Benn-McClellan The Fight Of Their Lives Documentary - Uncomfortable But Compulsive Viewing

Gerald McClellanBy James Slater: Four years in the making, ITV boxing documentary The Fight of Their Lives, which is dedicated to the unforgettable, tragic and controversial Nigel Benn-Gerald McClellan super-middleweight title fight from February 25th of 1995, ran last night on U.K television. And a moving, upsetting and also fascinating hour the film really is.

The fight boxing will never forget has never been screened on British T.V ever since that fateful night almost seventeen years ago, and the footage that is contained in the documentary gives a stark reminder as to why. Chilling is the only word to describe the events of that savage night; events both inside and outside the ring. From the early knockdown of Benn, which sends him through the ropes, to the disturbing blinking and twitching of McClellan in the later rounds, to the accidental head-clash that first forced “The G-Man” to take a knee in the fight, to the unexpected ending, when Gerald took a final knee in the 10th-round - the activity in the ring that night saw to it that viewers went through a rollercoaster of emotions.

The new documentary focuses also on those people who were outside the ring that night: the screaming fans, McClellan’s corner, also screaming, especially when their man scores the knockdown in the 1st, only for the referee to fail to hit the count of ten, and the various commentators; many of them later being criticised for claiming McClellan quit in that 10th-round.

The referee, France’s Alfredo Alfaro, is also featured in the film. Much has been written about his handling of the count in the 1st-round. Some say Benn was down for ten seconds or more, others claim otherwise. Alfaro claims Benn was up at “8,” Nigel’s former trainer Kevin Sanders concedes that if he had been McClellan that night, he’d have thought he’d won the fight in that opener. “We were very lucky that night,” he says. The night of the fight, Alfaro, amazingly, was under the impression that Benn had an allowance of 20-seconds in which to resume fighting, as he had fallen through the ropes. Benn had not fallen off the ring apron, however, and was allowed just a standard ten-count - which Alfaro says Nigel beat.

Further controversy that is focused on includes the adequacy, or lack of, of McClellan’s corner. Having parted ways with Emanuel Steward, Gerald was chiefly reliant on Stan Johnson. The wrapping of the defending WBC champion’s hands has long proven to be a contentious issue. Just why did the fighter wrap his own fists on the night? According to Sanders, who visited the champ’s dressing room as per the right of the opposing fighter’s trainer before any boxing match, McClellan told him it was “because these idiots don’t know how to do it!”

Johnson, still sporting his “trademark” sailor hat, is heavily featured in the film, and the trainer sure comes across as a strange person. Judging by the smile he wears during much of the documentary, and going also by the ego-serving outbursts he comes out with, it’s hard to tell if Johnson has any real sympathy for the man he knew since he was a teenager. Johnson, the film informs us, has seen Gerald just three times since the fight.

Brendan Ingle, who served as an assistant in McClellan’s corner that night, describes the work being done in the corner as “organised chaos.” Lisa McClellan, Gerald’s brother, says she couldn’t even call Johnson a real coach. Steward says he doesn’t think the tragedy would have happened had he been in Gerald’s corner that night. Many viewers of the new documentary will doubtless agree with him.

Johnson, far from admitting that his own incompetence in the corner went at least some way towards costing Gerald his health and almost his life (when asked why he failed to throw in the towel when his fighter was blinking and struggling to breathe in the fight, as apparent as it was to other observers, at least in the opinion of Lisa McClellan - he says it is not his job as a corner-man to stop a fight; that it is the referee’s job) instead drops a bombshell by claiming Benn’s heroic win was achieved only through cheating. Johnson, back in 2010, claimed that blood from Benn, which was found on McClellan’s boot, was tested and was found to contain traces on an illegal steroid. Just why it took Johnson 15 years to come out with his claim, the film’s narrator says, is a mystery.

Benn himself is adamant that he “never used anabolic steroids while I was boxing.” Johnson, though, says the real reason Benn was never the subject of a post-fight drugs test that night is not because the unexpected winner collapsed from sheer exhaustion, but because “he didn’t wanna piss” for the doctors. Johnson’s claims carry little to no weight.

Still, controversy seems destined to follow this fight around forever. Could the fight have been stopped sooner than it was, thus preventing Gerald’s terrible injuries? (Lisa says her brother is blind but not deaf, and that one of his main concerns is whether or not he lost the fight that night. She tells him, no, he didn’t lose). Was the French referee to blame, due to his giving the first-round knockdown a long count, thus extending the fight? Would a fully competent corner have either provided McClellan with a plan-B that might have allowed him to get the win, or would they have thrown in the towel long before the fight reached it’s tragic conclusion?

Watching The Fight of Their Lives won’t give you any definitive answers, but it will sure make you think. And possibly shed a tear.

Article posted on 06.12.2011

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