THE McCLELLAN TRAGEDY : Benn defies odds by will and courage

Ken Jones sees a champion's display of previously hidden qualities overshadowed by appalling injuries
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The Independent Online
Nigel Benn broke free from the excited clutches of his corner men, burrowed through to where a majority of reporters sat and brandished his still-gloved hands aloft. "What are you going to say about that," he howled. "I was ready to give him what he gave me. No matter what you thought, I'm No 1, second to none."

Few fighters ever had a better right. The words written here, and practically everywhere else, said Gerald McClellan would take Benn's World Boxing Council super-middleweight chamionship before the half-way stage, perhaps even in the first session.

The life-threatening injury that caused McClellan to collapse in his corner immediately after being counted out in the 10th round, worryingly overwhelms every other aspect of Saturday's contest. But only the utmost admiration can be held out for the remarkable intensity of Benn's spirit, the great courage and effort of will that enabled him to retain his world title after being knocked out of the ring in the opening round.

When Benn was sent backwards through the ropes and almost off the ring apron it seemed that McClellan would easily confirm his reputation as a devastating hitter who went to his corner as the odds-on favourite. Considering that the champion has been visibly shaken by men who had nothing like McClellan's firepower no further hope could be held out for him. Those who had bet on the challenger to take Benn out quickly were already counting their money.

On regaining the ring - inevitably there is a dispute over the time he was allowed to recover his ground by the French referee - Benn came under a tremendous bombardment as McClellan piled in to finish the contest. He survived until the bell but swollen features suggested that his chances of going much further were slim.

It was then that Benn put in a performance to rank with the very best given internationally by British boxers. Far from being able to complete the carnage, McClellan found himself in a contest brutal beyond his experience. Amazingly, Benn leaped from his corner at the start of the second round, tearing into the challenger, bringing a great roar of encouragement from his supporters. Few in a packed audience at London Arena could recall anything quite like it. Not since Marvin Hagler knocked out Thomas Hearns in three rounds have two fighters gone at each with such ferocity.

If Benn went to his corner with a more intellectual strategy in mind, circumstances persuaded him to abandon it completely. The only way he could hang on to the title was to beat McClellan at his own game. Forced to employ his jab to keep Benn off, the challenger began to take far more punches than he had bargained for, especially rights to the head.

By the fourth round, Benn had fought himself right back into the contest, drawing total admiration from watching boxers. A former world champion, Cornelius Boza-Edwards, said afterwards, "I was never sold on McClellan but I could hardly believe what I was seeing. If he'd thrown combinations instead of single shots he would have settled the fight earlier."

By the middle rounds it was no longer a question of power, but of guts and stamina. How Benn survived the eighth round is a mystery. Stiffened by a right, he was in desperate trouble. Two more rights sent him down. Benn rode the subsequent storm and in the ninth round McClellan began to indicate that something odd was happening to him. Still ahead on two of the three official scorecards he rose wearily at seven after Benn put him down in the 10th.

When McClellan went down again, this time on one knee, he showed no inclination to beat the count. But contrary to popular supposition at the time, the challenger had not simply given up. He was in desperate trouble. After walking slowly to his corner he sat on the floor and slumped against the cushion. Alarm bells were ringing.