Boxer's life caught up in ring of dogs, fighting

FREEPORT, Ill. -- It is sad and maybe fitting, some would say, that the sound of a barking dog can make Gerald McClellan buckle in fear.

He prays to God now, sits in his home with the green trim at the bottom of a dead end, the scars reduced to a tattoo that says, "Deuce." If the ink could talk, it would say Deuce was a 65-pound fighting machine, a beige-and-white pit bull that could maul a Black Lab in 49 seconds, then slump over his master's back. It would say McClellan loved the dog because it reminded him of himself.

But the white-and-green house on Wyandotte Street is quiet, and McClellan is blind, partially deaf and brain damaged. Fighting did this. The money he won as a middleweight champion is gone, the blood clot ravaged his brain 12 years ago, and his sisters take care of him. Instead of donation checks, McClellan gets angry mail from animal-rights activists.

Maybe if they saw Gerald McClellan, in his wheelchair, gripping your hand as he speaks, they'd understand. Lisa McClellan Jordan won't have it. She says her brother isn't talking, and she calls the dogfighting stories lies.

But up a couple of blocks, past a sign that says pit bull puppies are for sale, Gerald McClellan Jr. sits on a porch, remembering his dad and the dogs. They call the son G-Man Jr., and he's a man now, the spitting image of his father. At age 6, he'd ride his bike on the East side of town while his dad trained his pit bulls.

"Deuce was his best. I swear to God his head was this big," Gerald Jr. says as he extends his arms about an inch past his chin and the top of his head. "I remember that was the best dog he had. It was the best fighting dog he had."

Before the national spotlight was recently focused on dogfighting, before allegations pointed to a Virginia house owned by Michael Vick, there was Gerald McClellan. Ferocious hitter, talented boxer, loyal family man … dogfighter.

Vick hasn't been charged with anything and, so far, there hasn't been a big-name face in professional sports to attach officially to an act that is a felony in 48 states. McClellan's face, in many ways, never belonged there. It has faded into a public smattering of sympathy, apathy and contempt.

"He was the most exciting middleweight in the world," McClellan's cousin, Donnie "The Black Battlecat" Penelton says. "He was the human pit bull. He thought like that, he ate like that, he dreamed like that. And he fought like that."

Stan Johnson is a 50-something diabetic who, according to his girlfriend, doesn't take very good care of himself. He starts his stories about Gerald McClellan from his home and continues them in a hospital in Milwaukee in between pokes and prods.

Johnson was McClellan's trainer, his friend and, sometimes, an unwitting sidekick. After the fight with Nigel Benn in 1995, a savage brawl that put McClellan in a coma, Johnson sought counseling for his guilt and grief.

He's done a few things he never imagined doing. The first time he went to a dogfight with McClellan, he felt sick and scared.

"Then," he says, "I kind of got into it.

"I don't know … it's just a competition, and it's like a race, a fight. You'd be surprised at what my eyes have seen."

Johnson said he saw nine or 10 dogfights in all, some lasting 45 minutes, others so bloody McClellan walked out looking as if he'd been in a gunfight. Once, after McClellan's dog lost, Johnson watched his friend coldly pull a 9 mm gun out of his pocket and fire into the dog's head.

And then he saw a much gentler side of McClellan when it came to Deuce. When the dog was losing, McClellan screamed to stop the fight.

"He gave the man his money, picked Deuce up and threw him over his shoulder," Johnson says. "He was crying all the way home, petting his dog, saying he would never do it again.

"He was driving a green Mercedes Benz. Blood was all over the car. Deuce's neck was tore out, and you know what Gerald did? He sewed his neck up himself with a needle and thread. And that was the last dogfight I went to with Gerald."

McClellan was fascinated by the tenacity of pit bulls. Most dogs, Johnson says, whimper when they're hurt. But pit bulls keep fighting.

The breed's origins trace back to England nearly 200 years ago when, in the pursuit of a more discreet form of animal fighting, bulldogs were crossed with the now-extinct white terrier. The dogs that showed the most aggression, or gameness, were bred, says John Goodwin, deputy manager of the Animal Cruelty Campaign for the Humane Society of the United States. The others were killed.

"You do that enough," Goodwin says, "and you end up with a breed that keeps on trying to destroy an opponent."

McClellan used to get down in the pit with his dogs, Johnson says, ruining brand new suits. On his knees, he'd yell, "Shake, baby, shake," when his dog got hold of an opponent's neck.

"When he'd do that," Johnson says, "that dog would go crazy and bite the dog's neck off."

In the boxing ring, McClellan was just as ferocious. He had 29 wins by knockout, and dropped Benn out of the ring in the first round of that ill-fated 1995 fight in London. Nine rounds later, after an onslaught of punches, McClellan collapsed in his corner and lost consciousness.

In the days before the fight, he walked by a statue of Bradley Stone, a young boxer who died from injuries suffered in the ring. McClellan looked at the statue and told Johnson he'd rather go out like Bradley Stone than get knocked out.

"Gerald McClellan never complained about anything," Johnson says. "He didn't want to get knocked out."

The town of Freeport has a Farm and Fleet store, an outdated Wal-Mart and a sleepy-looking high school with a not-so-menacing nickname of "The Pretzels."

Signs around town remind strangers that Freeport was the site of a Lincoln-Douglas debate. On a sunny summer afternoon, the downtown is quiet, save for the sound of birds chirping and folks stopping to say hello.

But up the railroad tracks, on the east side, lies a darker history. Penelton says they had dogfights there in the early to mid-1990s, drawing as many as 150 people, throwing around more than $10,000. The woods and cornfields provided the perfect cover; the Pecatonica River gave them a place to wash the bloody dogs after their battles.

"Wasn't nobody going to say nothing," Penelton says. "We had all the money."

A big misconception of dogfighting, Goodwin says, is that it's rooted in the South. But places such as Detroit and Chicago long have been considered hot spots, and Penelton says he's seen as much as $200,000 wagered at a dogfight in Detroit.

"If people found out how big it was, they'd be shocked," Penelton says. "These guys come to a dogfight like they're going to a beauty pageant or the Oscars. That's how they dress up, diamonds and bling bling. You'd think Michael Jackson or Stevie Wonder was showing up.

"Lots of athletes. Lots of professional boxers, a lot of basketball players. I've seen quite a few of them, too. I don't want to put a name out there."

Penelton, who also boxes and trains, says McClellan got his first taste of dogfighting when he was 11 or 12 and watched a group of kids try to get a wild dog to fight. It escalated to McClellan's owning six dogs as an adult, and limiting his lifestyle.

McClellan always drove fancy cars, Johnson says, but lived in a modest home in Freeport because nobody wanted to insure an expensive house for him with his pit bulls. With money to burn, McClellan, Penelton says, once bought his beloved Deuce a Cadillac.

How can a man love a dog so much, yet fight him to near-death? The answers, at least from McClellan, are tucked away with his sister in that house on Wyandotte Street.

McClellan recently surfaced, a weakened, dependent and humbled man. There was a London benefit in February, which was arranged by Benn and dubbed a great success. One British Web site said more than 1,100 people attended the benefit. McClellan, according to the Web site, was so emotional that he had to leave the room.

It also drew protests and petitions from animal-rights supporters. In the days before the event, Ronnie "The Rottweiler" Kerner, a boxer who's come from the underground circuit, was vocal about his wish that McClellan not be depicted as a hero. At the same time, Kerner doesn't want the world to turn its back on McClellan.

"If Gerald needs this kind of help and he needs his medical bills [paid] and he has no money, he should get the help," Kerner says. "Otherwise, everybody else would be just as bad for letting him suffer. But I can't see honoring a man who has done this to God's creatures. I really can't."

To understand dogfighting, former NFL running back Tyrone Wheatley says, you must consider a man's environment. Wheatley grew up in a neighborhood near the Detroit area where it was prominent, and took care of pit bulls when he was a kid. He says he saw one dogfight, when he was about 13, and was drawn to the breed's strength, power and loyalty. He understands why people do it, but says he's against it.

"For everybody, it might be something different," Wheatley says. "It goes back to the old childhood thing. Can Superman beat Batman? I don't want to simplify it, [but it's] my dog can beat your dog."

Goodwin can rattle off stories about Superman and Batman both being losers. There was the guy in Texas who was shot and bled to death over $100,000 that was wagered in a dogfight. And a pit bull in Ohio, with half of its lower jaw broken, that was kept alive for breeding. When the house was raided, the owner's foster kids were found in the basement cleaning up dog urine with sponges. One of the kids was 4.

For all the Gerald McClellans, the Humane Society knows that one high-profile conviction, maybe an athlete with Vick's stature, would be a major step in its cause.

"It would be gigantic," Goodwin says. "I don't know if the man's guilty or innocent. We're taking a wait and see attitude as far as that goes. But it's clear dogfighting was happening at that property."

G-Man Jr. is a boxer himself and has dabbled in the amateur circuit. He calls boxing "my way to get out of this town." If his dad wasn't sick, he says, he thinks he'd have a belt by now.

"I know so," Gerald Jr. says. "He would've been on me already."

When he saw the dogs as a kid, he thought it was natural. His daddy fought, and so did his dogs.

"I guess it's like a sport," he says. "You train those dogs the best way you can train them, and hopefully, your dog will be the one on top when it's time for him to fight."

G-Man Jr. says dogfighting doesn't really go on in Freeport anymore. Penelton isn't so sure.

They don't see Gerald McClellan as much anymore because of various spats with the family. Stan Johnson says he's talked to Gerald just twice since his injury, and sneaked over to the house one time while Lisa was at church.

Gerald asked who was there, and Johnson squeezed his hand.

"Who did you say your name was? Stan Johnson?" he asked.

McClellan eventually remembered.

"You know what?" he said to Johnson. "I want you to train me all the way to heaven."

They both cried, and for a minute, he was G-Man again. A dog barked, and Johnson looked at McClellan. He was frightened.

And then it became clear -- Gerald McClellan is not the face of dogfighting.

Elizabeth Merrill is a senior writer for ESPN.com. She can be reached at merrill2323@hotmail.com.