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World-class heavyweight contender of the 1950's and 60's
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"FIGHTING WAS FUN" says Tom McNeeley

By Ted Patterson

Here's a trivia question for you: what is the name of the fighter who challenged Floyd Patterson for the heavyweight title in Toronto back in 1961 and in so doing had his picture on the cover of a prestigious national magazine? You're right if you answered Tom McNeeley, who is still very much active in the beak-busting profession as commissioner of the Massachusetts State Boxing Commission.

It was back in December 1961 that McNeeley, undefeated in 28 pro fights and ranked third behind Patterson and Sonny Liston in the ratings, celebrated the high point of his fistic career by fighting for the world heavyweight championship, only to lose on a fourth-round knockout.

TOM McNEELEY — Then and Now:   (Left) Tom when he was on top as a title contender.   (Right) Today, hard at work at his job as boxing commissioner of Massachusetts.

"Patterson's manager, Cus D'Amato, didn't even want Floyd to shake hands with Liston, much less fight him," recalled McNeeley in discussing the events that led to his title chance.

"Being the only white contender in the top ten, I was the natural choice for Patterson because of all the publicity that would result. I remember the press played up the fact that John L. Sullivan and Rocky Marciano were from the Boston area and that I was the next "white hope." The fight was originally scheduled for Boston, but D'Amato thought I'd have the best of it, which I wouldn't have, so they took the fight to Toronto, where I ended up in a very sad state of affairs."

Even though he was soundly thrashed by the swift and cat-like Patterson, inventor of the "peek-a-boo" style, McNeeley said he wouldn't hesitate if he again had the chance for a title fight. "Positively," emphasized the former All-American football player at Arlington High outside of Boston, who along with his brother Brian also starred on the gridiron at Michigan State. "I'd do it on a seconds notice. How many chances does a fighter get for a title shot? Some never do. In my case, there were others with more ability that probably deserved a shot, and it's held true throughout boxing history, but they never got the needed break. I feel very fortunate and proud that I can look back and say I fought for the heavyweight championship of the world."

As far as appraising the still-active Patterson's ability, McNeeley said simply, "he was the best I ever fought. Not the toughest, but the best. Unfortunately for me, Floyd was right in his prime when we fought. He was fast as lightning. I remember one time he dropped me with a right hand and still managed to get in three or four left hooks before I hit the canvas. The toughest I ever fought was a bruiser from Boise, Idaho, named George Logan. George was a big, tough cowboy. We had three real wars."

McNeeley is sent down and out by heavyweight champion Floyd Patterson during their title fight in Toronto, in 1961.

McNeeley campaigned for five years after the loss to Patterson with an impressive career record of 61 wins against just nine defeats. Yet, even though he trained just as hard, McNeeley lost something mentally after his title loss. "I had reached my pinnacle and had realized my life-long goal of fighting for the championship. My desire began to waver after that, because I realized I would probably never have the chance again.

The son of the former light-heavyweight champion of New England, young Tom was exposed to boxing at an early age at the Cambridge YMCA where Tom Sr. served as boxing instructor for 36 years. The lack of such gyms and teachers today makes McNeeley's job as commissioner somewhat uncomplicated. Lack of gyms means lack of fighters, and lack of fighters means lack of fights.

"People say to me that I must not have much to do these days, but surprisingly there are quite a few small shows, both amateur and pro, going on all over the state of Massachusetts. This includes the Golden Gloves programs in Fall River, Holyoke and Lowell, plus Sam Silverman's weekly pro fights in Waltham, which have been very successful. But," added McNeeley, "it's tough being a boxing commissioner these days, and I don't envy Silverman's job as a promoter either. There just aren't enough quality fighters around, and matching up the available talent isn't easy. It's my job to make sure mismatches don't happen, this protecting the public and the fighters themselves."

Tom, (left), with his one-time manager, Peter Fuller, (2nd left). Boxing writer Don Sauer and Massachusetts boxing official Manny Aronis complete the picture.

Weeding out the stiffs is just one of the problems that plague boxing. Lack of unification and proper authority is another. The New York commission has its champions, the WBA and the British Empire have theirs. What we need is to put it all under one roof, to federalize and centralize boxing, so that there is just one champion in each division the whole world over. I think it's a shame the way boxing has slipped in recent years. Once it was a great sport and a great business, and I mean that. Baseball, football, basketball and hockey are well organized and policed. Boxing, unfortunately, is not."

The racketeer and underworld associations that supposedly helped lower boxing into its grave in the late forties and fifties, have not been a problem in Massachusetts for years. "Maybe it's because there isn't much money in local boxing, but since I became commissioner in 1966, there has been no criminal or hoodlum element at all."

Instead, McNeeley's problem seems to be in finding a way to make boxing more attractive to a young man as a way of making a living. The neighborhood clubs and the local instructors that taught boxing in gyms, cellars, and even storefronts, have long passed from the scene. There are only two gyms operating in Boston and the qualified trainers can be counted on the fingers of one hand. "They're dying off," said McNeeley, "and the current or recently retired fighters aren't interested in teaching the sport to youngsters. A kid has to give up a lot to be a fighter in this day and age."

If a kid does accept the required discipline and stern training, he still must accept pauper's wages whether he fights in a preliminary bout or a main event. Looking at the money in golf, tennis, bowling, and other non-contact sports, it seems abnormal that a young boxer would want to risk injury by stepping through the ropes for $50.

McNeeley chats with the author, recalling the days when "fighting was fun."

"There is nothing that takes more out of an athlete, both physically and mentally, than training properly for a fight," said McNeeley, who began his pro fight career at the Norwood Stockcar Arena back in 1958. "To pay a kid only 25 bucks is a crime. I don't blame them for quitting. Yet, Silverman can't pay them any more because the money just isn't there. The recently-voted-down bill in the Massachusetts Legislature calling for a flat $50 per round for each boxer would have put Silverman out of the game completely. It's the old story of supply and demand. Kids can get more money today on unemployment, which is unlike the Depression days when a kid took $5 or $10 for a fight because it meant his family could eat for another week."

The other section of the voted-down bill would have made it mandatory to wear a competitive head-gear on the professional level. Several former boxing greats, including Willie Pep, Sandy Saddler and Paul Pender, testified against the bill. Silverman said simply it would kill boxing. McNeeley agrees. "It would kill it not only from the spectator standpoint, but from the danger aspect as well. Headgears are more dangerous on than off. In the gym when you work out with headgear, you take a lot more light, glancing blows off the top of the head and around the eyes and ears because you won't be cut. But these blows take their toll, like water dripping on a rock one drop at a time. That's why headgears aren't even good in the gym. Plus the fact they can slip and obstruct vision."

Spectators come to watch sluggers, knockdowns, and blood, and unlike the Olympics and service boxing where cleverness, defense, ring science and boxing ability are paramount, pro boxing is built around the confrontation between the slugging heavyweights. With fighters wearing headgears, knockdowns and knockouts would be reduced considerably, and so would the size of the crowds.

With all of the negativism surrounding local Boston boxing, McNeeley is hopeful. "I'm encouraged by the capacity crowds in Waltham and feel we're on the way back. From a national standpoint, the game is holding its own. Three years ago I predicted a downward trend but now I think the opposite, if we can get the kind of people in the game who want to help build it up and make sure raw kids aren't thrown to the wolves against experienced fighters."

That's Tom McNeeley, still very much active in the fight game, 12 years after receiving his shot at boxing immortality.

This article appeared in the April 1973 issue of Boxing Illustrated.