|The Ithaca College Quarterly — Fall 1995|
An Ithaca grad was relatively involved with the year's most controversial sports event.
SUDDENLY LAST SUMMER
ONE ALUM'S BROTHER HITS THE BIG TIME (BRIEFLY)
An Ithaca grad had an insider's view of the much publicized, much criticized Mike Tyson-Peter McNeeley fight.
By Tom McNeeley '85
It has taken some getting used to. No more pre-fight phone calls from Sylvester Stallone. No press conference poems about Mike Tyson. No Letterman, no Leno, no Don King. All has calmed down from the whirlwind summer of 1995. Oh yes, we are still reminded with national commercial spots peddling pizza and computer services, but will there ever be a summer to rival what unknown heavyweight boxer Peter McNeeley went through when he was thrust into national prominence? I don't think so, and I was there: Peter is my younger brother.
The story about my brother Pete has been well chronicled. He was chosen to become Mike Tyson's first opponent after the former heavyweight champion was released from an Indiana prison last spring. According to boxing insiders, Pete was handpicked because Tyson's handlers wanted to showcase Tyson and ease him back into the fight game. Peter's pigmentation, a college education (from Bridgewater State College), and a strong family lineage in the sport of boxing were also taken into account.
My grandfather, Tom McNeeley Sr., was national AAU light heavyweight champion in 1928 and was to represent the United States after making the Olympic team that same year. A hand broken in training spoiled those plans but didn't disrupt the family pedigree. My dad, Tom McNeeley Jr., challenged Floyd Patterson for the heavyweight crown in 1961 before getting stopped with eight seconds remaining in the fourth round. Dad was knocked down eight times, with Patterson hitting the canvas once himself.
My three brothers and I each boxed a bit as children — it was the natural thing to do — but Peter was the only one to continue in the fight game. He decided to turn pro in 1991 after an undistinguished amateur career. He compiled an impressive record of 36 wins and 1 loss with 30 knockouts, and for this he was offered $700,000 to face Tyson. My brother's world changed overnight.
IN HIS BROTHER'S CORNER: Author Tom McNeeley III, a 1985 graduate of Ithaca College, is now a producer for ESPN.
In the weeks leading up to the fight, Peter received both good and bad press. Most of the bad was centered on his lack of quality opponents. As a member of the media, I was bothered when writers and broadcasters labeled my brother a "tomato can." On the other hand, he showed absolutely no fear of Tyson, which appealed to the public. "I'm gonna stand up to him," he announced before the fight. "I'm gonna back him up; I'm gonna bully him. Then I'm gonna wrap him in my cocoon of horror and knock him out."
The week leading up to the fight was an incredible high for my family, which had gathered in Las Vegas. Peter handled interviews with ease, including appearances on The Late Show With David Letterman, The Tonight Show, and Larry King Live. He was the subject of stories in Sports Illustrated, USA Today, and publications from South America, Europe, and Asia. Pete made himself available for interviews and was his usual outgoing self leading up to the fight.
Tyson, on the other hand, rejected interviews with ESPN, and his camp refused him any dealings with Sports Illustrated. At the final press conference days before the bout, he spoke for only 14 seconds.
Peter continued his promotion of the fight. At the final press conference he turned around at the podium and patted himself on the back — literally. On the day of the weigh-in he held court poolside at the MGM Grand and freely walked the casino, shaking hands and signing autographs for well-wishers.
The weigh-in at the MGM arena attracted an audience of over 2,000 fans — more than Peter had ever had a fight in front of. On August 19, over 16,000 would be in attendance, with 60 million homes getting the event on pay-per-view worldwide — the highest P-P-V gross ever.
Las Vegas was electric the night before the bout. Celebrities in town included Jim Carrey, Shaquille O'Neal, and Jerry Seinfeld. Sylvester Stallone called Pete to wish him well, since he wouldn't be able to attend.
The morning of the fight, my mother, father, brother Shawn, and I planned on relaxing with Pete in the suite that he was sharing with my youngest brother, Bryan, better known as "Snubby." The two of them share a room at home that is pretty much a disaster area. Well, it was no different at the MGM. Unmade beds, CDs, and magazines thrown about with dirty laundry are the norm on the road and at home. All that was missing here was the Mike Tyson poster that has been a fixture on the bedroom wall since Peter was in high school.
It is now only an hour and a half before my younger brother is to step into the ring with one of the hardest punchers in boxing history. I haven't been able to eat and am losing my voice due to nervousness. My dad admits he is more nervous now than he was 34 years ago when he fought for the title. And sitting across from us in the locker room is Peter, dressed in kelly green boxing trunks and relaxing without a care in the world.
"Hey, Pete, how ya doin'?" I ask.
"Tommy, give me your hand."
Peter takes my hand, puts it over his heart, and says, "What do you feel?" I can't believe how slow his heart is beating, and he tells me how he's not afraid and cannot wait to jump on Tyson at the opening bell.
It is now time for me to head ringside. As I give him a hug, Peter is focused and looks ready to go. I decide to travel the same exact route into the arena that he will follow in just a few short minutes.
I walk past the VIP room and turn into the dark corridor under the stands towards the opening of lights. I bump into a dark-haired guy who looks familiar, but I can't place the face. A loud buzz of anticipation swells as I feel the warm glow fo lights from the arena. A sea of stars from the entertainment and sports worlds fills up most of the ringside seats. I spot the blonde from Baywatch with her rocker husband. Over there is Kareem Abdul Jabbar. Isn't that the kid...what's his name? Fresh Prince? Hey, now I remember who that guy was that I bumped into under the stands. It's one of the guys from the television show Friends. He plays Ross — or is it Joey?
My family is seated four rows back in what will be my brother's corner. Comedian David Brenner sits behind us, and Charles Oakley of the New York Knicks is seated directly in front of my mom. It figures: she is 5-foot-2, and a 6-foot-10-inch basketball player is sitting between her and the biggest moment in her son's life.
The lights dim, the building erupts, and amid music, cheers, and shouts of encouragement from my family, Peter enters the arena. Although I am holding the hand of a family member, I feel like I'm really looking down from high above the ring in what now seems like a dream. Tyson enters the building as the crowd continues to stand, with the roar getting ever louder.
TOUGH GLOVE: Instead of "freezing" in his corner as some experts had predicted, McNeeley came out swinging.
The two combatants move to the center of the ring for final instructions and the customary stare-down. Four giant video screens in each corner of the area capture an extreme close-up of Tyson's death stare. As Peter rocks back and forth, Tyson's eyes never leave him, like a cat ready to pounce on a hapless sparrow. Sixteen thousand strong gasp at the scene as Peter offers up a smile and laughs, much to the disdain of Tyson.
The crowd is on its feet in a frenzy at the sound of the bell. Will Peter freeze in his corner, as boxing experts have predicted? No. As he has said from the beginning, he attacks Tyson. In a flash Peter is down and back up again, ready to steam ahead. Referee Mills Lane grabs Pete for a mandatory eight-count. "He's okay," I say out loud to anyone and no one in particular.
Again Peter crashes into Tyson, forcing him into a corner. Fast and furious, wild punches and roundhouse shots rip through the desert air — some connect to Tyson's head while others land on Peter's face. What is taking so long? Is the round almost over? I feel like I am in a trance or what athletes sometimes refer to as "the zone." Both fighters and everybody else in the arena seem to be in slow motion as my heart pounds and I gasp for air. I snap out of it as Peter delivers a head butt during a clinch in this frantic first round.
Now I am leading Pete from the ring and under the stands towards his locker room. At the 89-second mark Tyson landed a terrible uppercut to Pete's jaw. His manager jumped into the ring to protect the fallen fighter, who had risen to his feet with glazed eyes. Pete looked okay when we reached the locker room and asked me, "They stopped it because of the three-knockdown rule, right?"
DOWN BUT NOT OUT: True to his word, McNeeley didn't back down from Tyson. The fighters stood toe to toe, exchanging punches at a fast and furious pace. It was an exciting fight while it lasted.
"Oh no, Pete."
"Vinnie stepped into the ring."
"You mean I wasn't knocked down three times?"
"No, you only went down twice."
"Wow, I must have been pretty puzzled, huh?"
Controversy and boxing go hand in hand. Once again the fight game seemed tarnished due to the quick and frustrating ending to an exciting 89 seconds in Vegas. Many people, including most of the press, felt that Peter could have continued. I know that my brother was overmatched on this night in the first big fight of his career. That was evident from our conversation moments after the fight.
I told some writers outside the locker room while Peter showered that he did indeed jump on Tyson looking for a knockout. But remember Tyson's history against one-time world champions: Undefeated champ Michael Spinks was kayoed in 91 seconds without throwing a single punch. Larry Holmes was knocked out cold when he challenged Tyson, and Trevor Berbick went down, got up, went down, got up again, and went down a final time — all from one punch when he faced Tyson in 1987.
HE'S BACK: McNeeley's next fight was for the USBF heavyweight title at the opening of Boston's Fleet Center. Sixty-seven years earlier, his grandfather had fought at the opening of its predecessor, the Boston Garden. Both McNeeleys won their bouts.
When Peter was ready to go to the post-fight press conference to face his critics, he was accompanied by his manager, trainer, my dad, my uncle, and some family friends. A press aide alerted the media that "Hurricane" would be arriving in two minutes. To avoid the crowd gathered throughout the casino, security had us use a service elevator. As a final insult to the night, the elevator stalled between floors and we were trapped for 15 minutes. Not knowing our predicament, the media grew impatient waiting for Peter's arrival. All we could do was laugh as Peter already began to discuss his next fight.
So it has come down to this: no more quotes about "Iron Mike" being a "Rusty Mike," no more ESPN or CNN, no more Hard Copy stories. However, a couple of wins, and Peter's back in the middle of the heavyweight mix with plenty of money fights down the road.
And for me: no more autograph requests, no photographers chasing me, no more slaps on the back. I'm gonna miss being mistaken for my little brother, the guy who stood up and challenged Mike Tyson in the highest-grossing fight in boxing history.
See also: McNeeley Brother Prefers Rink To Ring [The Boston Globe]
Tom McNeeley '85 has served as producer of ESPN's "National Hockey Night" since September 1993. He also produced the network's coverage of the 1994 Stanley Cup finals, which won Sports Emmy and CableACE Awards. Prior to joining ESPN in 1989, he worked as a producer at the New England Sports Network.