|Friday, August 13, 1993|
Carrying on a family tradition, Medfield heavyweight Peter McNeeley is...
Punching his way to a title shot
By Stephen Tobey
WHITMAN — In his early teens, after his parents had separated, Peter McNeeley took up boxing as a way to stay close to his father, a former heavyweight contender.
Medfield's Peter McNeeley fights tomorrow night in Whitman. (Photo by Phranc Theisz)
Twelve years later, the 24-year-old Medfield resident continues to fight with the ultimate goal of winning the world heavyweight championship that eluded Tom McNeeley when Floyd Patterson knocked him out in four rounds in a 1961 title fight.
Tomorrow night, Peter McNeeley (19-0, 16 knockouts) will battle Roberto Perez (New York) in the Whitman Armory in what he hopes will be another step in a slow but sure journey to the top of the heavyweight division.
"When I was at a young age, I was told stories [about his father]," said McNeeley. "I dusted off the magazines, the gloves and the trophies. I took a few stabs at it in a CYO recreational program in Newton. I did it for about two months."
Tom McNeeley compiled a professional record of 80-15 before retiring in 1968. He saw all four of his sons go through the Newton CYO program but he never thought — or wanted — any of them to make a living out of the sport that had given him and his family a better life.
"There are a lot of other things I would have rather seen him do," admitted the 56-year-old McNeeley. "I would have preferred that he become a brain surgeon. Of my four sons he's the only one who stuck with it. Today, I'm behind him 1,000 percent."
At Medfield High, Peter McNeeley put aside his boxing ambitions and concentrated on football — lining up at defensive tackle, offensive tackle and nose guard for the Warriors. He did not return to the ring until after his freshman year at Bridgewater State College.
"My freshman year at Bridgewater State was the first time in my life I didn't play a sport," he said. "I decided to get back into boxing but I needed a car to get to a gym and train. I got a car and two months after I started training, I had my first amateur fight in an outdoor show on NESN. I was stopped in the first round."
That early setback, said McNeeley, was the best thing that ever happened to him.
His amateur career was short (21 fights) but respectable, with a New England Golden Gloves novice title and a Diamond Belt to his credit. But the amateur sport and its three 2-minute rounds was not suited to the brawling and hard-hitting McNeeley, who preferred to use his power and conditioning to punish his opponents before knocking them out.
In 1991, McNeeley decided to turn pro and met Vinnie Vecchione, who runs the South Shore Boxing Club in Whitman, and trainer Cliff Phippen. He made his pro debut on August 23, 1991 at BU's Nickerson Field and KO'd his foe within the first minute of the first round.
"If I was going to spend time doing this, I might as well get paid," reasoned McNeeley. "Vinnie turned around a career that was heading for disaster. I had poor defense and I was a sparring partner. He taught me how to fight. He turned my career and my life around."
With 11 first-round knockouts, McNeeley's power is obvious.
And since he has bulked up to 216 pounds (from 188), his power has increased even more. Eventually, Vecchione expects the 6-foot-2-inch McNeeley to grow into a mature, solid 225 pounds.
"He has tremendous natural power," said Vecchione, who also manages New England heavyweight champ Paul Poirier. "Even with 16-ounce gloves and headgear, he hurts you. By the time he gets to the third or fourth round, his opponent is completely worn out. He never had a chance to do that in the amateurs."
Recently, McNeeley received what seemed like the opportunity of a lifetime — a $50,000 offer to fight World Boxing Organization heavyweight champ Tommy Morrison — in Morrison's hometown of Kansas City, Mo.
The offer eventually increased to $175,000 but Vecchione refused, believing that as long as McNeeley continues to grow and develop as planned, the title shots will still be there in three or four years — along with more money and a much greater likelihood of winning the title.
"We both felt he should make more money," said Vecchione. "We knew Morrison would make at least $1 million from HBO for the fight. I also believe the future is where it's at. Peter's only had 21 amateur fights. He's still learning how to box. In the heavyweight division, 24 is young. Most heavyweights don't develop until 27 or 28.
"I'm not turning Peter over to some TV outlet. If managed correctly, he'll get his shot."
McNeeley, who was the runner-up to Morrison for the Tommy Gunn part in "Rocky V", has faith in his manager and feels he made the right decision.
"A lot of people thought that I would just pile up the easy wins and go for the big money," said McNeeley. "That's not so. We want a base of 22 wins at the local level. Now, we're ready to step up in competition."
His father, who fought Patterson after 24 pro fights in four years, added, "even for three or four million (dollars), it wouldn't have been a good decision."
Peter McNeeley and his management team want his climb to the top of the heavyweight division to be a more gradual, careful journey.
After tomorrow night's fight, McNeeley will fight again on Sept. 10 at Wonderland Greyhound Park in Revere, prior to a closed circuit showing of the Julio Cesar Chavez-Pernell Whitaker welterweight title bout. On Sept. 25, he will return to the Whitman Armory to fight Exom Speight, a rugged journeyman who recently went the distance (eight rounds) with unbeaten Chelsea cruiserweight John Ruiz.
In the next few years, Vecchione plans to guide McNeeley up through the ranks past other promising young heavyweights like Jeremy Williams, Shannon Briggs and New Zealand's David Tua, who have much more amateur experience and financial backing.
In preparing McNeeley for the "bright lights," Vecchione has taken McNeeley on the road with Poirier. In nationally-televised fights against heavyweight contenders Alex Stewart and Tony Tucker, as well as former heavyweight champ Larry Holmes, McNeeley worked Poirier's corner, getting acclimated to the lights, the crowds and the press conferences.
In the gym, McNeeley has also learned a great deal from his sparring sessions with Poirier and Chris McDonald, a veteran pro who was also a finalist in the 1980 Olympic trials.
"Paul and Chris taught me how to be a pro," said McNeeley. "They taught me how to stay on my toes and think and act like a pro. It's great working with both of them."
When Tom McNeeley fought Patterson, there was only one heavyweight champion of the world. Today there are three: Morrison, World Boxing Council champ Lennox Lewis, and Riddick Bowe, who holds the World Boxing Association and International Boxing Federation belts.
Still, both father and son agree the road to the top is more difficult today.
"(It's) a little harder today," said Peter. "People's careers are rushed much faster with ESPN and USA (networks). The fighters today are bigger, stronger and faster."
His father added, "in my day, there was more activity. There was more boxing. There were more gyms, more pro and amateur shows. It's hard to get good instruction today."
In addition to the family tradition, the fans, especially children and his high school and college friends, motivate McNeeley, whose dream is to fight under the lights at the Medfield High football field after winning the world heavyweight title.
But the main driving force for Peter McNeeley has been his family.
He is a third generation fighter. His grandfather, Tom McNeeley, Sr., was a national amateur light heavyweight and heavyweight champ. As national champion, he was selected for the United States Olympic team in 1928 but a broken hand kept him from making the trip. As a pro, he fought on the card that opened the Boston Garden in 1928.
"Dad's been an inspirational and motivational force," said McNeeley. "I can't put a price tag on watching my dad relive memories and seeing his joy. I want to close the book on McNeeley boxing."
And he wants to close the book with a world championship belt.
(For ticket information and directions for tomorrow night's fight, call the South Shore Boxing Club at (617)447-0031).
This story ran on page 17 of The Dedham Daily Transcript on 08/13/93