A Little Rope-a-Dope

Horseplayers and fight guys are carried through life by the same sweet torrent of optimism. Damn the facts. Sheer belief will get you back to the cashier's window. Force of will can win the title. In the meantime, keep talking. Talking keeps the demons of doubt at bay.

At the 20th Street Gym last week, Vinny Vecchione held one fat, gold-banded cigar between his well-tanned fingers and kept two more tucked into his sock. Plenty of time to smoke them later. Right now, Vinny was watching his boy, "Hurricane" Peter McNeeley, rumble around the ring like a huge, thick bear, smashing jabs and uppercuts into a trainer's outstretched gloves. A couple of times, the trainer almost went down just from being pounded on the hands. Vinny was talking.

"Listen. Lot of heavyweights develop late in life. He didn't have a long amateur career, and he won't reach his real potential until 30, maybe 31." Vecchione suddenly shouted out, "Hey! Hey! Pete! Slow it down a little. Easy." Then he turned back to the other talk. "He gets a little rambunctious in there sometimes. When he gets pumped up. He's training real hard for this. Hard puncher. Moves good. Got a great future, this kid."

At the buzzer, McNeeley threw both gloves over his head in triumph, panting hard, dripping an ocean of sweat. Two days until the fight. National television. The next victim? Some guy named Louis Monaco. A Denver bodybuilder-turned-boxer with a dismal record of three wins, three losses and two draws. "I've trained my ass off for this, and I'm in top form," the Hurricane said. "If you go, get a good seat. And don't blink."

Boxing fans remember Peter McNeeley and his manager Vinny Vecchione from last August. It was a bolt out of the blue, a Rocky Balboa dream shot, that threw McNeeley, a 26-year-old Boston Irish journeyman with a 36-1 record against tomato cans and nobodies, into the spotlight. He would be the handpicked opponent in former champ Mike Tyson's first fight in more than four years, his first fight since serving three years in prison for rape. Commentators, the boxing press and knowing fight fans snickered all the way from the announcement to the opening bell. But McNeeley, who used to sell tickets to his own fights, tirelessly promoted the bout. He cheerily did interviews. He talked about his grandfather, who boxed on the 1928 Olympic team, and his father, who once fought Floyd Patterson. He talked about how he still lived at home in Medfield, Massachusetts, with his mother, and how he still shared a room with his younger brother. He talked about the Mike Tyson poster on his wall. He appeared on Letterman and Leno, where the grinning hosts wondered aloud why a nice kid like him would risk his life against the pent-up rage of boxing's reigning monster--even for $700,000. Talk-show talk.

In Las Vegas, it didn't take long to learn that Tyson was not Phil Prince, the Fighting Mortician, against whom McNeeley had scored a couple of TKOs. He wasn't Frankie Hines, or Jesus Rohena, or Ron Drinkwater, guys he'd knocked out for $500. This was Mike Tyson, and after slipping down to the canvas in the opening seconds, McNeeley regained his feet and was soon clocked with a right uppercut that sent him sprawling again. He was up by the count of one, but Vecchione shocked the house and set off an enduring chorus of boos by throwing in the towel.

In just 89 seconds, Peter McNeeley's dream shot was gone. Baffled and unbelieving, he looked toward Vinny Vecchione, who quickly became the butt of jokes and curses. For a couple of months there, McNeeley was the star of a national TV spot in which he got knocked cold again. Not by Tyson, but by a slice of pizza.

Ah, but no man stanches the flow of optimism. So the talk went on. To hear McNeeley tell it last week, with a hint of playfulness in his voice, 1995-96 was his "rookie year as a celebrity." He set up something called the "Hurricane Hotline" so that fans could leave messages at his house in Medfield. Kids called. Sylvester Stallone called. Rock stars. Guy from India called, wishing him luck. McNeeley still lives at home, but some things change after a title shot: His brother Snubby now has his own room.

As for the Tyson fight, that was all prelude, a minor detour along the road to greatness. "It was a good dry run," McNeeley said. "Everything I'm doing now is my second chance. I will fight Mike Tyson again, and we'll call the fight 'Unfinished Business.'"

"Yeah, unfinished business!"
This time the talker was Tony Saunders, a Boston weightlifter McNeeley describes as his "strength coach, dietician, inspiration and spiritual advisor." Everyone in the McNeeley camp, it seems, does quadruple duty. Vecchione, the man who threw in the towel, is "my manager, my promoter, my mentor..."

"And your good friend," Saunders interjected.
"Right," McNeeley said. "My good friend." Whenever The Hurricane is momentarily at a loss for words, which is not often, the weightlifter quickly picks up the slack.

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