Forrest's impact felt beyond the ring
Can this summer get any worse? Alexis Arguello, Arturo Gatti and now Vernon Forrest -- all gone within a month. It's crazy.
The boxing community had not yet come to grips with Arguello's reported suicide and Gatti's death when news of Forrest's senseless murder emerged. He was apparently the victim of a robbery that escalated as he filled his tires with air at an Atlanta gas station Saturday night.
Forrest, who was 38 and left behind a son, Vernon Jr., didn't enjoy nearly the fame or popularity of Arguello or Gatti, but he was one hell of a fighter inside the ring and a charitable man of substance outside of it.
As good as Forrest was inside the ropes, his legacy should start with what he did for people beyond them as a co-founder of Destiny's Child, a group home that provides support and guidance for mentally challenged young adults in Atlanta.
I heard Forrest talk about it several times. He wasn't a guy who just lent his name to something. He rolled up his sleeves and got involved on a personal level.
On the July 2002 night in Indianapolis when Forrest beat Shane Mosley for the second time, several of the people who lived in the home -- people who admired Forrest as much as he admired them -- were at ringside to cheer on "Uncle Vernon."
"Not only was he a great champion, but he was a caring humanitarian who always stood up for what he believed to be the fairness of life," said a grief-stricken Kelly Swanson, Forrest's friend and publicist. "Most importantly, his work outside of the ring, particularly with his established foundation Destiny's Child, which provided group housing for mentally challenged young adults in the Atlanta area, was the shining light of his life.
"Seeing him with the kids was the essence of his being and showed me another side of his well-rounded and deeply passionate character. It was my pleasure to help tell his story."
Even though Forrest was often surly toward the media -- let's be honest, he had no use for most of us and had no problem saying so -- I know he had our respect. That's why the Boxing Writers Association of America voted him the 2002 fighter of the year and gave him the BWAA Good Guy award in 2003 for his philanthropic efforts.
"Vernon was a feisty one and always, always spoke his mind," Swanson said. "It was this intense passion for truth and justice that fueled his presence, gave him character and instilled in him a mighty resolve to the end. And yet he was such a gentleman, too, always giving back to those less fortunate and appreciating what others did for him. He would go out of his way to call and thank me profusely for the coverage he received. I will miss him dearly, and he will forever hold a very special place in my heart."
Alan Haymon was Forrest's longtime adviser. Haymon has become one of the most influential forces in boxing and is involved with numerous notable fighters, including Floyd Mayweather Jr., Paul Williams, Jermain Taylor, Antonio Tarver, Chris Arreola and Andre Dirrell.
But Forrest was different for Haymon. Forrest was his first client.
"Vernon was a great fighter, but much more importantly, he was a very special person outside the ring," Haymon said. "His charitable efforts are all well-known and documented, but that was only the tip of the iceberg. Vernon was a genuinely kind-hearted, caring and supremely principled and loyal human being. I came to know him and love him as a great friend far beyond the realm of boxing. He was the first fighter I became involved with as an advisor, and he and I had a special bond from the very beginning.
"Vernon was a great human being, and the world was a better place with him in it. I will always treasure the time we spent together and I will always love him and miss him."
So many of the people who knew Forrest talk more about him as a man than as a boxer.
Even Mosley, Forrest's most significant ring rival, considered him a friend and had a deep respect for him.
"I viewed Vernon as a great competitor in the ring and an even greater man outside of the ring," Mosley said. "His philanthropic efforts in his community and his drive to help others were deeply admired."
Vernon was a great fighter, but much more importantly, he was a very special person outside the ring. … Vernon was a great human being, and the world was a better place with him in it.” -- Al Haymon, Forrest's longtime adviser
Forrest's ring accomplishments were significant. He received the silver medal in the 1991 world amateur championships in the light welterweight division, losing in the final to Kostya Tszyu, who would go on to become the undisputed junior welterweight champion and a lock Hall of Famer. Forrest also was a 1992 U.S. Olympian, upsetting Mosley in the Olympic trials to earn the berth.
I wrote about many of his fights and was ringside for seven of them, including at Madison Square Garden on May 12, 2001, when Forrest finally won the world title that had eluded him for so long. The main event that night was far more memorable. The Garden rocked as Felix Trinidad destroyed William Joppy in five rounds to win a middleweight belt and advance to the final of the World Middleweight Championship Series to face Bernard Hopkins that fall.
Forrest fought on the undercard that night, easily outpointing Raul Frank in a dreadfully boring rematch of their no-contest to win a vacant welterweight title (one of the belts Trinidad vacated after beating Oscar De La Hoya).
But boring or not, Forrest was ecstatic to have finally won a title. Maybe it was sheer joy that made him mix his words, but I have always remembered his classic postfight quote. When asked to grade himself on a scale of 1 to 10, Forrest uttered perhaps the best Yogi-ism I've ever heard in boxing: "On a scale of 1 to 10 on grading myself, I give myself a C-plus," Forrest said.
It made a lot of us laugh, and still makes me smile, especially because it came from Forrest, who wasn't exactly a comedian when it came to dealing with the media.
But he had made it to the top, and did it without much help from his own promoter, Main Events, which handled him throughout the early part of his career.
Forrest had all the talent in the world (including a tremendous left jab and a nasty right hand), but he wasn't a big attraction and didn't have an exciting style or a big personality. He quickly found himself an afterthought to Main Events, which was way more focused on promoting three other welterweights: Pernell Whitaker (considered the pound-for-pound best when Forrest was coming up), Ike Quartey (whom HBO had major interest in) and Jose Luis Lopez (a brawler from Mexico who made exciting fights).
But Forrest scratched and clawed his way to a title, and I always respected him for his tunnel vision. Eight months and one nontitle bout after beating Frank, Forrest gave up the title he had worked so hard to earn.
Even though Forrest had won a belt, his first of four in two divisions, the reality was that he still couldn't make big money. The choice came down to earning $150,000 for a mandatory defense against Michele Piccirillo (a fighter he would eventually meet in 2007 and knock out in the 11th round of a junior middleweight title defense) or $1.2 million to meet recognized welterweight champion Mosley, this time in a professional bout.
Forrest opted for Mosley and scored the biggest victory of his career, knocking down Mosley for the first two times in his career and winning a lopsided decision at the Madison Square Garden Theater in New York in January 2002.
Forrest was a very proud man after that win. At the postfight press conference, there was some discussion about the difference between Forrest being merely a titleholder after beating Frank and being a bona fide champion after beating Mosley.
As much as he loved having his first title, Forrest understood the difference.
"You can't call me just a titlist anymore," Forrest said that night. "I'm a champion. I earned the right to be called that."
He sure did.
When Forrest (41-3, 29 KOs) scored the first knockdown against Mosley in the second round, a sudden shock wave rippled through the arena. It was as if all 5,323 people in attendance gasped in shock at the same moment. I can still hear it in my mind.
The victory gave Forrest the acclaim he had sought. Six months later, he beat Mosley again on a closer decision, but it was still clear-cut.
That was the apex of a career hampered by injuries and a loss of focus. After he beat Mosley the second time, Forrest signed a fat HBO contract, a six-fight deal worth millions if he continued to win.
But in his first fight of the deal, Forrest wasn't nearly as prepared or focused as he had been for his bouts with Mosley, and Ricardo Mayorga knocked him out in the third round of a unification match in January 2003. Mayorga beat him again via majority decision that July.
Little did anyone know, but Forrest went into the second fight with left elbow and shoulder problems that would require surgery and haunt him for the rest of his career. Forrest never complained about the injuries. He just tried to deal with them as best he could.
He would never again reach the heights he had against Mosley, but he still persevered, because that's the kind of guy Forrest was. He would win, lose and regain a junior middleweight title.
He lost it to Sergio Mora 13 months ago in a close fight but easily beat him in the rematch in September.
Forrest would walk out of the ring that night at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas with a title once again. Nobody knew it would be his last fight.
Several months later, Forrest suffered a rib injury that forced him to withdraw from an April tuneup fight and a mandatory defense against Sergio Martinez. But Forrest had hopes of fighting again before the year was over, even though he had been stripped of his junior middleweight title for failing to fight Martinez.
Martinez was very disappointed that he would never get a chance to match his skills against Forrest, a man he admired for his community-minded spirit as well as his boxing talent.
"Vernon Forrest was a great fighter," Martinez said. "I always dreamed of fighting Vernon, because it has always been my goal to prove myself against the very best. This tragic news puts both my life and boxing career in perspective. Vernon and I both shared a love for children and helping those who had become disadvantaged. This is why I did not just look up to him as a boxer, but as a human being. My thoughts and prayers are with his family, and I promise to dedicate my next fight to the memory of Vernon Forrest."
No doubt the dedication will be to Vernon Forrest the fighter as well as Vernon Forrest the man.
Dan Rafael is the boxing writer for ESPN.com.
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