Emotional Times For McNeeley

By Ron Borges, Globe Staff, 06/24/99

PETER McNEELEY GETS CHOKED UP LAS VEGAS — His voice cracked first. Then the rest of Peter McNeeley went with it.

In an emotional display that left a pre-fight press conference crowd at first agape and then applauding wildly, the Medfield, Mass., heavyweight and reforming (if not quite reformed) crack addict stood at a podium in Las Vegas for the first time since the night he was knocked loopy by Mike Tyson and wept.

He wept for dreams long shattered. He wept for his long-suffering family and loyal manager, Vinnie Vecchione. And he wept for himself. By the time he was finished, a room full of cold-hearted boxing types wept with him.

"It's been four long years since ... I've been ... here," McNeeley began after being introduced by promoter Bob Arum as the B side of an odd but soon to become fascinating four-round super heavyweight fight with fistic cult hero Butterbean Esch Saturday night on the undercard of the Johnny Tapia-Paulie Ayala World Boxing Association bantamweight title bout.

"My life took a lot of twists and turns ... trials and tribulations," McNeeley continued, his face contorted and his cheeks wet as he fought to hold himself together long enough to finish what he had to say. Not another sound could be heard in the Club Room at Mandalay Bay's Event Center. Everyone was waiting like they did four years ago when he became a 15-minute celebrity with Tyson, waiting to see how things would end.

"A year after I fought Mike Tyson, I was sitting in a crack house digging for rocks that weren't there. I was peeking out of windows at demons that weren't there. I was lost. I dropped out of life.

"My family and Vinny were looking for me. It was like a game of hot and cold and they were getting warmer. I looked out the window one day and I saw his car drive by. I couldn't take it any more. I called a friend to come get me. My mom and my dad stayed by me. The only people who stayed and believed in me were my mom and dad ... and Vinnie Vecchione. They loved me."

At that, the tears came again and this time so did the applause, swelling as McNeeley's shoulders shook and his head hung to his chest. And then he looked up at Las Vegas, the town where he'd lost his dream like so many others before him, and he was a fighter again, not some broken-down crackhead.

"Now ... today ... I love me, too," McNeeley said. "I'm a warrior. I'm walking out of here a winner."

At that, applause began anew and tears came with it, and now they weren't coming only from Peter McNeeley.

"That was one of the most dramatic speeches I ever heard," Arum said as McNeeley sat with head bowed, his hands covering his face. "That crack is horrible, horrible stuff. To get yourself back takes more courage than anything that will happen in the ring."

Soon Tapia, himself a former drug abuser who nearly blew his career because of it, was at the podium, but before he could speak of his own fight he turned to McNeeley and tapped his chest.

"You're in my heart, man," Tapia said. "We're all in there with you."

At that, McNeeley, who bet $1,000 on himself at 7-1 as soon as he got into town looked up and tapped his own chest back. Then he turned to Vecchione and tried to explain.

"I've been hard on him," Vecchione said. "I've told him this is it. This is a pretty serious time for him. He knows he needs something or it's over.

"After he sat down, he was pretty emotional. He just told me it was like he had a flashback to four years ago and everything that's happened since. He said he had to get it out of his system. I said, 'Good.'"

And so he did and now there is only Saturday night left and a four-round fight that was briefly taken off the board after yesterday's emotional display. It returned with McNeeley an 8-1 underdog.

For Butterbean it will be a fight for a mythical four-round, super heavyweight championship. For Peter McNeeley, it will be a fight for his life.

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McNeeley On The Rebound   [The Boston Herald]

This story ran on page C06 of the Boston Globe on 06/24/99.