Tom McNeeley: Boxer who took on Floyd Patterson for the world title


Click to follow
The Independent Online

Thomas McNeeley, Jr, who has died of complications from a seizure at the age of 74, was a boxer who challenged Floyd Patterson for the world heavyweight title.

Later, he served as a boxing commissioner and raised a son who went on to fight Mike Tyson but, like his father two decades earlier, suffered a comprehensive defeat.

McNeeley had 23 wins and no defeats on his record when he took on Patterson in December 1961 in Toronto, and though he was a clear underdog he said afterwards that he had no doubt he would win. He recalled that before the introductions, he was daydreaming about who would sing the national anthem before his first title defence.

The tale of the tape was also on his side: at 6ft 2in and around 200lb, he outweighed the champion by at least 15lb, stood two inches taller and had an eight-inch reach advantage. Not that it mattered: McNeeley was stopped in the fourth round after being knocked down repeatedly. "The stories about the fight said I went down nine or 10 times," McNeeley said in 1994. "The writers were being nice to me. I have the film. It was more like 12 or 13."

He joked that Patterson was so fast he thought the referee was sneaking in some punches. "Patterson would hit you, put you down, but when you were down, you asked yourself how you got there," he said. McNeeley did have his one moment, however, catching Patterson on the temple and causing the champion to drop briefly on to one knee. "I have a picture in my house of him on the canvas," McNeeley said.

Born in Arlington, Massachusetts in 1937, McNeeley played football for Michigan State University. He had his first professional bout at the Norwood Stockcar Arena in July 1958. He fought professionally until 1966, finishing with a record of 37 wins, including 28 knock-outs, and 14 defeats. He would remain best known for his defeat to Patterson, as well as losses to Brian London – the British fighter who lost to Patterson the year after McNeeley – Oscar Bonavena and Jose Torres.

After retirement, McNeeley served as commissioner of the Massachusetts Boxing Commission and as a US Marshal. He worked in the state House of Corrections Athletic Department and was a counsellor for state employees, some in high-stress jobs such as prison guard and police officers. His son, Tom III, said his father had a "relentless ability to encourage", which even extended to Patterson. His recalled that while Patterson was facing tough questions during a post-fight interview, McNeeley said: "If anyone here ever calls him anything but a real champion – then they have to answer to me!"

McNeeley struggled with drink problems, but gave up alcohol 25 years ago. "My dad had his demons, my dad fought his battles, inside and outside the ring, but he always looked for the positive," Tom III said. "Without any fanfare, he took pride in helping others."

One of McNeeley's sons, Peter, followed him into boxing and was Mike Tyson's first opponent after the former world champion was released from prison. Tyson stopped McNeeley a minute and a half into their 1995 bout when he knocked McNeeley down for a second time and McNeeley's manager stepped in to end the fight.

Thomas William McNeeley, boxer and boxing commissioner: born Arlington, Massachusetts 27 February 1937; married Gloria (four sons); died Weymouth, Massachusetts 25 October 2011.