By Thomas Gerbasi
It isn’t very often, but when former middleweight champion Gerald McClellan wonders why he’s blind and how he ended up that way, his sister Lisa is always the first one by his side to say “Don’t worry about it, I’ll be your eyes.”
For 17 years, she has been. Ever since one of the most feared fighters of his era returned home from England far different than the way he entered the country after suffering a brain injury in his February 25, 1995 bout with Nigel Benn, it’s been his sister who has never left him, never walked away and left Gerald in the hands of strangers. It’s heroic no matter how you look at it, but the way she sees it, this is her blood, and this is what their mother would have wanted.
“It’s all in the way that my mom raised us to look after one another,” she said. “And at the times where I feel like giving up and walking away, I feel my mother kind of tugging at me from the grave and letting me know that that’s not what she would be pleased with.”
It goes without saying that if you called Lisa a patient woman that would be understating things. But even her patience is being tried with the family’s latest dilemma, as Gerald is scheduled to go in for colon removal surgery on June 22, just three days after her oldest brother Todd donates his kidney to Gerald’s other caregiver, his sister Sandra. The old saying is that God will never give you more things to deal with than you can handle, but surely the creator of that adage never took a trip to Freeport, Illinois.
“I don’t even know if I believe that anymore,” she chuckles. “I used to believe that and think that was true, but lately…”
Her voice trails off, probably as she pictures the two hour commute to Wisconsin for Gerald and the two hour commute in the other direction to Chicago for her brother and sister. The timing couldn’t have been worse, but with Todd being a perfect match and Sandra’s kidney function currently operating on just 10 percent, there was no time to wait.
As for the 44-year old Gerald McClellan, his condition began to become a concern around four months ago when he began to have stomach pains.
“He never complains,” said Lisa. “Never.”
And even though trips to the emergency room or the doctor’s office would usually end up with an agitated McClellan being medicated in order for him to calm down, this time, he asked to be brought to the hospital, where it was determined that he colon had stopped working, a byproduct of his nervous system being affected by the injury suffered in the Benn fight.
After a number of tests and different opinions from specialists, the conclusion was that McClellan’s colon would have to be removed, forcing him to live with a colostomy bag. A brief ray of light showed up when his surgeon suggested the possibility of an ileostomy to avoid removal of the organ, but after further tests it was discovered that in the aftermath of his injury, a feeding tube had spilled over into his abdominal cavity while he was in the hospital, with parasites causing peritonitis. An ensuing surgery left enough scar tissue in his large bowel and small bowel to make the surgeon’s alternate method impossible to carry out.
As Lisa explains this, it’s as if she’s already earned her own MD from all the years of dealing with doctors, but she will need her best bedside manner in preparing Gerald for the surgery and its aftermath considering that his short-term memory was permanently affected by his injury.
“What I tell him today, he won’t remember tomorrow,” she said. “So tomorrow I’ll have to tell him again. I’ve been trying to make it a normal part of our conversation every day for the last couple weeks. I’ve explained it to him and I said ‘well, what do you want me to do?’ And he said just call the doctors so they can do it. So he understands. But remembering the day after when he wakes up and has that bag on, I don’t know how he’s gonna react.”
It’s just another fight in what has to be a daily struggle for the family. Yet amazingly, Lisa McClellan doesn’t complain; she endures. And instead of dwelling on the bad times, she talks about the highlights, such as the two friends Gerald made six years ago who come to visit him twice a year.
“For the first time a couple months ago, I actually let them take Gerald out to lunch by themselves,” she said. “And he enjoyed it, and he actually enjoyed being away from us. (Laughs) I walked Gerald to the car and I put him to the car, and these guys are fantastic. One lives in Missouri and one lives in Pennsylvania, and they’re twins. And they were just big fans of Gerald’s. They sent me an email and said we’d love to come visit and they’ve come twice a year for the last six years. They call him once a week and talk to him on the telephone and when they went to lunch, they sent emails, and in every picture, he was totally happy. But then when I went to get him back out of the car, he was mad because I was making him come back in the house. (Laughs) So he has a lot of joys. He’s got grandbabies, I’ve got grandbabies, and he helps with them.”
As for the world he left behind on that night London so many years ago, Lisa says that her brother remembers it all with the exception of the Benn fight.
“He remembers everything,” she said. “His long-term memory is probably better than mine. A girl in England sent him an iPod, and I put all his old music on it, and the other day we were listening to old songs and he remembered them all word for word.”
And it is England, the country where he fought his last fight, that has been the most supportive and the most vigilant in making sure that McClellan isn’t forgotten, with fans sending donations and notes of encouragement across the pond and through social media outlets. It’s a show of concern and respect that Lisa appreciates.
“I think a lot of it is that they felt, not responsible, but a need to look after Gerald because he got hurt in their country,” she said. “And they have been supportive, non-stop, for the last 17 years.”
A documentary on Benn-McClellan, The Fight of Their Lives, aired in the UK late last year, and it was a compelling look inside one of boxing most tragic, yet epic, battles and how it affected everyone involved.
Said Lisa of the film, “It was okay. I was kind of disappointed with some of the things that had taken place, but it was okay. It brought awareness to Gerald and the situation and it got him back out there and got people remembering. And for that reason, it was good.”
The most memorable scene in the documentary came when Benn and McClellan met for the first time since their fight. To say it was an emotional moment wouldn’t even began to touch on the gravity of the meeting and if you didn’t get chills watching the two former foes together, you should check your pulse.
“We had to stop the cameras,” said Lisa. “There was a period where Gerald got so emotional that I felt like that was his private time, and it wasn’t for the cameras to see, so I made them leave the room. They were very upset, but I didn’t care. I just felt like that he needed that private time. I was affected by it because I had never seen him that emotional. So I made them shut it down.”
As for the fight, the only thing Gerald knows about it is what Lisa has told him. Nothing more, nothing less, and it’s probably better that way.
“He remembers it exactly the way I said it happened, not the way it actually happened,” she said. “I’ve altered the details of the story to cushion the blow for his emotions, but he remembers that. But as far as the actual details, he doesn’t remember. He knows he got hurt in England and that he was fighting Nigel Benn. He knows that he went down on one knee.”
As far as the record goes, Gerald McClellan was knocked out that night in England, but in life, he’s still fighting, and when asked if she thinks her brother is happy, Lisa says without hesitation, “Absolutely. Every day. We have sad moments, and that’s all they are, moments. But for the most part, he is happy and it may sound strange to say with everything that’s going on and the condition that he’s in that he could be happy, but he’s happy, and he smiles, and he’s loving.”
But what about Lisa? How is she holding up?
“I’m happy as long as everybody has their health,” she said. “Then I can find happiness in that. I’m not at the moment because so much is going on, but in a normal situation, if my sister was well and Gerald was well, I’d be happy.”
Hopefully by June 23rd, she’ll have her wish.
To make a tax-deductible contribution to the Gerald McClellan Trust Fund, please send a check or money order (made out to the Gerald McClellan Trust) to:
Gerald McClellan Trust
839 East Wyandotte Street
FREEPORT, IL 61032