Thursday, April 16, 1998
McNeeley fights to remain sober
Heavyweight hopes drug abuse in the past
By RON BORGES, Globe Staff
WHITMAN, MA - The fighter was in trouble.
He was flat on his back, dazed, too glassy-eyed to be afraid but instinctively aware trouble was closing in on him, in the way fighters know such things without understanding them fully.
So The Fighter did what fighters do in such a circumstance. He rolled over and crawled toward the first thing that would help him up, which in this case was a window ledge.
Peter McNeeley, a fighter wrapped not in the cocoon of horror he once threatened Mike Tyson with but in a cocoon of cocaine, pulled himself up and light hit his eyes. It stung like a jab in the face.
He peered warily through an unwashed windowpane in a broken-down crack house in Brockton and saw what he feared most. He saw thebattered Oldsmobile was after him. It was circling, closing in the way Tyson had that night in Las Vegas when McNeeley's world changed for the worst.
He knew The Man In The Hat was inside the Cutlass, a cigar between his teeth, his eyes darting. McNeeley knew it even if he couldn't see him, or anything else, clearly anymore.
The Man In The Hat knew whom he was looking for and where to find him. He wasn't sure exactly which crack house The Fighter had holed up in, but he knew he was there somewhere and so he was coming for him. Coming in to save him, as he had the night he jumped up on the ring apron to get Mike Tyson off his fighter's back before the world got what it says it doesn't want but actually craves. Now Vinny Vecchione was going to jump in again before everyone got their bloodlust sated.
That's why he kept circling. Kept circling. Kept circling.
Above him, Peter McNeeley kept watching. Kept watching. Kept watching.
Finally, The Fighter picked up the phone, tears on his face. The Fighter was finally going to fight back.
The long descent
That dreary November day, Peter McNeeley began to see that boxing was not what he thought it was. It had made him a sideshow, not the main event. It had made him a punching bag for guys who wouldn't dare walk up those three steps into a boxing ring if a gun was in their ribs.
Boxing had made him and it had destroyed him, although he'd had more to do with the latter than the former. Boxing had let him hide from himself for a while, but it couldn't save him from himself. Only he could do that.
"I was young," McNeeley said of the days that led up to his fifteen minutes of fame. "Vinnie kept feeding me the fights, and I didn't ask any questions. I put the blinders on and kept going. There was some hurt on my side because of what people said, but I kept going.
"Then I signed with [promoter Don] King, and things were happening so quickly, I didn't have time to ponder things. I knew what was being said about me, but I kept going."
Going, going, gone.
And then he woke up one day and he'd lost twice and his mother was battling cancer and he was in a free fall. All the insecurities he'd hidden behind boxing gloves came out and the booze and drugs that always had their lure called to him and The Fighter listened.
He listened and then he began to use them not for amusement but as anesthesia, because no one remembered he'd gone into that ring in Vegas and tried to fight Mike Tyson, tried to do what more experienced guys like former world champions Frank Bruno and Bruce Seldon were unable to make themselves do.
He tried to fight that night even though he had little chance to win, but no one cared. They just laughed at him until he stopped fighting and gave in. And down he went.
"I used boxing to recover myself," McNeeley explained. "I wouldn't use drugs or drink for 60 days or 90 days before a fight. Then I stopped fighting and there was no reason to stop. I was burned out, but instead of using the time constructively, I tried to drown my sorrows in booze and drugs.
"I had a year of negative press. Then I went out and lost my first fight after Tyson for America Presents and I lost my driver's license and couldn't even get to the gym anymore. My mom was sick. It was too much negative all at once. I couldn't take it, so I chose to numb myself."
He took drinks and drugs and stayed numb until that gray day in 1996 when the Olds kept circling him until he couldn't hold it off. Then he went with Vecchione and broke his crack pipe on a tree and cried.
"I was ashamed of myself," McNeeley said, his voice flat, his chin down, his eyes shuttered for an instant.
The Fighter may have been ashamed, but he wasn't ready to give in to The Man In The Hat quite yet. The crack pipe might be broken, but McNeeley knew where to get another one. Tears might be on his cheeks, but he knew they'd dry. McNeeley knew that and so did Vecchione, but The Man In The Hat knew something The Fighter didn't.
He knew the money was gone.
The road back
"I told him the cops were coming for him. I told him there was nothing left for him to do now but fight or kill himself with dope."
Nearly all of the $600,000 McNeeley had been paid to survive with Mike Tyson had gone up his nose or to friends who put it up their noses or for food he stopped eating once the drugs and booze took hold. In six weeks, he'd gone from more than 220 pounds to 190. He'd gone from heavyweight contender to sallow-eyed cruiserweight. He was wasting away and he couldn't deny it.
"I'd stay awake five days straight, not eating, sending people out with my money to buy drugs and then pumping a ton of coke at a time," McNeeley said. "Even that time I passed out at D'Angelo's [in a well-publicized incident in October 1996 at a sub shop in Medfield] didn't slow me down.
"I still had enough money to send people out for food and drugs. I'd be in those crack houses for five or six days at a time. Just disappear. I was paranoid, but for good reason. I'd reached a pretty pathetic level."
Yet it was not until Vecchione convinced him the blood money was gone (even though some had been saved by the quick actions of his family before he could get his nose on it) that he agreed to get on a plane and fly to the famed Hazelden rehabilitation center in Minnesota to try to change his life.
When he agreed, Vecchione handed him a plane ticket. The Man In The Hat was taking no chances with his fighter's fragile psyche.
"Puffing a grand a day away is not healthy," McNeeley joked, "but it took me a while to figure that out."
His 28-day stay in Minnesota that long November 17 months ago led him to a close friendship with a famous comic named Chris Farley, who ended up dead last December, alone in a hotel room with drugs as his only companion after a half-dozen failures at rehab.
It led him to a friendship with himself, too. And it led him to take note of things like the simple, undeniable fact that the woman who owned the Brockton crack house he used to frequent died two months ago, drugs having claimed her, too.
Most of all, it led him to look at his father, Tom, differently and to look at himself differently and to look at boxing differently.
"I accept responsibility for my part," McNeeley said. "One day I had people from Japan and Norway in my house wanting to interview me. Next, they all said I sucked. I couldn't handle that, but it wasn't boxing that put me in that situation. It was me.
"I don't blame boxing. I can honestly say I experienced the full ride. I had the most fun you could possibly have with a ride like that. I knew I was opening myself up to ridicule but I said I wouldn't let it drag me down. Eventually, I did, but whose fault was that?
"Nobody did this to me. I did it. I was already on track long before boxing. These problems would have happened whether I fought Mike Tyson or not. Sooner or later, I was going to need help. Maybe it cost me more because of boxing and maybe that brought it on quicker, but it was coming either way.
"I was doing these things because I wanted to do them. It wasn't anyone else's fault. I fought Mike Tyson because I wanted to. I bought an 8-ball [a vial of crack cocaine] because I wanted to. I dragged friends down. I dragged strangers down. Those were my choices.
"I was selling crack when I was fighting in the amateurs and I sniffed what I made even then. I had some embarrassing situations because of it. Nobody found me [with drugs]. I found them. Nobody ever held me down."
A second chance
But there is a difference now, because McNeeley understands that boxing isn't the real fight he faces. The real fight comes every morning when he awakens, and it's one that hasn't been all victories.
Since he left rehab, he's smoked crack. He's had a drink or two too many. He's slid back, he admits, the way recovering addicts usually do.
But he hasn't gone down for long this time. Not for five days at a stretch. Not lying paralyzed on a dirty sofa in some dark crack house with people you don't even know running off with your money to bring you what you say you need.
In fact, he's been clean now for more than 60 days. Clean and going to the gym and going to Alcoholics Anonymous and fighting the way he once did. Fighting something every day.
"I've been eight months sober, but half the thing about recovery is relapse," McNeeley said. "I know it. I've seen it. I'm practically mimicking my dad's life.
"I wanted to fight for the heavyweight title like him and I did. He became an alcoholic and I did. Now I want to mimic his life in recovery.
"He's been sober 12 years. He's a counselor in the prison system. It hasn't been easy for me, but I always said I wanted to be a fighter and now I'm in a fight.
"Not a day goes by that I don't want to get high or get drunk. I think about it every day. You deal with that the best you can.
"I know the woman at the crack house is dead. I know Chris is dead. I know what happens if I go back. That's why I want to mimic my dad. My problems are worse than his were, but if there was hope for him, there's hope for me."
That's one thing you learn in boxing. You learn that no matter how bad it looks, there's always hope if you just get up and keep punching.
Especially if there's a guy in a hat somewhere circling. Just in case it looks like you're going down for the count.
This story ran on page C01 of the Boston Globe on 04/16/98.