The sweet science shown up for brutal game it is

IT was a Shakespearean tragedy on a canvas and a Saturday night.

And it was hard to watch.

Those of us who stayed up to watch ITV’s documentary about the infamous Nigel Benn-Gerald McClellan fight are thinking about it still. And, you realise as the credits rolled on Monday, the reality of what happened that night on prime time television in 1995 has stayed with the drama’s cast ever since.

The plot? Referred to as ‘miniature Tyson’, Illinois fighter McClellan came to London under a furrowed brow and behind a reputation worthy of Iron Mike himself.

He was the WBC middleweight champion and, with Don King on his right arm, was making his first foray at super middleweight.

In the red corner, Benn was the trash-talking home favourite. WBC super-middleweight title holder, and a fighter who promised a war.

He — along with the man with whom he would leave the ring forever linked — delivered just that.

After 10 rounds of knock-down-drag-out fighting, Benn remains the champion. McClellan concedes the defeat despite being ahead on most people’s cards. He slumps into the corner slowly, until he passes out and is carried from the arena on a stretcher. But that’s where the story just begins, I suppose.

The film which aired, fittingly, on the same channel that delivered us the brawl on that February night 16 years ago, is entitled The Fight of Their Lives.

McClellan, you’ll know, has had his life forever curtailed by the meeting. After the bell, he’ll spend a week in a coma and will never see again. He’s now totally blind, 80% deaf and brain damaged. He’s cared for by his sister and family, thanks to donations from well-wishers.

In the immediate aftermath, Benn was asked if he was concerned about his vanquished opponent? Rather him than me, he shrugged casually.

Years later, the TV screen frames the Dark Destroyer — now ‘living in light’ as a born-again Christian — weeping as he watches the interview and those cruelly honest comments. He makes allowances, tries to explain what he meant and expresses his remorse. It’s tough to watch.

We cut to McClellan in his modest home, which he bought two decades previously, as he sits slumped in a wheelchair under pictures of himself in the ring with a smile. His sister sits at his side, as she has done since 1995, and explains that she and her family wished Benn was dead for a dozen years after those heat-of-the-moment comments late on a Saturday night. The boxer repeats himself and screams in the background, trying his best to speak.

But like all real stories. This one isn’t all black and white.

Enter Stan Johnson, the seemingly inept trainer who McClellan didn’t even trust to wrap his hands that night. At one point, wearing his ‘trademark’ sailor hat still, he clips out false front teeth with his tongue to show how mean McClellan could be in training: “He did that on purpose,” he lisps. “But he paid for these afterwards,” holding the dental work.

The trainer then confesses his fighter — who wears pitbull tattoos on his arms — was into dog fighting and at one point taped shut the mouth of a Labrador and fed it to his pitbull.

If you had sympathy for one who was hurt so much in this human cock fight, it was tested then (Johnson later jerks the narrative again when he claims blood from Benn was taken from McClellan’s boot and tested for steroids: it came back positive, he says. “He was juiced!” (Benn, who is so brutally honest in every other aspect of the film, denies this strenuously).

The drama is supplemented by a Greek chorus of those who sat ringside: Frank Bruno looking gaunt and unfamiliar relives his night in a ridiculous orange suit, constantly out of his ringside seat empathetically.

Barry McGuigan, who is as eloquent and emotionally intelligent as always, is on the brink of tears when he recalls the commentator’s claims that McClellan ‘gave up’.

The commentator, Jim Watt, sits here now and asks how could he know what was going on. He called it as he saw it.

Then there’s the man in the middle. A French referee, Alfredo Alfaro, who has defended his handling of the count in the first round for years. Some say Benn was down for 10 seconds or more, others claim otherwise. Alfaro claims Benn was up at eight. He’s a man now who produces, for the cameras, seemingly every scrap of newspaper that’s ever mentioned that night. He’ll deny it — but the official has lived with the consequences of the evening since the bell rang at his signal.

Later, as McClellan was rolled through a sea of celebrating Londoners in a neck brace and already half blind, Don King, the young fighter’s promoter, crossed the ring and stood by Benn’s side. He put his arm around him and publicly praised the new champion, aligning himself with a new cash cow.

The film is hard to watch, it doesn’t pull its punches but on a night in which no one escaped unhurt — most of all McClellan — it’s professional boxing that comes off forever scarred.

* Twitter: @Adrianrussell


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