Fifteen years after Tyson, McNeeley looks back
The real-life Rocky briefly rose to international prominence when Don King and Mike Tyson came ringing in 1995
It's been 15 years since Peter McNeeley was lifted from virtual obscurity to face Mike Tyson, the former undisputed heavyweight champion who was returning to boxing after a two-year prison sentence. The non-title fight -- before 16,113 fans at the MGM Grand Garden on Aug. 19, 1995 -- was the culmination of a relentless three-month promotional campaign that paid off handsomely. Tyson-McNeeley was a mismatch -- McNeeley's trainer Vinnie Vecchnione stopped the fight less than halfway through the first round -- but it grossed more than $96 million worldwide and set multiple domestic pay-per-view records.
I spoke with McNeeley last month for a short item in Sports Illustrated's annual "Where Are They Now?" issue. Here are the parts of our conversation that didn't make it into the magazine.
SI.com: There's a rich history of boxing in your family, isn't there?
McNeeley: I'm a third-generation professional boxer. My grandfather [Tom McNeeley Sr.] was the national AAU champ. Back then, you won the AAU nationals, you were instantly put on the Olympic team. So he was on the '28 Olympic team. But during the training camp for the Olympics, he busted his hand and he couldn't compete. He fought his first pro fight on the opening night of Boston Garden. And I don't know if you know the history of the Garden, but Madison Square Garden, Boston Garden and Maple Leaf Gardens were all built for what? Boxing, wrestling and the circus. Back then, there was no NBA. There was hockey, but it obviously wasn't like what it is today.
He had a good pro career. I think he had 115 pro fights. And he then taught boxing at the Cambridge [Mass.] Y for 36 years. My dad [Tom McNeeley Jr.] and my uncles learned how to box when they were old enough to walk. Back then, in the late '40s and '50s, there were fights every night of the week everywhere.
My dad ended up being managed by this millionaire here in Boston, Peter Fuller, a big blueblood whose father was the first guy to bring Cadillacs into New England. He boxed in college so he loved it, and he got involved with my dad and became his manager. My dad ended up running off 23 straight wins and then got the title shot against Floyd Patterson.
Back then, there was an old fight guy out of New York City, Al Braverman. Al had Chuck Wepner, who went 15 rounds with Muhammad Ali. Al had Tex Cobb, who went 15 rounds with Larry Holmes. Al had Mustafa Hamsho, who fought Marvin Hagler twice. He was just an old-school boxing guy. Tough, real tough. He was one of the guys who taught Don King the business. And King reciprocated when he got big, bringing in Al as his No. 1 agent.
Behind the scenes, Braverman was building up my dad's career. So when they got the shot against Patterson, Braverman said, "Don't do it. He's not ready." But Fuller had stars in his eyes and wouldn't listen and fired him, which was a mistake.
SI.com: So your dad went ahead to fight for the heavyweight title?
McNeeley: My dad took the shot against Patterson and it went four rounds. No three-knockdown rule back then. And it was in Toronto Maple Leaf Gardens, so they got away with smaller gloves because it was out of the country. They were six-ounce gloves. I don't even think today they'd let a featherweight wear six-ounce gloves, never mind a heavyweight.
So my dad got knocked down something like 12 times, but he knocked Patterson down once. My dad was just 23 or 24, with a fat record, just fought for the title and knocked the champ down. But when it was over, Peter Fuller said to him, "Quit the game, kid." My father was in his prime and ready to get going. He said, "What are you, nuts?" And Fuller said, "If you go on, you'll do it without me."
I think in his heart, Peter loved my dad and didn't want to see him get hurt, but he could have maybe done it a different way. Obviously, it was just the way it was: My dad was going to keep fighting. He was young and he was hot. He went with a real [expletive] organized crime guy that didn't take care of him. He threw him in there with the wolves, fight after fight after fight.
SI.com: How did you discover the sport?
McNeeley: When I was a kid growing up in Medfield. I was like 7. I crawled up in the attic and found all these old boxes of memorabilia. I knew my dad had boxed, but I didn't understand or know to what extent. Then I started digging into those boxes. I found he was on the cover of Sports Illustrated [on Nov. 13, 1961], the cover of Ring magazine, the cover of Boxing Illustrated. I found the program for the Patterson fight. All this stuff. And I became enthralled with the sport of boxing. I couldn't get it out of my head. But in the [small] town of Medfield, where the [expletive] are you going to box? When I was 10, my parents split up and my dad moved to Newton, which is between Medfield and Boston. In Newton, we had a politician who was a state auditor, Joe DeNucci. DeNucci was a pro fighter who fought a lot of big names and champions. He and my dad grew up boxing together.
When me and my little brother visited my dad, we'd go six Saturdays out of the year to a CYO boxing program in Newton that DeNucci ran for the kids, just to get our feet wet. We had a heavy bag and a speed bag in the cellar all our lives. I'd be home training and running and hitting the bag. Then the six Saturdays would be up. Eventually, [the CYO boxing program] got shut down because of liability. So I was basically a wannabe, but I studied, watched every fight on TV. I was buying the magazines and I became a bit of a historian myself.
SI.com: When did you first step into the ring competitively?
McNeeley: I played five years of high school football, because if you were big enough, you could play on the freshman team in the eighth grade. Then I went to Bridgewater State College and that was the first year I didn't play a sport in eight or 10 years. And I drank and drugged myself out of school, flunked out, wrote letters begging my way back in, got back in on academic probation and just realized I had a problem with booze and coke. I blamed it on lack of sports. So I started boxing that summer, I got a license and a car, drove to Medfield, which was very close to Framingham, where there were gyms. And I started boxing there that summer. I boxed for six weeks. I had no business being anywhere near that ring, and it was at that time I was a heavyweight by amateur standards, which was like a cruiserweight by pro standards.
This is July of '87. I'd been training only six weeks. I had no business being anywhere near a competitive boxing ring. But I said, "Dad, why don't you give me a fight?" My dad comes from the old school. Next thing you know, I'm the main event in an outdoor football stadium, live on NESN. I should have been tucked on an undercard somewhere, off TV, against Joe Bag of Donuts, and I ended up on the main event against a real tough kid and I got smoked. I didn't know what the [expletive] I was doing.
SI.com: When did you meet your manager, Vinnie Vecchione?
McNeeley: At the beginning of my last year of college. He'd been out of the fight game for, say, nine years. He went full time into organized crime. He'd owned a gym in Brockton for years. And he got hooked up with Al Braverman in the early '70s. It's a small world, but I wouldn't want to paint it.
Vinnie basically taught me how to fight all over again. Between my heart and my determination and Vinnie's teaching, I got better even quicker now. I turned pro that summer -- in August of '91 -- and we racked up 26 straight wins, I believe. And then I got cut, I lost my first fight [to Stanley Wright], who was 6-foot-10, 280 pounds, a former pro basketball player in Canada. It was a 10-round fight that got stopped, so it should have gone to the cards. But that's not what happened. People were jealous I had that fat record.
SI.com: How did the title shot against Tyson come together?
McNeeley: Around the time of that fight, Vinnie and I had been talking to Braverman quite a bit. When I lost, Vinnie said, "We have to do something drastic to keep their attention." I had 42 stitches in my eye. Most guys wouldn't fight for six months with 42 stitches; I was back fighting in the ring in six weeks. There was still a scab on the eyebrow. We fought three fights in three weeks in three different states. So after six weeks and three more wins, Don King and Al Braverman said, "These guys mean business, sign them up."
I signed with King in June of '94 and had a couple more fights. Then September of '94 rolls around and now I'm in the house: I'm in Don King Productions. And you can see my rating get lower and lower and I'm winning fights and my record's now like 30-1 or 31-1. You're starting to see things happen.
I'd been with King for like only three-and-a-half months when Oliver McCall went to London and knocked out Lennox Lewis. When it was over, Vinny called and said, "Peter, I talked to Don King. ... We're going to New York City tomorrow."
King brought us there for the big press conference with McCall coming in with the newly won belt. And King said that day, "Petey, you're going fight McCall for his first title defense." I signed it at the conference that day. It was scheduled for the old Boston Garden, the last event there. It already had a story: My grandfather opened [the Garden], my dad sold it out like 10 times, and now I was going to close it.
SI.com: But it didn't quite happen like that.
McNeeley: About a week later, the WBC stepped in and blocked it because I was ranked 12th in the world and they said for [McCall] to defend the title, it had to be against someone in the top 10. But I'm already a big fish in a small pound [in Massachusets]. Signing that contract for like a week, it catapulted me to a worldwide stage. And now all of a sudden, people are hearing my name.
So I was like [makes crying noises]. And Don King and Vinnie were like, "Don't worry about it. Mike Tyson's getting out of jail in March. We'll have you fight him instead." Which was financially more lucrative, also press-wise and attention-wise much more lucrative. Next thing you know, I was on Letterman, Leno, Larry King Live.