Tuesday, August 15, 1995

Peter McNeeley doesn't buy into movie hype

By Jim Fenton

LAS VEGAS — An unknown white heavyweight fighter is served up as a supposedly safe opponent for one of boxing's meanest characters.

Peter McNeeley will get his shot at Mike Tyson through hard work, not dumb luck, he says.   (AP)
Former champion Mike Tyson plans to use Peter McNeeley as a punching bag.   (AP)

That Hollywood storyline went over in a big way back in the mid-1970s when unknown Rocky Balboa took on world beater Apollo Creed, thus beginning a successful run of "Rocky" movies starring Sylvester Stallone.

Two decades later, there is talk that a real-life "Rocky" story is unfolding in the heavyweight division.

Can it be that life will imitate art this weekend when Peter McNeeley, an unknown white heavyweight who trains at the South Shore Boxing Club in Whitman, gets the chance to play Rocky Balboa opposite Mike Tyson's Apollo Creed?

After all, outside of New England, no one knows anything about this McNeeley guy, just as no one recognized the name Rocky Balboa.

And around the world, Mike Tyson's life is an open book, just like that of the fictional champion of the 1976 Academy Award-winning film.

During the course of the hype leading up to Saturday night's 10-round McNeeley-Tyson bout at the MGM Grand, the Rocky theme has been brought up over and over again, for on the surface, it seems a natural.

But it's a theme that McNeeley, who attended Bridgewater State College, doesn't buy and hasn't taken advantage of.

Ten reasons why
he's not 'Rocky'

10.   McNeeley may have run up the steps of the Bridgewater State College library, but it has about 100 fewer steps than the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

9.   Rocky didn't have a father who fought for the world heavyweight championship.

8.   McNeeley has a brother, not fish, for a roommate.

7.   Manager Vinnie Vecchione looks nothing like Burgess Meredith.

6.   McNeeley trains at the South Shore Boxing Club in Whitman, not some freezing Philadelphia meat locker.

5.   Rocky couldn't even get into Bridgewater State College, the school McNeeley attended.

4.   McNeeley's suburban hometown of Medfield isn't exactly the kind of place where guys named Rocky would be found.

3.   McNeeley has no loudmouthed, out-of-shape brother-in-law named Paulie working his corner.

2.   McNeeley doesn't have a wife named Adrian.

1.   The word 'Yo' is not part of his vocabulary.

"Rocky" was the story of a lazy fighter from a low-class section of Philadelphia with no direction and no ambition who by luck fell into the bout of his life with Creed.

McNeeley, however, is the story of a hard-working, dedicated fighter from the middle-class town of Medfield whose management team had a plan, followed it beautifully and made him the first opponent ex-champion Tyson will face since being released from prison.

"This," says McNeeley, "is no 'Rocky' story. It's completely different. It's about a fighter who has worked hard to get where he is."

This story is about a 26-year-old who lives at home with his brother and mother in the quiet suburban town of Medfield, who is close to earning a college degree at BSC and who rarely, if ever, has missed a workout.

Rocky Balboa didn't have all that going for him.

"He doesn't like it when people say this is like 'Rocky'," said Bryan McNeeley as he watched his older brother go through a workout at Pat Barry's Gym Monday afternoon. "He doesn't think what he's done is anything like 'Rocky.' Not at all.

"It's like Peter said: He's better managed; he's from more of a middle-class town, and he's easily trained more. 'Rocky' is just a story. It isn't Peter."

The McNeeley family, unlike the Balboa family, is rich in boxing history. Peter's grandfather, Tom Sr., was on the US Olympic team and, as a professional, fought on the first Boston Garden fight card in 1928, while his father, Tom Jr., was a heavyweight contender who unsuccessfully challenged Floyd Patterson for the world title in 1961.

McNeeley was brought up with the fight game in his blood. Balboa just kind of fell into boxing and stumbled around in it.

McNeeley lived a middle-class American life, playing football as a lineman at Medfield High School west of Boston. Balboa knew his way around the mean streets of Philly.

And Rocky Balboa never went to college, while McNeeley attended BSC and said he is closing in on enough credits to graduate this January.

"He comes from a family background of fighters; he's a college student; he's been managed much better than Rocky ever was. There are a lot of differences," said Cliff Phippen, a McNeeley trainer at the South Shore Boxing Club. "To the public, they look at this, and they see it as a 'Rocky' story.

"It's a kid out of Boston who fought most of his fights in New England. And he's stepping in with one of the legendary punchers in the history of boxing. But it's different.

"In the movie, Rocky wasn't a dedicated fighter. Peter, he's there in the gym every night, six days a week. He's been in the gym when nobody else was around. For the last four years, I think he's taken one week off. That's it.

"This is something that he's lived for and here it is."

McNeeley (36-1, 32 KOs) is a 22-1 underdog against Tyson, who hasn't been in a ring since June 28, 1991, because of a three-year prison term he served for rape.

To be sure, he is the longest of long shots. But at least McNeeley's hard work in the gym and his management team's hard work outside of it have landed him a shot and a $700,000 payday.

That's certainly not the way it initially unfolded for Rocky.

"Peter's a kid like all the rest of us," said manager-trainer Vinnie Vecchione. "He goes to work every single day, drives an hour in and an hour out (from Medfield to Whitman). He lives every day one day at a time. But now he has the chance to hit the lottery. If he knocks off Mike Tyson, he becomes a legend."

Unlike Rocky, who fell into a match-up with Apollo Creed, it was a long-range plan for Vecchione to get McNeeley in the ring with Tyson.

He turned down five- and six-figure offers to fight other heavyweight contenders, gambling and hoping that promoter Don King would select McNeeley as Tyson's first opponent in the comeback.

The record was improved with easy victories over outclassed opponents, and when the time came, McNeeley had a 36-1 mark that looked good to King as a selling point.

"We all made a lot of personal sacrifices," said Vecchione of the maneuvering that had to be done to keep McNeeley going. "Nothing happened overnight (like the movie). We worked our way up. Nobody just invited us."

But now, the formerly little-known Peter McNeeley who trains in Whitman and lives in Medfield is going to be on center stage with Mike Tyson.

It's something that didn't just happen out of the blue as in "Rocky." It's something that Peter McNeeley wanted to make reality by staying dedicated and by following the plan of his management team.

"I knew this was my destiny," said McNeeley. "I knew someday I'd be knocking on the door. I've kind of always known I'd be in this role. Faith and destiny got me to this point.

"I read all the record books, all the magazines. I know all the fighters' records. I've kept the dream alive. I dreamed I'd be in this position some day."

And McNeeley is in that position, just like Rocky, only he took an entirely different route.

"This is different than 'Rocky' in a lot of ways," said Vecchione. "Besides, Peter can put two syllables together and 'Rocky' could never really do that."

Related articles:
How Could We Not Root For McNeeley?   [The Suburban Press]
Tyson vs McNeeley: Weighing In For The Big Fight   [The Philadelphia Inquirer]
Spunky McNeeley Shows Off Poetry Skills   [The Las Vegas Review-Journal]
Don King: The Color Of Money (Tyson-McNeeley)   [The New York Post]
McNeeley Mania — Residents In His Corner  [The Suburban Press]

This story ran on page 1 of The Brockton Enterprise on 08/15/95