McNeeley's moment of madness

Ken Jones reports from Las Vegas on a journeyman's tilt at a world title

Peter McNeeley is a tall 26-year-old New Englander with a large head and big hands, shoulders and feet. If engaged in a bar-room brawl, he would probably be the last one left standing. You can imagine him holding out a fist and saying: "If this hits you and nothing happens, then there are some mighty strange things going on in the world."

In fact, McNeeley has a degree in political science and is normally quite placid. When this is mentioned in conversation, it irritates the hell out of his manager, Vinnie Vecchione, a traditional type who was brought up to believe that intellectual ability in a fighter is a drawback.

One of the stories Vecchione likes to tell concerns the great Sam Langford. Once, at the beginning of the second round, Langford motioned an opponent to come forward and shake hands. "Why should I do this," the opponent asked, "this ain't the last round." "Oh, yes it is," Langford replied, before knocking the fellow silly.

You have probably concluded that Vecchione is something of a character. This applies equally to Beau Williford, a Southern gentleman from Louisiana who has been assisting Vecchione in preparing McNeeley for Saturday's contest against Mike Tyson at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas.

I first came across Williford many years ago when he was working on tables in a New York bar, The Bells of Hell, and fighting professionally in the heavyweight division as a means of paying his way through college. The bar was in joint possession of Tony Hayes, who is a Ruskin College graduate and part-time horse player from Liverpool, and an inspired Cumbrian hustler, Peter Myers. Mad as hatters, they had a promotional idea for Williford that involved carrying a lady's handbag. "For Christ's sake, don't mention it," Williford said this week.

Between them, Vecchione and Williford have been attempting to dispel the widespread theory that McNeeley would not have a chance against Tyson, even if he went into the ring armed with hand grenades. This is no walk- over, for Tyson approximates to what they go around saying. "Pete is going to be all pumped up and he can be a handful," Vecchione insisted. "I have seen him blow his nose on an opponent and punch guys all the way to the ground. If he gets Tyson in trouble, he will follow him down there too."

Vecchione sees a lot of McNeeley's father, Tom, in him. As Tom McNeeley's chief claim to fame is that he was knocked down 13 times by the former heavyweight champion Floyd Patterson, some may think this unfortunate, however, Vecchione finds it encouraging. "Pete is like his father in the way he gets mad," he said. "I was in the gym in Boston one day when Tom got so upset with a sparring partner that he hit him with a bucket. It was a real ugly scene. Guns were drawn."

Apparently, the younger McNeeley's temper flared up when a sparring partner took a similar liberty. "This kid who weighed around 160 [middleweight] and was very quick, wanted to go with Pete and he got cute. My guy was so angry he chased him out of the ring and into the street. He won't care about Tyson. He'll go right at him."

McNeeley likes to say he would have fought Tyson for nothing. "Four years out of the ring, Mike has got to be wondering whether he still has it, so this is a great opportunity." McNeeley is getting $700,000 (pounds 455,000), which is rather less than his manager asked for. "I asked for a million," Vecchione said. "I thought we deserved it because we've had to scrape along for years going to places like Arkansas and North Carolina. Once I had to borrow three grand just to keep Pete on the road. When I was finally offered the money to fight Tyson, my girlfriend of 25 years held a fork over my head and threatened to kill me if I didn't take it."

When McNeeley got to hear about the contest, he was flat broke and many miles from home. Upon being told to get back to Boston as fast as possible, he filled up his car with petrol and drove off without paying. Then he had to talk his way through a toll booth. Fortunately, the attendant recognised him. "Pete pleaded that he had to get back to sign for the Tyson fight and the guy let him through," Vecchione said. "The other day, Pete sent him a cheque for two dollars."

McNeeley's record of 36 victories with 30 knockouts and just one defeat, is not relevant to the proceedings. It includes names like Fabian Arroyo, Lorenzo Poole and, would you believe, Lopez McGee. It was assembled mostly in places travel agents never speak of.

Finesse has never figured on the agenda because nobody has ever confused McNeeley with a natural athlete. A high school football coach thought him slow and uncoordinated. "Yeah, but anyone who went near Pete got put on their ass," Vecchione enthused.

When McNeeley speaks about Tyson he maintains a form of politeness, although with considerable difficulty. "I have to respect what he's been as a fighter, but maybe I question his emotions and behaviour out of the ring," he said. "Anyway, I'm going to back him up, brawl him, remind what it's like in there. He might not remember that too well. I've gone along with the hype, but I'm no soft white guy who's easy meat for Tyson."

In their counselling, Vecchione and Williford advise going at Tyson directly. "One punch, a slip, who knows," Williford said. This appears to encourage McNeeley greatly. "Whatever else you say about me, you've got to say I'm a dedicated guy," he insisted. "I've fought for 25 bucks and my cab fare to the airport. You see, I had a dream and it wouldn't go away. And here I am now with the dream. I can live with people saying I can't fight a lick. I know I will be vindicated, win or lose."

Vecchione claims to have been sure that McNeeley could handle the fight when he turned to Tyson at a press conference, and said, "I'm going to wrap you in a cocoon of horror."

There are no reports that Tyson asked immediately for directions to the toilet.

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