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If Michelangelo Had Been A Boxing Manager

BY George Kimball ON July 04, 2009
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He'd be the first to tell you he made his share of mistakes in the 64 years he spent on this earth, but rescuing Peter McNeeley that night in Vegas wasn't one of them.

For most boxing fans the enduring image of Vinnie Vecchione remains the night in August of 1995 when he climbed through the ropes at the MGM and deliberately forced Mills Lane to disqualify McNeeley just 89 seconds into his fight against Mike Tyson. The seemingly precipitate haste of his intercession was widely criticized elsewhere, and to those who didn't know better it created the impression that the fight had been a prearranged charade.

It was, but only in the sense that the scenario he had anticipated had materialized before Vecchione's eyes.

The night before the fight Vinnie had confided his intentions in me. "People are saying Tyson might kill Pete, and he probably could, but I'm not going to let that happen," he said. "Believe me, if I see he's in any danger I'm going to stop the fight before he gets hurt."

Vinnie knew how outgunned he was. He knew his heavyweight wasn't on Tyson's level, and that the only chance he had lay in the element of surprise.

"Pete is going to charge out of the corner and crash right into Tyson, and maybe we'll get lucky," he said.

When McNeeley did exactly that, Tyson was indeed startled.

"You came right after me, White Boy," he smiled wryly when he spoke to McNeeley afterward. "You were trying to knock me out!"

In most newspapers the next day Vecchione was widely criticized for having abetted a scam:  Not only had the paying customers been defrauded and a pay-per-view audience that had shelled out $49.95 a whack had been ripped off, but McNeeley had collected almost $10,000 a second for his participation.

Personally, I thought Vinnie deserved to be named Manager of the Year. And at least one respected scribe, Bob Lipsyte of the New York Times, agreed.

"I would fight Tyson myself if Vecchione would manage me," wrote Lipsyte. "He did the right thing. If, as St. Cus D'Amato often said, the first obligation of a manager is to make sure his boy doesn't get hurt... That's the moral bottom line in boxing."

The Ring magazine did join the Boston Herald in making Vinnie the Manager of the Year for 1995. The BWAA gave the award to Roy Jones' management team of Fred and Stanley Levin. The Brothers Levin had also done a commendable job on behalf of their client that year, but you'd have to admit they had a bit more to work with.

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Vinnie was a boxing guy through and through, a Runyonesque character who looked as if he'd modeled his image on that of Joe Palooka's manager Knobby Walsh. It was as if he had been born in that white cap he wore into the ring when he saved McNeeley, and for all I know he slept in it too; I don't think I ever saw him without it.  The other constant was the stubby remains of a cigar he kept clinched between his teeth. You never saw him light up a new cigar, and I always wondered whether Vinnie had found a good deal somewhere on half-smoked stogies.

He didn't like to fly on airplanes because it always required some fairly complicated explanations when the metal detector went off. For most of his adult life he carried around a bullet slug in his shoulder, a souvenir of a shooting he described as "a case of mistaken identity."

Sports Illustrated described him as a "former mobster," and Vinnie never tried to discourage that notion. "I used to be in organized crime," he once told me, as if a guy could resign, or be expelled from, the mafia. He never elaborated but it was my impression that any criminal activities in his earlier incarnation weren't very organized at all, and must have been at the club-fight level of the hoodlum world.

He learned the business side of boxing at the footsteps of the legendary promoter Subway Sam Silverman, and 40 years ago he was operating a gym in Brockton. One day a kid who'd never even put on a pair of gloves walked in. He sat around for three days and nobody said a word to him, so the kid finally got up and walked across the street to another gym, this one run by Goody and Pat Petronelli, who turned out to be more welcoming and took the kid on.

Not bothering to say hello to Marvin Hagler that day may have been one of the more costly miscalculations of Vecchione's life.

In those days the star of Vecchione's gym was a Massachusetts middleweight named Paul Poirier. Poirier was unbeaten, 18-0, when Vinnie signed him for a fight in Italy. The execution of the contract more or less coincided with Poirier's religious conversion; when he joined the Seventh-Day Adventists he took a vow not to fight again. Rather than welsh on the contract, Vinnie flew to Italy and, under Poirier's name, lasted three rounds before he was stopped by a guy named Ennio Cometti.  Years later Poirier decided to make a comeback, and it took him a dozen years to convince people he hadn't lost to Cometti and to get that "L" expunged from his record. [Box.rec now lists two Paul Poiriers. The first was 31-3, and retired for good after his 1993 loss to Larry Holmes. The other Paul Poirier (0-1) was actually Vinnie.]

But he understood how the game was played, and when he spotted a raw amateur named Peter McNeeley, Vinnie could have been Michelangelo eying a slab of marble. It was a chance to create his masterpiece.

By then he had migrated to Cliff Phippen's South Shore Boxing Club in Whitman, Mass., not far from Medfield where McNeeley had grown up. The boxer's father Tom had played football at Michigan State before turning to a boxing career. The high point ofMcNeeley pere's career had come when he earned $40,000 in a title fight against Floyd Patterson. McNeeley knocked the champion down once. Patterson knocked Tommy down eleven times before Jersey Joe Walcott stopped the fight at 2:51 of the fourth.

The creation of McNeeley's resume was indeed a work of art. His first five opponents had never won a fight. In fact, up until the time he fought Tyson he fought 13winless opponents, a couple of them twice. Eight of these were guys who never did beat anybody; they finished with an aggregate record of 0-49-1. Five others (including John Basil Jackson twice) wound up 11-179-4. He fought Jimmy (Lurch) Harrison three times in the space of six months in 1992. Lurch was 6-28-4 when this rivalry commenced, 6-31-4 when it ended, and 6-35-5 by the time the Commonwealth of Massachusetts took his boxing license away. The only mistake along the way came when Vinnie matched Peter against Stanley Wright, a 6'10" former basketball player, for the New England heavyweight title in Boston. McNeeley got cut and was bleeding so copiously that the referee stopped the fight.

Not long afterward Vinnie and Peter presented themselves at the offices of Don King and signed a promotional contract, and shortly after that miraculous things began to happen. McNeeley was still fighting bums, but every time he'd knock one of them out he'd move up another notch in the ratings.

This process took a few years, but Vinnie's timetable knew only one limit: The date of Tyson's release from the Indiana Youth Center, where he was serving out his rape sentence.

Vinnie was a promoter without peer. He never actually held a promoter's license, but he always knew somebody who did, and he staged shows at the Whitman Armory and Plymouth Memorial Hall and at the racetrack in Foxboro or the dog track in Revere, while he continued to chisel away on his work-in-progress.  By then he had reached out for some help. Al Braverman seemed to have an endless supply of beatable victims, and Beau Williford, the Louisianan who aligned himself with Vecchione in the early 1990s, was on speaking terms with more bad heavyweights than any man in the country. When Beau wasn't bringing them up to New England to lose to McNeeley, he was bringing McNeeley to places like Louisville and Raleigh and Fort Smith to beat them.

Boxing audiences can be notoriously gullible, but sometimes Vinnie seemed to be underestimating even their collective intelligence. I'd look up the record of the latest bum he'd lined up for the Hurricane and ask him "Vinnie, are you sure this guy even has a f------ pulse?"

"Shhh." He'd whisper, holding a finger to his lips, and slyly wink.

The relationship with King even brought the promoter to New England for a nationally televised card. Julian Jackson vs. Augusto Cardamone and Orlin Norris-Adolpho Washington were the fights Showtime was willing to put on television. On the undercard, Francois Botha fought Brian Sargent, while Williford had disinterred Danny Wofford for McNeeley. The corpulent Wofford was 15-41-2 when he faced McNeeley at the Worcester Auditorium, and he didn't last a round. Beginning with the McNeeley fight, he would lose 61 of his last 63 fights.

The high point of the Worcester card occurred not in the ring but at the weigh-in the day before, when Botha made some disparaging remark about McNeeley, the Hurricane bitch-slapped the White Buffalo in front of a room full of people, and many were thinking "even if he can't fight, the kid's got some stones."

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The Tyson fight let the rest of the world in on Vecchione's dirty little secret, which is that the WBC's third-ranked heavyweight could barely fight at all, but Vinnie even managed to turn that to his advantage, negotiating a lucrative deal for a nationally-televised commercial in which McNeeley got knocked out by a slice of pizza. There were periodic comeback attempts, whenever Vinnie could get McNeeley back into the gym for a few weeks, and there were also a few side trips to jail and to rehab. (In the most famous of these latter, somebody at Hazelden assigned the comedian Chris Farley to be McNeeley's roommate.) In 1999 the Hurricane was knocked out in back-to-back fights by Brian Nielsen and Butterbean Esch. Vinnie could only sigh.

A year after the Tyson fight Vinnie had another chance to cash in. Cliff Phippen's brother Danny had been built, on the McNeeley pattern, into an 18-0 junior middleweight. An undefeated fighter can be like a company ripe for a hostile takeover. In this case, Sugar Ray Leonard, who hadn't fought since losing to Terry Norris four years earlier, was plotting another comeback and looking for a tuneup against a soft touch with a deceptively good record. Danny Phippen seemed to fit that description, and in the summer of 1996 Leonard dispatched his matchmaker and boxing advisor, J.D. Brown, to Boston to have a look for himself. If the fight came off, Danny stood to make more for one fight against Leonard than he had in his other 18 put together, and Vinnie's end for brokering the deal would have been his biggest payday in the year since Tyson-McNeeley.

J.D. and I spent the early evening at my son's Little League game before driving down to the Whitman Armory for that night's card, where Phippen was fighting the main event. By the time we got there Vinnie and Cliff Phippen were a pair of nervous wrecks. Danny had gone AWOL and was nowhere to be found. His fight was eventually scrapped. He turned up, days later, in a local crack house, and was packed off to rehab. He didn't fight for another year. J.D. Brown flew back to Washington, and Leonard decided to go straight to the Hector Camacho fight without a tuneup. Fighting on a bum leg, he was stopped in five.

"Christ," said Vinnie. "Danny coulda beat Leonard in that one."

Vinnie didn't completely lose interest in boxing after that, but the Leonard-Phippin flirtation was his last dalliance with the big time. He periodically rang up to excitedly tell me about his latest club show. Invariably they sounded as if they had been calculated to lose money.

When he heard I was ill, Vinnie was one of the first to ring up, and called periodically to ask about my health. Every time he called he unfailingly asked about my son, whom he'd known since he was a small boy attending McNeeley fights in Foxboro and Whitman. Vinnie had a soft spot for kids, and that was in part because his own son, Vinnie Boy, was handicapped and had been institutionalized for virtually his entire life. It was an enormous emotional burden as well as a financial one for his father.

Our last conversation was a couple of months ago. After the usual pleasantries he cut straight to the chase. Judy, his lady of many years, was suffering from cancer. The medical bills were piling up and neither of them had insurance. He was looking to make some quick but substantial cash, and it had dawned on him: "Why don't I write a book?"

I carefully explained the realities of the publishing world, circa 2009, particularly when it came to boxing books, and provided a reasonably accurate representation of what he might realistically expect as an advance in the unlikely event he actually did manage to interest a publisher. Even in the best case it would have represented a small fraction of what he was hoping to get, and as far as I know that was the end of the book idea.

Even in his anguish I don't think it had ever occurred to him that Judy might outlive him, but this past Thursday he suffered a heart attack and now he's gone.  Tomorrow evening his friends will gather at a funeral home in Braintree to say goodbye, and I'll be there too. He was an original, a boxing character, but most of all, Vinnie was my friend.

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