IN the summer of 1995 Nigel Benn ran up a mountain in Tenerife daily to prepare for one fight and forget another. It was, trust me, a form of punishment.
He wanted to forget the night he had beaten Gerald McClellan in February, left the American in a hospital cubicle just minutes before emergency surgery. The pair had shared a ring at the London Arena that night, pushed each other way beyond any of sport’s bloody boundaries and in round 10 it finished. Benn won, McClellan lost and the other fight started. It was 10.03pm when it was over and by 1am McClellan was in surgery. Benn had been checked at the same hospital and was taken home, exhausted, swollen and barely making sense.
Benn’s friends never left his side that night, lifting him in and out of cold baths twice. He was in pain, hurting in all the wrong places. “I never felt pain like that – I was really worried after the second bath: I hurt all over,” Benn told me during the Tenerife trip. He was talking as he was driving a tiny rental at about 100kmh down the first, gentle slopes of Mount Teide after the runs; Benn drove like a man with three hands, doing four things. It was a white-knuckle ride.
The McClellan fight was not Benn’s first visit to the awful, shock, horror and suffering that is possible when a fight goes bad. Four years earlier I was inside the blue-lit Intensive Care Unit at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital when Benn came to see his friend Michael Watson. His face was blank as he stared at Watson’s still body and then ran from the ICU and fell, sobbing into the arms of Michael’s mother. Benn stayed that day, sitting in isolation in the visiting room, clutching a gold cross to his heart and lips.
Yes, Benn knew all about sacrifice long before the first bell against McClellan. And he was always prepared for it.
Benn never went to McClellan’s bedside after the fight; his father, Dixon, went and Benn was left to recover slowly and monitor McClellan’s progress from a distance. “I had no idea how his family would respond to me,” Benn told me. “I did not want his mother to slap me in the face.” There was a real chance of that at the time because the pre-fight rituals had been toxic and the post-fight stupidity included claims Benn had hit McClellan illegally on the back of the head. Total nonsense, by the way.
The simple truth of the fight that night at the Arena was that neither man went down easily. They both pushed each other too far. “I was ready after the fight to retire, to walk away,” Benn admitted on the Teide drive. The damage done to both was not a shock, they were fearsome punchers, brave and vulnerable. And there was too much pride. Also, the pair had 33 first-round knockouts between them. Benn was down heavily in the first. “I never imagined ever being hit that hard,” he told me that afternoon up the volcano’s slopes.
The two boxers had, for a brief moment, been at the same hospital, the Royal London, after the fight. McClellan was conscious, they acknowledged each other and then left to very different lives: Benn went home and Gerald went to the operating theatre for surgery. They were reunited ten years later at a function in London’s Park Lane. The event was wretched, sorry.
That afternoon in Tenerife, leaving Teide, Benn had come to terms with his trade and its awful consequences. “It could have been me,” he told me. “But I’m prepared to do it all again. That is what I do, I fight, I go in there and have it with anybody.” I have an A4 envelope with ‘Nigel Benn. Tenerife. 5th July 95’ written on it and inside there are nine pages of transcribed interview from that afternoon – it was Benn speaking for the first time since the McClellan fight. I store it like a sacred document.
He later told me he enjoyed the McClellan fight and I know what he meant; it was clear from my position on the apron that Benn was loving the fight, the challenge. It is fair to say that Benn enjoyed the brutal sport of boxing more than any other boxer I have ever covered and he let you know it. “I just want to have it,” he repeatedly said before and after dozens of fights. As an amateur, not far removed from his military service, he stood to attention and still talked about “having it” back then.
“I was like the Elephant Man at the end of that fight,” Benn said. “McClellan hit me with too many right hands. It was some fight. I truly wish I could have enjoyed it more, but I was in just too much pain – when he hit me I was so hurt I couldn’t fight anymore.”
That July, Benn was back in Tenerife and up Teide to get ready for a return to the ring, a return to the same ring in the same venue later that month. That was just part of the script.
“I had to get back up the mountain to see what I had left,” said Benn. “I thought McClellan had banged it out of me, but he didn’t. I’ve still got it.”
The interview had long gaps for Benn to take a breath and compose himself, find the words. The McClellan fight and injury was still high-profile news.
“As soon as I was running up the mountain I knew the old animal was back,” added Benn. “The oxygen from the runs up Teide got me through the McClellan fight – it was the runs that got me there.” It was the same lung-busting runs at altitude that got him back.
Just fifteen days later Benn entered the London Arena ring to the type of standing ovation that boxing fans own. He was emotional and then he was pitiless: Benn stopped Vincenzo Nardiello in eight rounds. And he overcame McClellan once more. “It was not easy getting back in that ring,” he told us late that night.
The runs up Mount Teide had won again. I have put the nine sheets of long-hand away one more time, a record of a happy ending to a horrible story.