Friends, fighters mourn loss of Forrest
In popular imagination, boxing is full of snakes, back-stabbers and thieves. Personal observation lends credence to the caricature, but also reveals another side of the sport that outsiders often miss: It is also full of kindness and consideration, an admittedly dysfunctional extended family whose members look out for one another in times of need.
People are almost invariably surprised to hear me say this, but some of the nicest people I have ever met are professional fighters.
Even by that standard, however, Vernon Forrest stood out.
As the boxing community struggled to come to terms with the news that Forrest had been murdered after resisting an attempted carjacking in Atlanta on Saturday night, friends and fellow fighters remembered him.
"I'll tell you one personal observation that showed me that Vernon was the genuine article," veteran publicist Fred Sternburg said on Sunday. "My dad died last August and the first event I worked after that was Vernon's world title rematch with Sergio Mora on Sept. 13. I was in the media center that week, getting ready for the final press conference and Vernon came up to me, pulled me aside and told me how sorry he was to hear about my dad's passing and wanted to know how I was doing. We weren't close friends, just had a cordial working relationship. But I will never forget him coming over to me and his kind words. I've worked with a lot of fighters, many on a much closer basis than Vernon, but he was the only one to show me that depth of kindness."
Sternburg's fellow publicist, Kelly Swanson, who had worked with Forrest since 2001, described him as "not only my client; he was my friend."
Forrest, Swanson continued, "was a feisty one, and always, always spoke his mind. 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 special place in my heart."
Other fighters, too, felt the loss keenly.
"This one hurts real bad," said junior middleweight Ishe Smith, who sparred with Forrest to help him prepare for his rematch with Mora. "I don't usually befriend other fighters, but Vernon was different. He was so cool and down to Earth."
"I always looked up to and respected Vernon Forrest, he was a real guy," added former junior lightweight world champion Steve Forbes. "He spoke his mind and was one of the coolest, supportive fighters I've known. He would always call me little Stevie the Slickster. He will be missed."
Forrest's career scaled great heights, most notably his two wins against Shane Mosley in 2002, but it had its frustrations as well. There were two defeats to Ricardo Mayorga, the trash-talking Nicaraguan whom Forrest allowed to get under his skin. And there were the injuries, which caused him great pain and led to surgeries and much time away from the sport.
But outside the ring, his legacy endures. Not just through memories of individual acts of kindness, but through his concerted effort to make at least one part of the world a better place. He started Destiny's Child, a foundation for people with mental disabilities in Atlanta, in 1998 after seeing an autistic child struggle to tie his shoes.
"If you sit there and watch a person take about an hour to tie his shoestrings, then you realize that whatever problems you got ain't that significant," he said in a 2006 interview with The New York Times.
All of which serves only to make the violent way in which he met his end so much harder to comprehend. In such circumstances, there is always the temptation to somehow make sense of it all, but it is the very randomness that strikes home. If his tires had not needed air, if he had not stopped at that particular gas station at that particular time to fix the problem, perhaps he would be with us still.
Instead, following a moment of madness and a burst of gunfire, he is dead. A family grieves for a devoted brother, son and father. And for the third time in a month, boxing mourns the loss of one of its own -- one of the truly good guys in a sport that is full of them.
Kieran Mulvaney covers boxing for ESPN.com and Reuters.
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