Boxing: Fighters go separate ways but pain never ends for McClellan

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The Independent Online

They left the ring together, briefly shared an emergency room at the Royal London Hospital in Whitechapel and then Nigel Benn and Gerald McClellan went their separate ways and remain to this day distant enemies.

Shortly before midnight after the fight, McClellan was sedated and prepared for an emergency neurological procedure to scrape a huge blood clot from the surface of his brain.

At the same time and in the same hospital, Benn was having an MRI scan to find out if the bells in his head were just the usual aftershocks of his opponent's fists or if something more sinister was developing. After the unbearable drama of the ring, the minutes ticked by slowly, as friends, family and men from the boxing business stood and waited for any news. It was one of the most pathetic scenes that I have ever witnessed.

Benn was told he had a shadow on the brain, which, I am assured, sounds far more serious than it is. He was released into the arms of his friends and they left in a convoy for the fighter's mansion in Essex. A few months later, Benn told me that he was lifted, shivering in agony from cold baths, all night and the day after the fight in a desperate attempt to end the pain he felt.

McClellan started to stir from his drug-induced coma after 11 days and his early vital signs were extremely encouraging. During the days and weeks after any emergency neurological procedure, progress is measured slowly, and patience - from everybody, including the stricken victim of the blunt head trauma - is essential.

That was 10 years ago but, like the Michael Watson and Chris Eubank fight of 21 September, 1991, it is still so vivid and clear in my mind.

Benn stepped back into the same London ring five months later and was given a moving 10-minute standing ovation by 11,000 fans. He retained his title that night and once more before losing three times in 1996 and finally deciding to quit with his senses and his millions intact. Benn, like all opponents in near-death fights, was never the same man again and it was not the shadow on his brain that really ended his career. All boxers responsible for a tragedy in the ring are affected by disturbing memories.

Life for McClellan continued improving and with his sisters by his side it was decided that he would return to America sometime in early April of 1995. There seemed to be some concern at the time from McClellan's neurosurgeon, John Sutcliffe, but a family decision had been made and the young fighter was hoisted into an ambulance jet for the journey to Chicago. He was just 27 and he kept barely $70,000 (£36,662) from the last fight of his life.

Sutcliffe and his former colleague, Peter Hamlyn, shared a dubious distinction of having operated on more boxers than any other neurosurgeons in the world. They have, through their combined efforts inside the skulls of fighters, become authorities on the tragic art of saving a boxer's life. They have lost just once in seven procedures and their advice is sought by any of their colleagues in a similar position. It is amazing that on this occasion Sutcliffe's advice was seemingly ignored.

This is where the aftermath of the Benn-McClellan fight starts to get murky, confusing and nasty. Benn continued fighting, but many in the American boxing business accused him of using illegal rabbit punches to the back of McClellan's head to cause the injury. Benn correctly laughed off the outrageous claim, but had all his offers of help rejected by McClellan's angry sister, Lisa. She still speaks of the hate she feels for the man who so nearly caused her beloved brother's death.

When McClellan landed in Chicago, things started to go wrong for him and during the ambulance ride to his home in Freeport something catastrophic happened inside his head. He was immediately returned to hospital, but more damage had occurred and he lost his sight and 80 per cent of his hearing. Many people believe these injuries, which make McClellan look a pathetic figure now, took place in London in the hours and days after the fight.

At the same time, there was a lot of legal activity with various people threatening to sue a variety of both good and bad individuals. It was an ugly and disgraceful mess.

Benn remained in the spotlight after he retired and thanks to his great rival Chris Eubank he will forever be remembered because the pair inevitably swap insults or take part in some type of gladiatorial combat on almost an annual basis. Benn will also be seen on television later this year training an élite unit of the Army. But in real life the former soldier lives discreetly with his second wife and their family on the island of Majorca.

McClellan can now walk with some assistance and take a bath on his own. But his world will forever remain in the realm of the darkest of places because of the main injury he suffered one February night in London exactly 10years ago.

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