By Cliff Rold
On the evening of July 25, 2009, 38-year old former World Champion Vernon “The Viper” Forrest was murdered in an apparent botched carjacking in his hometown of Atlanta, Georgia. In the wake of yet another tragedy in sports and entertainment during this deadly summer of 2009, the boxing world shakes its head at the senselessness and yet this tragedy carries with it something the apparent suicide of Alexis Arguello and murder of Arturo Gatti did not.
The death of Forrest carries an air of nobility.
Details are still being fleshed out. Early accounts relayed an armed Forrest chasing off the assailants while the child of his girlfriend sat inside his car. If that was partly the case, and we can never know for sure what Forrest was thinking, but horror stories of children abducted during carjackings have rocked the headlines before. Forrest was notable as much for out of the ring activities with the developmentally disabled as he was for ring accomplishment. Risking his life to protect a child would have been well in line with the character he displayed in his adult life.
One narrative which has developed in all corners is an armed Forrest giving chase after something was stolen from him. The wisdom of the action will be argued about but whatever occurred it ended with him shot in the back. He confronted his assailants like a man. They reacted like cowards. Again, in line with the character of the fighter whose first loss was earned when he got off the floor against Ricardo Mayorga and fought like hell to even the offense to his detriment.
Character was a component of his fistic exploits as well. He was the rare fighter who openly discussed wanting to one day end up in the Hall of Fame. While never the biggest or most exciting star, Forrest’s career was like so many throughout the sport’s history. It was a story of talent fighting through the market for whatever opportunities it could, of patience and bad luck and one night to make it all count.
As the boxing world says goodbye to Vernon Forrest, it is fitting to look back and ask how good he was, measured against all-time?
In answering the question, five categories will be examined:
2. Competition Faced
3. Competition Not Faced
4. Reaction to Adversity
5. What’s Left to Prove
With that in mind, let’s head to…
The Tale of the Tape
Lived: February 12, 1971 – July 25, 2009
Hailed From: Augusta, Georgia
Turned Professional: November 25, 1992 (TKO1 Charles Hawkins)
Record: 41-3, 29 KO
Record in Title Fights: 6-3, 1 KO, 1 No Contest
Lineal World Titles: World Welterweight (2002-03, 1 Defense)
Other Major Titles: IBF Welterweight (2001); WBC Welterweight (2002-03, 1 Defense); WBC Jr. Middleweight (2007-08, 1 Defenses; 2008)
Current/Former Lineal World Champions Defeated: 2 (Shane Mosley, Carlos Baldomir)
Current/Former Lineal World Champions Faced in Defeat: 1 (Ricardo Mayorga)
Current/Former Alphabet Titlists Defeated: 5 (Santiago Samaniego, Vince Phillips, Ike Quartey, Michele Piccirillo, Sergio Mora)
Current/Former Alphabelt Titlists Faced in Defeat: 1 (Sergio Mora)
Long before he caught the eyes of professional boxing fans, Forrest logged an amateur tenure insiders followed fervently. Posting a mark of 225-15 in the unpaid ranks, Forrest faced some of the biggest names of his generation long before they were stars. He was the 1991 U.S. Amateur champion and finished second in the World tournament the same year. Through the elimination rounds, he knocked off future professional victim Piccirillo only to lose to the phenomenal Kostya Tszyu in a bout still popular in collector circles.
In 1992, he furthered his headgear credentials by winning a spot on the U.S. Olympic team, defeating a string of future professional champions and title challengers. In the first round, he outpointed Robert Frazier to set up one of the more storied amateur bouts ever, a defeat of Shane Mosley when Mosley was believed by some the best amateur in the world. Two wins over future Lightweight champion Stevie Johnston sent Forrest to the Barcelona Games along with other notables Tim Austin, Chris Byrd, and Oscar De La Hoya. Forrest’s trip was a short one, a shocking first round exit, and then it was off to the professionals before the year was out.
Many an Olympian finds the road to championship gold laid out before them but Forrest didn’t travel an easy road. He quietly amassed a 30-0 record with spotty television coverage before making his first appearance on HBO against former Jr. Welterweight titlist Vince Phillips, setting up a shot at the IBF belt vacated by Felix Trinidad in 2000. Like the arc of his career, the shot would ultimately be frustrating. Forrest met prohibitive underdog Raul Frank in August 2006 expecting to win and leaving after three rounds with nothing decided because of an accidental clash of heads. Forrest memorably came to tears after the fight.
He wanted it that bad.
He finally got it on May 12, 2001 on the undercard of Trinidad-William Joppy, easily outboxing Frank only to vacate the belt later in the year to set up an even bigger opportunity: a shot at the man perceived as the best Welterweight in the World. Forrest proved otherwise, dropping WBC and lineal champion Shane Mosley twice en route to a unanimous decision win on January 26, 2002. He repeated the win in an immediate July rematch only to find himself the victim of an upset twice over in 2003 at the hands of wild swinging Ricardo Mayorga.
Shoulder injuries kept Forrest out of the ring from July 2003 to July 2005 when he embarked on a comeback. Three wins, including a disputed victory over fellow comebacker Ike Quartey, set up a shot at a WBC belt vacated by Floyd Mayweather at Jr. Middleweight. He widely outpointed former Welterweight champion Carlos Baldomir in July 2007 and defended once before a surprising loss to Contender Season One winner Sergio Mora in June 2008. In what would be his final bout, Forrest scored revenge and regained the belt against Mora on the undercard of Juan Manuel Marquez-Joel Casamayor just a few months later.
Forrest was named Fighter of the Year in 2002 by Ring Magazine and the Boxing Writers Association of America.
Little of note can be found on his record until a 1997 decision win over cable favorite and fringe contender Ray Oliveira, followed in 1998 with a knockout over future title challenger Adrian Stone. The Samaniego win in 1999, by knockout, came a few years before Samaniego would find a claim to a Jr. Middleweight belt and was followed with Phillips, still sturdy if past his best.
Frank was a typical mandatory, connected without much of a resume, but the Mosley wins make a somewhat thin resume extremely top heavy. Mosley, still competing at the top of the Welterweight division today, was regarded in some corners as the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world when Forrest beat him the first time.
The choice of Mayorga was interesting. Mayorga had a belt (WBA) and was one of two quality new faces to emerge with titles in 2002 outside the Forrest-Mosley rivalry, the other being WBO titlist Antonio Margarito. He gets credit for seeking unification though ultimately he failed in a third round stoppage loss and a close decision defeat in the rematch.
After recovering from injury, Forrest faced varied competition. Quartey, a former Welterweight titlist, was a still solid foe who had proven it in coming back from almost five years off to step right back into contention at Jr. Middleweight. The scoring of Forrest-Quartey was among the most debatable points of 2006, but Forrest got the nod and it led Forrest back to titled circles.
Baldomir was coming off his Welterweight title loss to Mayweather and Forrest cemented the end of his Cinderella ride. Piccirillo was a standard mandatory type; lucky via hometown scoring to have once been a major titlist at Welterweight, and Mora was conveyed legitimacy by beating Forrest but was highly suspect prior. That Forrest came right back and clowned Mora spoke to the disparate levels of talent between the two.
Competition Not Faced
As always this section addresses fights missed, regardless of the reasons. However, the reasons are notable and will be addressed later.
When historians look back on his career, it will obviously be the Mosley win which stands out. Those scanning the recorded memories of these times will see an absence of other superstars. There was no De La Hoya, Trinidad, Mayweather, or Fernando Vargas.
Mayorga was noted as an interesting choice. The interest comes from perception. While currently under a cloud of suspicion, and suspension, Margarito had none of those things after a breaking out of the blocks. Even in 2003 Margarito would have been seen as a stiffer challenge than Mayorga. Mayorga, a 10-1 underdog, was viewed as the easiest route to another belt.
In the last year, Forrest and Paul Williams were rated by most as the two best Jr. Middleweights in the world while Sergio Martinez emerged as a quality mandatory for Forrest. Forrest vacated the WBC belt rather than tangling with Martinez and a Williams fight never really garnered traction.
In a calculated analysis, Forrest’s competition not faced outweighs his competition faced. Mosley is a great opponent but alone can’t tip the scales. What happens when one moves beyond calculated analysis though?
Reaction to Adversity
Beyond the mere calculation of listing names in a chart, we find the three obstacles which most troubled Forrest’s boxing career: timing, opportunity, and injury. How Forrest dealt with each says a lot about the type of professional he was.
Timing was crucial. It was Forrest’s misfortune to turn pro in a crowded field which got even more so as he developed. Before the end of his second professional year, the Welterweights were dominated by Pernell Whitaker, Trinidad and Quartey, all with eyes already looking forward to the hope of a De La Hoya payday, all with styles more fan friendly than Forrest’s. Mosley, Vargas and 1996 Olympian David Reid managed the attention and high profile matchmaking Forrest was missing, allowing them opportunity first.
All Forrest could do was keep winning…and wait. Many a fighter has found the task too difficult given the years required from Forrest, title shots eluding him for almost eight years. He navigated through what had to be bitter frustration until his opportunity came. With one night to make it count, he did. A loss to Mosley would likely have relegated him to the fringes for good and he fought a perfect fight to avoid those fates.
It was as good as it would ever get.
After the Mosley wins, he was moving towards the mega-paydays and, had he kept winning, it would have been difficult for De La Hoya to avoid him. He didn’t keep winning and the Mayorga losses couldn’t have come at a worse time and two years of shoulder rehab halted any chance to reverse their affects. When he returned, he was again in line behind a Mosley he’d beaten and a Mayorga who was rewarded even after losing to Cory Spinks with fights against Trinidad and De La Hoya.
In terms of the losses as fights, Mayorga surprised him but also brought out some of the best of Forrest. In their first fight, an early knockdown brought out the warrior in Forrest. It was ill advised but made for a sizzling fight, answering questions about his instincts in a war. The rematch, which many in the press felt should have gone to Forrest, showed off a fighter unsure early but grown in courage by the end. Under fire and behind early on, he worked out the demons of defeat and had his feet firmly beneath him and the fight under control at the final bell. It got away from him on the cards, but not without Forrest making a statement.
The disappointment of the second Mayorga fight, the injuries, and the unforgiving nature of aging might have sent many a fighter into retirement but Forrest didn’t give up. It must be noted he had at least one powerful angel on his shoulder: Al Haymon. The advisor to the stars kept him relevant with major cable dates upon his return and who knows? There might have been another big opportunity before he was done. As it was, the final boxing memory of Forrest will be the two fights with Mora. The reality T.V. product caught a Forrest who seemingly didn’t prepare as sharply as he had in the past the first time around. Forrest showed professional resolve in their rematch, the most he could do under the circumstances.
He leaves us as what he been for most of his career: a winner.
What’s Left to Prove
Further proving ground for Forrest will be posthumous and there will be two avenues which can further his esteem. Mosley, at 37, holds a hot hand in the sport. With each legacy enhancing win Mosley picks up, the stature of what Forrest pulled off against him can grow. It will be particularly true should Mosley knock off the likes of Manny Pacquiao and/or Floyd Mayweather before he’s done.
Mora could also factor into increased acclaim. Still rumored as a potential Middleweight title challenger, any major victories he picks up will add value to his name being on Forrest’s resume.
Measured Against History
Boxing has a way of elevating the mystique of avoided fighters over time and it may be the ultimate fate of Forrest. Forrest’s available competition pool was among the deepest of recent times, though much depends on how available is defined. Forrest, whose excellent jab and fundamentals made him hard to beat and not always fun to watch, never developed into a firm A-side of promotional equations. It left him as a definitive risk-reward fighter, meaning the rewards for facing him didn’t match the risk for some of the game’s biggest stars.
While the men he didn’t face outnumber the men he did, little of that was his fault. Forrest and his team gained a reputation over the years for being hard negotiators but the bottom line is that his choice of opponents wasn’t always his choice. Had the biggest names come calling, it is impossible to think he wouldn’t have answered.
Beyond Mosley, the calls didn’t come.
There were easier ways to make a living.
And yet he still had a career the envy of almost anyone who ever laced them up. For a short period, he rode the top of boxing’s most storied division as its rightful king and made for an excellent feel-good story for the sport. When the names of the Welterweight champions are tolled off, his name will fall in line with the likes of Mickey Walker, Sugar Ray Robinson, and Jose Napoles. Regardless of where he rates in comparison to those men, he earned his place in their fraternity.
Combined with his work outside the ring, and the final valorous act which took him away from the world too early, Forrest stood out as a champion and as a man’s man. It may one day be enough to put him up for a Hall of Fame vote which will work itself out in its own course.
Verdict on Vernon Forrest: Not an All-Time Great but Still One Hell of a Fighter
Author’s Note: This is an occasional series which will examine the most accomplished of modern fighters in seeking to establish how their careers stack up with history’s finest.
Joe Calzaghe – https://www.boxingscene.com/?m=show&id=16920
Oscar De La Hoya – https://www.boxingscene.com/?m=show&id=17277
James Toney – https://www.boxingscene.com/?m=show&id=17450
Evander Holyfield – https://www.boxingscene.com/?m=show&id=17642
Shane Mosley – https://www.boxingscene.com/?m=show&id=18011
Dariusz Michalczewski: https://www.boxingscene.com/?m=show&id=20296
Next up: Roy Jones Jr.
Cliff Rold is a member of the Ring Magazine Ratings Advisory Panel and the Boxing Writers Association of America. He can be reached at email@example.com