Sunday, November 30, 1997

Bell tolls again for McNeeley

Fallen boxer readies to step back into ring

By Jim Fenton

He spent the summer of 1995 on a whirlwind, coast-to-coast celebrity tour.

There were trips to the late-night talk shows to laugh it up with Jay Leno and David Letterman, a chat with Larry King on CNN, and interviews with numerous newspapers throughout the country.

The story of Peter McNeeley, the unknown young heavyweight from a small gym in the small town of Whitman, drew national attention when he became the fighter selected to oppose Mike Tyson in his first bout since being released from jail.

BACK TO WORK — Heavyweight boxer Peter McNeeley is back in the gym and working hard in preparation for his return to the ring.

McNeeley was enjoying his moment in the spotlight, taking advantage of all the notoriety and having a good time in Las Vegas with new-found friends, like promoter Don King.

But then Aug. 19, 1995, arrived and McNeeley climbed into the ring with Tyson, who easily won his comeback fight when South Shore Boxing Club trainer Vinnie Vecchione threw in the towel before two minutes had elapsed.

That quick ending turned out to be only the beginning of a long, hard road that Peter McNeeley suddenly found himself on.

The fame that McNeeley had tasted became fleeting, and personal problems mounted in the months that followed the Tyson debacle.

"I had a tough time," said McNeeley. "I was taking all kinds of negative (bleep) from the press and fans, and I decided I needed a rest from boxing in '96.

"I stopped boxing and I started abusing myself really bad (with alcohol and drugs). I wasn't doing the right things. I really wasn't taking the best care of myself, especially after the Tyson fight.

"A year ago this summer, I lost another fight in Denver and that kind of put a negative twist on everything. I had just signed a contract for fights on a TV network and I got bummed out about that.

"I lost my driver's license for speeding, I had some other things go wrong, and out of nowhere, my mom (Nancy) came down with cancer."

"This is the first time I'm not saying that I'm not going to drink for one month or two months, and then let the dam loose. I've been clean since July and I'm at peace with myself."

— Peter McNeeley

After an Aug. 12, 1996, victory over Domingo Monroe in Saratoga, NY — his sixth bout in a year since his loss to Tyson, McNeeley decided to step away from boxing.

He began partying more and more, and the name Peter McNeeley appeared in gossip columns rather than on sports pages.

But earlier this year, McNeeley decided to put a stop to the wild lifestyle he was leading and get help for his substance abuse problems.

In July, he returned to the South Shore Boxing Club to try and restart his boxing career.

Friday night at the Roxy in Boston, McNeeley (41-3, 36 knockouts) is scheduled to climb back into the ring for his first fight in more than 15 months. McNeeley's opponent in an eight-rounder is veteran journeyman Rick Sullivan.

"Right now I feel like a million bucks," said McNeeley recently. "I really haven't felt this good since before I fought Tyson.

"Basically, I'm really happy that my family and friends at the South Shore Boxing Club stuck by me. My mom's all right now, in complete remission, and I've seemed to lick my booze and drug problems.

"This is the first time I'm not saying that I'm not going to drink for one month or two months, and then let the dam loose. I've been clean since July and I'm at peace with myself.

"I don't care about going out. I've got nothing to prove to anybody but myself. I'd like to think that at 29, I've still got at least another four or five years of fighting to go."

McNeeley could have never prepared for the dramatic way his life changed upon becoming the hand-picked opponent for former champion Tyson, who had spent time in jail and was looking for an easy entry back into the world of boxing.

The Bridgewater State College graduate earned more money in one night than his entire life, and there were commercials that followed, mocking the stoppage.

Everywhere he turned, people knew who Peter McNeeley was, and the new-found celebrity became hard to handle.

"I've learned a lot of hard lessons," he says. "I was a young 26-year-old, and it was a hard way to learn.

"There's nowhere to prepare for that. One billion people saw that fight around the world. In retrospect, I see what went on with Bill Parcells. He was a great coach who took the Patriots to the Super Bowl, then everybody was all over him when he left.

"The fickle New England and Boston press and fans are quick to jump on you. I had my time with that big fight. I was the toast of the town before, and afterwards, they wanted to run me out of town on a rail. They threw pizza crust at me when I went to games at the Fleet Center.

"I learned not to take it personally, it's just the way people are. I had to learn some hard lessons and become more mature."

McNeeley, who has been the object of ridicule, has fought through the personal problems and just wants to get back into the ring, which is something Vecchione is all for.

"I've got a lot of faith in Peter McNeeley," Vecchione said. "He should be coming into the best part of his career right now. He's been through a lot.

"I never really bothered him the whole time he was off," Vecchione added. "We'd talk on the phone and stay in touch and the door was always open. But I didn't think it was appropriate for me to chase him.

"He had to come back on his own. When he made up his own mind, that was the defining point."

Through all his dark days, McNeeley always held out hope that he would one day get back into the gym and become an active heavyweight at some point.

The Tyson controversy that erupted when the former champ bit Evander Holyfield last June helped stir some memories, and he was training again several weeks later.

"I was never really ever close to not ever coming back," said McNeeley. "I knew I needed a rest. I had 44 fights in five years, and before the Tyson fight I had 37 fights in 44 months.

With that fight, too, I was completely burnt out. I tried to come back in the early part of this year, but it was too soon. I sat out a few more months and I got itchy. I took a July 4th vacation and I've been back here ever since. I'm anxious, very anxious.

"I just want to win this fight and be the best fighter I can be. I want to get back and get another taste of that big-time circuit, get back with Don King. Who knows? Maybe I'll even get a rematch with Mike Tyson."

Related articles:
McNeeley Impressive In Return To Ring   [The Boston Globe]
McNeeley Ready To Bounce Back In The Ring   [The Suburban Press]

This story was published on Page C1 of The Brockton Enterprise on 11/30/97.