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.

"Next time," McNeeley said. "It won't be one man against..."
"The icon," Saunders said.
"The icon," McNeeley repeated. "It will be man against man."

In the meantime, The Hurricane has done some minor damage. After Tyson, he went down to Florida and knocked out one Hackey Wright. Back up in Boston, he KO'ed Michael Sam, then Juan Quintana, then Mark McShane. Going into last Saturday's eight-rounder at Mammoth Events Center, in fact, McNeeley was 40-2, with 34 knockouts, including 23 in the first round. He'd signed a TV contract with Prime Sports and was looking forward to a fight or two in Ireland. Like everyone else in the mediocre heavyweight division, he was dreaming of a bout with big George Foreman ("We would be the two greatest fighter/promoters ever!"), en route to his rematch with Tyson.

"I'm getting better every day," he said. "And I've got low mileage. Only 21 amateur fights. Mike Tyson had 150, Tommy Morrison has a hundred. Riddick Bowe had 225. Stevie Johnson, who fights out of Denver, had almost 300. I had 21. Every day I wake up and I'm a better fighter."

But not good enough, it turns out, to beat Louis Monaco.
After a local greeting of robust boos and catcalls--fight fans don't soon forget a guy who gets cold-cocked by a slice of pizza--McNeeley removed his kelly-green robe and just as quickly removed himself from contention. Winded in the first three minutes (even his spiritual advisor had been concerned about Denver's notorious altitude), he lurched and held through three more rounds. In the fifth, looking pretty astonished himself, the well-carved Monaco snapped a combination into McNeeley's jaw, then loosed a right hand that sent the Hurricane reeling nose-first into the ropes.

End of story. End of talk. In all likelihood, here was the finish of business with Mike Tyson, too. It's a good thing, you couldn't help thinking, that Peter McNeeley, age 27, has a room of his own to go home to, a political-science degree from Bridgewater State College and an active sense of humor. Ten minutes after the fight--part of a card headed by WBC bantamweight champ Wayne McCulloch--we caught up with the Hurricane (sort of) in the parking lot behind the building, where the CBS trucks were parked. He was still shirtless, still wearing his soaked-through kelly-green trunks, still breathing heavily.

Here was a scene suited to the shadowy hallway beneath some battered arena of the mind--the bruised, exhausted fighter with his chin on his chest, encircled by his silent handlers, men now as gloomy and deflated as remnants of beaten infantry. Instead, the whole tableau was bathed in bright sunlight, like some awful trick of the gods. Like nothing was wrong. Like the bell hadn't rung yet.

"Stay away, please," Peter McNeeley's strength coach-slash-dietician said softly. "No press right now." The Hurricane himself briefly looked up, his eyes full of weariness and what might have been a hint of apology. Almost imperceptibly, he shook his head.

Two days earlier, amid the sweaty exuberance of a workout, the fighter had talked about his most recent fights, post-Tyson, both rematches against previous opponents. "Quintana," McNeeley had said excitedly. "Quintana had gone the distance with me the first time we met; this time I took him out in two rounds. In 1993 McShane went seven rounds. This time, a minute-three. I'm maturing. I'm moving on. Year, year and a half, we'll march right back to the top."

"All right," his questioner had said. "But do you ever fear that you'll wind up as a footnote? As the guy who faced Mike Tyson in his comeback and lasted 89 seconds?"

In that moment, no one--not a spiritual advisor, not a mentor, not a man with a cigar--had interrupted Peter McNeeley's uncharacteristic pause with his own flood of words. In that moment, he seemed to drop his gloves: "I can't run away from what I am," he answered. "It's unfinished business.


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