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'G-Man' in the Dark After a Bright Future

The Nation

September 28, 2003|Tim Dahlberg | Associated Press Writer

FREEPORT, Ill. — The living room of the little house is dark, illuminated only by a television he cannot see.

There was a time not so long ago when Gerald McClellan was one of the most feared fighters in the world. Now he sits on a couch, holding a visitor's hand as if he's afraid to let go.

"Squeeze me," he pleads. "Squeeze my hands."

I do just that. As McClellan squeezes back, questions tumble out.

"How long have you been here? Are you hungry? What did you eat today?

"You write? You a photographer? Are you Teddy?"

The large hands that knocked out 29 middleweights are still strong. McClellan keeps squeezing.

"You drive? What did you drive? What color is it? You got a favorite color?"

McClellan pulls the visitor toward him.

"Closer. Come closer. Squeeze me. Squeeze.

"What color is air? Why don't air have a color? Does water have a color?"

The colors are all in McClellan's mind now, swirling amid a jumble of other thoughts that he can't keep in order. His brain functions only in spurts, then quickly short-circuits.

He's blind, nearly deaf and only recently has been able to use a walker to get around.

If McClellan could see, he might be reminded of what happened that night eight years ago when a world that had been so bright suddenly went dark.

In a nearby corner, his championship belts are in a display case. On a wall is a painting of the fight in London with Nigel Benn that ended so tragically.

McClellan's upper body is still chiseled. Sitting here, at age 35, he almost looks as if he could fight today.

Then he begins to talk.

"Teddy? Is that Teddy?" he asks.

"No," his sister, Lisa, replies, "it's Tim."

"Tim? You write? Where are you from? Are you hungry? What is your favorite meal?

"Tim, come closer.

"Squeeze me. Squeeze me harder."

*

The G-Man was as ferocious as fighters come, a lanky 160-pounder with devastating power and a menacing aura that frightened people inside the ring and out. He had a stable of fighting pit bulls, a habit of knocking out opponents in the first round.

He beat Roy Jones Jr. in the National Golden Gloves as an amateur, and McClellan likely would have gotten rich against Jones in a megafight had tragedy not intervened.

"They both had equal speed and moves," former trainer Emanuel Steward said. "But Gerald was such a heavy-handed puncher."

On this summer day, he seems to remember that he used to fight. He seems to recall knocking people out.

"You smoked them," Lisa says.

"Like a cigarette?" McClellan asks.

He wants to know why he isn't still fighting.

"You're retired," Lisa says.

"How many years?"

"Eight years."

"The reason?"

"You got hurt. You know."

*

A rowdy crowd of about 11,000 had gathered for the night in the dank London Arena, hoping against hope that their man could do something against the fearsome American. It was Feb. 25, 1995, and McClellan was a heavy favorite to beat an aging Benn and take his 168-pound title.

Benn knew McClellan's reputation well.

"He's the man who comes out and destroys people with one punch," Benn said.

McClellan, though, was troubled from the moment he arrived in England. He had split with his manager and trainer, and was overwhelmed trying to deal with the fight issues they used to handle. In his dressing room before the fight, he wrapped his own hands, alone.

It shouldn't have mattered. McClellan was getting used to stopping fights almost before they began, and soon Benn was in trouble. McClellan hit him with a barrage of punches in the first round, including a devastating right that knocked Benn out of the ring and left him draped over some television monitors at ringside.

But Benn was saved by a long count, then began holding his own. McClellan was still winning on two scorecards as the fight went into the 10th round, but he was getting hit with rabbit punches on the back of his head that were hurting. His mouthpiece was dangling.

Midway through the 10th round, he went down to one knee after an exchange. The referee began counting him out in French, and McClellan got up at seven, blinking rapidly. Benn hit him with a series of punches and McClellan slid to the canvas, again on his right knee.

In the arena, the fans went wild as he was counted out, still on one knee. Benn celebrated too not noticing that McClellan had fallen off his ring stool and was now slumped in the corner, with doctors frantically attending to him.

In the ambulance, McClellan was still coherent enough to take off his oxygen mask and ask what happened. But swelling in his brain worsened, and doctors had to drill a hole in his head and perform four hours of surgery on a large blood clot before inducing a coma to try to stem the damage.

In the next cubicle over was Benn, who was hospitalized himself after the brutal bout.

Six weeks later, McClellan was airlifted to a hospital in Milwaukee.

Six months later, he went home to Freeport, a grimy town two hours outside of Chicago, where a rare visitor added some interest to a recent day.

"Who's here?" he asks.

"Tim."

"Teddy?"

"No, Tim."

*

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