Sunday, January 9, 1994
PHOTOGRAPHS BY MICHELE McDONALD / THE BOSTON GLOBE
LAST BOUT IN PUGSVILLE
Far from the glamour of celebrity title fights, two boxers battle for a shot at the big time.
By Mark T. Sullivan
It's a Saturday evening at Foxboro Raceway. In the basement below the clubhouse, boxers practice their fight stares, going half-lidded like iguanas in the noon sun. Hairy-eared boxing commissioners and old fight doctors move among the pugs, weighing them, checking their eyes, making sure everyone is fit to brawl. A young boy pats his father's bare back; within minutes his dad could be sprawled slack-jawed on the canvas.
Call it a snapshot of a little-seen world, the world of professional boxers in their early careers, fighting for penny-ante pay in exhibition halls, stogie-reeking nightclubs, and armories. They train in old warehouses, they take odd jobs to support their dream, and they accept brutal punishment as their due. They have names for this harsh realm: club fights, smokers, undercard boxing, Pugsville.
In the sports pages of daily newspapers, title fights are the focus. It's a big-money, celebrity game in venues like Madison Square Garden and Caesar's Palace. Some fighters go swiftly to that rarefied level of prizefighting. They win Olympic gold medals and find promoters eager to pay them richly.
Most pro boxers, however, are like these 16 gathered in Foxborough. For the few who are talented, well managed, and lucky, Pugsville is a short stop on the road to glory. For most of the brawlers it is two dozen fights and the fleeting belief that they could have been contenders. But it's a fine line — often a single fight — that separates the two groups. There comes a time when a fighter must demonstrate that he has the guts and the skill to leave Pugsville behind and move on to the next level.
Peter McNeeley, of Medfield, knows that this is his time. In a carpeted room, far from the rest of the fighters, McNeeley jabs in front of a full-length mirror. His father, a giant of a man, watches. At 17 wins and no losses, with 14 knockouts, McNeeley has an enviable record. Many in the fight game are watching this big, good-looking Irish kid. But there are whispers that he has had an easy ride in Pugsville, that some of his heavyweight opponents have entered the ring on rubber legs. His fight tonight will test his ability and will.
Fifty feet away, in a shower stall, Marc Machain, a 31-year-old heavyweight from Rutland, Vermont, is being taped by his trainer. Machain cranes his head to relieve the tension in his neck. He's an old hand in Pugsville. Machain is the villain tonight, the opponent on McNeeley's home turf. He's not your ordinary opponent, however; he doesn't come to take a punch and fall down for a payday. He comes to fight. He wants desperately to win.
Tonight's bout is a kind of rebirth for Machain. Two years ago he battled Paul Poirier for the New England heavyweight title and lost a decision. Poirier, who trains with McNeeley, went on to fight former world heavyweight champion Larry Holmes on television for real money. If Machain beats McNeeley, he might expect similar paydays.
Though unsaid in the tension of the pre-fight rituals, it is obvious that for both fighters, this is the last bout in Pugsville.
Upstairs, in a curtained-off area above the trotter track, the sold-out crowd cheers as the featherweights, the middleweights, and the heavyweights duke it out.
Grandmothers wearing floral prints cheer alongside bikers in leather caps, grizzled fight buffs, and the merely curious dilettantes. Then there are the relatives: wives with their babies, sons and daughters, aunts and uncles, brothers and sisters. For 90 percent of the 200 pro boxers in New England, fighting before this sort of crowd in this kind of venue will typify their career. They get $300 for a four-round fight, $500 for a six-rounder, $1,000 for and eight.
Usually, that's cash after you've taken your lumps. Al Valente, the bearded Boston promoter sponsering this show, has some salt to rub in their wounds: He expects the fighters to sell tickets for their payday. Each boxer must sell at least enough tickets to equal his pay. "The undercard boxers are here to help the show," says Valente, tugging on the belt that keeps his broad belly in place. "They're the feeders to help sell the place out. If it wasn't for me and guys like me, they wouldn't have an opportunity to fight."
Indeed there's no lack of young pugs willing to sell tickets to slug it out. The interest in boxing throughout New England is intense, more intense since the success of fighters like Maine's Joey Gamache, who left Pugsville and became the International Boxing Federation's world lightweight champ.
"The kids in the boxing gyms see guys they train with turning pro and doing well. They want to follow," says Valente. "One of the best examples of the up-and-coming fighters around now is McNeeley."
McNeeley is 6 feet 2 inches tall with legs like pistons, long ropy arms, thick hands, and an impressive pelt of chest hair. He is a tougher version of country singer Billy Ray Cyrus, handsome enough that Hollywood auditioned him to star opposite Sylvester Stallone in Rocky V. Five days before the fight, he sits in his mother's kitchen in Medfield, talking about the struggles of the Pugsville life. He scrimps pennies for gas to get him to the gym. He relies on his family for food to fuel his training. He still lives in his childhood home.
"It's screwed up," McNeeley says in a deep, gravelly voice. "I'm 24, and I still sleep in a room with my younger brother, Snubby." He gets angry about having to sell tickets as well as training, fighting, and promoting himself. "The only thing going right for me is when I go to the gym or when the bell rings. I suppose that's a happy problem to have. Whether I face adversity with friends, family, or girls, the boxing comes first."
His father will tell you it's a decision Peter had to make. If he doesn't look at his career that way, he will probably never escape Pugsville. "There are a lot of things I'd rather he do," Tom McNeeley Jr. says. "But he's chosen this life. It's tough, but it's what makes him hungry."
Peter leads a visitor upstairs. Clothes are strewn about his room. Snubby's bed is unmade. Fight posters cover the closet door. Two old black boxing gloves hang on a nail. "They're my dad's," he says, opening a scrapbook. There, in a plastic wrapper, is the November 13, 1961, edition of Sports Illustrated. A much younger version of his father peers out from the cover over the headline: "Longshot from Boston."
McNeeley points to the gloves in the photograph. "Recognize 'em? I found them in a box in the basement, cleaned them up, restored 'em." Asked when his father fought Floyd Patterson for the title, Peter McNeeley answers instantly, the way one would recite the date of a close relative's birthday: December 4, 1961.
McNeeley's father was 23 when he fought the undisputed champion of the world in Toronto. He knocked Patterson down once. Patterson knocked him down 13 times. Peter will tell you he doesn't fight to prove he's as good as his father: "Before you have to deal with filling someone else's shoes, you got to fill your own."
Still, there can be little doubt about his dad's influence. Tom's career ended in 1966, two years before Peter's birth. Peter says he didn't know his dad boxed until one day when he was just about "old enough to know there was no Santa Claus." In the attic, he found a fight magazine with his father's picture on the cover. "After that, I always dreamed of being a fighter," Peter says. "But I never told him that."
Peter's parents divorced when he was 10. On Saturdays, his father took him and his three brothers to a church in West Newton, where they learned to box. But Peter didn't get serious about it until after his freshman year at Bridgewater State College. After training with three sparring partners for several weeks, he fought his first amateur fight July 16, 1987, at a football stadium in Milford.
"I'm the main bout; it's being televised on cable," McNeeley says now, in disbelief. "The only reason I'm in there is because of who my dad is, because I'm a heavyweight, and I'm Irish." McNeeley got dropped in the first round. "You face getting hurt in the ring, but the humiliation is worse. You know all your friends and family are saying, 'He doesn't have it. He's not his old man.'"
McNeeley makes the 50-minute drive to Whitman to train six days a week. As he dodges through rush-hour traffic on Interstate 95, he talks about not quitting after that first fight, about having gone to Petronelli Brothers Gym, in Brockton, to spar with veterans, about how he hated the time he spent at that gym, where Marvin Hagler had trained.
"I don't want to give the Petronellis credit for anything as far as who I am as a boxer," he says. McNeeley admits, however, that the vicious sparring there taught him to survive in the ring. While finishing college as a political-science major, he fought 21 amateur fights, winning 15, losing 6.
He pulls into the gravel parking lot of the South Shore Boxing Gym, a sparkling clean facility on the top floor of an old shoe factory. "I want you to understand something," he says. "I wouldn't be anywhere if it wasn't for Vinnie."
Vinnie Vecchione, McNeeley's manager, is a burly construction worker by day, given to wearing soft caps and smoking Arturo Fuentes cigars. He stands outside the ring as McNeeley spars with Chris McDonald, another heavyweight Vecchione manages. Cliff Phippen, the owner of the gym, stands nearby. In the ring next to McNeeley, Paul Poirier, the New England heavyweight champ, ducks, weaves, and jousts with his partner. The air is filled with the odor of sweat and disinfectant, with noises from the grunts and slams of the fighters' efforts. "Poirier's a boxer, a technician," Vecchione whispers. He points to McNeeley. "This kid's an animal." He calls to him. "Work that body now."
McNeeley drops to swing rapid hooks at McDonald's midsection. Vecchione smiles, as if recalling how far he has brought McNeeley since September 1990. Vecchione had just returned to the fight game after taking 10 years off to care for his mother, who had Alzheimer's disease.
Vecchione and Poirier, who was also making a comeback after a long layoff, went to the Petronelli's gym looking for a sparring partner and found what he calls "the best young prospect I've seen in years." But there's a Grand Canyon between prospect and contender. Baseball executives send hot prospects to the minors. Fight managers take them to Pugsville.
For the past two years McNeeley has gone to school in the gym, running through thousands of hours of drills: how to slip a punch, how to use the elbows to absorb blows, how to keep from exploding in the heat of battle into a wild, red-eyed, free-swinging beast. And every six weeks or so, a fight, a test of what he's learned. "It took us months just to get him calmed down enough in the ring to obey our instructions," says Vecchione. "We're bringing him along slowly, making sure he learns from every fight. The worst thing you can do is bring a boxer along too fast."
Phippen nods. Good trainers and managers, he says, are as important as good fighters; they're the navigators who guide the prospect through Pugsville. "A lot of managers will sell a kid down the river, put him in the ring with someone who can kill him for a few bucks," says Phippen. A good manager has to put the fighter in competitive bouts to make sure his boy has the edge. It gives the boxer confidence and a good record.
Vecchione calls McNeeley out of the ring and points him to a stuffed canvas heavy bag wrapped in duct tape. It is suspended horizontally, about chest high, against a cinder-block wall. McNeeley walks to it slowly, then explodes against it in a fury of punches, the force of each blow rippling through his arms, shoulders, scapulas and into his spine.
"No one else in here will hit it," says Vecchione. "It's too painful. He hits that the week before every fight, sometimes until he vomits. We call it the opponent bag." McNeeley trudges to the shower room. "He's halfway there," says Vecchione. "By 30 to 36 fights, two years from now, he should be ready, the first Irish kid from Boston to fight for the title since his dad. But this is his first real test. He's had his fights these past two years, his moments, but really his professional career begins with this fight against Machain."
In Whitman, you can see how a Pugsville fighter is trained, state of the art; travel 170 miles northwest to Rutland, Vermont, and you can see one trained, state of the heart. Heart is what Pugsville people talk about when they talk about Marc Machain: his giant heart, his unflagging courage. "He has average boxing ability but superior heart and determination," says Valente, the promoter. "He always comes to fight."
In the dim hallway of a refurbished scale factory is a boxing gym of sorts with speed bags, heavy bags, double-ended bags. There is no ring, however, no cadre of fellow fighters and full-time trainers to rely on for companionship, education, and support. It is four days before the fight, and Machain trains alone. The 5-foot-11-inch boxer hisses and strikes, padding clockwise on legs as thick as the bags he hits. An electronic buzzer tells him when to move to the next training station.
Machain seems the most unlikely of boxers: A gentle man outside the ring, he is soft-spoken and quick to smile. Then you find out he can recite long passages from the Rocky films, that his nose has been broken nine times, that he has had 32 stitches under his right eye, that his shoulder has been bitten into during a fight.
Machain has had the week off from his part-time job selling ad space for a Vermont state troopers' magazine. He has avoided ice cream and eaten brown rice. He has run through the streets of Rutland every morning. Every evening he has come to the IV Suns Youth Center to hit the bags.
Machain moves to another part of the center, where Chris Shaddock, his friend and the closest thing he has to a manager, will work him through a drill in which he throws combinations at padded mitts. It's good, hard practice, but both he and Shaddock know it's no substitute for the sparring that McNeeley gets in Whitman. "He doesn't get that kind of live battle you need," says Shaddock, an intense 37-year-old former Golden Gloves boxer who now studies tai chai and aikodo. "He can't do anything about it; he lives in Rutland 2½ hours from any action."
They run through drills until Machain's black sweatshirt and lycra tights are soaked. When Machain sits down, exhausted, Shaddock tells him to close his eyes, to fall inside himself to find a spot where he can rest. Machain follows his voice, and the muscles in his shoulders relax.
Machain lives in downtown Rutland, sharing a one-bedroom apartment with his fiancee Barbara Borelli, a small, attractive woman who works as a waitress while trying to find work as a stage manager. On the table is a picture of a blond boy, Machain's 7-year-old son, Tyler, by a previous relationship. Next to the picture is a stack of scrapbooks, the chronology of a Pugsville life.
Machain was born in South Boston, the son of a wrestler whose professional name was The Flying Frenchman. His parents, like McNeeley's, divorced when he was a youngster. He began boxing when he was 8, at a YMCA, and moved to Vermont during his senior year in high school. By the time he was 25, Machain had fought in 104 amateur bouts. "I guess I love hitting people, and as much as I hate to say it, I love being hit," he says. "I love hearing it, the sound a punch makes on a body, the expression on their faces when I land something solid."
The sort of boxing sharks that Vecchione protects McNeeley from approached Machain in 1985. They wanted him to be the sparring partner for an up-and-coming boxer, a heavyweight who was training in the Catskills. Machain pulls out a color photograph from Sports Illustrated. He is punching Mike Tyson. "I trained and sparred with Tyson the year before his title shot and then helped prepare him for the title shot," says Machain. "He never knocked me down. It's not bragging. It's a known fact."
The sharks persuaded Machain to turn pro in 1986. Rather than bring Machain along slowly, they immediately threw him into the ring with Elijah Tilery, then a top-10 contender. Machain went the distance, four rounds, but left "with the Rocky Mountains on my head."
He got knocked out in his second pro fight. Disappointed, he quit for three years and ballooned to 287 pounds. In 1989, he returned to Pugsville, as much for Tyler as for himself. "I wanted to get some money so someday he could go to college," says Machain. He looks at his son's picture. "And, to be honest, I wanted to show him he could be proud of me."
Shaddock helped him lose the weight. Machain won his first fight and several more after that. He developed a reputation as a tough fighter who would go the distance.
Over the past four years, Machain has fought in Berlin and Paris, Finland and South Africa. He was a sparring partner to Alex Stewart before Stewart fought Tyson and lost. He has had lunch with promoter Don King. He has beaten some good fighters, and he has lost to some good fighters. His record is 11-5.
"I can't look at my bank account and say look what boxing's done for me," says Machain. "But Pugsville's been good to me: I have these memories, the people I've met, the places I've been." But he dreams of escaping Pugsville, of winning this fight and going on to bigger paydays in classier venues.
Machain had his first big chance in August 1991, the same night McNeeley won his pro debut. Machain fought Poirier for the New England title at Boston University's Nickerson Field. Despite being in the best shape of his pro career, his weight down to 208 pounds, he lost the decision. "I had my chance, fought Poirier, and got knocked back down to Pugsville," says Machain. "But I keep winning here, and that keeps me going."
That is part of the reason that Machain got this fight with McNeeley: Machain is tough, he doesn't quit, he puts on a good show. There is talk that if he does well with McNeeley, perhaps there will be a rematch and Machain will get a second shot at the New England title.
But Machain knows Pugsville talk is cheap, that it's probably just a dream they're dangling in front of him. He knows he doesn't have much time left. He's old for a Pugsville fighter. He has headaches a lot. When he looks at Barbara, sometimes his career scares him.
"I think differently now that I'm engaged to be married," he says softly. "I love this, but I know it's not her responsibility to take care of my ass if I get hurt. But if I don't do this, later on in life I might be saying I could have. I want to be a guy who can say I did my best no matter what happened."
Upstairs at the raceway in Foxborough, Chris McDonald has knocked out his opponent in the first round. They call up McNeeley and Machain. At 216 pounds, McNeeley enters the ring in a full-length, green satin fight robe. He wears green shorts, and his black Pony boxing shoes have green borders. Machain, weighing 210 pounds, climbs through the ropes in a black baseball cap, Mexican serape, and black trunks. On the right leg of his trunks, embroidered in bold white letters, is the name Tyler.
The referee, state Rep. Paul Casey, of Winchester, gives the fighters their instructions and sends them to their corners.
When the bell rings, McNeeley immediately unloads a flurry of punches: solid straight jabs to Machain's jaw, crosses to his temple, rocket shots to the rib cage. Twice Machain takes to his knees, as much a survival tactic as an acknowledgment of the power at work on him. With less than a minute to go in the round, McNeeley's right hand pistons to Machain's body and Machain goes down.
The crowd roars. Vecchione is screaming: "That's it! That's it, Peter!" But Machain rises quickly. He sticks out his mouthpiece and laughs, as if to say: I can take all that and more.
Early in the second round, Machain hits McNeeley with a left hook that the fighter shakes off. Then McNeeley is back at Machain, scoring with the jab, with combinations, ducking some of Machain's swings, absorbing others. Between rounds, Machain's eyes are closed while he goes down into that place inside that helps him relax. Shaddock takes him there, telling him to relax, to rest; and when he brings Machain back up from the calm place, he tells him to try the combinations they practiced back in Rutland.
But instead of faking the jab and cross, Machain goes in tight, trading wallop for slam. Midway through the third round, the boxers clinch. Just after the referee says to break, Machain throws a left hook at McNeeley, who responds by head-butting him on the chin.
Both moves are bush. Machain's punch is the product of a fighter who is frustrated at his inability to break through his opponent's defense; McNeeley's head butt is the instinctive reaction of a brawler who has not made the full transition to ring warrior.
Machain staggers backward, clutching his jaw, his mouthpiece hanging cockeyed from his mouth. Vecchione screams: "Jesus Christ, what's the matter with you, Peter?"
Shaddock bellows that McNeeley should be disqualified. Indeed, after the fight, members of McNeeley's own camp say if he wasn't boxing in Foxborough, 10 miles from Medfield, the fight could very well have ended right then. Instead, the judges decide to take a point away from McNeeley and let the bout continue.
But the butt has taken its toll on Machain. He no longer stands in the center of the ring with McNeeley. He takes to the ropes, drops his elbows, and bends low, turning in that instant into the opponent bag in the South Shore Boxing Gym.
McNeeley goes into a wolflike crouch and rains snarls of pain on Machain's body. The veteran takes them one by one. Machain smiles again at the bell, but he staggers to his corner, complaining to Shaddock, "My jaw! My jaw!" Out in the audience, Barbara sobs.
It continues that way through much of the fourth round: McNeeley jabbing, scoring with hard combinations and the whump of leather on flesh; Machain taking it and even smiling at him sometimes. Then, late in the round, Machain shows some moves of his own. He dodges punches and strikes back at McNeeley with some of the combinations he practiced in Rutland.
Machain fights his best in the fifth round, hitting McNeeley hard with a right cross. Shaddock cheers: "Yes! Yes!" Then McNeeley lets fly with a thunderous right uppercut. Machain falls to his knees again and barely survives to the bell.
In McNeeley's corner, Vecchione tells his fighter he's won every round and is in total command on points, but he doesn't think Machain will fall for good. McNeeley may have to go eight rounds; he's never been beyond six.
The bell rings. McNeeley hammers Machain with a left hook. Machain counterpunches and pushes McNeeley backward, then takes the full glove of a brutal jab in his face. Machain's head snaps backward, but he shakes it off . McNeeley's eyebrows go up.
At that point, something happens in the partisan crowd. Some of them begin to cheer for Machain. He's an opponent who knows he's clearly outclassed, who knows he can't probably won't ever get the title shot, but who refuses to give up. It's as if some in the crowd — the mothers and sons and wives of the opponents who lost earlier in the evening — sense he's the symbol of it all. He's the embodiment of fights in smoky bars, the small paydays, the dream. He's Joe Pugsville, and they root him on.
But McNeeley can show no pity. He wades in, hits Machain with a crunching uppercut that forces him to his knees a fourth time. When Machain rises, McNeeley left-hooks him, then hits him with a right, and Machain is down again. The referee begins to count, but Machain, unbelievably, rises before the bell.
In his corner, Machain tells Shaddock he can't hear him. Later a doctor determines that McNeeley's blows perforated an eardrum. Shaddock asks him with his hands if he wants to stop. Machain shakes his head no.
He rushes out at the bell. McNeeley backs away as his father yells, "Stick, Peter, stick." McNeeley jabs and connects. Machain moves to his corner, where he's hit with a left jab, a right cross, a right uppercut, and then a straight right that blows him down and almost out of the ring.
Machain's on his knees, dazed, trying desperately to rise. McNeeley cocks his right hand, ready to batter Machain down again. The sight of it breaks Shaddock's heart. He throws in the towel. The fight is over.
A half-hour later in the shower room, Machain's body shows welts and bruises. His nose is broken. He is having trouble hearing. He fears his jaw is broken. He stands under the hot water screaming dialogue from Rocky. "Yo, Duke!" he yells at Shaddock. "Where's Adrian? Go get Adrian."
As if on cue, Barbara walks in. She has stopped crying but begins again when she sees him, and he says, "There will be another time." He doesn't know it yet, but the fight has shattered Barbara. She will leave him within six weeks. He doesn't know that Valente will refuse to pay his medical bills, that his physical pain is just beginning, and that it is unlikely he will ever fight again.
Meanwhile, McNeeley is busy giving a victory analysis for reporters as his father watches. He doesn't know then that even though he will win five more fights in the next six months that Valente will break off their relationship over monetary disputes and that McNeeley will be criticized in the sports pages for how slowly his managers act to let him face stiffer competition. Right now, he believes he has finally escaped Pugsville.
In the bathroom, away from the hubbub, Vecchione talks about how his fighter used combinations, how he displayed great power and defense, how easily he went to the seventh round for the first time.
"Peter showed us that he has the potential to go to the big leagues tonight," he says. "But he's a kid — he's still got a lot to learn." Then Vecchione shakes his head in awe. "What kept Machain standing for so long except his own determination?" he asks. "That guy's tougher than tough. God bless him. Tell his son his father's no bum. Tell him he's got the most courage Peter McNeeley's ever faced. Nobody even comes close."
This article appeared in The Boston Globe Magazine on 01/09/94