McNeeley inspired as a fighter, father

For a few months in 1995, Peter McNeeley was everywhere. He was a passenger in a high-speed journey that quickly made him the most famous opponent in boxing. Everyone knew him, and those who didn't wanted to. The reason was simple: He was fighting Mike Tyson.

Luckily, McNeeley was a natural performer and reveled in the spotlight. He talked and talked until it was time to fight -- not that many thought there would be one. By the time the bell rang, McNeeley might have been the only person who genuinely believed he could win.

He didn't, of course. The bout lasted 89 seconds, with McNeeley knocked down twice and humanely rescued by his trainer, Vinnie Vecchione. But there was no shame or embarrassment. McNeeley had fought valiantly and walked away with his pride and a career-high purse of $540,000. The pay-per-view gross was more than $67 million, making it the most lucrative nontitle fight ever.

Last year, I tracked McNeeley down for a 15th anniversary story I was writing for Britain's Boxing Monthly. Four years into retirement, he seemed more settled after a life marred by drug and alcohol abuse, with infant daughter Nadiya at the center of his recovery.

But one of the most poignant moments came when McNeeley shared a memory from his childhood. He recalled how, as a 7-year-old boy, he became hooked on boxing after coming across a copy of Sports Illustrated in the family's attic, with a picture of his father, Tom McNeeley Jr., on the cover.

"Long Shot From Boston," SI's headline proclaimed. The magazine was trailing Tom's upcoming fight with Floyd Patterson for the heavyweight championship at Maple Leaf Gardens, in Toronto. The dateline: Nov. 13, 1961. Almost exactly half a century on, the elder McNeeley, young Peter's inspiration, took his final count. He died Tuesday, aged 74.

Tom, who had 51 fights between 1958 and 1966, had developed acute breathing problems brought on by emphysema. In the final days of his life, he suffered close to 100 seizures before being admitted to the South Shore Hospital in Weymouth, Mass.

At 1 p.m., Peter and his three brothers made the decision to turn off their father's life support machine and let him die with dignity. At 2:20 p.m., Tom McNeeley Jr. passed away, surrounded by loved ones.

Over the phone from Medfield, Peter told me: "He fought his last fight and we worked the corner." Had there not been such sadness behind it, that line could almost have been funny.

Like many fighters whose fathers have fought before them, Peter drew good and bad from his family's fighting tradition. But to Peter, his dad was more than just a boxer.

"My father was my first sports hero," he said. "He fought three world champions, he sparred with Muhammad Ali twice and fought a who's who of top-ranked contenders. But the thing I was really proud of in my dad was he took punches. He fought his whole life. He fought Patterson with six-ounce gloves -- and his speech was impeccable until the end."

Tom McNeeley Jr.'s words still resonate even now. "He would say, 'Peter, you either do it right or you don't do it at all.'" his son recalled. "'Don't drink, don't [do] drugs and train, train, train -- hard. Do the roadwork.'

"He would always impress on me, 'Stick, stick, jab, jab, jab.' From the word go, I always had a left jab and I always had a left hook.

"But he was very adamant about being in shape, being in condition -- and he wasn't afraid to get a little dirty. As a matter of fact, when he fought [British contender] Brian London in [London], they were both wrong, being dirty to each other."

By then, Tom had already lost to Patterson, who at the time was in between his victorious rubber match with Sweden's Ingemar Johansson and his disastrous first-round collapse against Sonny Liston.

Tom McNeeley Jr., 24, was 23-0 going into the title bout, which was held Dec. 4, 1961. Although he took the fight to Patterson from the first bell, the challenger struggled to bridge the huge gap in class. Patterson nailed McNeeley repeatedly with flashing combinations, flooring him 11 times before he was counted out in the fourth round by referee Jersey Joe Walcott. Tom showed immense courage, but it was never going to be enough on its own.

Afterward, he went the 10-round distance with future light heavyweight champion Willie Pastrano, in 1962, and then Jose Torres in 1965. In his previous fight, Torres had stopped Pastrano in nine rounds to relieve him of the championship. Tom, whose own father had been part of the U.S. boxing team at the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics, finished with a record of 37-14, with 28 knockouts.

"My dad fought in a time when there were more fights, more fighters, more gyms," Peter said. "I was nothing as a fighter compared to my father. My father never wanted me to be a boxer. He never pushed boxing on me. I had to prove to him that I wanted to be a fighter. I had to prove it to him by going out and doing it on my own.

"When I turned pro with Vinnie, he sat back and he was an advisor. He let Vinnie take over. Father-son relationships in boxing almost never work. I told him, 'Dad, this guy's the right guy. Please stand back.' And he did. He was just there for moral support. I had 75 [amateur and pro] fights, but win, lose or draw, he always hugged me and said, 'I'm proud of you, Peter.'"

Never more so than when Peter fought Tyson at the MGM Grand Garden Arena on Aug. 19, 1995. The former champion's connections saw McNeeley, despite his 36-1 record, as a soft touch for Tyson, who was taking his first fight since leaving the Indiana Youth Center, where he had served half of a six-year prison sentence for rape.

Said Peter of his father: "He knew, like I knew, that it was the best time to fight Mike Tyson. He had been inactive for over four years. [My father] was happy that I went right at him. He wasn't happy when Vinnie stopped it, but he understood why."

As we talked, McNeeley struggled to hide his sorrow over his father's passing.

"I don't know about boxing, but I will miss him greatly," he said. "I already miss him. But I'm grateful because I had 43 years with him. He was a great father. He taught me right from wrong from the word go. What I did with that information is another story, but he always told me he was proud of me and he loved me. When I got in trouble, he always tried to help. He was always there for me. He was the greatest dad and the only dad I'll ever know."

Richard Fletcher is a longtime contributor to Boxing Monthly and also writes for HBO and ESPN.com.