McNeeley put his best fist forward
By Bob Buckley
"Hurricane" Peter McNeeley
There were few observers more interested in what took place on June 11 in Washington, D.C., than Peter McNeeley. It was on that night when Brockton-trained and Dorchester-based Irishman Kevin McBride defeated former heavyweight champion Mike Tyson, who failed to answer the bell to start the seventh round.
"It was a shame [Tyson] had to end his career that way," McNeeley said. "I didn't think McBride had a prayer, but I didn't realize how far Tyson had come down. I saw him against Danny Williams (who beat Tyson in August 2004) and I still thought he had something left in the tank, especially against McBride.
"You have to give McBride credit, he held up mentally. He showed up and he wasn't scared to death. McBride didn't fold, which I think Tyson thought he would do. When that didn't happen, Tyson didn't know what to do. That fight was more about what Tyson didn't do than what McBride did."
It was 10 years ago this month when McNeeley, a relative unknown outside the city of Boston, took on Tyson in the former champion's first fight since his release from prison after three years (he was convicted of rape in Indiana). Upon Tyson's release, part of the plan to get the heavyweight title back was to tune up against beatable fighters.
McNeeley fit the bill, having, for the most part, built his professional record against a series of New England-based fighters who were either beyond their prime or who had no prime. McNeeley also came from excellent boxing bloodlines. His grandfather, Tom McNeeley, Sr., was the national amateur champion and a member of the 1928 Olympic boxing team. Tom McNeeley, Jr., Peter's father, was a Sports Illustrated coverboy in 1961 and was one of the few men who knocked Floyd Patterson to the canvas before losing to one of the all-time great heavyweight champions.
Despite McNeeley's 36-1 record as a pro, few took him seriously, especially when he was matched against the "most fearsome man on the planet," as Tyson was regarded in 1995. The naysayers were vindicated when Tyson needed only 89 seconds to dispose of the Medfield native, as Tyson displayed the raw power that had characterized his career before the rape conviction.
"I caught the guy at his best and I caught the guy at his worst," McNeeley said of Tyson. "As a fighter, he was as hungry as he had ever been, having not fought for four years. He had all of this built-up rage and it was all waiting for me. He carried that anger from his personal life into the ring that night."
The fight may have last 89 seconds, but McNeeley was able to carry out his game plan, at least for the first minute. McNeeley answered the opening bell by storming toward Tyson with a flurry. While only a few of those punches landed, it was a strategy other fighters would follow in later years.
"If you were going to beat Mike Tyson back then, you had to back him up and get him on his heels to win," McNeeley said. "Evander Holyfield called what I did that night the blueprint he used to beat Tyson. The way I looked at it, the Tyson fight was my lottery ticket and I was going to give it everything I had. I landed a couple of good punches."
But Tyson then unleashed a flurry of punches himself that sent McNeeley to the canvas twice. Vinnie Vecchione, Manager of the Year in 1995 as voted by the Boxing Writers Association, literally threw in the towel and jumped in the ring to save McNeeley from more damage while disqualifying him in the process. Vecchione's actions infuriated the sellout crowd at the MGM Grand, the record-setting 1.5 million households who bought the fight on pay-per-view and the sporting public that had waited to see Tyson's return.
"He did the right thing," McNeeley said. "When he hit me with that uppercut, I was done. When you get hit so hard that you can't get your hands out in front of you so your face doesn't hit the canvas, you are done. That is what happened to me. I watched that fight so many times. My brother Tom (now a producer for ESPN but then a producer for Showtime, which sponsered the pay-per-view) got me the video of that fight from every camera angle. When you look into my eyes when the fight was stopped, I looked like I was drunk. My pupils were dilated.
"Vinnie has been my manager from the beginning of my professional career and I trust him to look out for me. When he jumped into the ring, he was doing what he thought was best for me."
McNeeley's bigger fights were ahead of him, and few were inside the ring. He struggled with his newfound celebrity — which included two national advertising campaigns (Pizza Hut and America Online) and appearances on "Late Night with David Letterman," "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno" and "Larry King Live."
"I would say that 95 to 98 percent of the people I encountered after the Tyson fight were good people," said McNeeley. "Once in a blue moon I would encounter a jerk and I would let that guy get to me — and it would end up in the newspaper! I was a very immature 26-year-old when I fought Tyson and I don't think anything would have prepared me for what took place."
There were also other demons McNeeley was not prepared to deal with. Once the Tyson fight was over, McNeeley ended a six-month stretch of sobriety, and by the time he sought help early in 1998, McNeeley was living in a Brockton crackhouse.
"I let loose to say the least," McNeeley said. "I had just fought an icon, I was a national celebrity and I got caught up in believing my own hype. When you mix that attitude, drugs and alcohol, there were bound to be regrets, and I definitely have a few."
McNeeley eventually did enter a 12-step program, but his sobriety is still a battle to this day. Now 36, McNeeley is four years removed from his last fight. His current record is 47-7, but he's just 2-4 in his last six fights. However, he says his personal life is on the upswing even if his fight career is on hold. Two years ago, McNeeley moved out of the Medfield home he grew up in and recently bought a condominium in Norwood. He is in a committed relationship and is working in construction while waiting for the phone to ring.
"What I need is a quick win or two to set me up for a money fight," he said. "I still train every weekend in Framingham with Pablo Ramos and I know (Vecchione) is working hard to get me a fight. That's all I want — one more big fight."
Bob Buckley is a freelance writer based in Boston. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This story appeared on page 42 of the August 2005 Boston Sports Review.