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BLOW HARD

Peter McNeeley is the heavyweight champion of certain parts of Massachusetts and a couple of saloons in eastern Connecticut. He's beaten such luminaries as Jesus Rohena, Ron Drinkwater and Howard Kelly. Two years ago he knocked out Miguel Rosa in Revere, Massachusetts, in the second round, and he won a six-round decision over Dwayne Hall up in Foxboro. Back in 1992 and 1993 McNeeley scored a pair of TKOs over Phil Prince, the Fighting Mortician, and in his most recent bout, for which he received $500, our man gave the estimable Frankie Hines all he could handle in the first three minutes.

So with regard to his next opponent, McNeeley is righteously boastful: "I will knock him out in three rounds." Translation: He'll be lucky to survive the glove touch.

In case you haven't heard, Peter McNeeley, a 6-foot-2-inch, 229-pound, 26-year-old stranger whom promoter Don King has dubbed the "Irish Hurricane," is the designated victim in ex-heavyweight champion (and ex-con) Mike Tyson's comeback fight this Saturday night in Las Vegas. The oddsmakers have made McNeeley as much as a 25-1 underdog, but that may be understating the case: The mayor of Hiroshima probably had a better shot against the Enola Gay.

It is indicative of how hard boxing has fallen that Tyson, who has not stepped into a ring since June 28, 1991, is ranked number one among heavyweights by both the World Boxing Council and the World Boxing Association. But it's even more telling that, after a couple of phone calls from the right people, McNeeley is now ranked tenth by the WBC and seventh by the WBA. The great minds who run these august sanctioning bodies have looked at the Irish Hurricane's 36-1 record (30 wins by knockout) against guys who move around like mailboxes and have been duly impressed. They've apparently failed to notice that those opponents have a combined record of 110 wins, 301 losses and 11 draws. Or that on February 18, 1994, a 6-foot-10-inch journeyman named Stanley Wright TKO'd McNeeley in the eighth round in Boston to win something called the New England Heavyweight Title.

Mike Tyson won't beat McNeeley by any lousy TKO--you can put your last buck on that. After pounding on nothing but pots and pans in the prison kitchen for three years, the Grim Raper will be in no mood to exchange any pleasantries with an opponent all the boxing world sees as a joke. He might not even want to break a sweat. We have it on good authority the Champ's judging a beauty pageant a little later in the evening, and he doubtless wants to look his best.

Meanwhile, McNeeley is getting $700,000 to be knocked senseless Saturday night, and he's sure to earn every bit of it--even at a meter rate of three or four thousand bucks per second. For those who've forgotten, Mike Tyson can punch through the side of a garbage truck.

The question remains: Why McNeeley? For the answer, American boxing fans--them what still live and breathe--need search no further than the ever-canny Don King. The guy with electric hair could probably sell spare ribs in Israel, and he's figured out what kind of tomato can to stick in the ring for Mike Tyson's comeback. First of all, McNeeley is white. He's also Irish. He lives cozily at home with his mom in Medfield, Massachusetts, where he shares a bedroom with a younger brother. He's been a construction worker and a caterer, and he's even sold tickets to his own fights. Did we mention that he has a poster of Mike Tyson hanging above his bed? Or that he did the Letterman show a couple of weeks back?

Wait, there's more. The Irish Hurricane's grandfather boxed in the Olympics, and his father, Tom, once faced none other than Floyd Patterson. In that one, the elder McNeeley was decked ten times before Patterson put him away for good in the fourth round--a performance the Hurricane will be hard-pressed to equal. Clearly a student in the George Foreman Academy of Pugilism and Home Cooking, he trains on clam chowder, mashed potatoes and steaks. Unimpressed but admiring of their homeboy, Boston Magazine recently dubbed him "The Great White Hopeless."

These sundry charms--and an undercard featuring two pretty good title fights--will probably be sufficient to fill the $1,500 ringside seats at the MGM Grand, if not the nosebleed section (which doesn't come cheap at $200 per ticket). But whether Tyson-McNeeley can attract a sizable pay-per-view TV audience is another question. To date, the most expensive TV bout in history--Evander Holyfield versus George Foreman--went for $39.95, and that was for two "name" fighters. Here in Denver, that's the tariff for Saturday's broadcast, unless you wait until Saturday, when the tab jumps up to $46.95. As of late last week, a TCI official reports, about 1,000 homes had subscribed.

What about an upset? Any chance that Iron Mike could lose? That a real-life Rocky Balboa from Boston could somehow clip Apollo Creed? After all, didn't Buster Douglas surprise Tyson in Tokyo in early 1990? Well, history tells us that in boxing, four years of inactivity is an eternity--especially for heavyweights. After Jack Dempsey wasted three years feuding with his ex-manager, Jack Kearns, Gene Tunney took it out on Dempsey in the ring. Joe Louis declined sharply when World War II curtailed his fighting schedule. On the other hand, Muhammad Ali re-emerged more powerful than ever after his draft dispute took three peak years from him--and his comeback opponent was a tough kid named Jerry Quarry. As for the way George Foreman recaptured the heavyweight crown after twenty years, that probably says as much about the quality of his opposition as it does about the skills he retained.

Fact is, Peter McNeeley has no chance against Mike Tyson. In a game grown absurd, he's simply a patsy and a stepping-stone, a well-paid footnote to the second chapter of a career. If you must know, though, the two fighters did have a common opponent. Way back on July 11, 1986, Tyson faced someone named Lorenzo Boyd in Swan Lake, New York, and knocked him out in the second round. Eight years later, on November 11, 1986, McNeeley fought Boyd in Foxboro and TKO'd him in the first. And if anyone out there finds significance in the fact that Boyd lasted longer against Iron Mike than he did against the Irish Hurricane, maybe you'd like to discuss these New York Mets World Series tickets I just happen to have.

So now Mickey Mantle is dead. A slugger who put the hurt on a quart of Jim Beam as handily as he pounded the baseball, he will be remembered as a great sports hero by most, as an ill-tempered lout by a few.

For now, though, let's remember the Phone Call.
The year is 1951. A nineteen-year-old shortstop from Spavinaw, Oklahoma, dazzles the Yankees in spring training with his speed, power and the ability to hit from both sides of the plate. Not wanting to part with this exciting phenom, manager Casey Stengel moves Mantle to the outfield so he can keep Phil Rizzuto at short and rushes the youngster up to the big leagues in his first season of professional baseball.

Overwhelmed and hotheaded, Mantle plays poorly, and Stengel must demote him to Kansas City for some seasoning. But his slump continues in the minors, and after going 0 for 22, the teenager calls his father in Oklahoma.

"I don't think I can play baseball anymore," he announces.
The next day, Mickey Mantle's dad barges into his room and begins throwing his clothes into a suitcase. "What're you doing?" the kid asks.

"Packing," the older man answers. "You're going home. You're going to work in the mines. That's what you'll do. You'll work down there."

The Phone Call, Mantle said later, was the turning point of his entire life. After putting his clothes back in the dresser, Mickey Mantle wound up hitting .360 for Kansas City in 1951, and the next year he batted .311 and belted 23 home runs for the Yankees. The rest we learn in Cooperstown.


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