage American

Nick Halling sees hope for McClellan in a fellow champion's brave fight
As Gerald McClellan and Nigel Benn fought themselves to a standstill on Saturday night, a wheelchair-bound former boxer at ringside may have been experiencing an uncomfortable sense of dj vu.

After a similarly absorbing televised world super-middleweight title fight in September 1991, the Londoner Michael Watson lost consciousness after being stopped in the 12th round of his contest against Chris Eubank. Like McClellan, Watson required immediate surgery to remove a blood clot from the brain. The immediate signs were not encouraging.

He lay in a coma on a life-support machine for 38 days after two emergency operations, breathing only with the aid of a ventilator. It took until January for the former Commonwealth champion to move his right hand and leg. As 1992 progressed he began to show an interest in the world around him, recognising family and close friends and communicating in single words.

Watson had four brain operations in total, the last coming in June 1992, when drainage tubes were removed and a section of his skull replaced with a metal-alloy plate. After the fourth operation, Peter Hamlet, the St Bartholomew's neurosurgeon who had cautioned against expectations of a full recovery, expressed surprise at the progress being made by his patient.

"His speech has improved from single words to well-formed sentences, and power in his limbs has also increased," he said. "He has made great progress in recent months, and there is every prospect that this will continue."

Watson remains in a wheelchair, and although the right side of his body has responded well to treatment, the left remains virtually useless. He retains a keen interest in the sport and is a regular visitor at many London promotions. His enthusiasm for Arsenal Football Club remains singularly undiminished. While hopes of a complete recovery may remain unfulfilled, the Islington man, who turns 30 next month, enjoys a better quality of life than seemed possible when he lay, unresponsive, in a deep coma.

The injuries to Watson and McClellan have led some observers to question whether the middleweight divisions in boxing are the most fraught with danger. While smaller men tend to wear each other down and heavyweights simply flatten each other through sheer power, the middleweights seem caught between the two, seemingly motivated beyond the limits of their physical endurance.

The examples of Watson, McClellan and another London middleweight, Rod Douglas, who underwent brain surgery after a contest in 1989, add weight to the theory. However Bradley Stone, the boxer who died after a British title fight last year, fought at bantamweight.

Other recent British deaths include the Scottish welterweight Steve Watt in 1986, and the Welsh bantamweight Johnny Owen in 1980. Another bantamweight, Mark Goult, underwent brain surgery in 1990, while the former World Boxing Organisation heavyweight champion, Michael Bentt, collapsed with a concussive brain injury after losing his title to Herbie Hide last March.

The Watson affair led to the British Boxing Board of Control instigating an eight-point plan aimed at improving boxers' safety. As the events of Saturday night have confirmed, it is impossible to eliminate the risk factor from boxing.

While Watson lay in his hospital bed, one of his regular visitors was Nigel Benn, the two having become friends after their Commonwealth title fight in 1989. Such is the camaraderie that binds fighters together it will be no surprise to find Watson offering McClellan both support and an example of hope as the American embarks on an uncertain convalescence.