Concern growing over `signs of distress'

Ken Jones considers the lessons boxing can learn from the McClellan tragedy
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The Independent Online
While no obvious blame can be attached to the French referee, Alfred Azaro, and Gerald McClellan's corner men, it is now thought possible that hints of serious distress escaped them in the intense excitement generated by Saturday's ill-fated contest against Nigel Benn for the World Boxing Council super- middleweight championship.

The American, who remains grievously ill in a London hospital following the removal of a blood clot from his brain, wore a deeply troubled expression on being sent out for the seventh round as though it had been in his mind to retire from the contest.

Even though McClellan almost knocked out Benn in the next session, the sight of his protruding gumshield and especially constant blinking, are now considered by medical experts to have been further tell-tale signs of the calamity that overtook him following a count-out in the 10th round.

John Sutcliffe, the neurosurgeon who operated on McClellan and Bradley Stone, the young bantamweight who died last year as a result of injuries sustained in the ring, was alert to impending tragedy when watching the fight on television. "It was a fairly vicious fight, and I'm surprised that it went as far as it did," he said.

Azaro asserts that he saw nothing to indicate a reason for halting the contest, but it was apparent that McClellan could not communicate clearly with the referee, who speaks little if any English. "In future I think we should ensure that the fighters and the referee share a common language," the promoter, Frank Warren, agreed yesterday.

"I'm not blaming Azaro in any way, but if fighters become confused during a round, if they sense something strange, for safety's sake it is important that the referee can understand them."

Although widely commended for the swift execution of medical safeguards in advance of any other boxing authority, the British Board will inquire fully into a fearful event that has brought the sport further into question. "It's no good sitting back in the belief that we have done everything possible to ensure the safety of boxers," John Morris, the Board's general secretary, said. "As you can tell from my voice, I've spent many hours since Saturday speaking about this on the telephone. Gerald McClellan is in the best possible hands and we'll do everything in our power to help him and his family.

"McClellan's welfare is our prime consideration. Beyond that the Board will continue working to provide boxers with the best possible protection."

In matters of welfare the Board has a good record. On medical grounds it has refused to license a number of boxers, including the former world champions, Iran Barkley, Julian Jackson and James "Bonecrusher" Smith. Gary Mason, the former British heavyweight champion, was turned down when he announced his intention to come out of retirement. That Mason was given clearance to box by a local commission in the United States is a further indication that similar stringent standards do not apply there.

Fragmented administration, four self-serving organisations and state autonomy in the US make the establishment of one international authority impossible. "It's fairly obvious that we need something on the lines of Fifa [football's world body] whose rules are observed internationally," Morris added. "But in view of present circumstances how do we bring that about?"

The Board was surely embarrassed yesterday when provocative references to Chris Eubank purchased from Benn appeared in The Sun newspaper despite the insistence of his manager, Peter De Freitas, that concern for McClellan invalidated all thoughts about the future. Calling Eubank a "pratt" in print could only be regarded as a cynical attempt to lay the foundations of a third meeting meeting between them. So much for sensitivity.

n Gerald McClellan remained in a critical but stable condition yesterday as doctors at the Royal London Hospital monitored his condition.

The 27-year-old remained under sedation on a life support system with a ventilator in the hospital's intensive care unit. John Sutcliffe, the consultant neurosurgeon, said the next 48 hours would be crucial.

"His chances of survival improve with every hour that passes. He is certainly not off the critical list and is not over the worst,'' he said.