IN the summer of 1995, Peter McNeeley became one of the biggest names in sport.
He was the man plucked from relative obscurity to be Mike Tyson’s first opponent after coming out of jail for rape.
They were to clash on August 19 at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas on a card simply billed, ‘He’s Back’.
And just 89 seconds into that highly-anticipated return, the ‘Baddest Man on the Planet’ was indeed back with a vengeance.
McNeeley prefers to call it ‘a minute 29’ — because it sounds longer.
The Hurricane was blown away quickly but he had played his part.
With Tyson shunning most of his usual media duties, it had been left to the man from Medfield, Massachusetts — a third-generation boxer — to sell the show for promoter Don King.
In that regard, the wide-eyed contender was a spectacular success.
McNeeley, 52, joined us on our new boxing podcast, ‘Rocky Road: Rewind’ as the 25th anniversary of the biggest night of his career approaches.
He recalled: “At that time, it broke all pay-per-view records worldwide.
“And I am man enough today to admit that Mike Tyson was the star of the show. I was just a co-star.
“Mike got out in March and we signed the contract to fight him in May. Mike needed time to train and get in shape, to whatever.
“I was in the best shape of my life for that fight. We had a training camp in the middle of July in Lafayette, Louisiana — about as deep south in the United States as you could go.
“It was 99 degrees and 99 per cent humidity. It was hot.
“Was I scared? I always had fear — but we called that ‘competitive fear’. It’s that competitive fear which makes you do what you’re supposed to do.
“Before the fight, after only getting out of jail, Mike Tyson said he was only going to do four interviews. Four! Don King and the rest of the promotional team under him had to go somewhere — so they went to me.
“One of the jokes was, ‘Peter McNeeley did the most amount of interviews in the shortest amount of time’.
“Here in the USA I was on David Letterman, I was on Jay Leno and I was on Larry King Live, with Don King. In the 90s, those were the three biggest late-night TV shows.
“My thinking was, ‘Mike has been out almost four years so I’m gonna jump on him and try and take advantage of that’. I said to myself, ‘I’m only getting this shot once. I’m making the best of it’.”
That he did. McNeeley’s interviews became must-watch TV as the fascination around Tyson — like today — grew ahead of his return.
Ex-heavyweight champ ‘Iron Mike’ was 41-1 at the time, 29 years old, but four years out of the ring. In prison he had become an avid reader, devouring Tolstoy, Voltaire and Machiavelli.
Sports fans wanted brutality and McNeeley promised it, vowing to wrap Tyson up ‘in a cocoon of horror’.
King felt his 31-1 record would stand up to scrutiny and knew the New England boxer would deliver eyeballs to the event.
But inside the ropes, he was no match for the man who had been the youngest champ in history.
Incidentally, Tyson inherited that mantle from Floyd Patterson, another Cus D’Amato boxer who had beaten Peter’s dad, Tom McNeeley Jr, in 1961.
Seconds into the opening round, the Hurricane was blown over only to jump right back up. Seemingly unhurt, he went into blitz mode in an admirable gung-ho attack.
But after a minute of frenzied action as McNeeley pounded away, Tyson struck in the corner, punishing him with a left hook followed by a right uppercut.
The fallen fighter rose again but his trainer and manager Vinnie Vecchione jumped into the ring, leading him to the corner and stopping the bout.
Looking back, McNeeley recalled: “At the weigh-in, the day before, I was 224lbs and he was 220lbs. But they re-weighed us one hour before the fight. We both lost 4lbs. So Mike Tyson at 216lbs is what? All speed. And speed with power is a bad combination.
“That first punch that I went down, I was terribly off balance, I was standing square. But he caught me a good straight right and people didn’t even see it because he was that fast.
“I was back up before Mills Lane even started a count.
“In the history of Mike Tyson’s career, the uppercut was always his best punch and he caught me with it on the chin — and I went down on my face.
“I got to like the count of six or seven and I was confused.
“And when Vinnie jumped into the ring and pushed me towards the corner, I thought, ‘Oh, the round’s over and he’s gonna sit me on the stool’.
“But a minute 29 — 89 seconds, it sounds longer when I say a minute 29 than when I say 89 seconds!
“When Vinnie pushed me over, I thought the round was over. I didn’t know he was ending it.
“And that shows you that something was wrong, that I was a little out of it, even though I was on my feet.
“People can say, ‘what if this?’ or ‘what if that?’ — but what if nothing. That’s not the way it happened.”
Tyson’s name will always be linked with the people in his life — from ‘Buster’ Douglas, Evander Holyfield and Lennox Lewis to D’Amato, King and Desiree Washington, the victim in his rape conviction.
For McNeeley, his name will always be linked with Tyson’s — and the pair would become friends after descending into substance abuse and subsequently going into recovery. McNeeley said: “Today, the two biggest male figures in my life are gone. My manager, Vinnie Vecchione, passed away in 2009 from a massive heart attack and my father died in 2011.
“But you know what? I’m very, very grateful — thank you God — for putting my father in my life. And I was lucky to have had him as long as I had him.
“And I was lucky to be with Vinnie Vecchione for 20 years.
“Dad fought Floyd Patterson for the heavyweight championship of the world. Dad also fought two other world champions. Willie Pastrano, light-heavyweight champ of the world, and Jose Torres, light-heavyweight champ of the world. They both stepped up to try and use my father as a stepping stone for them to go to heavyweight.
“They both went ten rounds and let’s just put it this way — after those ten rounds with Tom McNeeley Jr, they did not even think about trying to fight at heavyweight again.
“My father had problems with drinking and was the first one to help me through a lot of trials and tribulations.
“I tried and I tried but I would always fall off with drink and drugs.
“But today I’ll be four years with no drink and no drugs on November 1. I did it all on my own this time.
“I had a meeting with Mike in September of 1998. He came to Boston and a friend of a friend was his limo driver.
“Next thing I know, he’s got my phone number and he’s called me. Then I’m in his hotel room with him. Mike was going through a lot in his life at that point.
“Then, years later in 2007, Mike Tyson got my phone number and called me. We talked on the phone — for about three months!
“It didn’t matter if I called him or he called me. Every time, the first words out of Mike Tyson’s mouth were, ‘Peter, how’s your father?’
“Wanna know why? Floyd Patterson was trained and managed by Cus D’Amato — and Jose Torres, who my father went ten rounds with, was trained by Cus D’Amato. We had that family connection.”
Tyson turned 54 on June 30 and, having posted several workout videos throwing bombs, has fans excited about a potential comeback.
McNeeley has jokingly threatened to wrap him in another ‘cocoon of horror’ if he fancies it.
Really, though, he reckons both are better off on the other side of the ropes. He added: “Mike’s said, ‘I’d like to do three or four rounds of boxing for charity’. Obviously against an opponent or sparring partner of his choice.
“Next thing you know, he’s fighting Holyfield again, then Shannon Briggs wants to fight him in a bare-knuckle fight. I mean, come on.
“The whole thing with Mike Tyson, it took on a life of its own.
“Me, I met a woman — I got married. She’s Italian but everybody thinks she’s Irish. I’ve also become a big part of a local boxing gym where I live, in Lawrence, Massachusetts. A real old-school boxing gym.
“In America there’s a big racial divide because of the George Floyd murder by the police.
“Black, white, Hispanic, Cape Verdean — these kids, the men at this gym, are awesome and I love them all. I can give them the benefit of my experience in the ring and what not to do outside of it.
“Don’t drink, don’t drug — and stay in the boxing gym.”