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Tom McNeeley, heavyweight boxer
Jeff Pearlman
July 06, 1998
November 13, 1961
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July 06, 1998

Tom Mcneeley, Heavyweight Boxer

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November 13, 1961

Others might see Tom McNeeley's life differently—that because of years of alcohol abuse, it hasn't turned out as it could have. But McNeeley, a former heavyweight contender, doesn't dwell on his darker days. "I've had the chance to make a difference in people's lives," he says in a thick Boston accent. "That's the greatest gift I've ever been given."

Three decades after ending his boxing career with a 37-14 record and a reputation as an alligator-tough brawler, McNeeley, 61, works for the stress unit of the Massachusetts Department of Corrections in Concord, helping guards cope with their anxieties. He has been with the department for 20 years. "A lot of these guys encounter drugs, alcohol and family problems," he says. "I've seen the bottom, so I can understand and help."

On Dec. 4, 1961, McNeeley took on Floyd Patterson for the championship in Toronto, earning a prefight cover feature in SI (left). Like his son Peter, who three years ago faced Mike Tyson—and got waxed in 89 seconds—Tom was an unknown pug with dreams of glory. Unlike Peter, Tom showed up, brawling until Patterson knocked him out in the fourth round. "He was too quick," Tom says. "There were a few times I thought the ref was slipping in punches too."

McNeeley never had another title shot. After retiring, he started to drink. "I had seen so many guys with ability let alcohol consume them," he says. "But once boxing ended, I figured I could open the bottle and go." His marriage of 19 years ended in 1980, and his work suffered, first during his eight years as the Massachusetts boxing commissioner, and then while he was a car salesman and trucking-company sales representative.

Now sober for more than 12 years, McNeeley feels renewed. He remarried, to Gloria, in 1983, and says relations with his five kids have never been more solid—especially with Peter, who is battling an addiction to cocaine. "I'm surrounded by the stories every day, and it reminds me of what it was like," he says. "Most important, it reminds me of what I have. I don't want to make the same mistakes again."