Dark days for the Dark Destroyer

Nigel Benn's last fight ended with Gerald McClellan (left) suffering permanent brain damage. He returns to action tonight, but as James Reed discovered on a recent visit to his training camp, the world champion's recovery from that bleak night in February is far from certain
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The Independent Online
Nigel Benn's face betrayed his feelings. His suffering was clear, his face was a mess and the brutal fight was over as Benn started a demented victory dance.

But at this stage, as Gerald McClellan was led back to his corner, there was no way of knowing what damage had been done and Benn's jig continued until the severity of his beating caused the exhausted American to collapse in a still heap. An hour later neurosurgeons removed a piece of bone from McClellan's skull and fought desperately to scrape a blood clot from the surface of his brain.

At about the same time as the American boxer was in surgery Benn was in his own personal hell of pain. His friends kept a nervous vigil at his home and on two occasions lifted his body from bed to bath to try and ease the bruising.

''I have never felt pain like that,'' Benn said. ''I was really worried when I had the second bath.'' The vicious drama established the fight as one of the very best, the awful conclusion ensured it will never be forgotten but on a savage night, when defence in the ring was neglected, the cruel sport of boxing suffered once again. Benn has emerged with dignity from the melee of exposure having paced with care through the immediate post-fight frenzy.

If the pain was new, the tragedy that followed the epic encounter was something Benn had witnessed first hand on one other occasion. In 1991 Benn's friend and former foe, Michael Watson, collapsed after losing to Chris Eubank.

Watson's survival defied logic after a series of mishaps meant that he was taken to the wrong hospital before finally undergoing surgery to remove two blood clots at St Bartholomews Hospital.

A few nights later Benn arrived to see Watson. His face was blank as he stood in silence at his friend's bedside. He stared in disbelief at Watson, who still looked in tremendous physical shape, before rushing from his bedside and falling into the arms of Watson's grieving mother. Later that day Benn sat in the corner of the empty visiting room looking at the wall and clutching a gold cross in his hands.

His cheeks were wet with tears.

In February Benn decided not to visit McClellan.

''The time was not right to go and see him. I had no idea how his family would respond to me and I did not want his mother to slap me in the face,'' Benn said.

McClellan was beaten in 10 rounds and Benn retained his World Boxing Council super-middleweight title for the seventh time. Tonight Benn, 31, returns to the same ring at the London Arena to defend his title against Italy's Vincenzo Nardiello. ''I have not let Gerald McClellan get deep into my mind. That is why I have no fears about the place, no ghosts. It is just another fight in another venue,'' Benn insists.

After the fight both boxers went to the same hospital, the Royal London and, for a brief period when McClellan regained consciousness, were in adjoining cubicles. According to eye witnesses, Benn shook McClellan's hand before leaving. It was a disturbing night and malevolent outrages were reduced to hushed whispers in a room crowded with distraught trainers, friends and relatives.

When a boxer is taken to hospital after suffering an injury in the ring confusion reigns. Everybody involved wanders around asking simple questions and avoiding the hard reality of what by then is obvious. The stricken boxer looks normal but the concern on the faces of the doctors in attendance ruins the image. Benn must have remembered the disturbing looks on the faces of everybody present from his visit to Watson.

''It could have been me. But I'm prepared to do it all again. That is what I do, I fight. I go in there and have it with anybody,'' Benn adds. He is calmer now but rejects suggestions that his last fight changed him. The memory is fresh, the story of the fight is retold with eerie precision and almost total recall.

Benn lowers his voice; ''I enjoyed that fight. I did, not what happened after, but what went on in the ring. I had a lot to prove because everybody expected me to get done. Man, it was hard but I was determined to get up if he put me down and go back at him.

''I was moving away from his rights, giving him my shoulder as a target and I could feel the power drawing from his shots. I saw him stick his gumshield out and I knew I had him,'' Benn adds. The listeners at his Tenerife training camp sit rapt as the fighter relives the fight.

''When he put me down in the eigthth, it was more of a slip than a clean punch, I just got up and hit him with a right and then the bell sounded. 'Have some of that, son' I said to myself.'' The punch changed the fight and from that moment of bold retaliation McClellan's resolve faded.

''My body hurt. My face was swollen like the Elephant Man, my shoulders ached and after the fight I pissed blood. I knew I just had to keep going. I'm a warrior but I could not ignore the pain.'' Finally, McClellan fell for the second time and it was over. Within a week Benn left the country.

''My dad went to see him but I never did. I want to now, and I will,'' Benn continued.

There are reports that McClellan, who returned to America two months after his emergency surgery, will shortly return to his home in Freeport, Illinois. The fighter can walk with assistance, move both arms, and talk but hearing loss has affected his speech. He has also lost most of his sight.

Even before the latest medical update on McClellan became public knowledge, the fight's legacy hovered over Benn. ''I'm fine,'' Benn claims. However, the illusion of calm vanished when he was reminded of McClellan's remaining disabilities last Thursday. ''I don't need to hear that sort of crap,'' he scowled, his charm deserting him as he left a press conference to deal with 48 hours of personal demons before tonight's encounter.

Before the McClellan fight Benn had other troubles. He split from his wife and sought help from the hypnotherapist Paul McKenna.

''I fight in the ring on my natural abilities. I had some personal troubles and when it comes to a woman breaking your fucking heart you ain't gonna find any help in the ring,'' said Benn as his head dropped and his voice trailed off. Even after six months Benn was clearly having problems expressing his sorrow. ''Without Paul's help I would have ended up in the gutter or in a mental hospital.''

Now Benn has nothing left to prove and he insists his hunger has returned. He may have removed McClellan from his mind but erasing the memory of the night will be harder and it remains to be seen if his recovery is as complete as he hopes it is.