August 19, 2016
August 19, 2016
Mike Tyson

Action Images/Reuters/Gary Hershorn

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THE object of the exercise was to make large amounts of money for everyone concerned, and from that narrow perspective Mike Tyson’s 89-second defeat of Peter McNeeley in the MGM Garden was a resounding success on August 19, 1995.

The former champion, boxing for the first time in four years, took away a cheque for something like $22m, while McNeeley was happy to earn around $400,000, rather more than his previous career-best of $10,000. (George Kimball, the widely-respected Boston boxing writer, came up with the line of the week when he said that “If Peter McNeeley gets $400,000 from Don King, it would be a bigger upset than if he’d knocked out Mike Tyson.”)

The MGM, who have invested heavily in Tyson’s comeback, enjoyed probably the most lucrative night in the hotel’s brief history. The show attracted a sellout crowd of 16,736, and the throng of punters, pimps, exquisite ladies and celebrity-spotters was so solid that it took me 40 minutes to battle the 400 yards from the arena to the exit.

But from every other angle, not least boxing’s credibility, the affair was a disgrace, an embarrassing pantomime masquerading as a fight.

McNeeley was the hand-picked fall-guy, with no more chance of survival than any of the knockover opponents who had helped him build his ostensibly impressive record of 36-1, and the mismatch lived down to all our predictions.

Technically, it ended on a disqualification when Vinny Vecchione, McNeeley’s trainer, leapt into the ring to rescue his man after the second knockdown.

There was much confusion and debate amongst officials before the decision was finally announced to a background chant of “Bullshit, bullshit” from the disgruntled customers who had paid vastly inflated prices for the privilege of saying they were there when Iron Mike came back.

They wanted their bucket of blood, and when Vecchione denied them their pleasure, they howled their anger. But what did they seriously expect to see – Hagler v Hearns, maybe, or Bowe v Holyfield?

Or would they rather have watched McNeeley battered into a coma, as poor Jimmy Garcia was in Las Vegas a few months ago?

Allowing McNeeley into the ring with Tyson was a dangerous, cynical and wicked piece of match-making, and Vecchione deserved applause for ensuring that his fighter could walk away and count his money, and his blessings.

His managerial share of McNeeley’s purse, $179,820, was withheld pending a meeting of the Nevada Commission, but it is widely expected that only a token fine will be imposed. He had given clear notice of his intentions in a newspaper interview the previous Monday, when he said “If McNeeley is getting hurt, I’m going to be in that ring one split second before Mills Lane or anybody else. I love the kid.”

Tyson looked embarrassed by the whole affair, and ducked through the ropes almost immediately, not even bothering to wait for the formal announcement of his 42nd victory in 43 fights, 20 of them inside a round.

The crowd were so busy venting their fury that his departure was scarcely noticed, and instead it was McNeeley who stayed behind to provide the interviews and the quotes.

It had been the biggest night of his life, and win or lose he was determined to wring every last moment of quasi-celebrity from his time in the spotlight before returning to obscurity of Medfield, Mass and the small-town circuit where he had hitherto spent his career.

American press reaction to him was generally scathing, but I felt he had acquitted himself as well as could fairly be expected from a man devoid of boxing ability who was taking on the most intimidating heavyweight of the modern era. He tried the best he could, hurling himself fearlessly at Tyson and going head-to-dead with him in a way I had never seen anyone tackle Tyson before.

It was suicidal, of course, and he must have known it. But it was the only minuscule glimmer of a chance he possessed, to gamble that Tyson might be rusty and uncertain enough to let himself be caught by one of those crude, looping swings he threw from his wide-legged, bar-room brawler’s stance. It was a vain hope, and no doubt his corner team – including his father Tom, the 1960s heavyweight contender – had decided beforehand to get him out of there, by whatever means, at the first sign that he might be badly hurt.

That is their role, after all: they are not undertakers, and I was surprised by the comments of the Nevada Commission chief Marc Ratner that “the fight was going along fine, with two knockdowns, and the fighter wanted to continue.” When did you ever meet a fighter who didn’t? They sometimes need protecting from the consequences of their own bravery, and that is the job of people like Ratner and referee Mills Lane, who was equally unsympathetic to Vecchione’s action.

“I don’t understand why he came into the ring right then”, he said. “McNeeley was fighting as hard as he could. He could have gone on.”

McNeeley, an engaging character whose wisecracks and outrageous self-confidence had enlivened the build-up to the fight, made only a token protest at the moment of Vecchione’s intervention and afterwards professed himself “satisfied with my performance.”

Tyson probably summed it up best when he said “Eventually, he’d have got hurt. I’m a blood man, and I would have liked to finish it cleanly. But I’m glad he didn’t get hurt. He’s a very likeable individual, and this is just a business.”

He certainly looked cold and business-like as he strode towards the ring, his face – as ever – an emotionless mask. He was in quite superb physical shape at 15st 10lbs, evidence of the hard work he has put in during the month since his release from jail.

McNeeley, despite the roughneck, blue-collar image he determinedly presents, is actually a university graduate with a political science degree. He was well aware that this was perhaps the only chance he would ever get to earn himself financial security – heavyweight contenders usually out-earn university graduates – and he had poured himself
enthusiastically into the selling of the fight.

Maybe he had even convinced himself that he had a chance for there was nothing in his demeanour during the preliminaries to suggest that he was feeling any apprehension about what, and who, awaited him. He took the fight to Tyson from the opening bell, swarming in with his arms pumping away and backing the ex-champ into a neutral corner.

Tyson appeared momentarily surprised that anyone could even dream of adopting such tactics, then quickly settled himself and dropped McNeeley (16st) with a straight right. The Irish-American went down, sprang up immediately looking slightly sheepish, and then to show he was not badly hurt he danced theatrically around the ring as referee Lane completed the mandatory eight count.

We thought at that moment that the fight was over, but instead McNeeley stormed back at Tyson and blasted away, legs spread wide apart for maximum leverage. Tyson fired back, but he had to take a few solid if unpolished thumps before he fought his way out and made McNeeley give ground across the ring.

Tyson had decided that enough was enough and he moved in to end it with a fast burst of punches, culminating in a right uppercut delivered with all the venom and panache of nine years ago.

This time, McNeeley was badly dazed, and even though he got up early to take the mandatory eight he had not recovered. He sagged back into the ropes near his own corner, which was Vecchione’s cue to jump in and end the most expensive, and predictable, non-title fight in boxing history.