Vecchione's work finally produces McNeeley payday

by George Kimball

Whitman - If I have anything to say about it, and I think I do, Vinnie Vecchione ought to be named boxing's manager of the year. Even Peter McNeeley's biggest detractors are beginning to admit as much.

"Of course he should," New York Daily News scribe Michael "Wolf Man" Katz said this week. "He's taken a guy who can't even fight a little bit and maneuvered him into a three-quarters of a million dollar payday!"

While he was widely criticized along the way, Vecchione's judicious selection of opponents was responsible for building McNeeley into a 36-1 heavyweight. Don King now proposes to sell him to the world as a viable opponent for ex-champ Mike Tyson's first fight in more than four years.

Looking as if he were born with a cigar clenched between his teeth, the 49-year-old Vecchione is the living embodiment of Knobby Walsh, manager of the mythical Joe Palooka. He broke into boxing a quarter-century ago, a protege of the late Sam Silverman. He turned to managing after an undistinguished amateur career (2-3 record), and enjoyed a modicum of success in the early 1970s before his most prominent client, middleweight Paul Poirier, abruptly retired and joined the Jehovah's Witnesses.

When Sam (Silverman) died in 1977, I died, too," recalled Vecchione. "I knew my days in the fight game were numbered. My heart wasn't in it anymore."

"I'd have quit but for one thing," he said, pointing to a picture on his office wall. "This kid here, Jimmy Corkum. I wasn't going to walk away and abandon my fighter."

Corkum, a promising junior welterweight, fought until 1980, when he was accepted to medical school at Johns Hopkins. He is now a doctor in Maryland.

Ten years later Poirier, by now a heavyweight, decided to resume his career. Vecchione was reluctantly persuaded to join him. One day in the Whitman gym, he watched Poirier spar three rounds with a 20-year-old amateur who was, he later learned, Tom McNeeley's kid.

"I was immediately excited," said Vecchione. "It took about 25 seconds to know that he had tremendous punching power and a killer instinct. This was a mean, vicious kid in the ring. He was the best heavyweight prospect I'd ever seen.

"Literally nobody believed me, but I knew that from all the knowledge I had from Sam Silverman I could do something with this kid. Think about it: I'd been in every phase of boxing. I've been a promoter, a manager, a trainer, a matchmaker, a cut man, a sparring partner and even an opponent."

Opponent. Therein lies one of the legendary tales of New England boxing.

In 1975, through New York boxing agent Al Braverman, Vecchione booked Brockton light heavyweight Dornell Wigfall for a fight in Milan, Italy, but at the last minute Wigfall got cold feet and disappeared. Vecchione phoned Braverman with his apologies.

"Are you kidding?" Braverman said. "This is for a fight against the Italian light heavyweight champion, and it's been advertised all over the country. Vinnie, if somebody doesn't show up, they'll kill us both!"

"What could I do?" Vecchione said with a shrug. He couldn't pass as Wigfall, who was black, but when Poirier had joined the Jehovah's Witnesses he'd left his boxing license behind.

The Milan newspapers reported that Italian champion Enino Cametti required four rounds to hand American Paul Poirier his first career defeat, and Vecchione returned to America with two black eyes.

"I got $600 for that fight," Vecchione said of a bout that represents the sum total of his professional career. Braverman says that he was overpaid.

Two decades later, Vecchione called in the chit. Braverman, now director of boxing for Don King Productions, was instrumental in arranging for last summer's deal in which King signed McNeeley to a four-year promotional contract that included a signing bonus. McNeeley's name almost immediately began to shoot up the ladder in the heavyweight rankings.

"We signed in June, and by September King tried to do something with him," said Vecchione. "He tried to make a fight against WBC champion Oliver McCall, but they stopped him from doing it."

Still, it was up to Vecchione to protect McNeeley's ranking and record while keeping him busy. It was a practice in which he was well-versed after four years. In all that time, he had made only one mistake.

In February 1994, he matched McNeeley against 6-foot-10 Stanley Wright of Walpole in a fight for the New England title at Boston's Westin Hotel. Although McNeeley battered Wright early and often, he failed to take him out. As the fight wore on, McNeeley, despite dominating the action, was badly cut twice and began to tire. The fight was eventually stopped in the eighth, with Wright awarded a TKO. McNeeley and his entire corner were outraged.

Wright claims he was going to take McNeeley out. Vecchione and McNeeley maintain that the cuts - which later required over 40 stitches- did him in. In either case, the loss forced Vecchione to be more careful than ever in selecting his fighter's opposition. The Wright fight legitimately appeared to be an aberration but one more loss and he could kiss the whole four years - and the Tyson payday - goodbye.

"Even people who worked with us wondered if I knew what I was doing, but I stayed the course," said Vecchione. "I had a plan and I stuck to it."

Vecchione turned down five-figure paydays to fight seemingly unthreatening opponents like King Ipitan and Andrew Golota. He turned down a $50,000 offer from Foxwoods to have McNeeley fight Joe Hipp at the Connecticut casino. He turned down $100,000 from Bob Arum for a fight that would have matched McNeeley against Tommy Morrison. McNeeley, in the meantime, continued to fight a succession of cadavers for small change in places such as Foxboro, Whitman, and Hot Springs, Ark.

"Everybody thought I was nuts, because I didn't have any money either," said Vecchione. "Peter and I have split many a $20 bill over the years, but that's all about to change now."

The $700,000 payday for the Tyson fight sounds like a lot of money, but if you prorate it over five years, it isn't hard to figure out that both McNeeley and Vecchione could have earned more money working as laborers (Vinnie still has his union card) than by walking this financial tightrope.

"That's true," said Vecchione. "But if Peter beats Tyson, it doesn't really matter. He'll immediately be a millionaire and set for life."

"Even if he loses, he's only 26 years old and he'll be a well-known professional fighter. He's a very determined athlete, and I've no doubt he'll continue his boxing career. We'd move him along and get him a title fight with one champion or another."

"But I think he's got a hell of a chance against Tyson," said Vecchione. "Think about it: Within 30 seconds, somebody's probably going to be down. If I were Mike Tyson I wouldn't have taken this fight the first time out - and who knows more about picking opponents than I do?"

From the Boston Herald - May 1995