It wasn’t about the fight, just the fighter. The most anticipated and awaited comeback in boxing took place in 1995 in an event that saw a lead up filled with odd pre-fight commentary, bad ring walk music, post-fight controversy, and short lived stardom for the previously unknown challenger.
Iron Mike Tyson, 41-1 (36 KO’s) at the time had just been released from a three year prison stretch at the Indiana Youth Center (now the Plainfield Correctional Facility). The former undisputed heavyweight champion had been convicted in 1992 of the rape of Desiree Washington, a contestant in the Miss Black America pageant.
Tyson’s conviction left a void in the heavyweight division. Despite a knockout at the hands of James “Buster” Douglas two years prior, he was still considered the world best heavyweight. Billed as “the baddest man on the planet”, he had become the youngest heavyweight champion in boxing history when he knocked out Trevor Berbick in 1986 to win the WBC heavyweight crown. He would capture the WBA crown in his next bout, defeating Bonecrusher Smith and finally unify the titles, winning the IBF crown from Tony Tucker in 1987.
After knocking out his next six opponents, a bout with former unified world cruiserweight champion Evander Holyfield loomed, but was put on hold when 40-1 underdog James Douglas, in one of the sport’s biggest upsets, knocked out Tyson in Tokyo, Japan. Tyson came back to win his next four outings, and the Holyfield fight was scheduled for November 1991, (Holyfield had won the undisputed championship from Douglas) only to be postponed when Tyson withdrew citing a rib injury. Shortly after, Tyson’s legal troubles began, which put off the bout indefinitely. In the meantime, Holyfield went on to beat George Foreman and Bert Cooper. After Tyson’s conviction, as he served his sentence, the heavyweight titles would again become splintered and bounce between Holyfield, Riddick Bowe, Michael Moorer, George Foreman, Lennox Lewis, Bruce Seldon, and Oliver McCall. The “baddest man on the planet” was now a news topic only in relation to his legal woes and talk of what should have/could have been.
In March of 1995 Tyson was paroled after serving a shade more than three years of his six year sentence. With Don King at his side, Tyson, and boxing, were headline news again, and heavyweight boxing would finally return to “normal”…or whatever version of normal Tyson would bring with him. It really didn’t matter that no one knew exactly how good Tyson would still be; how much of his speed, reflexes and killer instinct he’d retain after three years of forced inactivity. He was still young at just 28 years old; to be 29 by the time his next fight would take place, but life among the incarcerated: exercise, nutrition, and general mindset all differ greatly from that of a free individual. Those factors alone could alter whatever future Tyson had in boxing. Prior his conviction some felt he was already in the beginning stages of decline. Only time would tell.
The chatter began immediately. Tyson was going to fight George Foreman…or Riddick Bowe…or Holyfield. It was finally announced that the comeback fight would be against “Hurricane” Peter McNeeley, a little known 36-1 record holder with 30 knockouts to his credit and somehow managed to get ranked number seven by the WBA while Tyson was ranked number one by all of the “big three”, the WBA, WBC and IBF. Go figure.
Holding a Bachelor’s degree in Political Science, McNeeley, out of Medfield, Massachusetts, had a family history in the sport going back three generations. His grandfather, Tom Sr., was a National AAU champion as an amateur and fought in the pro ranks during the 20’s and 30’s and his father, Tom Jr., had challenged for Floyd Patterson’s heavyweight crown in 1961. Coming into the bout undefeated, he was floored 11 times before finally being stopped in the fourth frame. With fighters like Oscar Bonavena and Doug Jones being among his post-Patterson defeats, he would finish his pro career with a record of 37-14 (28 KO’s).
Peter made his bones primarily in his home state with exception to few bouts in Kentucky, Arkansas, and Florida, feasting on sub-level opposition: of his 37 opponents, just four had winning records. The lone defeat on his ledger coming against 8-5 Stanly Wright, a bout contested for the vacant USA New England heavyweight title. He wasn’t taken seriously by any stretch leading up the Tyson fight, despite his claims of being a dangerous opponent due to his knockout tally. He was mocked and jeered at press conferences and was so little respected in fact, that David Letterman referred to him as the “Rodney Dangerfield” of boxing.
The media was having fun with him, but McNeeley still made the appropriate rounds in the fights lead up, appearing on USA’s Tuesday Night Fights, Larry King Live, David Letterman, and he made for some good entertainment. He was likable enough, giving us some of the more memorable quotes including one about wrapping Tyson in his “cocoon of horror”. At the final press conference, two days prior to the bout, Don King did his best to give McNeeley some last minute build up, stating “every fighter worth his salt in the development stage has fought lesser opponents, but few have fought lesser opponents with the great skill Peter McNeeley has. Don’t discriminate against the white guy, give him a chance too”.
Kings banter didn’t help; McNeeley was still a sideshow. When he took the podium to issue his final statement he addressed the crowd: “Keep laughing, keep laughing. Real funny, huh? If any one of you doesn’t respect me, or what I’m doing or what I’ve been doing for the last three months since it was been announced, going against a guy like this, you have a big dump in your pants.” He ended his turn at the podium in poetic fashion: “I’m hurricane Peter McNeeley from Medfield, Mass., on Saturday night watch me kick Tyson’s ass! If you haven’t made your pay per view arrangements yet, make them soon, because remember what happens when I wrap you in my cocoon”.
Say what you want about the guy, but he had balls. He was confident beyond logic, and his antics were good for the fights promotion. Despite the jokes, the jeering, and all that was said against him, he still truly felt that he was going to win. He was going to prove the world wrong and show everyone, including Tyson, that they picked the wrong guy if they were looking for an easy night.
In an event that grossed $96 million worldwide and set a then-record $63 million in Pay-per-view buys with the fight being purchased by 1.52 million American homes, “He’s Back” took place on Saturday, August 19th, 1995 before a live attendance of 16,113 at the MGM Grand Garden in Las Vegas. The undercard featured multiple world title bouts, including Terry Norris, Quincy Taylor, and future Tyson opponent Bruce Seldon, who successfully defended the WBA World heavyweight title stopping Joe Hipp in 10 rounds. Once the preliminaries were out of the way, and the national anthem was sung, it was finally time for the main event.
Appearing first, McNeeley made his way to the ring, an odd tune blaring in the background, something I’m told a friend of his had written and performed with his band. He skipped around the ring, pulled his robe open, and waited for his 15 minutes of fame to unfold. Tyson entered shortly after, donning his trademark black trunks, shoes without socks, and white towel. His ring music wasn’t the customary “Welcome to the Terrordome” tune we’ve associated him with over the years, but a hip hop remix, the phrase “time for some action” on a loop as he made his way to center stage.
The two faced off at ring center after Jimmy Lennon Jr. made the official introductions, Tyson stone faced while McNeeley swayed side to side, grinning. Mills Lane gave the instructions, capped with his catch phrase “let’s get in on!”, and they did.
At the opening bell, McNeeley went right at Tyson, attempting to make good on his cocoon of horror threat. He swarmed the former champion but didn’t land anything solid. Seconds later he was droped on the seat of his pants by a Tyson right hand. The Medfield native quickly jumped up and jogged around the ring, prompting Mills Lane to grab him by the arm so he could issue the count. McNeeley rushed Tyson again, pushing him to the ropes while the two exchanged non-stop punches. After a warning to both fighters from Lane about head-butting, Tyson landed a clean right uppercut that dropped McNeeley for the second time. Beating the count again, Peter was clearly shaken this time but was on his feet when his trainer Vinnie Vecccione, in a move that astonished everyone including referee Mills Lane, entered the ring, stopping the fight. Mike Tyson had won his return to the ring in 89 seconds, although robbed of what was sure to be a knockout and had to settle for a win via DQ1 amid the crowds chants of “bullshit!” At $50 a pop for pay-per-view buys, I’m sure there were home viewers saying the same thing.
Post-fight commentary was short. Tyson made some religious statements, but said little on his future. Despite some prodding by Jim Gray, McNeeley stood by his corner man, who in turn stood by his decision citing Peter’s safety as his reason for stopping the fight. McNeeley also stated he was happy with his performance after putting up with the media “BS”, and when asked if he was going to continue fighting, his response was a straight out “fuckin’ right I am! I’m coming back!”
The Nevada State Athletic Commission investigated , accusations focused around a gambling scenario-something along the lines of McNeeleys people having a bet down that their guy wouldn’t last 90 seconds, but the allegations were never proven. The “Hurricane” gained some notoriety and deserved respect in the fights aftermath, going on to do commercials for America On-Line and Pizza Hut, as well as secure a handful of televised fights (which he would lose) in the following years against Henry Akinwande, Butterbean, and Brian Nielsen. His final career record after being knocked out in his last two bouts stands at 47-7 with 36 knockouts. In later years he would deal with personal issues outside the ring; drug addition, money issues, legal charges including assault and robbery. These days he spends his time teaching others to box at a gym in Norwood, Massachusetts.
Tyson of course, would go to much bigger and in some instances, better things over the next 10 years. He would go on to regain the WBA and WBC titles, but lose his toughest challenges when he finally fought Evander Holyfield (twice, in 1996 and 1997, including a bizarre incident where Tyson bit off a piece of Holyfield’s ear in their second meeting), and a bout with Lennox Lewis for the unified heavyweight championship in 2002. Losing three of his final four bouts, he retired in 2005 with a final record of 50-6 with 44 KO’s. Life after boxing has had it’s share of good and bad for Tyson: he’s done work on television and the movies, but continues to deal with his personal demons. He’s now a boxing promoter, and just recently made amends with Teddy Atlas after a long standing grudge dating back over 30 years.