McClellan lights a short fuse

Ken Jones meets the highly explosive puncher who is convinced he can blast his way to Nigel Benn's world crown
Click to follow
The Independent Online
Young boxers working out at the Peacock gymnasium in Canning Town this week were advised to pause in their labours and study Gerald McClellan. "Watch how he gets into position, his footwork, his balance," trainers could be heard saying.

The 27-year-old American from Freeport, Illinois, who is challenging Nigel Benn for the World Boxing Council super-middleweight championship at the London Arena tonight had completed sparring, but his movements in the ring were enough to justify undivided attention.

Keen observation was understandable because McClellan's reputation is that of a scientifically chilling puncher. His last three opponents, including Julian Jackson, who knocked Herol Graham silly when they fought for the WBC 11st 6lb title, went inside two minutes. A majority ended up as if they had been assaulted with a bar stool. There are intellectual qualities in McClellan's style, but his principle objective is to quickly induce a state of mind commonly known as unconscious. Explosive is the word used most frequently to describe his method.

It was an index of the impression McClellan conveys when a bystander in the gym, an old fighter, raised two fingers in forecasting the point at which he expects tonight's proceedings to be violently terminated. On receipt of this information, the challenger smiled approvingly. "I don't intend hanging around in there," he said.

In the development of artists, an essential element is a correct dosage of disappointment. The important thing is that they interpret defeats as a challenge. When addressing the two losses on his record, each on points over eight rounds, McClellan said: "The first was due to a lack of sparring, while the second was down to overwork in the gym. It was all part of finding out about myself as a fighter. I guess you could call it the learning process. Since then I've got 21 straight wins, so I'm on track now."

McClellan's decision to relinquish the 11st 6lb title after three ferociously successful defences was the result of a weight problem. "I could no longer make the weight comfortably," he said. "Sometimes I was as much as 10lb over only a short while before the fight. Coming in at 168lb isn't a problem."

Narrow eyes, set wide, the pupils brown and darting, suggest a lot about the challenger. You suppose the keenest reflexes and demonstrations of immaculate timing. They harden when people question his stamina. "I always go for a quick finish and I'm confident that a knock-out will happen," he said. "Of course, it makes sense to train for 12 rounds but Benn isn't going that far, believe me."

The correct conclusion is that McClellan goes to his corner with a great deal of self- assurance, trusting implicitly in the power he was born with. "You can't make a puncher," he said. "It's something that's in you, something I find tremendously thrilling. I get a greater buzz from a knock-out than I do from sex. Getting the power on, watching an opponent fall. There isn't another experience to compare with it."

Embittered when he was not chosen for the 1988 Olympics in Seoul despite a victory over Roy Jones, who holds the International Boxing Federation 12st championship, and is considered, pound for pound, to be the most accomplished fighter currently at work, McClellan turned professional with Emmanuel Steward. It was at Steward's gymnasium, the Kronk in Detroit, that McClellan fully developed the attitude that even opponents of long experience find intimidating. "As an amateur I was more of a boxer," he said, "but once I realised the power was there I went with it."

Also, McClellan went off in another direction, taking up again with his original trainer, Stan Johnson, after a split with Steward. "I didn't think Manny was giving me enough of his time," he said. "I considered myself to be top man at the Kronk but Manny paid more attention to Michael Moorer."

It was early in the afternoon of a bright day and McClellan was smartly, if extravagantly, turned out in a mustard-coloured suit, a gold medallion dangling from a crew collar. Predictably, his boxing heroes are Mike Tyson and Thomas Hearns, both renowned hitters. Muhammad Ali and Sugar Ray Leonard? "They weren't my kind of fighters," McClellan replied.

McClellan's credentials were first established in a British ring when he knocked out John Mugabe in one round at the Royal Albert Hall in London to gain the World Boxing Organisation championship vacated by Chris Eubank. In keeping with his lucrative policy of avoiding all unnecessary risks, Eubank had kept McClellan at a safe distance.

At 27, standing 5ft 11in, McClellan cuts an impressive figure. "Because his fights don't last very long it is difficult to assess McClellan fully," Ed Schuyler, of the Associated Press, said. "But certainly he carries a lot of natural power and is extremely quick. And he's no head hunter. The body shots, wicked left hooks, are ruinous. If Benn is looking to make it a long fight, supposing perhaps that McClellan will slow up after five or six rounds, he'll have to withstand a lot of punishment."

McClellan goes along completely with that theory. "I can out-box Benn," he said, "but I don't need the exercise. Why stand there for 12 rounds when I can get it over in one."