Joe Fitzgerald

Boxer Wary Of Addiction's Sucker Punch

Peter McNeeley acknowledges the mess he made of the gifts he was given.

``I know what I've done to my image,'' he said, en route to a program of recovery yesterday. ``It was pretty blatant. People would see me in bars, sniffing cocaine in the open, and word traveled fast: He's a drunk, a cokehead. It hurt because I'd hear it and know it was true.''

It's called taking personal inventory and he's been doing it every day for months now, attempting, at 31, to finally gain the upper hand over what he calls ``my toughest opponent of all.''

That's saying a mouthful considering he once swapped punches with the ominous Mike Tyson, a confrontation his manager abruptly ended by throwing in the towel after 89 seconds.

For a lumbering kid from Medfield plucked from boonies like the Whitman Armory, it was an electrifying experience to be hand-picked as cannon fodder for the ex-heavyweight champ of the world. But it was also a ticket to personal destruction, giving him thousands to blow on addictions already established.

He would make several attempts to get his life in order, entering detox facilities as far away as Minnesota, each time failing in the end.

``The punch that hurts the worst is the one you don't see coming and those of us who are addicted never see this one coming. We lie to ourselves, like saying, `Alcohol and cocaine are my problems, but I'll be OK if I just smoke a little weed.' It's taken me a long time to realize how much in denial I've been, how clueless I was to the ways this disease is always at work in your head.''

Last Christmas he celebrated four months of being clean and sober, only to see it all fall apart New Year's Eve.

``I'd been feeling sick, so I wasn't attending (recovery) meetings. A friend from the old days called, inviting me to a party where they had this drug that was going around the club scene. At some point I told myself, `I'm not going to drink, but maybe I'll take just a little hit.' I was no longer the guy who had come to the party, looking and feeling good. Everything went from so good to so bad so fast. Then they busted out the champagne and all bets were off.

``For the next couple of hours I drank everything under the sun, stuff that would have had me gagging if I had sniffed it when I arrived. Now I was guzzling it. Then I got popped for drunk driving. That's when I called my father and said, `Dad, I need help.' ''

Tom McNeeley, who once fought Floyd Patterson for the heavyweight championship, took Peter to a place where help and support awaited. He remained several weeks.

``The day I got out, Dad picked me up and I asked him to bring me to a meeting I had gone to before. It used to be held in a civic center, but we were told it now met in a church. I found the same great people there, but because they were in a new place it gave me the feeling of a new beginning, too.

``I find standing up and admitting I am powerless actually gives me power. So does letting go of resentments. I'm trying to be honest with myself; the biggest thing I've learned is that I can't lick this on my own.

``So I stay connected to people who understand, every morning asking God to direct my steps, and every night thanking Him for the gift of another day. On June 30, God willing, I'll be five months clean and sober, but I know I can't look that far ahead; I take it one day at a time, hoping my past doesn't become my future, too, knowing I'm my own worst opponent.''

But Saturday night he'll face another opponent, stepping into the ring at Leominster Armory to fight Joe Siciliano.

``I've got a new rooting section these days,'' McNeeley said. ``They're seniors, kids, mothers, everyone you can imagine, all just like me, people who understand what I'm going through because they're going through it, too. They're not just my friends today; they're also my best defense.

``And how about this? Siciliano, a nice guy, is a Leominster cop who does drug busts. God must have a sense of humor, too.''

Talk back to Joe Fitzgerald

This story ran on page 24 of the Boston Herald on 06/14/00.