By Brian Tuohy
Mike Tyson was ready for his comeback.
In 1995, the troubled heavyweight legend had served a little more than three years in prison for the rape of 18-year-old Desiree Washington and was back in Don King's waiting arms. The media circus surrounding his conviction had faded, ready to be supplanted by a new one with the resumption of his boxing career. As usual, the sports world was very quick to forgive and forget … as long as Tyson could continue to thrill in the ring.
The big event was set for Aug. 19, 1995, at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas, and Tyson's opponent would be "Hurricane" Peter McNeeley. Another in the succession of Great White Hopes in the heavyweight division, McNeeley cracked the Top 20 WBA rankings by 1994 and was deemed a true test of Iron Mike's resolve to begin a second ascension to glory.
Once the fight was signed, McNeeley -- whose manager-trainer Vin Vecchione was a veteran of the '70s boxing scene and had reported links to organized crime -- became a bit of a celebrity. He appeared on the talk show circuit: Leno, Letterman, Larry King. Boxing aficionados recognized that his impressive record (32-1 by January 1995) wasn't telling the entire story, but McNeeley was jovial enough, and his prediction that he would wrap Tyson in a "cocoon of horror" gave the bout additional legs.
But was promoter King going to let this be a real fight? Would McNeeley's handler, Vecchione, get bulldozed?
These were the questions on the mind of another boxing manager, Charles Farrell, who had struck up a friendship with Vecchione two years earlier. About a week before the fight with Tyson, Farrell met up with Vecchione in Massachusetts, where McNeeley had been training. As Farrell tells Sports on Earth, the two had lunch, and then got into Vecchione's car before Farrell finally voiced his concerns regarding King and company: "Have they talked to you yet?"
Vecchione paused, looked at him and said, "Close the door."
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The fact that McNeeley got as far as he did was a minor miracle. The Boston native possessed an impressive boxing pedigree -- grandfather, Tom McNeeley Sr., was an AAU national champion, and dad, Tom Jr., fought Floyd Patterson (and lost) in 1961 -- but he didn't have extraordinary natural talent.
His manager throughout his career was the colorful Vecchione, always recognizable in his trademark flat cap, with a stogie in hand. As McNeeley explained in a Sports Illustrated interview in 2010, Vecchione had "been out of the fight game for, say, nine years," when the two began working together. Having always owned a gym in Brockton, Mass., Vecchione saw a certain potential in local boy McNeeley and "basically taught [him] how to fight all over again."
And fight McNeeley did. Vecchione -- who passed away in 2009 -- had the 6'2", 224-pound McNeeley plow through 24 bouts in the span of two and a half years after the young boxer went pro in the summer of 1991. He won them all, 18 by knockout. However, only one of those opponents had a winning record -- the wise Vecchione knew how to protect his rising star.
But the stakes soon changed thanks, in part, to Charles Farrell.
Farrell managed five world champion boxers during his time within the sport, including Leon Spinks. He met Vecchione in 1993 when attempting to get one of his fighters a match against McNeeley. As Farrell recalls, the two were seated in a coffee shop booth when Vecchione quickly informed him, "My fighter ain't never going to fight your fighter. OK, we got that outta the way. Now we might as well get along." And they did, becoming fast friends and confidants.
As a favor, Farrell brought McNeeley and Vecchione to the attention of Don King. By September 1994, McNeely was signed to Don King Productions. McNeeley told SI, "You can see my rating get lower and lower and I'm winning fights and my record's now like 30-1 or 31-1." McNeeley still wasn't fighting bouts against winning boxers, but it didn't matter. His record continued to inflate.
Around this same time, Chicago boxer Oliver McCall flew to London, knocked out Lennox Lewis in front of his adoring hometown fans, and became the heavyweight champion of the world. As fate would have it, McCall was a member of King's stable as well.
According to Farrell, a plot was then hatched to help Tyson - still ranked No. 1 in the world -- regain his heavyweight crown. The problem was that McCall was dangerous and unpredictable, something the King camp wanted to avoid for Tyson's comeback fight. But what if McNeeley could beat McCall? Then Tyson could face McNeeley for all the marbles with the prevailing thought being that he would easily win back the title.
Like most boxers, McNeeley was seemingly unaware of these behind-the-scenes machinations. The way he recounted it later, "King brought us [to New York City] for the big press conference with McCall coming in with the newly won belt. And King said that day, 'Petey, you're going to fight McCall for his first title defense.' I signed it at the conference that day."
Farrell was in attendance for this event as well. "What wound up happening," he claims, "was that King, when he saw McNeeley and McCall in the same room together for the first time, thought that this was so implausible [McNeeley beating McCall] that no one would ever believe it." Instead, according to Farrell, King quickly decided to circumvent any deal with the new champ.
So the plug was pulled on the proposed (and contracted) heavyweight title bout, and McNeeley was tabbed for the just-out-of-jail Tyson instead. McNeeley was disappointed, but King and Vecchione comforted the young fighter, promising him a better payday.
(Meanwhile, King would refuse to ever put McCall in the ring with Tyson. Just two years later, McCall would have a nervous breakdown in the ring during a second fight against Lewis.)
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Everything seemed to line up the way King wanted it, but how would he ensure that his moneymaker, Tyson, would get through the McNeeley fight unscathed, even if he wasn't as much of a wild card as McCall?
Back to that meeting in the car between Farrell and Vecchione in August, a week before the Tyson bout in Las Vegas. Door closed.
"Have they talked to you yet?"
"No," Vecchione said, according to Farrell. "They haven't said anything to me. They just assume my fighter can't fight. They're not worried about him, so no one's told us what to do on this one."
Vecchione knew what most of the boxing community was beginning to realize: McNeeley wasn't much of a fighter. Without Vecchione's wise match-making decisions, pitting McNeeley against marginal-at-best opponents, he likely wouldn't have been much better than .500. Now he was guaranteed $700,000 to meet Tyson in a pay-per-view event.
King was certainly going to make a pretty penny with this fight. Tyson undoubtedly would, too. But what of Vecchione?
As Farrell says -- and wrote in a yet-to-be-published essay entitled "Noble Savages, Ungrateful N-----s, Heroic Journalists, and the Case for Fixing Fights" -- the night before the fight, Vecchione had a third party quietly meet with a big-time bookie at the Imperial Palace and bet $1 million that McNeeley wouldn't last 90 seconds against Tyson.
This wasn't a lump sum bet made through the sports book; Vecchione was too smart for that. This was a private wager which was then laid off through other bookies, limiting publicity as well as the original bet-taker's liability on a long odds over/under bet (perhaps as much as 20-1).
Vecchione may have been in McNeeley's corner, but he was there for a different reason now.
* * *
On Aug. 19, the bell rang.
Charged with a combination of excitement and fear, McNeeley attacked the legendary Tyson right at the beginning of the fight. About five seconds later, Tyson caught him with a quick right and McNeeley went down, but bounced immediately to his feet, jogging around the ring while ignoring referee Mills Lane's instructions to hold still for the required standing eight count.
To his credit, McNeeley refused to back down. He pressed Tyson, trading punches relentlessly. After about a minute of action, Tyson grabbed hold of McNeeley's left arm while he continued to flail with the right. Lane stepped in, breaking the fighters apart with a warning to "knock that s--- off."
There was 1:50 left in the round when Lane ordered the fight to resume. Vecchione, 20 seconds away from losing $1 million by Farrell's account, sat in McNeeley's corner. Then Tyson connected with a right. McNeeley briefly dropped to one knee, stood back up, and took a solid left uppercut to the jaw. He fell to the canvas with 1:41 remaining.
The resilient McNeeley was up and back on his shaky feet in just two seconds. As Lane administered his second standing eight count, Vecchione slipped between the ropes -- right at the 89-second mark. It was an automatic disqualification. The fight was over.
The ringside announcers were at first stunned, then angry. They recognized that McNeeley hadn't quit; his corner threw in the towel. As they fought for words to accurately describe the moment, they labeled the fight's stoppage "a crime" and equated it to Evel Knievel's attempt to jump the Snake River Canyon in a rocket -- "over before it started."
McNeeley explained those final moments: "When Vinny stopped the fight, people were upset. I watched the films. I can't argue. People who have never had a boxing glove on, they say he stopped it too soon. Look at the video. You can see my eyes are completely dilated like I possibly had a concussion. The lights are on but nobody's home. I was knocked out but I was still on my feet."
Vecchione played a similar card, saying he didn't stop the fight because McNeeley was hurt, but because he didn't want him to be hurt worse.
Not everyone was buying the sales pitch, though. Many had been burned by a "Don King Production" before, and once again they smelled a rat. Perhaps Richard Hoffer of Sports Illustrated summed up the public's sentiments best by writing, "It's hard to take any one fight in boxing and single it out as the most cynical promotion of all time. But if you're going to make a list, you'll want to put last Saturday's Mike Tyson Return real close to the top. His bout with Peter McNeeley, all 89 seconds of it, had all the important aspects of a confidence game. There was the long setup, the suspension of disbelief among the yokels and then the actual con."
Hoffer and the others crying foul were looking at the wrong suspect, though. They assumed it was all King's doing. Hoffer would even write, "The ending was probably not crooked." Maybe he spoke too soon.
* * *
Almost by rote, the Nevada State Athletic Commission felt compelled to withhold Vecchione's portion of the fight's purse (which amounted to nearly $180,000) until it received some answers regarding the quick ending. But Vecchione's explanation was tough to argue against. His story was that he was out to protect his fighter.
Eventually, the commission gave Vecchione his money. The NSAC did not provide any further information about its investigation to Sports on Earth.
While McNeeley's career didn't end that night, for most fight fans his name became a mere footnote in boxing's strange history. But he never held Vecchione's decision that night against him. Why would he? "If Vinny didn't stop it, who would have ever done the commercials?" he later said. "If he didn't do it so controversially, we never would have gotten the America Online commercial or the Pizza Hut commercial, which paid another easy $300,000."
The fight grossed a record-setting $96 million worldwide with $63 million coming from the more than 1.5 million homes which purchased it on pay-per-view through Showtime Event Television. Tyson earned $25 million; McNeeley that aforementioned $700,000.
But it was the shadowy multi-million dollar payday that had more influence over the bout than either of the two boxers combined. As Farrell said of Vecchione, "He waited his whole life to make that score."
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Brian Tuohy has been called America's leading sports conspiracy theorist, but really he's just highly skeptical when it comes to what the sports leagues tell their fans. He's also one of the few writers brave enough to tackle the topic of game fixing in sports, detailing evidence of it in his books Larceny Games: Sports Gambling, Game Fixing and the FBI and The Fix Is In: The Showbiz Manipulations of the NFL, MLB, NBA, NHL and NASCAR. He also runs the semi-popular website thefixisin.net.