Ring Magazine - The Bible of Boxing
Februay 2003  


By Robert Cassidy

"The toughest fight I ever had was against John Barleycorn." Those words come from Tom McNeeley, who traded punches with three future Hall of Famers over the course of his eight-year career as a heavyweight contender.

Tom (left) and Peter McNeeley in their fighting primes.   The father and son duo met up with The Ring in late-August for a candid and revealing interview.

Just how powerful is this John Barleycorn?

"He kept knocking me down over and over again," said McNeeley.

The opponent he speaks of won't be found in any volumes of The Ring Record Book And Encyclopedia. It is McNeeley's euphemism for alcohol, a drug that nearly destroyed his life.

Tom and Peter put up their dukes in August 2002.   Despite some ups and downs, the two have always maintained a strong relationship.   (Photo by Robert Cassidy)

In his prime, McNeeley was a man's man, a tough Boston Irishman who trained hard, fought hard, and drank hard. The best and worst of Tom McNeeley was genetically passed along to his son Peter, who now boxes as a heavyweight and partied like a champion.

"I inherited the family disease," said Peter. "But Dad also bestowed the gift of recovery on me."

In August, the McNeeleys sat down with The Ring at a trendy Boston eatery to discuss the dominant themes they share — boxing and addiction. When alcoholics are in sobriety, as the McNeeleys are, they are told to live their lives one day at a time.

Fighting temptation is part of the daily struggle. On this day, the waiter arrived and innocently asked if he could bring a round of drinks to the table. "Beer? A nice bottle of wine? Or how about a martini?"

Tom McNeeley looked up from the menu as if he were staring down an opponent in the center of the ring. He's been sober for more than 16 years and the thought of alcohol flowing over his lips repulses him. Peter grinned at his dad. "I'll have a coke," he said.

Tom, who is 65 years old, ordered an iced tea.

"One drink was too many and 50 weren't enough," Tom said of his drinking days. "Drinking was the worst thing that ever happened to me."

A family affair:  Tom and Peter were not the first McNeeleys to box professionally.   Tom's father, Tom Sr. (left), held the New England light heavyweight title before having to retire due to chronic hand injuries after 30 professional fights.   The two Toms are pictured the day before Tom Jr. fought for the world heavyweight championship.

Boxing has been part of Tom McNeeley's life for as long as he can remember. It was there when he learned how to walk, on his first day of school, and when he made his Holy Communion.

"I was born into boxing," he said. "I had gloves on my hands since I was a little kid. Maybe two or three years old. My father was a fighter, my uncles were fighters. In those days, boxing was everywhere. It was at the boys' club, the YMCA, churches had the CYO (Catholic Youth Organization). I was seven when I started boxing for our church."

His father, Tom McNeeley Sr., made his boxing debut on the very first card at Boston Garden in 1928. As a pro, he was the New England light heavyweight champion, but retired after about 30 pro fights because of constant hand problems. He may have quit the ring, but not the sport. McNeeley Sr. taught boxing at the Cambridge YMCA, and his sons were among his pupils. Three fought as amateurs and two as pros. Tom Jr. was the best of the brood.

But boxing was not his only passion. McNeeley excelled at football and was a high school all-American, receiving 85 scholarship offers. He chose to attend Michigan State (with his brother Brian) because it also offered intercollegiate boxing.

"The football team was ranked number one in the country for a few weeks my sophmore year, but Illinois knocked us off," said McNeeley. "We finished the season 9-1. I played tackle. People ask me, offensive or defensive? We played both ways then. None of this offensive and defensive stuff."

After his sophmore year, Michigan State dropped its boxing program, and McNeeley dropped out of school.

Peter's mother, Nancy, holds the bag for then-husband Tom in this 1961 publicity shot.

"My father didn't want to see me quit school," he said. "He told me, 'If you quit school to turn pro, don't ever come home.' I took him seriously, so I went to Chicago and started training there. Then he found out where I was and explained that if I really wanted to box that badly I should come home."

According to McNeeley, his father never had a drinking problem. But Tom Jr. had been drinking socially — nothing like he would later — when he launched his pro career. Still, he understood that boxing and alcohol didn't mix.

"I knew that I couldn't drink and fight at the same time, so I white-knuckled it," said McNeeley. "I just stopped. For four years I didn't take a drop, and that was the most productive time of my life. I was in the best possible shape of my life."

McNeeley turned pro in 1958. He was 23-0 with wins over George Logan and Willi Besmanoff when he challenged Floyd Patterson for the heavyweight title three years later. The bout was supposed to take place in Fenway Park in August, then Boston Garden in September, but for one reason or another, Cus D'Amato, Patterson's manager, forced the bout to be postponed. It finally ended up at Maple Leaf Garden in Toronto on December 4, 1961.

"I went into that fight so confident I started to feel bad for Patterson," said McNeeley. "He was such a nice guy, so humble, I started to feel bad because I was going to take away his title. If anything, I overtrained for that fight. All through the postponements, I was training. I had nothing left for the fight."

McNeeley knocked Patterson down in the first round, but was subsequently dropped eight times over the next three rounds. He showed tremendous valor before referee Jersey Joe Walcott stopped the fight at 2:51 of the fourth.

Floyd Patterson recovered from a first round knockdown to put Tom McNeeley down eight times en route to a fourth-round TKO victory in defense of his heavyweight title at the Maple Leaf Garden in December 1961.   Tom fought on until 1968 but never got another crack at the title.

"I knew going into the fight that he had very fast hands," said McNeeley. "I was sparring with middleweights to prepare myself for his speed. When the fight finally happened, I never imagined someone could throw punches with such speed. Especially a heavyweight. The punches were coming so fast I thought the referee was sneaking some in, too."

That was the high-water mark of McNeeley's career, although he continued fighting until 1968. He twice beat fellow contender Duke Sabedong and lost decisions to future all of Famers Jose Torres and Willie Pastrano.

In those later years, drinking was becoming more and more a part of his life, which was slowly crumbling.

"Drinking resulted in me losing a lot," he said, "including my marriage, my family, my money, jobs, businesses."


If Tom McNeeley was born into boxing, Peter snuck in the back door. As he was growing up, it was rarely a topic of conversation at home. Peter, named after fight manager Peter Fuller, was born after his father retired.

"The kids were too young," said Tom McNeeley. "We just didn't talk about it."

He taught his sons the rudiments of boxing in a very perfunctory manner. He equipped them with a means of defending themselves, but would have preferred it if they stayed away from the game. For Peter, however, there was no escaping it.

"When I was seven years old, I knew that my dad boxed, but I was too young to understand to what extent," Peter said. "I climbed up into the attic because I wanted to find out more. I found my dad on the cover of Sports Illustrated. That was one of the biggest thrills of my life. I'm still bragging about it."

The discovery in a dusty attic led to an obsession that would stay with Peter for many years.

Peter was inspired to become a fighter at age seven when he discovered an old copy of Sports Illustrated in the attic of the family home with his father's picture on the cover.

"At that moment, learning that my grandfather and father had boxed, it all hit me," he said. "There was nothing else I was going to do. I was caught up with the history of my family. I immersed myself in boxing. I became an addict. I was a wannabe. I became a fight historian."

Peter knew his father was indifferent about his fighting, so he silently kept the fantasy alive while attempting to follow him in another sport. Peter suited up for football, playing offensive and defensive tackle, and started every game of his four-year high school career.

Peter attended nearby Bridgewater State College, and already began to show signs of a drinking problem. He failed out of school after one year and realized he needed the discipline of athletics to get him through college. He turned to boxing and returned to school, but admits he still partied.

"My father said, 'Pete, if you are gonna do this, do it right or don't do it at all,'" said Peter. "He was right, but I knew I was still going to mess around with my friends."

McNeeley's approach changed when he met trainer Vinnie Vecchione during his senior year of college. After Peter graduated with a degree in psychology, he and Vecchione began to bond, and McNeeley started getting results. While still an amateur, he beat Bobby Harris and James Johnson, both of whom were nationally ranked.

In 1991 he turned pro, and three years later he signed with promoter Don King. At the time there was talk of McNeeley challenging then WBC titleholder Oliver McCall to open Boston's new Fleet Center. The WBC ruled that McNeeley could not meet McCall because he was rated 11 and not in the top 10.

Peter McNeeley attacks Danny Wofford en route to scoring another early knockout victory in 1995.   The normally durable Wofford was unable to answer the bell for the second round.   At that point in his career, McNeeley's pro record stood at 35-1 with 30 KOs - 25 in the first round - and he was closing in on a fight with Mike Tyson.

"That was a blessing in disquise," said Peter.

McNeeley bided his time until he became Mike Tyson's first opponent after the former champion was released from prison in 1995. Tom was not enthused with the idea of his son fighting arguably the most dangerous heavyweight of the last quarter-century. Having personally endured the physical and emotional anguish of a boxing career, he never fully embraced the idea of his son fighting for a living.

"It's hard watching your son fight," he said. "When I was fighting, I was in control. When he was fighting, I had no control whatsoever. But I thought, well, he's a big boy now; it's up to him. I'll do whatever I can to be supportive and hope for the best. You see, my father always knew what kind of shape I was in. There was nobody who trained harder than I did. Unlike a certain someone that I know [he glances at Peter, who smiles sheepishly], who I always worried about."

Tom rationalized the Tyson risk.

"I thought it was obviously a real tough fight. But there was the unknown. I didn't know how that stay in the can had affected Tyson. I thought if there was an opportunity for Peter to have a chance to beat Tyson, this would be it. He would have that puncher's chance. And I knew that Peter wasn't afraid of him, like so many guys are when they fight Tyson."

The fight began with McNeeley rushing Tyson at the center of the ring and ended two knockdowns later when Vecchione threw in the towel. His father was right, Peter was not afraid of Tyson.

"I always knew that if you wanted to beat Mike Tyson, you had to back him up," Peter said. "So that's what I did. We did the best we could with what we had. I can say this in all honesty: It took a lot of guts on Vinnie's part to do what he did. He was setting himself up to be the bad guy while protecting me. After the first knockdown, I jumped up. They didn't even start a count. I was running around the ring like a nut. The second one, I took his best punch - a right uppercut point blank on the chin. I went down on my face. When a fighter can't get his hands up to stop himself from hitting his face on the mat, you know he's hurt. When I did get up, Mills Lane pushed us apart, and my legs were gone. If the ropes weren't there, I'd have gone down."

Peter McNeeley jumps up from a flash knockdown scored by Mike Tyson.   Peter was later disqualified when his manager entered the ring to stop the fight.   A record 1.5 million homes purchased the pay-per-view broadcast.

The instant fame and his $600,000 portion of the purse simply accelerated Peter's addiction. Everyone in Boston wanted to buy Peter McNeeley a drink, and he had enough money in his pocket to buy them a round or two in return.

His evenings started with alcohol and ended with cocaine. The money he made to fight Tyson — more than his father made in his entire career — was going quickly. Fourteen months after the Tyson fight, Peter hit rock bottom near the same place his dreams started.

"I pitched a tent in a crack house in Brockton right around the corner from the gym I used to train in. I was there for six weeks. I went in a strapping 225-pound heavyweight and I came out a 195-pound crack bag."


Tom McNeeley's bottom was much more subtle. After alcohol destroyed his first marriage, to Peter's mom, Nancy, he realized he couldn't afford losing a second marriage. He entered a 28-day rehabilitation and followed up by attending after-care programs.

"My wife, Gloria, she put up with me for a while," said McNeeley. "I knew it was destroying our relationship. I knew I had to do something. I found out there was a way to stop drinking, and it was through a 12-step program. My wife supported me. It wound up to be a great life."

When Tom thinks back about his drinking, he says his biggest regret is "the hurt I put on people" close to him, meaning his family and friends. Today, he works for the Massachusetts Department of Corrections, counseling correction officers who are battling addiction. He said the job is a daily reminder of just how potent John Barleycorn can be. If Tom had been reluctant to show Peter how to throw a jab, he was anxious to share his secret to overcoming alcohol.

"My father said to me, 'I think you are one of us, come with me,'" said Peter. "He took me to a 12-step program, and I went to meetings off and on for the next few years. But the problem was, I was doing it for my dad or I was doing it for boxing. But I would still go out drinking and drugging. I wasn't doing it for me."

Peter began to take fights just for the money. In 1999 he was stopped by Brian Nielsen in Denmark and then by Butterbean. He won his next two fights by KO but in '01 was stopped by Henry Akinwande and then Mike Bernardo in Cape Town, South Africa.

In the recovery program, the first step is admitting to your higher power that you are powerless over your addiction. Tom came to terms with that 16½ years ago. When Peter was asked when he did, he said, "That's between me and my higher power. But now I go to two meetings a day. I'm doing this for me."

What he wants to do is finish his career on his own terms. At the time of the follow-up interview in mid-September, he hadn't fought in 15 months. But as The Ring went to press, he was entertaining an offer to fight a young heavyweight prospect in Germany on five days notice.

"I'd prefer that he didn't fight anymore," said his father.

The damage from Peter's addiction combined with a prolonged accumulation of punches could jeopardize his health, if it hasn't already. Peter acknowledges that his mother and father both want him to retire. He understands the risks involved; he just wishes someone would understand him.

"I'm a third-generation fighter," he said. "It's in my blood. Obviously, the money is an incentive. But I love boxing, I just want to fight. I know I'm coming in as the opponent now. But how many guys came up to Boston on short notice to be my opponent? That's part of the business. That's the cycle."

"I'm a third generation fighter," Peter McNeeley says.  "It's in my blood.  Obviously the money is an incentive, but I love boxing — I just want to fight."

Peter, who turns 34 in October, said he's promised his mother he'll quit at the age of 35.

"If I die right now," he said, "I feel like I've done what I wanted to do. I accomplished the goals in my life that I had since I was seven years old. I don't have much longer to live out my dream. This is what I love to do."

The enthusiasm in Peter's voice is convincing. Right now, boxing is Peter McNeeley's drug of choice. His high is walking into the ring with the McNeeley name stitched across the back of his robe. It may not be the best choice, but it's better than taking on ol' John Barleycorn again.

Even his father understands that.

Robert Cassidy is a former associate editor of this magazine and a regular contributor.

This article appeared in the February 2003 issue of Ring Magazine.