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Never-give-up puncher McNeeley dies at 74

Never-give-up puncher Thomas W. McNeeley Jr. dies at 74

Thomas William McNeeley Jr., who grew up in Arlington and lost to Floyd Patterson for the heavyweight title in 1961, has died after complications from a seizure. He was 74.

McNeeley was an honored football player for Arlington High School. He played football for Michigan State University, but "knew his first love was boxing, and his dream was to win the heavyweight title," his son told The Boston Globe in an obituary published Monday, Oct. 31.

The account of his life by Bryan Marquard is republished here, because a log-in is required:

How many times did Floyd Patterson knock down Tom McNeeley Jr. in their 1961 heavyweight boxing title bout? Accounts at the time varied from eight to nine to 12, and time has blurred memories.

Crystal clear after 50 years, though, is that every time Mr. McNeeley fell, he got back up. Even that final time in the fourth round, a second after the count ended, Mr. McNeeley struggled to his feet, hands up, ready to fight.

"That’s Dad," said his son Tom III, an ESPN producer who lives in Easton.

"His favorite motto, his creed, was, ‘Keep punching.’ That’s my dad’s way of saying, ‘Hang in there.’"

Mr. McNeeley, who later in life set aside boxing gloves to offer helping hands to those in need of counseling, died Tuesday in South Shore Hospital in Weymouth of complications from a seizure. He was 74 and had just moved to Hanover, after living for many years in Newton and Medfield.

"I thought I was going to beat him, I really did,’’ Mr. McNeeley told the Globe in 1994 as he reminisced about the night he stepped into a ring in Toronto to fight the world heavyweight champion.

"Patterson was a high-velocity puncher,’’ he said. "I never boxed anyone with that kind of hand speed before. There were times he hit me so fast I thought the referee was sneaking me. He stopped me in the fourth round. The stories about the fight said I went down nine or 10 times. The writers were being nice to me. I have the film. It was more like 12 or 13.’’

One moment in the fight was overshadowed by everything else, a punch that showed Mr. McNeeley’s mettle, when the champion, not the challenger, was knocked down.

"I hit him on the temple and he went down and got right back up again,’’ Mr. McNeeley told the Globe. "I have a picture in my house of him on the canvas.’’

Thomas William McNeeley Jr., born in Cambridge, was part of a boxing heritage.

His father, Tom McNeeley Sr., a New England champion, fought on the 1928 Olympic boxing team and served on the Massachusetts Boxing Commission. Mr. McNeeley’s son, Peter, of Norwood fought Mike Tyson in 1995.

Mr. McNeeley grew up in Arlington and was an All-American football player for Arlington High School. He played football for Michigan State University, but "knew his first love was boxing, and his dream was to win the heavyweight title,’’ his son said.

When Michigan State dropped its boxing program, Mr. McNeeley left to pursue a professional career. He won his first pro fight in July 1958, against Richie Norden, with a technical knockout in the second round at Norwood Arena.

By the time Mr. McNeeley stepped into the ring in Toronto with Patterson in 1961, he had an unblemished record of 23 consecutive victories. He had married Nancy Gray the year before and become a father.

"Tom McNeeley Jr. looks like a sculptor’s design for the heavyweight champion of the world,’’ columnist Red Smith wrote two weeks before the fight. "He is 6 feet 2, weighs 206 pounds, has the mighty thighs of a football lineman, slender hips, big shoulders, a rather long, big-boned face, and light brown hair cropped short.’’

At 2:51 of the fourth round, Mr. McNeeley’s shot at history ended. His wife went up to the ring, reaching across the ropes to offer comfort.

"When the fight did end, he was heartbroken,’’ his son said. "He saw his dad and said, ‘I tried, Dad, I really tried.’ ‘‘

There were more fights before Mr. McNeeley retired in June 1966. He had been a New England champion, even if the world championship was beyond the reach of his muscular arms.

Battles outside the ring turned out to be as tenacious as those fought wearing gloves.

Mr. McNeeley went to work for a beverage company, which turned out to be a bad fit. He drank too much and his marriage ended. Then he went to work for the state Department of Correction, working in various capacities before being named director of recreation in 1980.

Along the way, he served on the Massachusetts Boxing Commission, until he rang up charges on a credit card that wasn’t his and Governor Francis W. Sargent told him to resign in 1974.

"I’m a recovering alcoholic,’’ Mr. McNeeley told the Globe in 1995. "Selling alcohol was not conducive to the way I wanted to live. No question, john barleycorn was the toughest guy I ever fought. And the only way to beat him is not to fight him. It’s hard, you look at the little glass of booze and you think, ‘Ah, that’s nothing, a big guy like me, I can handle that.’ But it took me years to fight it and finally surrender. It had me beat, to my knees, but I finally beat it.’’

He married Gloria Sullivan 28 years ago and turned from teaching inmates how to box to counseling corrections officers. He reveled in his role as patriarch of his immediate family and extended family of siblings, nieces, and nephews. And he had a small sideline as an extra in Boston movies such as "The Brink’s Job’’ and "Gone Baby Gone.’’

"The thing I like to tell people is that my Dad loved to help people, without any fanfare and not for any recognition,’’ his son said. "He was not a guy who kept trophies. He liked to help people and move on.’’

In addition to his wife and two sons, Mr. McNeeley leaves two other sons, Shawn of Medfield and Bryan of Cape Canaveral, Fla.; a stepson, David D’Attilio of Quincy; two brothers, Brian of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and Kevin of North Reading; two sisters, Sheila Norton of Acton and Kathleen Kelly of Lawrence; and 10 grandchildren.

A funeral Mass will be said at 10 a.m. today in St. Mary of the Sacred Heart Church in Hanover. Burial will be in Forest Hills Cemetery in Boston.

Ten years after his title bout, Mr. McNeeley occasionally spoke to organizations, usually bringing with him a film of the Patterson fight.

"I fought for the heavyweight championship of the world,’’ he told the Globe a few days after the anniversary of the fight. "Not many guys can say that.’’

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