The shocking murder of former welterweight champion and junior middleweight titlist Vernon Forrest comes as yet another tragic and sad event to strike boxing in the summer of 2009, following the untimely deaths of both Alexis Arguello and Arturo Gatti. This summer in general has seen so many celebrities pass away that it's almost unbelievable at this point.
In all three deaths, it seems we may be searching for answers that might never really come.
Forrest was just 38 years old, which is old for a boxer but young for a man. I remember I once spoke with a guy from Showtime Sports before what wound up being Forrest's second-to-last fight, his first bout against and loss to Sergio Mora, which he avenged three months later in the final fight of his life. Forrest had looked dominant in his previous two fights against Carlos Baldomir and Michele Piccirillo, and the Showtime guy was obviously high on Vernon at that point. He asked me, "He looks better than ever, don't you think?"
I said no, and he asked why. I told him, "He can't look better than he did against Shane Mosley."
Vernon Forrest beat Shane Mosley in the trials to gain a spot on the 1992 Olympic team. Going into Barcelona, Forrest was one of the heavy favorites to capture gold at junior welterweight. A bout with food poisoning wrecked his chances, and he lost to Great Britain's Peter Richardson in the opening round. Richardson went on to the quarterfinals. Cuba's Hector Vinent wound up winning the gold. Vinent won another gold in 1996 in Atlanta, Forrest's home city.
But "The Viper" was undeterred. His dream of being an Olympian was fulfilled, if not quite as successful as he might have wanted it to be. Those things happen. Immediately, he decided to turn professional, and made his debut on November 25, 1992.
He came into the pro ranks as a 140-pound fighter, but he only made that weight for three fights: His debut, a 1995 fight against a tomato can, and a later '95 fight with Marlon Thomas for the IBC title. After that fight, he was officially a welterweight, and it's no wonder. At six feet tall and with a 73" reach, Forrest was a massive junior welter, and a really big welterweight.
It was at 147 pounds that he would find his greatest success.
In 1997, Forrest beat Ray Oliveira for the WBC Continental Americas welterweight title. After that fight, he was 23-0 and starting to build some real steam with the step up in competition. He faced a series of solid professionals and won the NABF trinket, then fought Raul Frank for the vacant IBF title, his first crack at a recognized strap, in August of 2000. A cut caused by an accidental headbutt put a stop to the fight in the third round, making it a no-contest.
The two met again on May 12, 2001, and Forrest routed Frank, winning all three cards by big margins (120-108, 118-110 twice).
A stay-busy fight just north of the welterweight limit three months later kept Forrest warm for what was to come: A date with pound-for-pound king Sugar Shane Mosley, the welterweight champion of the world who was 38-0 and looked almost indestructible most of the time. Mosley had only ever been seriously tested by Oscar de la Hoya, whom he had beaten by split decision in 2000.
Forrest was a 7-to-1 underdog when he faced Mosley on January 26, 2002. Forrest was 33-0 entering that fight, held a welterweight title, had a big size and reach advantage, and yet nobody really gave him a chance.
And he kicked Shane Mosley's ass. There's no two ways about it. Here's the second round, which stands as the toughest round of Mosley's entire professional career to this day:
Forrest dominated the fight, winning on scores of 118-108, 117-108 and 115-110. All of a sudden, Vernon Forrest was being talked about as one of the best fighters on the planet, and he'd earned it. After beating Mosley in the Olympic trials, this was something of a chance for revenge for Sugar Shane. And it didn't come.
They rematched six months later, and Forrest beat him again by unanimous decision in a closer fight, but still one that was a clear Forrest victory. Forrest proved it was no fluke, and the talk that he might be the best fighter out there intensified.
Vernon Forrest was king of the world right then. Forrest signed a six-fight deal with HBO after the second win over Mosley established his star. He took a fight with rather lightly-regarded Ricardo Mayorga next, a Nicaraguan brawler who was given an even lesser chance of beating Forrest than Forrest was to beat Mosley the first time around.
That night in California, Forrest was lured into a firefight with a guy who had serious power at 147 pounds combined with a really good chin. That was the exact wrong guy for Forrest to brawl with. It remains one of the most stunning upsets of my personal boxing viewing life.
Mayorga beat Forrest a second time via majority decision. Many felt Forrest won that fight, but I scored it for Mayorga, though it was quite close. That fight was probably the single best performance of Mayorga's career. The knockout of Forrest was, in my view, kind of a fluke occurence. In the rematch, Mayorga had to go all 12 rounds with a superior boxer, and he came out the winner.
Forrest took two years off due to injuries, which really derailed his career. He moved up to 154 and was never the same fighter again. He stopped Sergio Rios (TKO-2) and Elco Garcia (TKO-10) in his first two fights back, then took a crossroads bout with Ike Quartey in 2006, after 10 months out of the ring. I've watched that fight a few times, and I still feel Quartey was badly robbed and clearly deserved a victory. That's no knock on Vernon; he didn't score the fight. It was an ugly, dull bout between two guys who frankly didn't look very good at all.
But Forrest was undeterred by a mediocre performance. He met ex-welterweight champion Carlos Baldomir 11 months later and demolished him, then followed that up by wailing on Michele Piccirillo. As a titleholder at 154, Forrest seemed to get some swagger back. He started talking big before his fight with Sergio Mora in June 2007, promising to send Mora out on a stretcher. And once again, Forrest's career hit a huge speed bump.
Mora didn't do anything special when he upset Forrest, Forrest just didn't fight well and gassed out. It's as simple as that. In their rematch, Forrest seemed to be in better shape and pretty well dominated Mora. It's nice that Vernon's career ended with an important win. It's sad that Vernon's career has ended, and even sadder that his life has, too.
Vernon Forrest was a really important fighter to me as a boxing fan. I'm 27 now, and was just shy of 20 when Forrest upset Mosley, which shocked the world. That was around the time I started really caring about the sport deeper than just watching the fights and being entertained. And Forrest's first loss to Mayorga was even more stunning to me. I came into that fight wanting to see Vernon in action. I left wanting to see more of Mayorga.
But what Forrest's career taught me more than anything is that the old saying "styles make fights" is very, very true. He was not as talented as Shane Mosley, but he had the right style and fought the right fight. He was ten times the boxer Mayorga was, but he fought the wrong fights.
I'm not claiming to be the world's biggest Vernon Forrest fan. But he was another guy whose career I followed pretty closely because his star rose along with my interest in boxing. Were it not for the injuries that really did affect his in-ring performances for a few years (and took him out for two years), we might be talking about one of the modern greats. He just barely misses that cut, but he leaves us with some fond memories.
Rest in peace, Vernon.