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The Ring Remembers two-weight world champion Vernon Forrest on his 50th birthday

Photo from The Ring archive
12
Jan

Had Vernon Forrest chosen differently on the night of July 25, 2009, it is very likely that this day — January 12, 2020 — would have been a landmark one in his life. After all, today would have marked his 50th birthday, a day of celebration and contemplation for most of us.

No one knows what events would have unfolded had Forrest been alive for the past 10-plus years. Perhaps he might have seen his name on the International Boxing Hall of Fame ballot or he may have increased his sphere of influence in the philanthropic world thanks to his work with Destiny’s Child, the non-profit organization he started in 1997 with friend and social worker Toy Johnson.  He might have earned accolades and awards beyond those he had already received; in 2002 he was named the Fighter of the Year by The Ring and the Boxing Writers Association of America and was the recipient of the BWAA’s Marvin Kohn Good Guy Award in 2003. According to the New York Daily News’ Mitch Abramson, Forrest and trainer James “Buddy” McGirt were scheduled to begin training on August 1 for a fight that had not yet been announced.

But because Forrest chose to chase and to shoot at the man who carjacked him at a gas station in Atlanta, a chain of events were set in motion that ultimately led to his murder. The three men involved — Jquante Crews, DeMario Ware and Charman Sinkfield — were sentenced to life in prison while those who knew and loved Forrest were forced to confront the aftermath of what had occurred.

Forrest’s sudden and savage demise capped what had been a tumultuous and confounding month for boxing fans. In the space of 24 days, three former world champions met their ends in violent fashion — Alexis Arguello by gunshot on July 1, Arturo Gatti by asphyxiation on July 11 and Forrest by murder on July 26 (he was declared dead after midnight). Although authorities declared Arguello and Gatti had committed suicide, many still believe outside forces cut their lives short, just as Forrest’s had been.

While all of us are left to speculate on what could have been had he remained with us, his achievements during his years on earth are worth remembering.

Vernon Forrest was born January 12, 1971 in Augusta, Georgia. He was one of eight children, and at age nine he was introduced to boxing by walking into the Chaffee Park Gym after being kicked out of the Boys and Girls Club for his repeated street scraps. His length, speed and point-building style earned him a boxing scholarship at Northern Michigan University as well as a 225-16 amateur record that included first place at the 1991 U.S. National Championships (where he defeated Steve Johnston in the final), a silver medal in the 1991 World Championships (where he lost to Kostya Tszyu in the final) and a berth on the 1992 U.S. Olympic team after defeating Robert Frazier, Shane Mosley and Johnston in a three-day span.

Forrest, along with Cuba’s Hector Vinent, was a strong gold medal hope entering the 1992 games in Barcelona. Great Britain’s Peter Richardson was Forrest’s first opponent, and he was expected to easily defeat him based on his 33-18 quarterfinal victory in the 1991 World Championships. That expectation was shattered after Richardson won 14-8 under the newly adopted “computerized scoring system.” A probable cause: A case of food poisoning Forrest acquired the day before the match. With Forrest out of the way, Vinent went on to win the gold medal by defeating Canada’s Mark Leduc 11-1 in the final.

Without the multi-million dollar signing bonus or the promotional push given to gold medalists — that treatment was reserved for Oscar De La Hoya, the lone American to win the tournament in Barcelona — Forrest moved to Las Vegas and began his pro career in decidedly under-the-radar fashion. He easily disposed of his early opponents — the first six were stopped inside of three rounds — and he continued to win as his level of opposition was raised at a seemingly glacial rate.

He captured his first regional belt in November 1997 when he outpointed Ray Oliveira over 12 rounds for the WBC Continental Americas title to raise his record to 23-0 (18 KOs). His stock continued to rise with wins over Adrian Stone for the vacant NABF welterweight title (KO 11) as well as defenses against Ed Griffin (KO 2), Steve Martinez (KO 1), Santiago Samaniego (KO 7) and former IBF junior welterweight titleholder Vince Phillips (W 12). He was a fighter stars like De La Hoya and Felix Trinidad avoided because he was unusually tall for the weight class (six feet), owned an expansive wingspan (73 inches), boasted sneaky two-fisted power that was set up by excellent boxing skills and, most importantly, brought too little to the table in terms of attracting the big money necessary to justify the very real risk he presented.

The Phillips victory earned Forrest a crack at the IBF welterweight title recently vacated by longtime champion Trinidad. He was matched against Guyana’s Raul Frank, a 15-1 underdog whose status as the No. 1 contender despite not having fought in the last 15 months led HBO’s Larry Merchant to muse about “the mysteries of the mandatories.” Forrest felt his many rounds sparring with Main Events stable mate Pernell Whitaker prepared him for this moment, but that moment was spoiled in Round 3 when an accidental clash of heads produced a fight-ending gash on Frank’s forehead. The fight was declared a no-contest because the fight had not yet reached the end of round four, but had it gone to the scorecards — and had the judges not been instructed to score the partial third round — it still would have been deemed a draw (20-18 Forrest, 19-19 twice).

The inconclusive ending led to a rematch on the undercard of WBA middleweight champion William Joppy’s title defense against Trinidad in May 2001, a fight that was twice postponed by injuries. Forrest said before the bout that he had trained for Frank for an entire year and the proof of his diligence was that on fight night, the 145 ¼ -pounder scaled just 147 compared to Frank’s 158. Imagine that: A welterweight competing at welterweight poundage in a welterweight title fight.

After 12 workmanlike rounds in which Forrest out-classed Frank — the younger brother of onetime middleweight title challenger and 1984 Olympian Steve Frank — the 1992 Olympian was declared the new IBF welterweight titleholder by scores of 120-108 and 118-110 (twice).

Finally, after nearly nine years as a professional, Forrest had achieved his ultimate objective. But because two more fights were set to take place on the pay-per-view — Chris Byrd versus Maurice Harris and Trinidad versus Joppy — the post-fight interview with Merchant was scrapped.

Following a non-title victory over Edgar Ruiz (KO 4), the fight for which Forrest had long sought was finally granted when WBC counterpart Shane Mosley, the No. 1 pound-for-pound boxer courtesy of his 38-0 (35 KOs) record, his career-defining victory over then-WBC welterweight titleholder Oscar De La Hoya in June 2000, and his subsequent wins over Antonio Diaz (KO 6), Shannan Taylor (KO 5) and Adrian Stone (KO 3). Many pundits credited Mosley for risking his star status against Forrest, but for “Sugar Shane” it was an opportunity to salve a nearly decade-long wound — his 25-14 points loss to Forrest at the Olympic trials on June 12, 1992.

“I think I lost that fight, not because of my ability, but because I didn’t do the very best that I can do,” Mosley said. “I didn’t give my 100 percent all.”

“He can make up all the excuses he wants,” Forrest countered. “I proved that I was the better fighter then, and I’m going to prove that I’m the better fighter now.”

September 2002 cover

Forrest carried additional chips on his shoulder due to the 7-to-1 odds against him, the fact that he was stripped of his IBF title for taking the Mosley match, and that he was forced to play second fiddle to Mosley then as well as now. Before the 1992 trials, Forrest and Mosley shared the No. 1 spot among U.S. amateurs but in a move interpreted by Forrest as that of preferential treatment, Mosley was seeded first in the tournament. Now, as pros, Forrest saw Mosley as the beneficiary of star treatment while Forrest was cast as “the other guy.”

“It’s deja vu all over again,” he said. “I had to wait on my opportunity to fight De La Hoya or Trinidad. He fights one fight (at welterweight, which actually was two fights against Wilfredo Rivera and Willy Wise) and they give him my spot (to challenge De La Hoya). Of all the people they could give the spot to, they gave him my spot.”

Following a first round in which Forrest threw more (60 punches to 36) and Mosley land more (15-7 overall, 8-3 jabs, 7-4 power), the early moments of Round 2 bore witness to a hard clash of heads that opened a cut near Mosley’s hairline. A little more than a minute later, Forrest connected with a sharp right cross that snapped Mosley’s head and rubberized his legs. Before the fight, Mosley called that long right hand “The Woo Punch” because of what people said when it landed, but what it did here was set up the signature moment of this match — and of Forrest’s career.

A subsequent combination backed Mosley toward the ropes, where Forrest landed a massive right uppercut and a follow-up left-right that caused Mosley to collapse in sections. It was the first knockdown of Mosley’s pro career but “Sugar Shane” managed to roll to his feet by Steve Smoger’s count of four. Forrest gunned for the kill, and he nearly got it with another “Woo Punch” with 17 seconds remaining. Mosley did his best to ride out the round, but his shaky legs failed him just enough for Smoger to call a second knockdown just before the bell.

Forrest kept Mosley on the run throughout the third, and by the fourth he had recovered enough to compete with Forrest but not enough to beat him. Forrest steadily widened his lead with his consummate boxing skills and crisper power shots, and the final result was illustratively lopsided scores of 118-108, 117-108 and 115-110.

This time, Forrest got that post-fight interview with Merchant, and when asked why he had Shane Mosley’s number, he said the following: “People think that speed is everything, but I know how to fight speed. A jab stops speed. Young fighters out there: Any time you’re fighting a guy with extremely fast hands, just use your jab.”

Later, he credited reworking the mechanics of his right cross so that it landed with impressive precision.

“It was a heat-seeking missile and I was cracking him with it,” he declared.

The career-defining victory vaulted Forrest to No. 5 in The Ring’s pound-for-pound rankings — tied for the highest debut of any fighter since the list began in the January 1990 issue (Diego Corrales also entered at No. 5 after his three-round demolition of Angel Manfredy in September 2000 while Israel Vazquez did so after his second fight with Rafael Marquez in August 2007). The win also served to justify his hard-work/long-game approach to life.

“In everything I do, I have to do it best,” he said in the September 2002 issue of The Ring. “If I can’t be the best, I don’t want to do it. Coming up, I always knew that in order for me to be successful, rise above where I was at, I had to work twice as hard as everybody else. I was always playing catch-up. I wasn’t the smartest kid in school, so I had to work harder. I don’t think I was blessed with the best athletic ability, so I had to work harder. I felt I had to work harder than everybody else.”

Because the first result was so surprising — and because Mosley demanded it and Forrest was willing to grant it — an immediate rematch was arranged to take place less than six months later. As Merchant accurately put it, it was made because “we want to make sure we saw what we saw.”

Forrest was the first fighter to both drop Mosley and defeat him. Photo from The Ring archive

Although the Las Vegas odds had Forrest a 7-5 favorite, an online poll of HBO viewers believed Mosley would avenge his defeat by a 67-33 percent margin. Additionally, Mosley repeatedly blamed the effects of the second-round butt — not the effects of the second-round knockdown — for the loss. Moreover, “Sugar Shane” insisted the head clash was intentional and that Forrest learned the illegal technique while training with Evander Holyfield, whose cranium claimed more than its share of opponents’ scalps. So, in multiple ways, Forrest, the defending champion, was still fighting for universal respect.

The rematch was more competitive, but also more messy as the fighters repeatedly fell into clinches and failed to produce sustained offense. But while Mosley hit the target more forcefully and more precisely (he led 44%-27% overall, 40%-14% jabs and 48%-43% power), Forrest was more active in a rather inactive contest (37.2 punches per round to Mosley’s 21.6) and he boxed well enough and often enough to earn the unanimous decision (117-111, 116-112, 115-113). Also, Forrest — the 2-1 underdog on HBO.com’s survey before the fight — now was viewed as a solid 56-44 percent winner by the online fans.

His superiority over Mosley confirmed, Forrest — now The Ring’s reigning Fighter of the Year — moved on to the next challenge, and because he wanted (and got) a six-fight contract with HBO, that challenge was Costa Rica-based Nicaraguan Ricardo Mayorga, the WBA welterweight titleholder.

Mayorga couldn’t have been more different than the polished, technically sound and ever-smiling Mosley; in fact, a good case can be made that he was the Central American equivalent of colorful heavyweight title challenger “Two Ton” Tony Galento. Like Galento, “The Maniac From Managua” spoke his mind with no regard to political correctness and he chain-smoked and guzzled beer while not in hard training. Mayorga spoke of opponents with a disdainful sneer, peppered his descriptions of them with plenty of blue language and, like Galento, oozed supreme confidence even when matched against the very best. In the ring, Galento and Mayorga demanded confrontation, fired punches from unpredictable angles and connected with pulverizing power with their money shot, which, for Galento, was the left hook, and, for Mayorga, the right cross. Mayorga also linked himself with the legendary Roberto Duran by bragging that he, like “Manos de Piedra,” once knocked out a horse with one punch, but, in Mayorga’s case, he said he hit the horse only after the animal kicked him. In a final, incongruous flourish, the bull-like Mayorga was nicknamed “El Matador.”

Following a lengthy ring walk that featured a rapper, Forrest lived up to his billing as the 6-1 favorite by imposing his long-range game on Mayorga throughout most of Round 1. In the closing seconds, however, a sweeping hook followed by a cuffing left around the neck that pulled Forrest to the floor moved referee Marty Denkin to declare an official knockdown.

With Forrest suddenly down 10-8 on all scorecards, he and chief second Ronnie Shields felt enough urgency to change to a far more aggressive fight plan. At first it paid dividends as he nailed Mayorga with a right uppercut in Round 2 as well as a series of power shots that caused Mayorga to mockingly ask for more. While Forrest did enough to win the second session with his new strategy, fighting the other man’s fight usually results in disaster. In Round 3, that disaster struck.

Shortly after Mayorga drove an off-balanced Forrest into the ropes with a wild hook, he hit the mark with a right to the side of the face that snipped Forrest’s wires. The glassy-eyed Forrest used the ropes to pull himself upright but because he was completely unresponsive when Denkin waved his index finger from side to side, the official waved off the fight.

Just like that, Forrest’s undefeated record, title belt and HBO contract were gone. However, he did have a mandatory rematch clause in his back pocket, and he invoked it during the post-fight press conference. Determined to regain the focus that marked his rise, Forrest minimized his pre-fight comments, toned down his ring walk and vowed to fight his fight instead of Mayorga’s. Forrest’s argument rang true with the 80 percent of Ring Magazine prognosticators who picked him to win. Forrest also was a narrow 51-49 percent choice by those who logged onto HBO’s website.

The second fight was much closer than the first, but in the end it was Mayorga who won the majority decision. By doing so, Mayorga did to Forrest exactly what Forrest did to Mosley. First, Forrest was the first man to floor Mosley while Mayorga was the first man to floor Forrest. Second, Forrest knocked Mosley off his pound-for-pound perch while Mayorga did the same to Forrest’s high ranking. Third,  Forrest won the first Mosley fight lopsidedly while winning the second narrowly and Mayorga followed the same script. Finally, Forrest will be remembered for having Mosley’s number just as Mayorga will be remembered for having Forrest’s.

Forrest at war with Ike Quartey. Photo by Nick Laham/Getty Images

Forrest, however, was nowhere near through, although his progress was slowed by three shoulder surgeries in a four-year period. Knockouts of Sergio Rios (KO 2) and Elco Garcia (KO 10) as well as a razor-thin (and controversial) decision over former WBA welterweight titleholder Ike Quartey vaulted Forrest into a chance for the WBC junior middleweight title vacated by Floyd Mayweather.  Forrest’s opponent was Carlos Baldomir, last seen losing his WBC welterweight title to Mayweather by lopsided decision eight months earlier. Just as the wild-swinging , unorthodox Baldomir fell to Mayweather’s science, he also did so against Forrest’s — and the Argentine hurt his cause greatly by having to sweat off 50 pounds during the training cycle. The only difficult moments for the 36-year-old Forrest occurred in Round 9 when he was buzzed by a right cross, then penalized for a low blow moments later. The final scorecards of 118-109 (twice) and 116-112 reflected the ease with which the longer, quicker and scientific Forrest outclassed Baldomir, whose style seemed tailor-made for the now two-division champion.

Forrest showed even better form less than five months later against ex-IBF welterweight titleholder Michele Piccirillo, whom he outboxed for 10 rounds before flattening him with a pair of right crosses in the 11th. Shortly before the knockout, Showtime’s Al Bernstein declared “this is as good as Vernon Forrest can look,” but the same could not be said of him when he met Sergio Mora, who, at the time, was best known for winning the inaugural “Contender” tournament and its $1 million prize. Mora’s quirky, fast-twitch, switch-hitting style inspired the nickname “The Latin Snake,” but Forrest anticipated no trouble because Mora was the first fighter with whom he sparred following one of his shoulder surgeries, claiming he dominated with one hand while laughing. Mora, of course, remembered differently, and with him boasting the identical height (6 feet) and wingspan (73 inches) Mora ‘s tactics would not be strictly dictated by anatomy.

Mora’s youth, speed and sharpness served him well against the aging Forrest, who started well but lost steam in the second half, especially in the final two rounds when the younger and undefeated (20-0-1) Mora out-speeded and out-fought the veteran. Mora’s better work down the stretch was rewarded with a majority decision victory that many did not expect him to win but also one that he earned.

Mora said before the fight that had he won he would have immediately vacated the belt and returned to 160, but when a rematch to be held just three months later was offered, Mora took the deal. Meanwhile, a far more focused Forrest assumed the role of aggressor by keeping Mora on the back foot while also maintaining his preferred range by jabbing brilliantly (7.8 connects per round and 31 percent accuracy). He also connected with the stronger and more accurate blows throughout and he performed far better in the later rounds as he out-landed Mora 71-23 overall, 32-9 jabs and 39-14 power in the final three stanzas.

In what would be the final round of his professional career, Forrest out-landed Mora 33-6 overall, 12-2 jabs and 21-4 power to extend his final leads to 231-83 overall, 95-36 jabs and 136-47 power while creating accuracy gaps of 36%-17% overall, 31%-16% jabs and 42%-19% power. Forrest’s comprehensive victory (119-108, 118-109, 117-110) resulted in Forrest becoming a two-time champion at 154 to go with his two reigns at 147 while also raising his record to 41-3 (29 KOs).

Forrest and Sergio Mora trade shots in their rematch. Photo by Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images

At 37 years 254 days, Forrest became the second-oldest fighter at the time to win a piece of the 154-pound title behind Verno Phillips, who, at 38 years 128 days, dethroned Cory Spinks less than six months earlier. He also held the third spot (36 years 206 days) thanks to the Baldomir win in July 2007, but with the influx of older champions in recent years Forrest is now the third and seventh oldest to win a junior middleweight title belt behind Cornelius Bundrage, who was 41 years 179 days old when he outpointed Carlos Molina in October 2014.

As previously mentioned, Forrest was days away from starting his next training cycle when he stopped at a gas station to inflate his tires while his 11-year-old godson went inside to use the facilities and to purchase a bag of chips. According to stories published in the New York Daily News and Hannibal Boxing Media, Ware approached Forrest with his gun drawn and demanded the fighter’s Rolex and a custom-made ring, which Forrest gave him. But instead of reporting the robbery to the police, Forrest retrieved his own firearm from underneath the driver’s seat, a gun which was licensed in Florida and Georgia, and ran after Ware, who escaped.

Soon after, he approached Sinkfield, who Forrest initially thought had robbed him. Following a brief conversation, Sinkfield convinced Forrest he was not the man who had just stolen his property, but as the boxer turned his back and began walking toward his car, Sinkfield fired seven to eight bullets into Forrest’s back and hopped into the getaway car driven by Crews. Forrest was pronounced dead in the early-morning hours of July 26, 2009. He was 38 years old.

According to a 2016 article posted by the Atlanta Journal Constitution, accounts from local residents filled in some of the puzzle pieces regarding the murder but surveillance cameras at the store and a nearby apartment building showed Ware fleeing from the scene, and a positive ID was secured when Ware’s face was documented. Ware surrendered at the district attorney’s office the day after Forrest’s August 4 funeral while Crews was apprehended the next day at his brother’s home. Sinkfield’s arrest was complicated by the fact that he was a twin, but his identity was confirmed when a database search found Charman’s sibling Oronde was serving a six-year sentence for weapons charges at the Williamsburg Federal Correction Institute in Salters, South Carolina on the night of Forrest’s killing. Sinkfield was arrested following a chase involving 12 unmarked vehicles on August 12.

As is often the case, the wheels of justice turned very slowly. In 2011, Ware was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole while Crew received a life sentence without parole plus 10 years in 2012. In October 2016, Sinkfield, the gunman, received life without parole.

Throughout boxing history, hundreds of thousands of fighters sought to make an everlasting mark. The vast majority of them are relegated to obscurity, but a fortunate few, like Vernon Forrest, not only created indelible memories inside the squared circle, but he also used his good fortune to help others.

“All I’m striving to be now is one of the best fighters in history,” Forrest told Hall of Famer Nigel Collins in 2002. “My true aim is to become one of the guys they talk about forever.”

Upon his death, those who knew him and worked with him offered his deserved praise.

“Not only was he a great champion, he was a caring humanitarian who always stood up for what he believed to be the fairness of life,” Forrest’s publicist Kelly Swanson told the Guardian shortly after his passing. “Seeing him (working) with kids showed me another side of his deeply passionate character.”

“He was the most gracious and charitable fighter in boxing and he will be missed by the entire boxing community,” said then-HBO president Ross Greenburg in the same article.

He was missed then, and, on the occasion of what would have been his 50th birthday, he remains so now.

 

Lee Groves is a boxing writer and historian based in Friendly, West Virginia. He is a full member of the BWAA, from which he has won 19 writing awards, including two first-place awards, since 2011. He has been an elector for the International Boxing Hall of Fame since 2001 and is also a writer, researcher and punch-counter for CompuBox, Inc. He is the author of “Tales from the Vault: A Celebration of 100 Boxing Closet Classics” (available on Amazon) and the co-author of  “Muhammad Ali: By the Numbers” (also available on Amazon). To contact Groves about a personalized autographed copy, use the email [email protected] or send him a message via Facebook.

 

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