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DARK DAYS
BY RICHARD HOFFER
For Gerald McClellan, it's always "the lights are out" or "the
curtains are drawn." Some explanation like that. The darkness is
annoying to him, all right, but he always has a reason for it.
Might just be night. Who's to say what time it is for him,
eating pancakes at 3 a.m., drifting off to sleep at 8 a.m., his
three sisters at his side in changing shifts? He was always a
night owl anyway. No light, never any light. It could be just
the hours he keeps. It makes sense.

Then again, it doesn't always, such as when he wants to watch the tape of his fight against Nigel Benn, and one of his sisters must remind him he's blind. That doesn't happen so much anymore. Mostly it happened right after he came out of the coma and began reconstructing his reality, shaping it to fit his needs, keeping those facts that did not destroy him entirely and ignoring those that might. But a year after the fight there are still times when the world McClellan has remade for himself defies his fragile logic. Now why, when he thinks about it, would it be dark 24 hours--three sisters' worth--a day? It's odd.

And being between fights this long--odd, too. "You know what my job is, don't you?" he'll ask the nieces and nephews who visit him. "You know what I do for a living." He's a boxer, of course, the former WBC middleweight champion of the world, 31-3 with 29 KOs (28 of them within three rounds), but strangely inactive these days. The fight schedule is vague but certainly in place. "If I give you tickets for my next fight," he'll ask a visitor, "will you come?"

Sometimes one of his sisters will employ this delusion in his rehabilitation, telling him he's in training and has to get on the treadmill. "C'mon," says Lisa McClellan, "you're in the Kronk gym." Most times it works. His short-term memory is shot, bombed out of his brain by Benn, along with his vision and a lot of hearing and who knows what else. Occasionally, however, something floats up--smells or sensations from his past, from when he was whole. Then the little ploys don't work. The Kronk: Emanuel Steward kept the heat in that old Detroit gym at about 95 degrees . Gerald will stop right there on the treadmill, some part of his brain recalling the closeness of the air, hearing the pop of leather, the heavy bags twisting on their chains, and he'll recover something of himself. "This ain't no Kronk!" he'll yell. Sometimes he cries.

If boxing is unique in sports, it isn't for the tragedies it so routinely presents but for the way it compounds their cruelty. It's not enough that McClellan, whose fierce ring persona and startling talents promised him unlimited success, now sits in Freeport, Ill., in the darkness of the house he bought in 1991 for $20,000--and may sit there for the rest of his life. Because this is boxing, in which rage and greed combust to provide such violent spectacle, he must be victimized again and again.

His family must be split apart beyond the possibility of repair, his small finances must be further diminished by a bitter custody dispute, the mother of his infant daughter must be banished from his home by outsiders, his father must be cast out, too. McClellan must become the unwitting cause of elaborate intrigues that, to hear the various parties tell it, are either hatched against some of the McClellans by promoter Don King or hatched against King by the FBI. Sitting in the dark, not remembering much from day to day, McClellan is a ruined battleground on which people fight over $5,000 or even less.

He is not neglected. But he is lost in the confusion, alone in this unpleasant chaos. McClellan is not subject to any particular outrage, any condition that cries for correction. Some people around him even have his interests at heart. But their agendas have seemed to replace his. Is it just human nature? That terrible night of Feb. 25, 1995, in London--where McClellan's savage fight with Benn, the WBC super middleweight champion, ended when McClellan suddenly fell to his knees, wincing, in the 10th round and then, after being counted out and led to his corner, collapsed--has become the fulcrum upon which the feuding relatives balance their resentments and dreams, and McClellan seems beside the point.

Physically he may not be the mess many people suppose, although his sisters allow very few visitors to see him and decide for themselves. In London, where he had emergency brain surgery immediately after the bout and spent two months in a coma, McClellan had two strokes and, supposedly, a heart attack. Yet, according to sister Lisa, 27, who serves as a family spokesperson and is one of her brother's three principal caregivers, he has come much further from those traumas than doctors imagined he could. "They said he'd always be comatose, never be able to walk, never be able to remember who we were," Lisa says. "Well, those are things he now does. It's a slow process, but every day's been positive. Every day we see more improvement."

What's more, McClellan has recently begun to come to grips with the idea that he is blind, although he doesn't know how he got that way. Edgar Oppenheimer, the real estate agent who sold McClellan his house and still visits him, says the fighter asked, "I'm blind, aren't I?" but thought he had lost his sight "in a fight against Julian Jackson."

"He is repressing the Benn fight, but he has made a major improvement," Oppenheimer says. "He had not even known he was blind. I see improvement each time I see him. His upper-body strength is still there. I don't want to be around when he realizes what happened in the Benn fight."

But nobody except friends and relatives are ever allowed to be around. Perhaps McClellan has been kept out of sight because of his disastrous appearance at the trial of his custody case in November, at which, attorneys say, he went out of control, swearing at the judge. His sisters say they take him for drives and out to dinner and to his barber, but most of the time they keep him at home. "Mainly because Gerald has always been a real proud person," Lisa says. "We agreed that Gerald wouldn't want to be seen. It's not a matter of hiding Gerald; it's just we don't want to betray him."

This is noble. Lisa says she has rebuffed all attempts to "buy" Gerald's story, including offers from overseas and from the U.S. tabloid TV show Extra. "No amount of money is enough to use Gerald for higher ratings," Lisa says. Yet this secrecy is also troubling. Gerald did not even appear at a November fund-raiser held on his behalf, a gathering that drew Joe Frazier and Evander Holyfield and helped raise $28,000 for a trust fund established for Gerald by his aunt Loretta Pruitt. A local reporter said, half in jest, "I don't even know if Gerald's alive."

Well, Lisa showed SI photos of Gerald, in a wheelchair, posing with Frazier and Holyfield in a room at the hotel where the event was held. But attempts by SI to see Gerald were rebuffed by his other two sisters. "I don't mean to be cranky," said Sandra McClellan, 31, "but where were you before Gerald got hurt?"

So far the only reporter who has been permitted to see McClellan since the Benn fight is Ira Berkow of The New York Times, on Nov. 11. Berkow found McClellan in good humor but unable to walk without the help of two sisters or to be left alone for more than a couple of minutes before he called out for attention.

Troubling, also, is the fact that the sisters seemingly have waged misinformation campaigns. Stacy Cain, 24, the youngest sister, once reported to one of King's representatives that McClellan was progressing nicely. King relayed the news at a press conference. Lisa, meanwhile, told reporters that Gerald wasn't doing all that well. The apparent intent was to embarrass King, whom the sisters accuse of having taken too much credit for Gerald's care. Nor is Lisa consistent even when King is not involved. She recently told a group of boxing writers that Gerald was subject to mood swings and, on his bad days, "wants to die." Only days later she told another writer that her brother was usually cheerful, a constant joker, with his old personality all but intact.

Whether McClellan has violent mood swings is impossible to say, but if he does, that would square with his life before his injury. Apparently his temper helped make him a familiar figure to Freeport police. Once he chased and beat a motorist who bumped his parked Corvette; another time he flashed a stainless-steel .38 at police who were searching his car. (All charges stemming from these incidents were dropped after his injury.) After McClellan was given the key to the city, a quip heard in the Freeport police station was, "Does that mean we stop arresting him?"

From Lisa's accounts of her brother's day-to-day life, it's clear that he has retained some of his impish personality and nearly all his high-fashion fussiness. When he is visited by his seven-year-old son, Gerald Jr., one of three children McClellan has had with three women, he always inquires about the youngster's personal hygiene. Face clean? Shoes clean? And it is something of a job to keep McClellan outfitted the way he likes. He was a huge spender, the kind of guy who walked around with $1,000 in pocket money and wiped out specialty stores at the malls. He still insists on certain name-brand wear, invariably in his trademark green--the color of money, he always said. So he sits at home in his Nikes and his Filas and his silk shirts and Lagerfeld cologne, and woe be to anyone who tries to substitute lesser goods. "Let's just say," Lisa says, "that I don't buy his pants at Kmart." The trust fund cannot afford clothes like that, and Lisa says the sisters sometimes buy them for Gerald out of their own pockets rather than risk a confrontation over polyester.

Gerald is a big talker, exhausting hunks of each sister's shift with chatter and questions, according to Lisa. He recently invented a kind of Truth or Dare game that seems as dangerous as it is exasperating. "Do I still have my cars?" he'll ask, wondering about his fleet: two dragsters, a Ford Explorer, a Mustang and a Mercedes. "Of course," a sister will say. "Well, then," Gerald will say, "give me $20 to hold to prove you're not lying, and I'll give it back if you aren't." At first the sisters gave him a $1 bill, counting on his blindness, but Gerald would feel it and say, "This doesn't feel like a twenty. If this is a twenty, I bet you'd be mad if I ripped it up." And he would start to tear the bill in half. If his sisters were properly agitated by the threat he might calm down and reach to his ankle and wad up the bill under his sock with the rest of his stash. By now the sisters know better than to mess around near Gerald's foot: He has gained more than 60 pounds since his weight dropped to 128 in the hospital. "He still has his reflexes," Lisa says. The women wait until his clothes go to the laundry to recover their money.

"He's probably as happy as anybody could be in this situation," Lisa says. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine his receiving more loving care than he gets now. By attending to him, his three sisters, all of whom have worked in the Freeport area as nurse's aides, avert round-the-clock agency care that might cost $80,000 a year. (Each of the sisters draws a modest $200 a week from the trust fund, which is replenished by contributions from Showtime and, presumably, other donors.) The women are devoted to their brother, even showing up at his house on their days off. "It's not even a responsibility," says Lisa. "I look forward to going there at night, to seeing him, to dropping in on Fridays, when I'm off, to give him some brownies or give him a kiss. Gerald is very affectionate, and everything you do for him, he loves you for it."

It may be the best world that is available to McClellan, but it is a small world, and it is shrinking. The pit bulls he asks about ("Give me $50 if I still have my dogs"), whose spirit he always admired, may have to be sold. The cars that he will never drive again may already be gone. His sisters aren't talking about that. And people he once loved--his father, his former girlfriend--are gone, too. The love he gets from the few people who remain will have to do.

Beyond the walls of his house there are only bitterness and confusion, surprising hatreds, small-time arguments over money and larger fights over outlandish conspiracies. Sometimes McClellan is able to summon the memory of a better life, and he gives evidence of missing it. About a month ago his father, Emmit, spoke to him by phone. It was the first time they had spoken since Emmit lost guardianship of Gerald in November. "He bawled me out pretty good," says Emmit. "Wanted to know where I'd been. What could I say?"

The McClellan family was never fully functional. Lisa says her mother, Genola, is an alcoholic whom Emmit left in 1986. Even though Emmit is largely responsible for Gerald's early success in boxing--with his father as his trainer, Gerald won amateur bouts against such promising fighters as Roy Jones Jr. and Michael Moorer--they have been on the outs since 1992, when they began to rub each other the wrong way. "They hated each other," says Lisa. "The reason is that Gerald wouldn't allow Emmit to dominate him like Emmit dominated everybody else. Emmit figured he made Gerald world champ, and now Gerald had turned his back on him. But Gerald hated him for the person he was."

According to Lisa, Emmit would often use her to get in touch with Gerald, usually to seek money. Says Lisa, "He'd come up with figures--'This is what you owe me for all that I've given you'--and Gerald gave him money because he felt sorry for Emmit." But a friend of the family, attorney Bob Slattery, says Gerald "would rather his money go to his pit bulls than to Emmit."

Emmit agrees that it has been several years since he and Gerald were friendly. "Once upon a time we were people in the ghetto," says Emmit. "Then he's at the top of the world. For many a day he felt that he didn't need Dad anymore." It's an old story.

But following McClellan's fight against Benn, Emmit took control, assuming responsibility not only for Gerald's care but for discovering exactly what went wrong in the ring in London. In the months immediately after the bout, Emmit often hinted at nefarious plots to doom his son. He was never specific but always promised big revelations. He hinted that he held King, Gerald's promoter, responsible for Gerald's injury. In the meantime, King says he was paying many of McClellan's medical expenses, including more than $90,000 for an air ambulance from London's Heathrow Airport to Ann Arbor in April and more than $22,000 for his subsequent care during a stay of more than a week at the University of Michigan Hospital.

According to King, who has faxed copies of the canceled checks to all interested parties, he has made what he calls "noncontractual" payments totaling $226,756.19 on McClellan's behalf. Much of that money was for medical care, but some went to the McClellan family. King, who paid McClellan a gross purse of $200,000 for the Benn bout (because of money garnisheed by former promoters and managers with claims against the fighter, McClellan's pretax net purse was just under $63,000), also paid the family's London hotel expenses after the fight--which King says were more than $34,000.

What is troubling to some members of the McClellan family are the two $5,000 checks King wrote to Emmit and a $2,500 check he wrote to Angie Brown, Gerald's former girlfriend and the mother of his baby daughter, Forrest. Although Emmit says he needed that money to take on Gerald's care, which forced him to give up his job as an auto mechanic in Milwaukee and relocate to Freeport, he coincidentally backed off from his earlier suggestions that King had sabotaged his son. Emmit still believes that "wrong stuff went down" in London. And, as before, he is not specific, saying only, "You're dealing with the underworld here, and somebody called that number. It was far from being an accident. I should have been there watching Gerald's back. That's all I can say." In any event, Emmit adds, it's pointless to target King, who remains the only deep-pockets figure capable of responding to his son's needs. "My son," he notes, "did not have himself set to be retired."

Lisa, who claims also to have evidence of wrongdoing--in the form of a tape of a conversation she had with Gerald's two cornermen--says that her father has been bribed and that he went cheap. "He turned his back on Gerald for money," she says. "He was bought off not to talk."

Her tape--which, according to a source who has heard it, is all but unintelligible--is sufficiently provocative in Lisa's mind to merit an investigation. Maybe so. The source who heard the recording says that in one snippet that can be understood, the cornermen say that during the fight McClellan complained about the taste of his mouthpiece. To King, who is subject to fits of paranoia himself and ought to tolerate them in others, this is quite a stretch. "I won't even dignify that," he bellows, adding that his actions at the fight certainly belie any wish that McClellan lose. "Look at me on the videotape. If you see me at ringside, I'm yelling, 'Don't quit, man, don't quit!' If I'd wanted him to lose, I would've sat down and been quiet. I'm telling you, Nigel Benn wouldn't speak to me for several months."

Perhaps all this is just the hysteria that is bound to follow an unexpected result. (Then again, perhaps it's on the money.) However, Lisa upped the ante when she turned the tape over to FBI agent Warren Flagg, a man who might be characterized as Captain Ahab to Don King's great white whale. Since then the intrigue has escalated dramatically, exciting all parties in their conspiracy claims, and McClellan's life is not noticeably the better for it.

The bitter trial for custody of Gerald, in which Lisa petitioned the court to make their aunt Linda Shorter his legal guardian instead of Emmit, took on even darker tones with bizarre allegations of FBI involvement. "Apparently the FBI wanted stuff against King," says Emmit, "and they used my daughter [Lisa] to kind of manipulate the family thing. In other words the FBI brainwashed my daughter into thinking I was not the person who should be in charge of my son's life. They used my daughter against me and busted the family up."

It is Emmit's and King's belief--totally unsubstantiated--that the FBI, which was instrumental in bringing King to trial recently for insurance fraud (the case ended in a mistrial), has paid Lisa $50,000 for her tape and her cooperation. Flagg, who will not otherwise comment, asserts that no money has changed hands. Lisa says she asked the FBI for nothing and received nothing.

"Lisa is a very limited person," says King, "and I don't want to cast aspersions, but she's overshot the runway. She's a pawn, being used. When she brought up the FBI, Warren Flagg, well, this agent has become obsessed with me. The program has all begun to come together. This culprit here is an insidious conspiracy, and she has brought it to the front, implemented by the government, a dead-set conspiracy to destroy Don King, galvanized by HBO. You can see the conspiracy out there plain as day. She done named all my enemies."

The entertainment value of this debate may be high, but for the McClellans it has been brutally destructive. The custody case hinged on who would take better care of Gerald, and his sisters' plan of shift work appealed to the judge. Plus, the judge seemed to be persuaded by the sisters' testimony that Emmit had once left his son alone in the house, and Gerald had ended up outside in his wheelchair, ranting as he sat in his own feces. (Emmit says he was set up. He claims he left the house briefly, leaving a girlfriend in charge of Gerald, but his daughters ran her off and called the police to investigate the alleged neglect.)

Certainly this incident helped motivate the sisters to instigate the custody proceedings. "That's when [the sisters] started talking to lawyers and filed papers to get Gerald away from Emmit," says Slattery, who has represented Gerald. Brown, Gerald's ex-lover, who had received the check from King for child care, testified on Emmit's behalf, even though she had been evicted from Gerald's house after family members complained about her. But the decision came down for the aunt, Shorter, and Brown, who still lives in Freeport, has had little to do with Gerald since.

Meanwhile, Lisa hates her father. "If he dies," she says, "don't even call me about the funeral." Emmit is more resigned than angry. "My daughter loused things up," he says from Erie, Pa., where he is working on cars again, "not only for the family, but for Gerald. I raised him to be successful, and they have barred me away, changing the phone to where I can't even call. It got clear to me what happened in Freeport. I got railroaded and kicked out. I'm done with the family for the rest of my life."

Whereas the sisters believe Emmit sold Gerald out for a mere $10,000, he believes they're after small pieces of the trust fund. "My daughters were there for the money, and not a lot of money," he says. "But we're talking about people who never had more than a couple thousand."

Emmit says this bitterness isn't directed toward Gerald, but it surely isn't doing him any good. Emmit says he once asked King to set up another fund for Gerald but now doubts King would be disposed toward the idea. "I wouldn't even know what to say to Don now," he says.

The confusion created by this bickering is impossible to sort through. And it looks permanent. These people are probably estranged forever, and it would have benefited Gerald had they cooperated. At the custody trial his total assets were put at $265,000, with an income of $10,000 a year from unknown sources. When he fought Benn he was 27, angling for a huge-money bout with Jones. All he had to do to attain financial security was stay on track, and only for a little while. Another quick and brutal fight and he would have been a pay-per-view force in boxing. The odds that night in London were 4 to 1 in favor of his future.

There is hardly any income now, and the money dribbles away. Emmit imagines his son's trust fund could be exhausted in six months, maybe a year, at which time he will make another play for Gerald's custody. Meanwhile, Jones pledged a percentage of the gate from two recent fights, against Antoine Byrd and Tony Thornton, to McClellan's care. Riddick Bowe also has promised to contribute. Jones's attorney, Stanley Levin, says he is incorporating a fund, to be overseen by a five-member board, that could provide for McClellan forever. He hopes to appeal to all of boxing's big players--the casinos, HBO, Showtime, and so on. "A couple of million," Levin says, "is not beyond everybody."

So far, though, a year after his injury, little has been done for McClellan, and it remains for him, as it does for anybody who chooses so solitary a profession, to help himself, if he can. Stripped of almost everything he once had, Gerald McClellan moves carefully through his darkness, training for his next fight.

Copyright 1996 Time Inc.

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