Farewell Uncle Vern
Adam Smith takes an emotional look back at the life of Vernon Forrest, a man who 'championed life'.
Last Updated: 30/07/09 1:57pm
I'm actually pretty devastated writing this blog while on holiday. It has taken some time for the news of Vernon Forrest's senseless murder at the age of just 38 to sink in. There were tears in my eyes when I heard last weekend.
What a period for our close-knit sport. Alexis Arguello, Arturo Gatti and now Vernon's gone too. I knew Vernon, I liked him immensely. Everybody did.
There is something truly amazing about fighters and their characters. So many go through so much and because of their huge dedication and discipline, most become wonderful human beings.
Vernon Forrest was one such man. He was a fine sportsman. He became a champion in his field. But far more importantly than that he championed life, with his huge commitment and love for underprivileged people.
Vernon Forrest laced up the gloves at nine, and compiled an impressive 225-16 record as an amateur. A world silver medallist, Forrest was a member of the excellent US team who went to the Barcelona Olympics, where of course Oscar De La Hoya won gold.
Vernon had beaten Shane Mosley in the trials, and was expected to shine. Yet, brought down by food poisoning, he was beaten in the first round by Britain's Peter Richardson. Forrest returned home to Georgia and turned professional. On account of not succeeding at the Olympics, he had to go about things the hard way.
Utilising his blend of height, reach, jab, technical skills and power, Forrest crafted his way to an unbeaten record of 31-0. Then his first challenge, for the world welterweight title against Raul Frank, ended in a No Contest in three rounds.
Forrest met Frank again in a rematch at Madison Square Garden in May, 2001. He dominated, winning the fight by a unanimous decision to claim the title. He long told me that victory had 'got the monkey off his back'.
Vernon though, made his name against Shane Mosley (who this week revealed his upset at what happened to his old rival). Many felt that 'Sugar Shane' was, back then, the very best fighter in the world. However, Forrest floored Mosley for the first time in his life in January 2002, and scored a big upset win on points. Six months later in a closer rematch, Forrest beat Mosley again.
This earned Forrest the Ring Magazine 2002 Fighter of the Year award. It was time for the Sky boys to pay him a visit.
Vernon was at the height of his boxing powers, when we hit Atlanta.
The southern city's more famous resident, Evander Holyfield, gave us a guided tour of his extraordinary 109-room mansion, but we all left talking about that 'amazing' Vernon Forrest. We had a fascinating couple of days with Vernon, when he opened his world to us.
We found out that Vernon was an intelligent man who had received a scholarship to Northern Michigan University, where he'd majored in business administration. We also discovered how unbelievably caring he was; both with his generosity and his incredible finding in life.
Destiny's Child was Vernon's wonderful project which provided group housing for mentally-challenged young adults in the Atlanta area; how tragic that he was gunned down in the very city he'd helped so much. Kelly Swanson, his heartbroken publicist, added: "It was the essence of his being."
Vernon told us that it had all emerged after he once watched a child struggle to tie his shoelaces for an hour. He said he became so frustrated watching the youngster try so hard to do something most of us just take for granted, that he could no longer take it for granted. Another man refused to help the child because he hoped the youngster would work it out.
The youngster's pain broke Vernon however, and he eventually helped him tie his shoes. From that moment on, Vernon Forrest set out to assist others with similar struggles: feeling that whatever problems he had just paled into insignificance.
His passions began with aiding the mentally-challenged. He helped create and establish Destiny's Child - a group home that provided housing and assistance to mentally challenged adults. He employed trained mental health experts. Vernon introduced us to his friends. That's what they were. His pals. There were about 30 of them, and they all loved their 'Uncle Vern'.
The way he helped provide these terrific characters, who had been 'in awful places', on the very brink, and left on the streets by others, was so heart-warming. It was a fabulous set-up. They had a roof over their heads, safety, help and hope. Some were even employed, or seeking work.
We got to know the crew, as Vernon explained that he never had an entourage like most fighters. He just had his biggest fans, this brave and lovely group. They could be seen in the crowd at any Vernon Forrest fight.
Mikey-Mike was the one I remember being the comedian; the leader of the pack. The camaraderie was tremendous; one evening we went round to Vernon's house and all the guys were there, having a pizza night. Vernon told us he often did that and here was the most astonishing thing - they all had their own key to his house. It was always open.
This remains probably the most refreshing and emotional boxing story I have ever worked on.
Vernon's interviews were from the heart. He craved helping others, but also wanted his own place in boxing history. He still had things to tick off and 'chalk up' on his list... pound-for-pound king, Hall of Fame.
Vernon 'The Viper' Forrest never quite achieved legendary status in the ring. He had setbacks against Ricardo Mayorga. In January 2003, The wild Nicaraguan handed him his first professional loss when he was knocked out in the third round. Later that year, he fought Mayorga again and lost by a controversial majority decision.
Forrest took two years off from fighting because of injuries. He had reconstructive surgery on his left arm, and further work to repair a torn rotator cuff, plus cartilage and nerve damage on his left elbow.
He fought back, winning a 10-round unanimous decision over Ike Quartey, before capturing the WBC light-middleweight title on July 28, 2007, winning a unanimous decision when he outboxed and outclassed Carlos Baldomir. I commentated on that victory - it was a sublime performance and he almost looked back to his best.
Forrest successfully defended his light-middleweight title against Italian Michele Piccirillo, with an 11th-round stoppage, but lost the belt to 'The Contender' winner Sergio Mora via a 12-round majority decision. He reclaimed his world title in September 2008, against Sergio Mora, with a unanimous decision.
Recently he had lost the belt through inactivity, but was ironically due to start camp with Buddy McGirt next week to challenge new holder Sergio Martinez (who has said how much he idolised Forrest).
Troubled by injuries, and having to carve his own, often unheralded path, meant Forrest never really became a boxing superstar.
He was, though, an excellent two-weight world champion who looked formidable at his peak and battled hard to prolong his career with an Indian Summer. He had really recovered form. Forrest ended with a fantastic slate of 45 fights, 41 wins (29 by KO), three defeats and that lone No Contest.
Vernon had a great trophy cabinet of world title belts, medals and the like. When I was with him, he even let me hold the Olympic torch that he had carried in the Atlanta Games. Vernon was so proud and humbled by the fact he had even been asked.
Yet Vernon Forrest was held in the highest regard. In fact he lit up lives. He was one of the most gracious and charitable fighters, and he will be sorely and sadly missed.
He used to tell my colleague Charles Lawrence that 'jab beats speed'. I won't forget your jab, Vernon, nor your enormous heart. Vernon Forrest made a difference. I'm proud to have known him, and so sad to have had to write this. The boxing team here at Sky Sports all have Vernon T-shirts and photos which we will now cherish.
Vernon was one of life's good guys, in the crazy, unpredictable, wonderful but often shocking world in which we live. He strived to make the world a better place. That's not a cliche. That's true. It's a terribly sad end and a waste of someone extremely special.
He leaves behind countless friends, and a young son Vernon Jr. Rest in peace 'Uncle Vern'...
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