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World-class heavyweight contender of the 1950's and 60's
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— September 1961

Boxing Illustrated - September 1961

If they paid off on confidence alone —


By Hal Hennesey

Despite all the adverse criticism aimed at his forthcoming fight with Floyd Patterson, Tom will face the champion bursting with confidence, for he sincerely believes that the man hasn't been born who can lick him — and so far nobody has.


In a time that reeks of rotten apples and garbage piled two ropes high in the ring — in a time when boxing's biggest names beg for an all-powerful Czar to save the sport — and in a time when staunch boxing fans long for the glory days of Dempsey, Louis, and Marciano — young, broad-shouldered Tom McNeeley is a breath of fresh air, a fresh breeze blowing across hot desert sands, a straw to be clutched at by a drowning profession.

He is a wild, brawling, angry youth who upholds and protects the classical image of The Prizefighter. He is the image of the rip-roaring extrovert who has only his blood to offer society, and sheds it willingly to satisfy a burning urge. He is a resurrection of the ham-fisted dynamo who strode into a Boston bar one day 75 years ago and yelled, "I can lick any sonofabitch in the place!"

He is a fighter.

Can he fight? Who cares? He is a Fighter, with a capital F, which is what counts. Boxing, starving for men like this, should rejoice that he exists and that he chose fighting for a living.

Not that Thomas McNeeley, age 23, 200 pounds, six feet 2 inches tall and muscular, could ever be anything but a fighter. He was born to it. He never went hungry, has no long ring tradition going for him, has no police record to overcome and is not inspired by either John L. Sullivan or Rocky Marciano. He was just born a fighter, period! His father, Tom Sr., knew it, and steered him into the kind of pursuits that would toughen him up for the ring. The kid, too, knew it, so he took up football to make himself rugged. He also licked everyone in his Arlington, Massachusetts neighborhood — not satisfied to just bloody them up, he tried to knock their heads off.

Peter Fuller knew it the minute he saw Tom spar, and Pete grabbed him at once. Fuller, son of an ex-governor of Massachusetts, has poured time and money in large quantities into Tom's build-up. Of course Fuller has plenty of both — time and money — being only 37 and very rich. Still, he admits he wouldn't do all of it for just any fighter. "I want a champ," he says, "— and I think I've got one."

So do a few other people. Especially after they see Tom fight. Leaving the arena — usually the Boston Garden, where the young man first flowered — comments like these are heard: "This kid really fights like each bout is for the championship. What's he mad at, anyway?" and, "I saw Harry Greb when I was a kid — and this guy's just as dirty, believe me!" and, "My God — Besmanoff actually looked scared!"

Tom McNeeley knocks Besmanoff through the ropes with a furious attack in a recent bout fought in Boston.

The fight with Willi Besmanoff was McNeeley's high-water mark, so far. He'll fight better men as time goes on, but he'll never put up a better scrap, win more authoritatively, or cause more excitement. It was typical of how he works, and it was like something straight out of the good old days.

Going into the fight — it took place in March, 1960, — young Tom boasted 16 wins in 16 fights, 14 knockout. Still, on the basis of ring experience — 80 fights — and all-around capability, Besmanoff, former German champion and trial horse for many a top contender, was slightly favored. McNeeley had never gone ten rounds before — mostly because he had a habit of chilling his opponents in six or less; and it was not known how durable his jaw might be. Both questions were answered in his brawl with the German.

Besmanoff did his best, of course. He slugged Tom on his buttress-like jaw six times by actual count, and each punch would have cooled a lesser man. But Tom shook them off and waded in for more. Between heavy punches, Besmanoff used his ring savvy and his educated left to try to stave off defeat. It was like trying to stop a charging tiger with an umbrella. Willi started to bleed in the third round, and never stopped, as gore oozed indiscriminately from is nose, mouth and other orifices. He did well enough in the first five rounds — then the roof fell in. A bestial expression came over McNeeley's face, and all of his boyish good looks vanished. He became The Fighter.

From the fifth round on Tom won every round, and to hell with the decision. He wanted to kill Besmanoff.

He almost succeeded in the tenth, which was 3 minutes of savage beauty for those who saw it. Tom stormed at Besmanoff with raging fury. He shoved him through the ropes once, knocked him through a second time and, after the final bell, wrestled him through again. Then he tried to get at Willi — Besmanoff was still alive, you see — and Tom had to be restrained by both the referee and manager Fuller.

Afterward, a sorely confused Besmanoff said, "In all my fights I never fought anyone who used his head and elbows so much. If this fight had been in Europe, McNeeley would have been disqualified by the second round."

Maybe so. But maybe that's why so few world champions have come out of Europe these past 70 years. The very nature of prize fighting demands that it be a rough, toe-to-toe sport in which there is constant risk of ruptured blood vessels and strained ligaments. To those who piously cry out that fighting is brutal but boxing is fine and manly, we say that if you start drawing a line between the two, you might as well ban professional fighting. Amateur boxing is all right, we see nothing wrong with it — but if you expect pros to act like amateurs, then you might as well outlaw fighting for money! If you can.

It is impossible for people to shun such heavyweight battles as the McNeeley-Besmanoff brawl, or even the three extravaganzas that featured McNeeley and tough George Logan of Boise, Idaho. Tom beat George on cuts in their first outing at Madison Square Garden. Then in the Boston Garden he got a split — and doubtful — decision over Big George. Finally, in their third meeting, the Boston behemoth proved his mastery by decisively beating Logan for a unanimous decision.

That was in December, 1960, and it was Tom's 22nd fight. His 23rd took place this March, when he busted up Kitione Lave for a third-round technical knockout.

His 24th fight may be for the heavyweight championship of the world.

And that's why we're taking our third look at young Tom McNeeley in little more than a year; that's why he's on Boxing Illustrated's cover for the second time. Because the ever-grinding rumor mill spit out a good one this time. We first heard it in May — that Floyd Patterson, the champion, would defend his title against McNeeley this year in preference to either Sonny Liston or Henry Cooper, his most likely opponents.

We were happy when, in June, the rumor proved false. No, Patterson claimed — or was it Cus D'Amato? — he would not fight McNeeley. We were happy because we didn't think the fight should happen. It just didn't seem fair for the champion to pass over a half dozen worthy contenders — most of whom had, like Liston and Cooper, been working their rugged way up throught the ranks for several years; and some of whom, like Machen and Zora Folley, had been top contenders for a long time. Taking on such raw, untested material like McNeeley would not improve the status of the champion, we reasoned, nor could it possibly help boxing.

But in July the final word came through D'Amato — or was it Patterson? — and the rumor turned out to be fact: Tom McNeeley and Floyd Patterson will fight this Fall for the title.

So now we have to take a longer look at the situation. We're still unhappy, as are most members of the press and a majority of the fans living outside Boston. In Boston, where the fight will take place, they think it's just great, of course. Here's why: they know that, although Floyd Patterson is an incomparably better boxer than Tom, the champ has a vulnerable chin. Some of his challengers have knocked him down, and Johansson knocked him out. McNeeley is as big as any of them, and he can hit as hard as any of them. Moreover, his agressive, wind-milling style makes him dangerous every second he's in the ring. If Patterson can't knock him out very early — remember that it took the champion six rounds to get to amateur Pete Rademacher — he stands an ever-growing chance of stopping a sucker punch.

For these reasons, the Boston folk — and the promoters — feel it will be a worthwhile match. For a lot of other reasons, we don't. But the men who control boxing have, for better or worse, decreed that it will take place. Certainly there is nothing dishonest or corrupt about it, for all concerned are eminently honorable men. Keeping McNeeley's explosive potential in mind, it could turn out to be an interesting fight. Let's leave it that way.

In any case, regardless of what happens in Boston next Fall, young Tom McNeeley can be depended on to give the heavyweight division more life than it has had since Ingemar Johansson arrived from Sweden in 1959. Like Ingo, Tom has color. Unlike Ingo, he has the dedicated need to fight and win, and an animalistic killer urge that harkens back to the days of bare knuckles. All of this together generates a kind of excitement all too rare in the fight business today.

This article appeared in the September 1961 issue of Boxing Illustrated.