This savage sacrifice

Harry Mullan condemns Saturday's showdown in Vegas as a cynical mismatch; Tyson's return: A bruiser from Boston plays the fall-guy as a former champion seeks to rule the world again
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The Independent Online
BOXING promoters love statistics: they can be caressed and manipulated to tell whatever story the punters need to hear. Take next Saturday's happening in Las Vegas, when Mike Tyson ends his four-year layoff against Peter McNeeley, an Irish-American brawler from Boston. Tyson's record is 41 wins and one defeat with 20 victories in the first round. McNeeley's is 37 wins, one defeat, 20 wins inside a round. Terrific match, right?

Not quite. Look behind those statistics, to the figures on which not even the most inventive press agent could put a favourable spin, and the true awfulness of this mismatch becomes apparent. The cumulative records of all the 30 men whom McNeeley has faced in the professional ring at the time they fought him is 168 wins, 366 defeats and 15 draws, a success rate of 30.6 per cent. (Six of them performed so dreadfully that they earned a rematch.)

Even more appallingly, 14 of these sacrificial offerings had never won a single fight in their entire careers. This was not happening only in McNeeley's early build-up either, a period in a young fighter's career when such shenanigans are not only tolerated but expected - Joe Barnes, whom he knocked out in the first round on 10 February this year, had been flattened in all six of his previous fights.

McNeeley's activity in 1995 gives an accurate reflection of his career pattern. His other opponents were Kevin Wyrick, who had a win-loss draw tally of 16-6-1 but had been stopped in two rounds in each of his past two fights: Danny Wofford (15-40-2), who had lost his past 12 in a row; and the wonderfully inept Frankie Hines, who had managed to lose 67 of his 83 engagements, 50 of them by knock-out. Only six times in his entire career has McNeeley faced a man whose win total reached double figures, and one of those, Ron Drinkwater, had been retired for 15 years before succumbing in the first round against McNeeley in 1993.

As editor of the sport's trade paper, Boxing News, for the past 18 years, I frequently find myself a spokesman for the pro-boxing faction. This time, though, along with everyone else who has trotted out the ritual arguments in defence of the too-often indefensible, I have to climb out of the bunker, hands in the air and squinting in the sunlight. What is taking place in Las Vegas is as immoral and wicked as a public hanging, and the fact that McNeeley is skipping eagerly to the gallows is no justification.

He will be butchered - probably in a round and certainly within three - and the harder he is hit, the more comprehensively he is battered, the louder the 16,000 capacity crowd will howl their approval. There must be decency and dignity in boxing, otherwise no one with a grain of humanity in their soul could ever watch it, but little will be in evidence at the MGM Garden Arena.

The show includes four title fights featuring top-quality performers such as Julian Jackson, Terry Norris and Miguel Angel Gonzalez. There is also Bruce Seldon's first defence of the WBA heavyweight title (against Joe Hipp), which has added significance since the winner will probably be Tyson's first stepping-stone on the way to reunifying the championship. Yet none of this will matter to the punters; they have paid to watch Tyson do his thing, and the more vicious, nasty and short-lived that is, the happier they will be.

McNeeley was born to the fall-guy role. Between 1958 and 1961 his father Tom built up a 23-fight winning run over opponents of the same standard as Peter has faced (in fact, some of them probably were the same opponents Peter has faced). That record, and his crew-cut, All-American image, steered him into a title challenge against Floyd Patterson in Toronto in 1961. McNeeley took an almighty hammering for four rounds in what was, effectively the first real fight of his life, although with the kind of blind Irish courage which will be expected of his son on Saturday he climbed off the floor 10 times before Patterson finally knocked him out.

The McNeeleys, father and son, had only one thing going for them: their complexion. In Tom's case, that allowed him to be marketed as that season's Great White Hope, and it is only his colour which has earned Peter the Tyson date. Vinny Vecchione, a pragmatist who developed McNeely's "career" in obscure towns in the Boston hinterland, is refreshingly blunt about his man's qualifications. "A promoter looks for something unique to sell a fight," he said, "and when 98 per cent of boxers are non-white, a white fighter becomes unique." One could argue with his arithmetic, but not with his rationale.

White fighters like McNeeley are usually able to compile ostensibly impressive records in states where the local commission does not ask too many awkward questions; like, can the opponent walk to the ring unaided? But the fact that their development takes place away from the mainstream does not mean that the big promoters are unaware of their existence. Instead, they will be circling like sharks, watching carefully for the right moment to make their move (and, not incidentally, allowing someone else to pick up the bill for the boxer's apprenticeship).

So it was with McNeeley, whom Don King signed up in June 1994. Immediately, and hardly coincidentally, McNeeley vaulted into the WBC top 30 at No20, and his victories in 1995 over the fearsome opposition highlighted here have earned him promotion to the top 10. It is ludicrous, of course, but that is the way the business works. King originally intimated that he wanted McNeeley as an opponent for his WBC champion, Oliver McCall, but it was Tyson all along.

And the same thing is happening again: Lou Savarese, a handsome, white, undefeated ticket-seller from upstate New York, has recently joined the King camp. Tyson's second comeback opponent, at the MGM on 4 November, is likely to be Buster Mathis Jnr, but guess who will be No 3?

The seedy, cynical show goes on, and - most of us are hypocrites at heart - I will be there to record it. Except that this time, maybe I'll skip the post-fight press conference and go for a shower instead. Pass the soap, Pontius.