Saturday, March 3, 2001

McNeeley has thrown some big punches, but he's also taken a few

By St. Clair Murraine

PETER McNEELEY "Hurricane" Peter McNeeley

Peter McNeeley saw the path of his life unfold when he crawled up into his family's attic and found a Sports Illustrated article about his father's boxing career.

He was only 7 years old then.

“From that day, I knew what my fate and destiny in life was going to be,” McNeeley said in a recent telephone interview. “I knew some day that with my name I would go somewhere.”

Like his father, Tom, who fought Floyd Patterson for the world title in 1961, McNeeley became a top-ranked heavyweight contender. And, like his father, he got caught up in substance abuse.

The fall was imminent, McNeeley said; it was just a matter of when. By the time he had his infamous 89-second fight against Mike Tyson in 1995, McNeeley had been an alcohol and drug user for 18 years.

For the past year, he has been clean. It's the latest of several attempts McNeeley said he had made to detox.

“I'm not going to say it's has been easy, but it has gotten easier,” he said.

McNeeley, 32, will come to Tallahassee for his second comeback fight on March 17. He faces top-ranked Henry Akinwande in a 12-round bout for the World Boxing Council Intercontinental championship.

That he is getting a shot against another ranked fighter after losing to Tyson doesn't surprise McNeeley. What astonishes the Medfield, Mass., native is that he is still alive.

He had seen drugs take the lives of several of his acquaintances and actor Chris Farley. Both became friends during one of McNeeley's trips to a rehabilitation center.

“It was a very big eye-opener,” McNeeley said. “It scared me too because after that I relapsed a couple times. He lost the war and I'm still fighting the battle.”

McNeeley reeled off 36 wins in 37 fights - 32 by knockout - before he met Tyson. The quick end, with his manager and trainer Vincent Vecchione throwing in the towel, made McNeeley a hot topic for late-night television monologues.

The public humiliation coupled with his mother's ultimately successful battle against cancer threw McNeeley into a tailspin. Recalling the harshest period in his life, McNeeley didn't sound like a man seeking sympathy.

“It enabled me to reach my bottom quicker, and I thank God for fighting Tyson,” he said. “The greatest time of my life was rising through the ranks and fighting Mike Tyson. . . . After that people were giving me things for free, and I was getting high for free. That enabled me to reach desperation to come back out.”

McNeeley wasn't the only one hurting. Vecchione was in pain, too.

“This is somebody we have tried to help constantly, and we all felt the pressure,” Vecchione said. “We all felt bad, but we all know boxing would pull him out of it.”

The odds are against McNeeley beating Akinwande, but he plans to be around for at least another three years. After that, he hopes to begin a new career that will enable him to use a degree in political science and history, which he earned from Bridgewater State College in 1994.

“I'm going to use it, (but) I just have to get the most out of this sport before I move on with my life,” he said. “Now I'm clean and sober. I have to grab the bull by the horns for the next two or three years.”

As part of his recovery, McNeeley attends two daily speaking sessions with other addicts.

“First I have to be a good example to myself; then I could be a good example to others,” he said.

His mind-set changed since beginning his latest attempt to stay clean in May, coming back with a first-round knockout of Joe Siciliano.

“I'm not doing this for boxing; I'm doing this for Peter,” he said.

Right now McNeeley is going for another shot at getting back into the heavyweight rankings. Akinwande is the path and McNeeley knows the assignment against a hard-punching, 6-foot-8 opponent isn't an easy one.

“I still want to take a shot at this,” McNeeley said. “I know it's going to be a tremendous physical force to get over his height and reach, but I'm going to do my best.

“It's going to be Hurricane Peter back on the scene pristine clean.”

Heavyweight Showdown

The matchup: Henry Akinwande vs. Peter McNeeley.

When: March 17, 7 P.M.

Where: The Moon.

What's at Stake: WBC intercontinental title.

Undercard: Five preliminary bouts, including two that feature Tallahassee's Robert Davis and Jodi Kombrinck.

Admission: $50, $35, $25, $20.

Related articles:
McNeeley Signed To Fight Akinwande   [Tallahassee Democrat]
Heavyweights Akinwande, McNeeley Get Serious   [Tallahassee Democrat]
Akinwande vs McNeeley   [Tallahassee Democrat]

This story was published in the Tallahassee Democrat on 03/03/2001.