Boxing: A night of savagery that posed boxing's fundamental question

Ten years ago today Nigel Benn and Gerald McClellan produced a frenzied world title fight that remains one of the most brutal bouts ever seen in a British ring - one that left McClellan with permanent brain damage
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It was always going to be a fight of a long count when they pushed Nigel Benn back into the ring from which he had been swept in the first round by a hurricane of punches from Gerald McClellan.

But then no one could have imagined that it would be McClellan, sitting in a wheelchair and locked into a deeply clouded world stirred from time to time most significantly by the sight of a savage fighting dog at work, who would be doing the counting, and that it would go on for so long, this open-ended, horrifying statement about the consequences of legalised violence.

Today it is 10 years precisely since we stood at the ringside and considered the possibility of boxing's ultimate horror: death in the ring.

Though McClellan might not agree, those who argue that life without some measurable quality is not worth even a flickering candle, might say that it would have been better if McClellan had slipped away as he lay on the canvas, but it was a nuance of reflection not available that night in the London Arena.

Nothing quite prepares you for such a swift descent into those tests of conscience which come as inevitably as the darkness of night to those of us who cannot shake the dramas and the character offered by the prizefight. So you stood there, close up to the battle for a man's place on the planet, and you were as appalled as those who waited for doctors to turn off the life support for the frail, quiet young Welshman Johnny Owen, after he was spat upon by some crazed supporters of Lupe Pintor as he was carried on a stretcher from the Olympic Auditorium in Los Angeles.

His unforgettable epitaph was provided by Hugh McIlvanney before the hospital switch-off: "It is his tragedy that he found himself articulate in such a dangerous language." Now, 15 years later, the agony was for a much less vulnerable fighter. Indeed, McClellan, from Illinois, was widely rated boxing's best pound-for-pounder when he came to London to dispute the World Boxing Council super-middleweight title.

That was part of the shock. And later, after hours of monitoring McClellan's condition after the brilliant work of the distinguished surgeon John Sutcliffe at the Royal London Hospital, it was the unlikelihood of his demise that had to heighten all reactions to the trauma.

Then you had to bury all that deep attachment to the sport which had given us Ali and Louis, Robinson and Armstrong, Leonard and Duran, and say something like this, "When they gave Gerald McClellan his fourth injection in the corner of that zoo of a ring, when they put the brace on his neck and the oxygen mask to his face, when all the demons of a brutal business crowded in, you were left with the question that will never go away. It was just this: How long can the old game go on?" Of course, you could have asked that question at any time in the bloody history of the ring; certainly at least 17 times in the preceding 23 years. That was the number of boxing-related deaths.

One of the fatalities was the young British fighter Bradley Stone, on whose behalf the surgeon Sutcliffe had also applied all his skill. In the dawn of saving something of McClellan's life, Sutcliffe kept hold of his emotions and said: "Naturally, at a time like this, feelings run high, but I just don't think it is for the medical profession to ban boxing. In the end I suppose it will be for the public to decide." Or maybe the politicians, as they have in the case of fox hunting. Maybe they care more for foxes than fighters, but for some of the rest of us there will always be a terrible ambivalence when we go to the fights.

That doubt is always at its height in the wake of a McClellan episode. When an uncelebrated Korean lightweight, the son of a fisherman, was beaten to death in Las Vegas, his mother flew to a strange land and wept in despair before the cameras. But she also said: "I know that nothing could have stopped my son being a fighter. He loved the sport so much." But then the sheer, atavistic force of the McClellan-Benn collision ensured that doubts would run as deeply in this country as they had ever done both inside and out of the sport.

Even the then secretary of the British Boxing Board of Control, John Morris, admitted he had been shocked into the deepest apprehension by the frenzied level of some of the exchanges. He said at ringside: "Ten rounds of ferocity within the rules like this is incredible. When I watch a fight like that I always have a nagging worry for the boxers. They know the risks, they know what they are doing, but it would be wrong if the people who administer the sport don't worry for them."

The late Harry Mullin, editor of Boxing News, shook his head and said: "It is increasingly difficult to justify boxing." The promoter Frank Warren, on hearing the first medical reports of McClellan's condition, said: "It's gutting. It's the last thing you want."

Naturally, the abolitionists were in full flight. James Tye, the director of the British Safety Council, urged the government to ban this "so-called" sport. The Labour MP Sam Galbraith, a surgeon, said: "We have to ask why in a civilised society we allow people to pay to see men damaging each other's brains." It was, and this brought another degree of guilt when you thought about it, a stupendous fight, one to rank in intensity with any you had seen. In this category it had to be placed alongside Hearns-Leonard I, Ali-Shavers, Hagler-Hearns, Bowe-Holyfield I.

Before Sugar Ray turned around the fight, when he was taking a stream of measured punches from the "Detroit Hitman", his wife, Juanita, repeatedly jumped from her seat and cried out, "No more, baby - after this, no more." When Ali came back into the dressing-room at Madison Square Garden, a points winner despite being rocked so hard by the man from Ohio it felt as though the foundations of the building were shaking, he screamed that the lights be turned off. He said they were like needles in his eyes.

After the three rounds of Hagler-Hearns, the novelist Budd Schulberg, sat down at ringside after Hearns, his legs like reeds blowing in the wind, had been carried away, and said: "Outside of war, I never expected to see anything so intense." In his first fight with Bowe, Holyfield, outgunned, erupted in the 11th round, and his opponent said later: "I didn't know any fighter had so much inside him." Then, of course, there was the "Thriller in Manila", when Eddie Futch ordered Joe Frazier to stay on his stool and Ali said: "We were near to death."

The key element in the progress of McClellan-Benn to that hazardous point was the resilience of Benn. Already the man billed as the "Dark Destroyer" had defined himself most courageously in defeat rather than victory. Once, when rendered virtually defenceless by Chris Eubank, he stuck out his chin and said: "Come on, let's see what you got, you wanker..." He had been dismantled by Michael Watson, before that fine fighter's life became a heroic battle against tragic damage in the ring.

Against the superbly equipped McClellan, Benn had the easiest of options after that first breathtaking assault by the American. He could have delayed just a little longer his return to the ring. Instead, he came to wage attrition, a resolve that was maintained despite going down again in the eighth. But that was the last of McClellan's resources. When he was knocked known in the 10th round the fight was unquestionably over. As the paramedics fought for his life, as they brought in the oxygen cylinder and the neck brace and the doctors looked at each other with expressions that did not require words, suddenly the act of breathing, even for the witnesses, became a chore.

It is so easy to remember that discomfort now. However much you admired the performance of Benn, you never went so soberly back into the night. You can almost hear your own footsteps as you wonder quite what Gerald McClellan might give to say that.