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A Different Kind of Champion By beating Shane Mosley to defend his welterweight title, Vernon Forrest joined boxing's elite. But he's already the greatest to a special group of men back home

July 29, 2002
July 29, 2002

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July 29, 2002

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A Different Kind of Champion By beating Shane Mosley to defend his welterweight title, Vernon Forrest joined boxing's elite. But he's already the greatest to a special group of men back home

The two men sat together in a corner, one silent, the other
talking, while a whirlwind of hugs, kisses, tears, smiles and
screams filled the room around them. Vernon Forrest had just
defended his WBC welterweight title with a unanimous 12-round
decision over Sugar Shane Mosley, and now the champ's family and
friends wanted to celebrate. But not Forrest--not yet, at least.
When Evander Holyfield talks, you listen. And in Forrest's tiny
locker room at the Conseco Fieldhouse in Indianapolis on
Saturday, Holyfield was speaking. "I'm as proud of you as I can
be," he whispered to his Atlanta protege. "You did what all
great boxers do. You fought with pride. That's what it's all
about, pride and determination."

This is an article from the July 29, 2002 issue Original Layout

In vanquishing Mosley for the second time in six months and
improving his record to 35-0, Forrest not only placed himself on
the short list of the world's elite boxers but also offered a
pithy reply to Mosley's prefight trash talk. In the two weeks
leading up to the bout, Mosley--once considered the classiest of
champions--dogged Forrest for everything from his skill to his
smarts, from his integrity to his wardrobe. Forrest, meanwhile,
kept the yapping to a minimum. "The action," he said, "will
answer a lot of questions."

It did. While the fight was marred by excessive grasping and too
much wild flailing, Forrest used his potent right hand to
consistently keep the smaller, faster Mosley at bay. Unlike the
first fight in January, there were no knockdowns and few jarring
punches--just the pop-pop-pop of Forrest's right into Mosley's
schnoz.

Until his back-to-back pastings of Mosley, Forrest, 31, had
spent the better part of the last decade falling through
boxing's cracks, a regular on undercards fighting for secondary
and tertiary belts far removed from television cameras and big
purses.

It didn't help that Forrest is about as flashy as the gray
sweats he wears for his daily workouts. He has the ideal
welterweight body--a rangy, 147-pound Tommy Hearnsian 6-foot
frame with a height and reach advantage built in--and is endowed
with a blunt instrument of a right hand. But his style is more
technical than pyrotechnical. In a world where the big bucks
often go to the Jackson Pollocks, who stand on the canvas and
spray wildly from all angles, Forrest boxes like a pointillist,
picking his spots with precision and patience, resisting any
urge to brawl. "If you want a lot of blood and knockdowns, you
might not like me," he says. "If you want to see someone who
knows the [technical nuances of the] sport and knows what he's
doing, I'm your man."

What's more, Forrest forsakes one of boxing's most important
commandments: Thou Shalt Have Shtick. He doesn't do backflips
when he enters the ring, a la Prince Naseem Hamed, or wear an
executioner's hood, like Bernard Hopkins. Nor does he prance
around in a rubber devil's mask, as Angel Manfredy used to do.
His body is bereft of tattoos. ("I have enough scars," he says.)
His prefight press conferences are uneventful, even decorous,
affairs. He doesn't even use the obligatory nickname. "I think
they tried to call me the Cobra," he says. "No, wait. It was the
Python. I don't have to tell you that it didn't stick."

It's not that Forrest hasn't given thought to an image upgrade.
In a nod to his hometown of Augusta, Ga., he once considered
entering the ring in a Masters-style green blazer, but he
figured the reference would be lost on fight fans. He also toyed
with asking his sparse entourage--Forrest doesn't even have a
full-time trainer--to dress like trees. "Vernon's Forrest, get
it?" he says.

Forrest learned the hard way that unimpeachable skills alone are
insufficient to sustain a successful boxing career. Though he
made the 1992 U.S. Olympic team (suffering from food poisoning,
he lost his opening bout in Barcelona) and though he signed with
Main Events, his career didn't get the jump start that comes
with an Olympic medal, and he lacked the flair that might have
helped make him a fast-track headliner. At the same time, as he
built an unblemished record over the next 10 years, he was
increasingly regarded inside the fight game as a dangerous
opponent and was avoided like a process server by top contenders
and champions. Consider: Just last summer he was fighting
someone named Edgar Ruiz (18-4-1) in Chester, W.Va., for
$75,000. "It was the ultimate Catch-22," Forrest says. "I never
stopped loving the sport, but I was so frustrated that I
considered quitting."

He escaped this professional cul-de-sac when Mosley, then the
undefeated reigning WBC champ and widely regarded as the "best
pound-for-pound fighter in the world," agreed to give Forrest a
title shot. Forrest had beaten Mosley for a spot on the 1992
Olympic team and had knocked out 26 of his 33 opponents. Still,
he entered as a 7-to-1 underdog. George Foreman, who was working
the fight for HBO, even joked to Forrest beforehand, "Son, just
don't get hurt too bad." For 12 rounds Forrest dominated Mosley,
neutralizing the champion's vaunted hand speed and tenderizing
him with cold-blooded three- and four-punch combinations. So
comprehensively was Mosley beaten that afterward he conceded,
"Vernon did a number on me, didn't he?"

Grateful that Mosley had given him the chance--finally--to
pierce the public consciousness, Forrest agreed on the spot to
the rematch. It wasn't just that Forrest wanted to be fair to
Mosley; he genuinely believed it was impossible for Mosley to
beat him and that it would be both a big payday and an easy one.
(He earned $1 million for the first fight with Mosley and $3
million for the rematch.) Unlike most of Mosley's 35 knockout
victims, Forrest knows how to granulate Sugar: patience and lots
and lots of right hands. "Vernon was again willing to wait Shane
out and take his time," Ronnie Shields, Forrest's trainer, said
Saturday night. "He's a very, very intelligent fighter."

When Vernon Forrest isn't making carpaccio out of an opponent's
face, he runs a business caring for 30 mentally disabled men,
ages 18 to 60. While the Boys, as Forrest calls his charges,
live in six group homes that Forrest's company owns in Atlanta,
they are regular visitors to his five-bedroom house, which is
located less than a mile away. They come over to trade
squirt-gun fire and watch movies with the fighter. Their
favorite game, however, is stealing Forrest's coveted spot on
the sofa whenever he gets up. "I swear those guys live to clown
on me," he says. "When we hang out, it's a given that they're
going to be comfortable on my couches and I'm going to be by
myself on the floor."

In 1997--long before the Mosley fights, before he was tight with
Atlanta mayor Shirley Franklin, before he was signing autographs
for Magic Johnson, before he was greeted by "What's up, champ?"
at the Beautiful (his favorite local soul food joint)--Forrest
launched a business with his girlfriend, Toy Johnson, and
Johnson's mother, Tina Burch. While employed as a social worker
for the state of Georgia, Burch had noticed the trend toward
moving mentally disabled adults out of institutions and into
group homes. The state paid an average daily stipend of $120 to
the home's owner for each adult resident.

Forrest, Johnson and Burch started training to be certified,
receiving hours of instruction in areas such as food
preparation, job placement, CPR and dispensing medicine. The
three received state certification in 1999 to run a group home
and founded Destiny's Child Inc. (DCI). The company started with
four clients, and Forrest lived with them in a well-appointed
house on Atlanta's south side. The stipends were used to buy the
other five homes. Today DCI has 14 employees. "Our goal is to
become the best facility in the Southeast," says Forrest, who
has two years of credit toward an undergraduate degree in
business administration.

"The state tells you not to get attached to the clients," he
says. "Real quick, you realize that if you're going to give them
enough love and support and attention, it's impossible not to
get attached. I feel as if they're my 30 brothers." So he shares
Christmas dinner with them, takes them to Braves games, sits
with them in church, teaches them how to use the Internet, takes
their calls at all hours.

On Friday night Johnson and nine of the clients took the 10-hour
bus trip from Atlanta to Indianapolis to watch the fight.
Immediately after the decision was announced, Forrest bounded
out of the ring and ran over to hug his boys. "You can talk to
Uncle Vernon about anything," says John Love, 29, a Destiny's
Child resident who works part time as a janitor for Coca-Cola.
Adds John Paul, 40, another resident, "I just thank God I met
him."

In March the mayor of Augusta invited Forrest to return home and
accept a key to the city. The fighter agreed on one
condition--that he could bring the Boys with him. "They don't
think of themselves as slow or different or disadvantaged," says
Forrest, who had little exposure to the mentally disabled before
founding the company. "There's a real innocence. They're so
loyal to each other and so honest with their feelings. I miss
them a ton when I'm not in town."

Emboldened by the success of Destiny's Child as well as his
newfound wealth and standing, Forrest has "diversified his
interests," as he puts it. He recently launched a record
label--"Don't worry, it was a minimal investment," he
says--featuring a white rapper, Da Professor, who toured with
Nas and Usher this summer. An Internet junkie, Forrest also
hopes to design and maintain his own website. He also speaks,
albeit in vague terms, about becoming the Hercules who can help
clean up the Augean stable that is professional boxing.

"The first thing we have to do is change the economics," he
says. "There's no minimum salary, no health insurance, no union.
Personally, I was disappointed that guys like Roy Jones Jr. and
Holyfield didn't do more to help struggling fighters. I don't
want people to say that about me. I've been on both sides of the
fence, so I want to get involved."

The welterweight champion has his belt. Now he has his platform
too.

COLOR PHOTO: BRENT SMITH/REUTERS CHIN UP Mosley's reluctance to get hit with Forrest's punishing right hand made him vulnerable to the left hook.COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY GREG FOSTER JUST PLAIN GOOD The unflashy Forrest doesn't plan to rest on his laurels; his next crusade is boxing reform.COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY GREG FOSTER FAMILY TIES Though he's not supposed to get too attached to the men in his company's care, Forrest can't help thinking of them as brothers.