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Heavyweight boxer Peter McNeeley spends his days toiling for a glass company in Medfield (above) as he tries to pick up the pieces of a life that turned for the worse after a high profile loss to Mike Tyson in '95.

By Stan Grossfeld, Globe Staff   (12/06/2002)

MEDFIELD — Today he's headed to the Wellsley Department of Public Works to replace some windows. Before he leaves, he tucks a stack of Tyson-McNeeley weigh-in pictures inside a tabloid so they don't bend. "You wouldn't believe how many guys asked me for an autographed picture down there," Peter McNeeley says.

PETER McNEELEY PUNCHING MIKE TYSON"I'm working for the first time in 10 years. Exceptional Glass in Medfield. We serve all your glass needs."

McNeeley, once ranked the No. 7 heavyweight by the World Boxing Association, is best known as Mike Tyson's first post-prison opponent in 1995. With 25 first-round knockouts the Hurricane met a lot of glass jaws. These days he just meets a lot of glass.

He hasn't fought in 16 months, but McNeeley, 34, insists that he hasn't retired, either. He still trains regularly and teaches boxing. "I'm still fighting. I will be fighting my comeback fight on either Cape Cod or in Ireland," he says. "I took four out of the last six fights on eight days' notice. I'm on call. Have gloves, will travel."

Some people felt that after the Tyson fight of Aug. 19, 1995, McNeeley became a punchline instead of a puncher. Pizza Hut hired him to get knocked out by a pizza crust. He was on "Late Show with David Letterman." His record going into the Tyson bout was 36-1. He says it is now 47-7.

In his last fight, June 9, 2001, he was stopped by former world kickboxing champion Mike Barnardo 41 seconds into the first round in Cape Town, South Africa. "It was on eight days' notice. I went down in the first round. I was so pissed I pushed the ref," says McNeeley.

In the Tyson fight, McNeeley went right at his heavily-favored opponent and was floored twice in the first round before his manager, Vinnie Vecchione, jumped in the ring. McNeeley was disqualified. He still jokes about the fight.

"Did you see me fight Tyson?" he asks. "What, did you go to the bathroom and miss it?" he says with a laugh. McNeeley carries a windshield and frame easily to the truck. "This keeps me in shape," he says. He is 10 pounds lighter than when he stepped in the ring with Tyson.

From down the street a voice yells out, "Peter!"

The Hurricane smiles and waves.

"Hi Mom," he shouts. McNeeley knows his mother is keeping a close eye on him since his dark days in a Brockton crack house in 1996, when his family and Vecchione were searching for him. "I promised my mother I wouldn't fight past 35, so the clock is ticking," he said. His 35th birthday is next Oct. 6.

If he's still a fighter, why is he working full time at Exceptional Glass? "I needed some cash," he says.

Peter McNeeley has taught a boxing class at Gold's Gym in Needham for the past 2½ years.   He is pictured above giving student Mona Ross a lesson in counterpunching.   (Globe Staff Photos/Stan Grossfeld)

A daily battle

Everybody who stops in at Exceptional Glass says something nice about McNeeley. He labors cheerfully in an Army jacket and knitted hat near a propane tank that powers a small heater, which is fighting a losing battle against the December chill. Using an Exacto knife and straight edge, he cuts a mirror to size, then jokingly snorts an imaginary line on the glass. "He's been employee of the month the last three months," says owner Jim Walsh. There are only two other employees. Walsh, a family friend, said he pays McNeeley substantially more than minimum wage. The heavyweight won't discuss wages.

Everybody in this close-knit town knows the McNeeleys. Peter's father, Tom Jr., was a top heavyweight who once graced the cover of Sports Illustrated. His mother was a runner-up in the Miss Universe contest, and his grandfather was part of the original boxing card that opened the Boston Garden in 1928.

McNeeley says his new job also "keeps me busy" trying to defeat his toughest opponents — alcohol and drugs. "I had too much time on my hands," he says. His voice is hoarse and smells of Altoids. "I have had no crack in five years, no drink in a year. It ain't easy. One day at a time."

"I got a lot of bad press," he says. "After each fight, I'd go out and party. I was the hot name. Broads. Free drinks. And it started to get away from me. After the Tyson fight, I let loose."

New students are often intimidated.   The playful McNeeley will sometimes loosen up a novice by taking a dive on their first punch.   (Globe Staff Photos/Stan Grossfeld)

Ill-fated return

After a well-documented stay in a fancy Minnesota rehabilitation house where he befriended comedian Chris Farley, who later died of an overdose, McNeeley launched a comeback. He won three straight bouts in 1998. Then came the bizarre Butterbean Esch fight at the Mandelay Bay casino in Las Vegas June 26, 1999. Esch, nearly 100 pounds heavier than McNeeley, pounded McNeeley on the ropes, and referee Jay Nady stopped the fight with just one second left in Round 1. McNeeley, who had neither been knocked down nor cut, thought the fight was fixed. He started drinking heavily again. "I have no one to blame but myself," he admits now. "It was poor, poor me. Pour me a drink."

That August, he hit a new low. He was on a six-day bender and came home high. "My dad told me to go to bed and get some sleep, then he pink-slipped me. I was laying in bed, and three Medfield cops I knew came to the house and handcuffed me. I avoided the press and signed papers in Dedham Court. No fancy rehab this time. They took me in shackles to Bridgewater State Addiction Center. I was in the detox. It's part of the prison, not the Bridgewater State Hospital. I don't have a mental problem, I have an alcohol addiction problem. You go in in shackles, you come out in shackles."

He stayed there for 29 days from Aug. 16 to Sept. 14, 1999. "They issued you one pair of socks, one pair of underwear, and they only washed [the clothes] once a week," he says. "They served slop for food. I traded autographs for extra soap and razors and something to eat."

He still lives at home. "My mom grabbed all the money when I was living in the crack house. She tucked the money away in annuities," says McNeeley. He said roughly $100,000 remains of the Tyson purse (reported to be $700,000). "And what I'm gonna do is get a real job and take all the money I've got left and buy a house."

One moment of glory

McNeeley has few regrets from the Tyson fight. "Yes, I was scared," he admits to this reporter. "If you're not scared, you shouldn't be in there. It's healthy to be scared. I did the first, say, 60 seconds what I was supposed to: back him up. I should have tied him up more, but I was too go, go, go. It was my undoing by pushing too hard. But the only way you're going to beat Mike Tyson is by backing him up.

"Who the [expletive] looks good against Mike Tyson? I was the first one to fight him when he got out of jail for rape. He was well ripped and buffed. The guy that I fought was not the same guy Lennox [Lewis] fought. He was angry. He had to win. I was standing in the way between him and a lot of money.

"His punching power may be a wee bit overrated, but his speed is actually underrated. The punch that hurts you most is the one you don't see. All of a sudden, I'm on the canvas."

Was he mad at Vecchione for stopping the bout?

"Nah, as a fighter you always want to keep on fighting. The first [knockdown] I was up at the count of one. Second one I went down on my face. I took his best, the right uppercut flush on the chin. When I got up I was messed up. My eyes were gone. As far as boxing, [Vinnie] knows me better than I know myself. He was right there looking in my eyes. He said, 'That's it.' Looking back, I say good, because Mike Tyson is at his most dangerous when you're hurt. He's on you like a shark in blood-infested waters."

The fight's $15 million gate at the MGM Garden in Las Vegas was the highest in boxing history. An estimated 1.5 million people paid nearly $50 to watch on pay-per-view. What would he say to the angry fans who felt he ripped them off? "When I was in a bar drinking," he says, "and somebody said that, I would say 'How much money do you have in your pocket?' Let's say the guy said, 'I have a hundred bucks.' I'd say, 'Well, let's fight over it. Whoever wins gets what's in the other guy's pocket.' I was being a real punk."

"When sober, I say I defy you to go to sleep every night for 5½ months knowing that you're going to face that guy. Stare that guy eyeball to eyeball in the prefight instruction. I'm the guy that has to look at myself in the mirror. The night before the fight, I just cried in my room. Tears of joy that I'd made it that far."

Former heavyweight contender Peter McNeeley is a hands-on teacher, laying leather to a student in need of some self-defense.   (Globe Staff Photos/Stan Grossfeld)

A Class Act

Each Saturday morning, Peter McNeeley teaches a one-hour boxing class at Gold's Gym in Needham. New students are usually intimidated. He often greets them by taking a dive on their first punch. But aside from the welcoming flop, he is all business. Talking in class is not tolerated. "Hey. Hey! Let's work," he tells a student. The class is intense, and McNeeley is a natural teacher. He mixes just the right amounts of hard work, humor, and passion for boxing.

First, McNeeley turns on the boom box and leads the dozen men and women through a series of stretches. Then he rotates the class. At the start of a bell, each student works a three-minute round at various punching bag stations. The last of which is McNeeley Live. Against the experienced men, he dances, bobs-and-weaves, and throws an occasional jab. Against the women, he lets them have their way with his forehead and midsection. So Mona Ross, a housewife from Newton, gets to punch the Man That Fought Tyson.

"He's very fast," says Ross. "I hit him, and he doesn't feel it. It hurts my hand when I hit his head! He's great. He's a nice, nice guy. He's encouraging to everyone."

"I love it," says McNeeley, removing his green-and-white mouthpiece. "I'm a third-generation boxer and a third-generation coach. My grandfather was on the 1928 Olympic team. He taught boxing 36 years at the Cambridge YMCA. My dad fought Floyd Patterson for the heavyweight championship of the world, knocked him down once. He fought Jose Torres, and he sparred against Muhammed Ali. I've been teaching here 2½ years. I can see the finish line coming. I want to still stay in the game. What better way to do it than this?"

Every Monday morning, he's back at Exceptional Glass.

"I'm very positive," says McNeeley. "The Hurricane will return, better than ever. The word to the public is never count out the Hurricane. Just give me the mandatory eight-count. I always get back on my feet."

This article appeared on page D1 of the Boston Globe on December 6, 2002.