By Thomas Gerbasi
It’s a big fight week, but around mid-July, big fights don’t mean much to me. That stopped five years ago, when the boxing world lost Arturo Gatti, Alexis Arguello, and Vernon Forrest, all in one tragic month, all before their time.
It doesn’t seem that long ago, but it is, and though I covered Gatti’s career extensively and was a huge fan of Arguello - so huge I have the $130 phone bill from our 1998 interview to show for it (and it was worth every penny) – it was Forrest’s murder that hit home the most for me.
In July of 2009, Forrest was in a good place in his life. He may have been stripped of the WBC junior middleweight title he won back from Sergio Mora in September of 2008, but he was preparing to return, and the win over Mora showed that at 38, he still had a few good fights left in him. More importantly, outside the ring he had stopped fighting unwinnable battles with the media and the boxing world, and he was enjoying being Vernon Forrest.
On July 25 though, that all ended in his hometown of Atlanta, as he was shot and killed after an attempted robbery. He wasn’t blindsided by bullets or made an example of by the thugs who took his life. He was shot after going after them, after deciding that he wasn’t a mark for pieces of human filth who tried to take what he worked for with his blood, sweat, and tears. In some bizarre way, especially in this testosterone-fueled sport, you admire that to his last breath, Vernon was a fighter.
But then you think about it as a rational human being and wish he had never decided to take the law into his own hands, that he would have just got back into his car, reported the incident to the police, and went home.
Is that being selfish? Of course, but I would bet that anyone who knew him feels the same way.
See, Forrest wasn’t just a prizefighter or a world champion. If you knew him, you didn’t think of him as a fighter first. He was a friend, he was a confidant, he was the guy you didn’t need to call when you were in a jam because he was already there to lend a hand. And though he didn’t leave any children behind, when he was alive he was most certainly a father to many, including his godson, who was with him on the night he died, and the entire population of the Destiny’s Child program which was near and dear to his heart.
And though everyone who dies in a tragic fashion is seen as being taken too early, some seem to be destined for it. Gatti lived fast and hard, Arguello had his own demons he dealt with for years, and another beloved action hero, Diego Corrales, also lived a hard life before his death in 2007 at the age of 29. Forrest didn’t fit that mold. If anything, I expected him to be 70 years old and still calling me up to criticize something I wrote.
Funny thing is, he was one of the few who I would accept such criticism from, mainly because when he did it, he was almost always right. It was on one of these phone calls that we became friends, and if you’ve heard the story before, bear with me because I’m going to tell it again, simply because it makes me smile.
As you might recall, Forrest took a lot of heat from a lot of people for not speaking to the media before his rematch with Ricardo Mayorga in 2003. You could say the media turned on him after that, so he became a little bitter.
Of course I assumed that he would be ready to talk before an aborted April 2004 bout with Teddy Reid, and he was, though it was probably nothing anyone in the media wanted to hear. So we had our little verbal battle, but when it was over, we both laughed and both understood each other’s point of view a little better. And from there, a friendship was born. I know, it’s the cardinal sin for writers and fighters to be friends, but I never cared for such rules, and I never understood the rule that you can’t be a fan of whatever you’re covering either. It never clouded my judgment, and when I was critical of Vernon (which I was), he would make sure I knew that he knew about it, but my only response to him would be: was I fair? He would first say no, laugh his laugh, and then say I was, and that was that.
Over the next few years I would chronicle his comeback from injuries that at one time left him unable to lift his arm. His rehab was painful, but maybe not as hurtful as the apathy he felt from the boxing world. He gave the sport his heart and soul, but never seemed to get that same response back. That was a shame, because he deserved more.
Finally, when he defeated Carlos Baldomir in 2007 to win the vacant WBC junior middleweight title, the boxing world embraced him again. I almost expected him to turn them away, because Vernon was a stubborn man, but he had decided to let bygones be bygones, and he let the world back in. I was glad he did it, because it gave him a certain peace.
He fought three more times after that fight, defeating Michele Piccirillo before splitting two fights with Mora. “The Latin Snake” remains an active fighter, so every time I hear that he’s fighting, I think of Vernon. The same goes for when my deadline is approaching and I need someone to write about, because no fighter ever saved me on deadline as much as he did. I can even run through old pictures of my daughter and think of the Boxing Writers Association of America dinner when he signed her autograph book with the words:
Dreams do come true
Never give up on your dreams
3x World Champ
So it’s no surprise that when July rolls around, I think of the three greats who were taken away from us in a single month in 2009. Most of all though, I think of Vernon Forrest.