Vinnie Vecchione, a bald, dumpy ex-mobster who happens to be a genius, has his feet up on the desk and a soggy, unlit cigar in his hand. He is smiling like a man who just talked a cop out of a speeding ticket, and he is telling the story of the .22-caliber slug that is lodged in his right shoulder, a memento of what he calls a case of mistaken identity in his former profession. The walls of Vecchione's office are covered with colorful fight posters and framed photographs, but the scene is strictly black and white.
On this July night, the air inside the South Shore Boxing Club in Whitman, Mass., is stagnant and sweltering—perfect for raising iguanas or preparing a lightly regarded New England fighter for his first trip to Las Vegas. Someone recently brought in an electric fan, but before he could plug it in, Vecchione told him to "get it the hell out of my gym." Fans are for fancy weightlifting clubs, Vecchione says. The South Shore club is a fight gym, and Vecchione, in case you haven't noticed, is a fight guy. De Niro never played a role with such conviction.
Vecchione, 50, is the trainer and manager of 26-year-old heavyweight Peter McNeeley, whose boxing rap sheet shows a 36-1 record with 30 knockouts against an assortment of stiffs who had a combined record of 164-364-14. McNeeley affectionately refers to his mentor as Curly, and for five years Curly has handled McNeeley with remarkable skill and savvy. Now the two are preparing to take on Mike Tyson Saturday in Vegas in what some say will be McNeeley's first real fight.
"I had a plan, and I stuck to the plan," says Vecchione, who seems to have displayed remarkable willpower and restraint, gambling on a big payday down the road. Vecchione says promoter Bob Arum offered $100,000 for McNeeley to fight Tommy Morrison, and they turned it down. He says he and McNeeley also declined $50,000 to fight Joe Hipp and $75,000 to take on Jose Luis Gonzalez. "People came to us with fight offers when I didn't have $60 in my pocket," Vecchione says. "I turned them down. Peter wasn't ready. We didn't have the edge."
They don't have the edge now, but at least they'll have the money. McNeeley has never made more than $10,000 for a fight, but he'll earn $700,000 for taking the risk that Tyson will rearrange his face.
Vecchione removes his cabdriver cap and runs a hand over his scalp, shaking his head in disgust at the latest insults from the New York tabloids. A few days earlier a headline in the Post called his fighter A LAMB BEFORE SLAUGHTER. Now the Daily News has labeled McNeeley TYSON'S PIGEON, not to mention a "duck" and a "stooge." And those were the kind previews of the bout.
Boxing Illustrated has said that Tyson-McNeeley may be the "ripoff of the century." Boston Magazine has labeled McNeeley, the ostensible hometown hero, "the Great White Hopeless." Even within the twisted business of professional boxing, this fight is considered to be as close to a fix as Don King could get without prompting a congressional hearing. King could not have arranged a better opponent for Tyson if he had built one himself. McNeeley has the pedigree, the personality and the pigmentation. He has everything but a chance.
"What do people want me to do—apologize?" says Vecchione. "I don't have to apologize to nobody. I brought this kid along because I seen something in him. He's got a fire in his belly and a chip on his shoulder. He's earned a shot at Tyson as much as any other heavyweight out there."
Most of McNeeley's opponents were as tough as Cheez Whiz, but when he laid them end to end, they led the way smoothly to Tyson. It doesn't matter what happens Saturday night. McNeeley and Vecchione have already won.
While Tyson has spent most of his time in hiding since he began preparing for the fight, McNeeley has kept the promotion alive with his indefatigable gab. In the ring McNeeley has never gone more than eight rounds in his pro career, but outside the ring he can go all day and into the night. He talks, he laughs, he shouts, he tells stories, bouncing from one subject to the next as if it were part of his endurance training. This is surely his 15 minutes of fame, and he plans to wring every second out of it. He gave himself the nickname Hurricane and claims it describes his fighting style. To meet him is to root for a miracle.