Dan McGrathChicago Tribune
If enough people are willing to shell out $100 for the pay-per-view telecast, Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Conor McGregor could earn nine figures each for the “spectacle” they’re staging in Las Vegas on Saturday night.
Lisa McClellan, meanwhile, lives on a disability stipend of $1,920 a month her brother receives, plus the occasional kindness of strangers.
She might watch the contrived showdown between the boxer and the brawler “if my boyfriend buys it,” Lisa says, “but I’m not buying it. I refuse to support a sport that doesn’t take care of its own.”
Gerald McClellan, older by a year at 49, is the brother with whom Lisa shares a small, well-kept home on a dead-end street in the well-worn town where they grew up. Gerald was once in Mayweather’s line of work and did well at it, rising to the the top of the middleweight division with ferocious punching power.
McClellan was the world middleweight champion with a 31-3 pro record and 20 first-round knockouts when he entered a London ring to fight fellow bomber Nigel Benn on Feb. 25, 1995. Ten rounds later, the G-Man was a diminished man, battered and brain-damaged from a bout still remembered for its mutual devastation.
Emergency brain surgery removed a blood clot, and he was kept in a medically induced coma for two weeks in the hope that bleeding and swelling would subside. But the damage was permanent. Now totally blind and 80 percent deaf, McClellan spends most of his time in a beige recliner in a dimly lit living room, surrounded by photographs tracking his development from impishly smiling schoolboy to boxing-ring terror.
Lisa can interpret each low growl and high-pitched yelp as Gerald struggles to be understood. She sees him ease from sad frustration into teddy-bear gentleness when 5-year-old grand-niece Zaria climbs aboard his lap to snuggle. He can feed himself but requires help with all other functions.
After 22 years as his caregiver, Lisa remains as attentive to her brother’s needs as a mother to an infant’s, having put her own life on hold to assume the responsibility.
“It’s been hard,” she concedes. “But my mom raised us to look after each other, and I guess I’m just doing what’s expected. And now I’m so far in it, and he relies on me so much that I could never walk away and live a peaceful life not knowing what would happen to him.”
Her devotion cost her a marriage when her ex-husband’s family pushed to place Gerald in a nursing home.
“He was having a bunch of issues,” Lisa recalls. “My mother-in-law suggested I needed to be more of a wife and mother than caregiver, so maybe it was time for Gerald to be in a home. They didn’t understand my priorities. Gerald wouldn’t do well with strangers caring for him. It has to be family. So I got rid of them instead, the mother-in-law and the husband.”
Gerald McClellan is counted out by referee Alfred Azaro in the 10th round of his super-weight title fight against Britain’s Nigel Benn at the London Arena on Feb. 25, 1995.
Photos and plaques of boxer Gerald McClellan adorn the walls of his Freeport home that he shares with his caregiver and sister Lisa.
(Stacey Wescott / Chicago Tribune)
Older sister Sandra was Lisa’s 50-50 partner in Gerald’s care until two years ago, when her own health issues caused her to step back.
“Sandra had a transplant, got a kidney from her daughter,” Lisa says. “After that she just didn’t want to do it anymore. She didn’t have the strength, I guess.”
Lisa’s kitchen appliances were a gift from Emanuel Steward, the Hall of Fame trainer-turned-TV commentator who died in 2012. The late Jay Larkin, who headed up Showtime Boxing, also made a generous donation. The World Boxing Council, which sanctioned the Benn fight, provides annual grants, including one for $2,500 that enabled Lisa to hire a helper during her own health scare last year.
It’s the Mayweather class of modern-day fighters who haven’t reached out to the McClellans, much less written a check. Three years ago Lisa tried to hold a fundraiser in Freeport, but so many fighters no-showed that she wound up losing money. “Never again,” she vows.
“I think when guys get up there where Mayweather is, they just don’t think of people who are less fortunate. I wish there were a way that some of that money could be set aside to help all the boxers who need help. Not just us.”
Ring 10, a New York-based nonprofit established in 2011 to assist boxers in need, has been the McClellans’ lifeline. Matt Farrago, now a medical supplies salesman who had 28 pro fights as a super-welterweight in the ’80s, is the founder, chief fundraiser and tireless spokesman for the charity.
“We’re fighters helping fighters in the only sport that doesn’t do anything for its athletes once it’s through with them,” Farrago says. “Ninety-eight cents of every dollar we raise goes to the fighters. Nobody gets turned down.”
He won’t discuss specific contributions, but Ring 10 maintains an account at the grocery store where Lisa buys the family’s food, and there was help with an electric bill when she fell behind several months ago.
“I’ve never experienced anything like Ring 10,” Lisa says. “Some organizations will help you out one time and then we’re moving on to the next person. But Ring 10 is a consistent thing — ‘We’re family and we’re here for you.’ They provide us with help every month.”
It’s Lisa’s selflessness that keeps Ring 10 coming back to Gerald, Farrago says.
“Boxing totally turned its back on Gerald, walked away from him, but Lisa is so devoted to him,” he said. “It’s more of a human interest story than a boxing story.”
One with a happy ending? Lisa is hopeful, but realistic. Gerald rallied after surgery to repair a malfunctioning colon last year and “he’s doing excellent now,” Lisa says. “He’s got a colostomy bag, so it’s a little more work, and we pay about $500 a month for colostomy supplies. But if the tradeoff is better health for Gerald, it’s worth it.”
Boxing gives, and boxing takes, often with indiscriminate cruelty. Gerald McClellan offers jarring proof.
There are no title belts, no exotic nicknames and certainly no jillion-dollar purses to reward the work Lisa McClellan does. But she’s every bit the champion her brother was.
Dan McGrath is a special contributor to the Chicago Tribune.
Photos of Gerald McClellan, a former champion boxer who won both WBC and WBO championships in the 1990s. On Feb. 25, 1995, McClellan faced Nigel Benn and suffered a severe head which left him in a coma and with multiple physical injuries including blindness, hearing loss and multitude of other issues.