Listening with closed eyes to Tom McNeeley Jr., the heavyweight boxer from Boston who will fight Floyd Patterson for the world championship in Toronto on December 4, one might easily surrender to the illusion that Rocky Marciano is talking. It is "Pahk Street" that one hears, not "Park." It is "hahd punch" and "fihst round" and "Boston Gahden," with that flattening of the broad a and that aspiration of the all-but-vanished r that is so special to the eastern Massachusetts accent and so impossible to reproduce by any system of orthography.
There are those who would say that the resemblance between McNeeley and Marciano ends with the way they talk. It is a harsh judgment but not entirely unfair, even though McNeeley, after 24 professional fights, is as undefeated as Marciano ever was. Indeed, McNeeley has beaten almost as many stiffs as Rocky took on during Al Weill's studiously cautious direction of his approach to the heavyweight championship of the world. Like Rocky, McNeeley depends on attrition rather than a single punch to stop his opponents, and you will get no impression from him of style and grace. He is a rough customer, too. Like Rocky, he doesn't care much how he hits or where or when. And he trains almost as relentlessly as Marciano did. He is never out of condition. Furthermore, Charley Goldman, who trained Marciano, has been hired to serve as training advisor to the McNeeley camp. Charley will discover, no doubt, that McNeeley, for all that he is an intelligent 24-year-old who was able to get through two years at Michigan State, is the very devil to teach new ways. And that was a Marciano trait, too.
These comparisons end the list of similarities. None of them is meant to suggest that McNeeley is in the class of the conqueror of Jersey Joe Walcott, Ezzard Charles and Archie Moore. He has not fought anyone remotely as good as these. His best opponents have been George Logan and Willi Besmanoff. Where Marciano is short and squat, McNeeley is tall (6 feet 2 inches) and long-limbed, with a reach that gives nice effect to the jab. McNeeley's manager, the millionaire Harvardman Peter Fuller, himself an old college boxer and sometime sparring partner to McNeeley, recently described his fighter as "a straight stand-up guy with a good jab, a good left hook and a fair right.
"We've had trouble getting him to place his feet properly for the right," Fuller said. "He takes too wide a stance. He's an orthodox fighter."
Orthodox or not, the best minds of the Boston fancy insist that McNeeley is essentially a "mauler" and embarrassingly inept.
"He doesn't have a punch in either hand," said one of these. Even in Boston and even among the chauvinistic Boston Irish, there is little real hope that McNeeley can beat Patterson.
"Ah," said a red-haired bartender in a Boylston Street pub, "but wouldn't it be grand if he did it. We have a President in the White House now, and I would die happy, God forbid, if we had a heavyweight champion of the world."
To the detriment of ballyhoo, perhaps, but with a very decent reticence, Fuller and McNeeley so far have refrained from issuing the customary "We'll moider the bum" sort of statement. McNeeley, a handsome brush-cut with a most engaging boyish manner, proud wearer of a golden shamrock on his bright green trunks, is far from boastful about his abilities. Neither he nor Fuller has gone much further than to say that he has a "good chance," a couple of words that combine optimism ("good") with realism ("chance").
One of the fight's promotional problems will come when McNeeley goes on public exhibition in training. Boxing in the gym, he looks rather like an awkward but angry child. Speaking with a certain depressed passion, Fuller said:
"Tom is a miserable gym fighter. Absolutely horrendous. There are days when he puts on the most horrendous workouts. There's gray in my hair and that's what it's from, just from watching him box in the gym. If you saw McNeeley against guys he's fought in the gym you'd pay 10 times more for one of his opponents than you would for him."
He sighed, the memory of some of those horrendous workouts overwhelming him. But he brightened up in a moment.
"In the ring," he consoled himself, "he's altogether different."
In the ring McNeeley has been so different that boxing commissions have threatened to set him down for ignoring the rules—rules like "Don't hit a man when he's down, please," and "If you have to elbow or butt, make it look like an accident."
McNeeley excuses himself for these breaches. There was, he feels, sound reason for every one of them—well, almost every one. Like in his first professional fight against Richie Norton. Some nerves on the left side of his rib cage had been pinched by a blow in training. The area was so tender that even a firm caress was agonizing. That's just where Norton hit him, by no means caressingly, and McNeeley, turned savage by the pain, lashed out like a wounded panther and with approximately a panther's esteem for the boxing code. He stopped Norton in the second round.
"That time I fought Art Mayorga," McNeeley went on, a low growl forming deep in his throat, "he kept hiding behind his gloves. It was frustrating. When I finally got through and he started to fall, he dropped his gloves. I was so crazy at seeing his face for the first time that I let another one go."
The one-round Charlie Lopes mayhem, some of which was accomplished by shoving aside the referee as an impertinent meddler in a private fight, was undertaken because Lopes insulted McNeeley's intelligence.
"First," McNeeley complained, "he went around town making comments about what he was going to do to me. But then, after the weigh-in, he followed me and jumped into my car with me. He kept telling me about how his wife was sick and his kids needed things and if I'd just go easy on him and let him look good maybe he'd get some more paydays. I know now he was giving me the con, because right at the opening bell he walked out and tried to knock my head off. It was a hard punch and I thought he'd cut my eye, and I lost my head."
McNeeley battered him down and then, with Lopes on one knee, crunched a finisher onto his jaw. He came very close to slugging the referee for trying to protect Lopes when that official stepped in to end the fight.
"The commission gave me a good chewing out," McNeeley said.
And, finally, there was the second Lou Jones fight in New York.
"Jones is very cute," McNeeley explained. "He knows how to butt and use his elbows so the referee can't see it. The only way I know to do those things is out in the open, which is where I did it." McNeeley won the fight by a fourth-round knockout, but afterward the New York boxing commission threatened to bar him from the state.
By this time it had become apparent that if McNeeley continued on this fiery path he might well be banned everywhere. Fuller considered this possibility dourly, then called the fighter to the huge Cadillac-Oldsmobile agency he owns in Boston. He told McNeeley that he wanted him to see a psychiatrist.
It was a suggestion that McNeeley took as an insult.
"You think I'm some kind of a nut or something?" he demanded.
"I'm sorry," Fuller told him. "You're going to go or I'll put you on the shelf."
After contemplating the emptiness of a life without an occasional fist fight, McNeeley agreed.
"I love fighting," he said. "To me there couldn't be a better way to make money and yet be doing something I like. If I had a good income from something else I'd still be fighting for the pure love of it. It gives me a sense of competition and personal accomplishment, being in there alone. I loved football, but you're part of a team there. In boxing you do it all yourself."
So, after evaluating Fuller as "a very stubborn fellow" who really would make good on his threat to retire him, McNeeley went to a psychiatrist. It turned out that he needed very little treatment.
"We finally figured out," he said, "that the cause of my wild temper was my intense desire to win. You see, my father [Tom Sr. onetime New England heavyweight] always impressed on us kids the necessity of being first—not just in boxing, in everything. He didn't like us to be second-best. When I realized that was the reason for my temper, I learned to keep it under control."
Patterson, McNeeley has heard, does not enjoy fighting but is in the game solely for the money. To McNeeley this approximates a moral defect and somehow encourages him to believe that he has that "good chance." But he does not underestimate the champion a whit.
"Patterson has terrific speed for a heavyweight," he said, "and he's cute and cunning. He's tricky in his own fashion. And he's pretty hard to hit with that peekaboo defense. Hooks don't do any good with those gloves covering the sides of his head. You have to go straight through."
And that is why Fuller and Trainer Jackie Martin have been working so hard to straighten out McNeeley's right-hand punching. After all, the straight rights of Ingemar Johansson proved mighty effective in the first and third of the Swede's fights with Patterson.
"Actually," McNeeley said, "my best punch used to be the right, then I seemed to lose it. I lost it in the finesse of developing a left hook. It's coming back, though, and my left hook has been coming real good in the last year.
"I and Pete have some ideas about how to fight Patterson and we'll keep those quiet, but it's no secret that I intend to stay on top and carry the fight to him. That might not work, of course, and I might have to revert to Johansson's technique of running away from him until I have a chance to get in a good shot. But the best way is to be the aggressor. I'll try to wear him down. I'm not the type that takes you out with one shot. I'm not that good a puncher. But if I get him in trouble—well, that's when I'm at my best.
"If I have him as Johansson did in their third fight [when a stunned Patterson, knocked down by a straight right in the first round, may well have been saved by the mandatory eight-count], there's no doubt in my mind that I'll be heavyweight champion of the world."
The second Patterson-Johansson fight (which Floyd won easily) is the only Patterson fight McNeeley has attended.
"But I've seen eight or 10 of his fights on film," McNeeley said, "and I've watched the last fight a dozen times. Before the fight I'll see the movies a hundred or more times."
Later he'll be able to see the film of his own fight with Patterson. But he might not enjoy it quite as much.