Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Benn vs. McClellan: The Fight That (Should've) Changed Boxing

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At one time, boxing was as popular as American football is today.  Even at the height of its popularity, only the most impoverished men from hardscrabble backgrounds chose boxing as a career path due to the physical risks of the sport.  It was the first sport in which CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy) was identified, though it was referred to as "dementia pugilistica" or "punch drunk syndrome" back in the 1920s.  While CTE is a slow-moving, fatal disease resulting from repeated blows to the head, what happened to Gerald McClellan was a different type of catastrophic brain injury that caused a sudden static form of damage.  In a single fight he lost all of his eyesight, 85% of his hearing, much of his cognitive/memory function & the ability to walk unassisted.

And the infuriating part is it could've been prevented at many points during the match.

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Gerald McClellan with his controversial fighting dogs

Gerald McClellan ("G-Man" to fans) was a skilled middleweight fighter & 2-time world champion in his weight class.  He was known as a mean & thuggish figure with a history of dogfighting & animal cruelty that didn't exactly endure him to some fans.  His favorite pre-fight activity was watching taped pitbull fights to amp himself up.  Don King was sponsoring McClellan & promoted him as a "Mini-Mike Tyson".  Needless to say, he had a lot invested in his winning.

Opponent Nigel Benn, known at the time as the "Dark Destroyer" & "Satan's Right Hand Man" in his native UK, held world championships in 2 weight classes.  He lived a freewheeling lifestyle back then, pounding booze & taking drugs like candy & engaging in epic orgies between beating people bloody in the ring.  He's since turned his life around with Christian counseling & become a dedicated family man.  Hey, whatever works.

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Nigel Benn in his prime

Fight preview teaser

Gerald McClellan had surgery on his right hand & had been out of the ring for 5 months prior to this fight, which undoubtedly played a role in his handicap here.  How could it not?  Additionally, some rumors have floated around about a potential pre-existing brain injury leading up to the fight with Benn, though there is no confirmed proof of this.  There are claims that he was blinking excessively in sparring practice & may have been seriously injured in a recent fight with power puncher Julian Jackson, though this is all speculation.

I don't discount this theory but I also think it's entirely possible to sustain those type of injuries from the single fight he endured with Benn.  Boxing fans have a tendency to downplay the risks & make excuses for why this or that fighter ended up disabled, but in reality 10 rounds of hard hits to every part of the head is sufficient to cause a blood clot like McClellan suffered.  Everyone's threshold for brain damage is different, which is part of what makes TBI & CTE so scary.  More on that later.

Fight Night

The fateful 1995 match started off with a bang, literally, when McClellan knocked Benn out of the ring through the ropes in the 1st round.  There are some fans who believe the fight should've been stopped there due to Benn taking too long to get back in the ring, but it continued.  From this point things only got more heated.  This is one of the loudest, most exciting fights I've ever watched.  Both men gave it their all but it's clear McClellan was tiring out after the first few rounds.  It looked like an even match until about the 5th round when he started swinging wildly & had taken a few too many hard hits to the head.  (Nigel Benn's punches were absolutely wicked).  By the end of Round 5 McClellan couldn't keep his mouth guard in place & appeared to have trouble breathing.  It went airborne after some brutal head punches at the end of Round 6.  At this point the fight would definitely be stopped in today's more cautious atmosphere.

The crowd was so roaring loud the boxers couldn't even hear the bell ring between rounds.  It was truly an electric atmosphere.  Round 7 was full of illegal moves on both fighters' parts; Benn had been "rabbit-punching" McClellan in the back of the head all night & received a massive payback blow to his own brainstem here.  Miraculously, McClellan makes a huge comeback in Round 8 & beats the tar out of Benn, knocking him silly against the ropes.

The 9th round is when things went from bad to catastrophic, however.  McClellan was head-butted accidentally & the first real signs of trouble showed up.  He dropped to his knees briefly after the head butt & signaled for help but was ignored as the ref began counting, so he got back up to keep fighting.  Every hit to the head after this point can be assumed to have contributed to his permanent disability.  After returning to their corners, McClellan kept blinking & was clearly in distress, but the 5 medics present failed to intervene or raise any concern so the fight continued into Round 10.  McClellan had never gone past 8 rounds in his career.

The fight in its entirety can be watched below.  It's one of the most intense matches from start to finish in all of the '90s:

Benn vs. McClellan:  2/25/1995 (London Arena, UK)

The announcers were expecting McClellan to win by this point & his trainers were goading him on, but they underestimated just how badly he was injured.  Both men came out swinging in Round 10 but McClellan was quick to drop down to one knee after a minor hit, this time for no obvious reason.  (Although it WAS obvious he was severely hurt if you were paying attention).  He stood back up briefly before going down to a knee a third & final time, after which he lost the fight & retreated to his corner where the announcers accused him of "quitting".  Even as he lay prone on the stretcher the buffoons couldn't figure out why a fighter who had taken freight train-powered head blows for 10 rounds, struggled to breathe & received a vicious head butt would "quit" like that.  😐

Shortly before falling unconscious, McClellan complained to his trainer that it felt like "water was running" inside his head.  Yikes.  Medics put him on a stretcher with a neck brace & carried him out while the crowd was still busy celebrating Benn's win.  (Benn was later taken to the hospital as well for exhaustion, where he saw McClellan's dire situation & kissed his hand and wished him well.  However, he was told by Don King to leave before the family could arrive, fueling a manufactured feud that would last for years).  Apparently G-Man was conscious & talking when he arrived at the hospital but suddenly became drowsy & started vomiting before going into a coma.  In surgery they found a large blood clot blocking circulation to several parts of his brain.  The surgery was said to have gone well but he emerged a very different person.

The Fight of Their Lives documentary (2011)

The Aftermath

Today, McClellan is cared for by his sisters Lisa, Stacey & Sandra full time, for which they deserve an enormous amount of respect.  Each of them has children so taking on the responsibility of caring for a disabled family member can't be easy.  Don King & the rest of the boxing industry apparently haven't contributed much, if anything, to the financial care of G-Man despite profiting off him for years when he was in peak physical condition as a fighter.  After the fight, King pranced over shamelessly to Benn's corner & began congratulating him & offering his promotional services to the new champ as his client lay on the stretcher unconscious.  Classy.

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Gerald with sister & caretaker Lisa
To this day, there's much controversy over who's responsible for what happened to Gerald McClellan during that fateful fight.  Most boxing fans agree it was either the referee, Gerald's trainers & promoters or a combination of the 3 who shoulder the blame, though if you ask THEM they all point the finger elsewhere.  Pathetic!  Not one of these grown men can own their part in this tragedy?  It's said that, on the ambulance ride to the hospital, a dazed McClellan asked "Did I get knocked out?" to which Don King replied coldly:  "No.  You quit like a dog."   That's the level of psychopathic opportunism this sport is filled with.  The fighters are just pawns in everyone's money-making scheme.  Once injured they're discarded forever like a wounded military veteran.  (Or perhaps like a pitbull whose best fighting days are behind him).

Some even had the gall to blame McClellan himself for his disability.  Let's think about that for a second.  The brain, which is responsible for sensory perception, judgment & every other cognitive function, gets badly injured in a fight.  How is a person with an injured brain supposed to know or communicate that they've injured said organ?  And yet McClellan did signal that he was hurt on more than one occasion during the fight--he just wasn't taken seriously.  Plus, these boxers have the pressure of promoters, trainers & the fans pushing them to keep going.  It's not realistic to expect them to throw in the towel when a sensible person would do so.  That's what referees & trainers are there for.  

One thing is certain:  Nigel Benn is not to blame.  He was merely doing the job he was paid & trained to do, as was McClellan.  In the intervening years, he's shown immense remorse & empathy toward the family, going so far as to hold fundraisers & appear in documentaries voicing his support for the Gerald & Co.  This is far from the only instance in which a professional boxer was irreparably damaged by the sport, but it serves as a reminder of how quickly circumstances can change & how callous the industry can be to its athletes.

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Nigel Benn with Gerald & Lisa McClellan
Lessons Learned

Watching this match 20+ years later, it's apparent how far the sport has come in terms of recognizing when a fight needs to be stopped & which injuries should be taken seriously.  But there's still a long way to go.  The entire point of boxing & MMA is to inflict damage to the head & body of your opponent, so avoiding all risk will never be possible.  As we learn more about how repeated hits to the head affect the brain, perhaps boxing & similar sports will be phased out altogether, though I don't see that happening in my lifetime.

Sports are too big a part of the American lifestyle for the public to give them up cold turkey--especially football, which carries just as much CTE risk as boxing.  Plenty of athletes make it to old age without any visible signs of dementia or mood problems, but that's what makes CTE so scary:  we don't know why.  What causes nice guys like Jovan Belcher or Chris Benoit to develop brain damage severe enough to trigger a murder-suicide seemingly out of the blue?  By all accounts, these guys were the most stable, friendly people you could ever meet until one day they weren't any more.

Retro Report:  Boxing's decline due to health concerns. Is football next?

And of course professional sports aren't the only route to chronic head trauma or TBI.  Domestic violence (child abuse, intimate partner violence, etc), military service in warzones, car wrecks & other forms of injury to the head are all capable of causing life-altering & sometimes permanent changes in personality, cognition, mood & functioning.  We need more public education campaigns to raise awareness about this health menace because the costs--financial, personal & social--are immense.  Your brain is the most complex & fragile organ in your body & you only get one.  Protecting it from avoidable damage is vital for your mental health & every other aspect of your life.

Nigel Benn has fared better than his opponent health-wise but speaks with a noticeable mumble that wasn't there in his younger years, which is common among former boxers.  It's impossible to predict what additional health problems these men will develop as they age, but the effects of brain damage tend to worsen when combined with the natural effects of aging on the brain.  Benn also attempted suicide by asphyxiation due to the guilt of cheating on his wife, though it's likely some of that depression stems from head trauma.  The number of pro athletes whose lives descend into a series of reckless choices involving drugs, financial gambles, sex addiction, violence & ultimately suicide due to CTE is truly terrifying.  Even in the absence of full-blown CTE, it's undeniable that repeated blows to the head have an effect on things like mood & cognitive functioning.  No organ in the body could take a such a beating & not end up with serious damage.

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The question is whether it's worth participating in these sports in the first place and knowing where to draw the line.  How much damage is too much?  How young is too young to start--too old to continue?  Are you willing to potentially sacrifice your ability to speak clearly, recall words & events, regulate your mood/emotions, control your impulses, make good business decisions & manage your temper for the sake of playing a sport you love & maybe earning some money at it one day? 

Only you can decide that, but at least make an informed decision by knowing all the possible outcomes first.  It's easy to get swept up in the promise of the wealth & glory of being a pro athlete--recruiters are counting on that.  But the years spent enjoying the fun bits will be short compared to the decades you'll be forced to live in a mind & body damaged by the sport if you're unlucky.  And the fallout often begins much earlier than you plan for, such as in your late 30s or early 40s.  Junior Seau (42), Chris Benoit (40), Aaron Hernandez (27) & Ryan Freel (36) all committed suicide before age 45 & all had CTE at autopsy.  If you have any doubt as to whether a sports organization cares about your health & safety, just look at Gerald McClellan & these other athletes & you'll have your answer.

I don't know whether McClellan & Benn would turn back the clock & make a different decision if they had the chance, but Benn refers to boxing as a 'road to death' for himself.  His son Conor is now a pro boxer which must be pretty nerve-wracking for him but also a likely source of pride.  Sports like boxing are a double-edged sword, carrying both a sense of excitement, glory & bravery as well as the risk of injury & disability.  One thing is certain though:  what you don't know about brain injury CAN hurt you.

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Nigel's son Conor Benn (right)


Okay, maybe the Benn/McClellan fight didn't actually "change" boxing, but the sport definitely changed them forever.  Sadly, a number of similar situations happened in decades prior, with fighters Benny Paret, Willie Classen, Duk Koo Kim & Cleveland Denny all dying from brain injuries sustained in the ring.  While boxing is no longer as big as football--broadcast during prime time on the Big 3 networks, advertised everywhere, etc--it remains a dangerous sport with potentially deadly consequences.  Change has been gradual but hopefully what happened to Gerald McClellan has had a positive impact on the sport in some small way. 

If you'd like to donate to the G-Man's trust fund, check out his official webpage here.  I'm sure his family would be eternally grateful.  

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