The Dragon Slayers, Part V: Vernon Forrest

By Cheekay Brandon on April 24, 2012
The Dragon Slayers, Part V: Vernon Forrest
Sugar Shane Mosley hoped to overwhelm Vernon Forrest with speed, skill and experience

And so, while Vernon Forrest’s boxing legacy might be debatable, his legacy as a man is not…

”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.”—Vernon Forrest, on helping children with disabilities

The jab is the most underappreciated punch in boxing, receiving little public attention relative to its more powerful, flashier relatives. 

While boxing is full of life metaphors, the jab is usually not the object of any of them.

We often speak of metaphorical life “knockouts”—landmark events that change the trajectory of our lives forever. We even talk of being hit by an “uppercut” or being “hit below the belt” in reference to life experiences that are particularly painful or unexpected.

We can just as easily analogize life’s smaller challenges to a barrage of stinging jabs—like many things in life, effective jabs are transient; they are here today, gone tomorrow. Their transience says nothing, however, about their importance; those events, entities or individuals that are short-lived can be as influential as any.

In a striking example of tragic irony, the metaphor fits the career and life of three-time world champion Vernon Forrest, the author of one of the best jabs of our era, a man whose life disappeared in a blink of an eye, in the time it takes for a solid jab to be thrown and landed.

Forrest’s jab help write one of the more subtle, yet most significant, dragon slaying events of the last twenty years: his January 2002 victory over “Sugar” Shane Mosley. 

Further study of Forrest’s life uncovers that Mosley was hardly the most intimidating dragon that Forrest ever faced, and that despite being short-lived, Forrest would leave an indelible impression on the lives of many.

The Preamble

As 2001 came to an end, Shane Mosley was at the very top of boxing’s pound-for-pound rankings. 

Mosley became boxing’s newest darling after his June 2000 split-decision victory over Oscar De La Hoya. Mosley had it all: knockout power, boxing skills, charisma, character and class. While he was popular within the boxing community, Mosley didn’t yet have the general appeal commensurate with his talent. Following his victory over De La Hoya, he sought to build his brand by cleaning out the welterweight division in high profile settings against solid (if less-than-threatening) competition.

Mosley followed his victory over De La Hoya with a run of impressive TKO victories. He then lined up his next victim, undefeated Vernon Forrest, relatively unheralded but a familiar foe—ten years prior, Forrest had defeated Mosley as an amateur to secure a place on the 1992 (Barcelona) US Olympic boxing team.

Forrest, from Georgia, compiled an outstanding amateur record en route to a berth on the 1992 US Olympic boxing team where he was a gold medal favorite. In Barcelona, Forrest would learn how quickly champions in boxing are created and destroyed and not always via a knockout punch—he battled food poisoning during his time in Barcelona, failing to secure a medal. He returned to the US disappointed and determined, turning pro in 1992.

After a fantastic start to his professional career that included 31 consecutive victories, Forrest would finally, after almost seven years, have a chance to win a world title (the vacant IBF welterweight title) in a scheduled bout against Brooklyn’s Raul Frank (August, 2000). Unfortunately, the hard luck that plagued Forrest in Barcelona would reappear as the fight was stopped in the third round due to an accidental cut and ruled a no-contest. He would easily defeat Frank in a rematch (May 2001) but the big name fights against the elites of the division still eluded him.

Viper Anatomy

Why were Forrest’s chances at the limelight so few and far between?

It’s because he was plagued by a combination of boxing attributes typical of fighters who toil in obscurity for longer than they should: too much talent and not enough marketability. 

The marketability problem was simple: he wasn’t from an ethnic or geographic demographic that guaranteed large purses. He wasn’t, for example, Mexican-American or from Brooklyn—he was from Georgia, a state with a strong stable of fighters but hardly the boxing following to generate large PPV revenue. 

And while he clearly possessed all-world talent, Forrest was not the author of spectacular knockout victories, the type that would have him populating the highlight reel circuit.

His talent was a curse because he was perceived to stand on the unfavorable side the risk-reward ratio; those who studied Forrest saw a well-skilled, excellent pure
boxer who was atypically tall for his weight class (6’0) and promised to pose length problems for just about anyone. 

More than that, however, study of Vernon Forrest revealed an exquisite jab.

It was a natural jab; a textbook jab; the type of jab that cannot be fully taught; that erupted from his torso with the speed of a flyweight and the power of a middleweight. Next to Ghana’s Ike Quartey, no fighter in the modern era relied on the jab like Vernon Forrest.

Forrest would use the jab to set up a punishing right hand. 

He’d jab to counter his opponents’ offensive onslaughts.

He’d jab in retreat, moving backwards.

He’d jab…and jab…and jab…and jab…and more often than not, jab his opponents into confusion, frustration and usually defeat.

The jab had a personality; the jab had an attitude; the jab was loaded with venom.

And it was this venom that birthed Vernon Forrest’s nickname: “The Viper.”

The Fight

In 2002, Shane Mosley took his undefeated record into Madison Square Garden with the hope of overwhelming Vernon Forrest with speed, skill and experience. Even though Forrest was talented, he lacked Mosley’s natural gifts and definitely hadn’t fought the same level of elite competition.

The one undeniable advantage that Forrest had—height and length—was underplayed by the Mosley camp, who suggested that because Forrest’s punches took a longer time to reach their target, Mosley would see them coming and be able to time and counter them effectively. 

The fight began in classical Mosley fashion: a harmonious blend of strategy and action, utilizing a plethora of skills and hand speed to land on occasion, winning the first round on most scorecards. The remainder of the fight looked like it might follow suit: Mosley feeling Forrest out, eventually solving his timing and angles and unleashing an aggressive, but controlled, attack for the remainder of the fight.

What actually happened, however, was the opposite: Forrest was busy but patient in round 1, sticking his jab in Mosley’s direction, not to inflict damage but to establish spacing. 

And it was the spacing that would define the fight. Forrest used his jab to keep Mosley within range of Forrest’s power punches. At the 1:30 mark in round 2 Forrest’s plan would pay dividends, as Shane Mosley, already hesitant to come forward (because of Forrest’s jab) and sitting at perfect range, was slammed with a beautiful right hand cross. 

That right hand would send Mosley to the canvas twice in round 2 and put him in danger of being knocked out. Mosley, already a ring savvy veteran at that point, found a way to get through the next two rounds, even with his legs barely under him.

The rest of the fight was more of the same: Forrest using his jab to establish distance, Forrest landing powerful right hands, uppercuts and left hooks. Sometimes Mosley was so utterly conquered by Forrest’s jab that he couldn’t even tell the difference between a left hand coming in as a jab or as a hook. 

It was complete domination, Vernon Forrest winning by lopsided unanimous decision (115-110, 117-108, 118-108). How the fight was won is partly captured in the CompuBox punch stats: Forrest landed more (jabs and power punches) but also kept Mosley uncharacteristically inactive (landing less that 10 punches per round), a testament to the defensive prowess conferred by an effective jab. 

“He was a good guy who loved people and wanted to help any way he could.”—Al Mitchell

Unlike other modern dragon slayers, who are able to discuss their dragon slaying events long after their boxing careers have finished, the story of Vernon Forrest would end far too soon. 

At approximately 11:00 pm on July 25, 2009, Vernon Forrest and his 12-year-old godson pulled up to an Atlanta gas station. While his godson went into a convenience store to purchase snacks, Forrest got out of his car (a Jaguar) to put air into the tires. Forrest was then robbed at gunpoint, after which a chase ensued. Forrest pursued the robber for a short distance, only to give up the chase, turn around and walk back toward the gas station.

In an unforgivable act of cowardice, Forrest was shot several times in the back. Forrest was pronounced dead at the scene. The murder capped one of the most tragic months in boxing history, as the sport was already in the midst of mourning the loss of Arturo Gatti two weeks prior.

While Forrest’s death was troubling in the same way that all deaths due to violence are, it carried a backstory that makes it particularly memorable: in the case of Vernon Forrest, the cliché is actually true—boxing could not have lost a nicer person.

Since 1996, Vernon Forrest is only active fighter to win the Marvin Kohn “Good Guy” Award, given by the Boxing Writers Association of America (BWAA) to boxing personalities who are exemplary ambassadors for the sport. His dedication to the well-being of others, to children with mental disabilities (through an organization called Destiny’s Child) was unparalleled in his generation of fighters. 

And Forrest was an unassuming, humble personality—he never invited cameras to record his acts of generosity; he never sought attention; he gave of himself almost entirely because of a personal drive to do so. 

After the Mosley victory, Forrest he would soon duplicate his performance in a rematch (July 2001), winning by sound unanimous decision (closer than the first fight, but still clear-cut). His impressive jab, command of space and powerful right hand were on display again as he quelled any suspicion that the first fight was a fluke. He would then lose back-to-back fights to the rugged, hard-hitting, (and undisciplined) Ricardo Mayorga, putting a halt to his progress up the pound-for-pound rankings. Shoulder problems would plague Forrest for the remainder of his career, forcing frequent breaks and inconsistent performances. His final fight was a rematch against Sergio Mora (Sept. 2008) where Forrest claimed the WBC light middleweight title via decisive decision victory. 

In summary, most would agree that Forrest had an excellent professional career, even if marred by inconsistency, tough luck and injuries. 

And so, while Vernon Forrest’s boxing legacy might be debatable, his legacy as a man is not.

He was a dragon slayer of the highest order, who took on challenges more dangerous than any fighter and used his kindness to build a legacy far greater than can be built with a punch.

The Dragon Slayers, Part I: Hasim Rahman
The Dragon Slayers, Part II: Antonio Tarver
The Dragon Slayers, Part III: Frankie Randall
The Dragon Slayers, Part IV: Marco Antonio Barrera
The Dragon Slayers, Part V: Vernon Forrest

Follow Cheekay Brandon on Twitter at @biosophist

Follow us on Twitter@boxing_com to continue the discussion

Shane Mosley vs Vernon Forrest I - 1 of 7

Shane Mosley vs Vernon Forrest I - 2 of 7

Shane Mosley vs Vernon Forrest I - 3 of 7

Shane Mosley vs Vernon Forrest I - 4 of 7

Shane Mosley vs Vernon Forrest I - 5 of 7

Shane Mosley vs Vernon Forrest I - 6 of 7

Shane Mosley vs Vernon Forrest I - 7 of 7

Vernon Forrest vs Shane Mosley 2 - 1/4

Vernon Forrest vs Shane Mosley 2 - 2/4

Vernon Forrest vs Shane Mosley 2 - 3/4

Vernon Forrest vs Shane Mosley 2 - 4/4

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  1. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo 05:19pm, 04/26/2012

    Raxman-Checked them both out….thanx it was a quick tutorial for me….kind of like the one Kostya gave to Vernon (God rest his soul) at the Worlds in 91.

  2. raxman 01:42pm, 04/26/2012

    irish - i can’t do it. i’ve tried. i can however teach it to those both younger and more gifted than myself.
    i suggest that anyone with an interest in kostya tszyu watch two fights - both i mention below - the forrest gold medal match at 91 worlds and the fight against lopez - one shows his pure boxing skill the other his heart as experience wise he was clearly overmatched vs lopez.
    trainer johnny lewis tells a great story in his bio - post that fight the next day as he was at hotel reception extending their stay as kostya was too sore to fly home he witnessed lopez fare-welling a flight attendant who he had entertained all night post fight. lewis said that they were able to draw on that fight any time KT needed a lift. its a little known war that is a clear example of what all gun amateur should be doing with their pro careers - not padding records but stepping up quick smart. check em both out.

  3. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo 07:28am, 04/26/2012

    While we’re on the subject…..Hatton’s un-Godly intentional, flagrant, full power shot to Kostya’s groin in Manchester did wonders for Hatton’s career but eventually led him to the end of Manny’s fist and a crushing KO defeat that matched Paul Williams’.

  4. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo 07:07am, 04/26/2012

    Raxman-Kostya could turn a jab into a hook in mid flight….and land it with power…try that sometime!

  5. the thresher 04:09am, 04/26/2012

    He also told Jim Gray where to shove it which was one of his best “wins.”

  6. raxman 08:33pm, 04/25/2012

    Cheekay - and could’ve been better - injuries, lay offs and a bit of post communist - good life in australia weight ballooning between fights probably shorten his career. also the temptation to go for the ko and in doing wearing more shots than necessary.
    but one thing i will say about kostya is as a world class amateur he did the righ thing and only spent 8 or 9 fights to get used to the pro style and then he was fighting quality - he fought hector lopez in his 10th or 11th fight - and that guy was old school mexican beast - an olympic silver medalist and true world class opponent - he made tszyu earn that w in a classic case of welcome to the show rook

  7. Cheekay Atomic 08:17pm, 04/25/2012

    Raxman—thanks for the Tzuyu vs Forrest recommendation. I’ll look into that. Tzuyu was something special, hall of fame caliber talent

  8. raxman 06:53pm, 04/25/2012

    this was the fight we discovered shane’s weakness for slick fighters, espec tall slick fighters. all those years of amateur fights and spars with southern cali mexicans didnt prepare for it. but it did make him a beast against the walk up latin style. does he have a chance vs canelo? certainly stylistically he is the best match mosley has had since margarito.
    cheekay you nailed it here about the jab - re watching this fight its so obvious that Forrest’s jab not only did the job offensively but it kept mosley so out of position that it was the defensive key too. not only did it stop shane from turning the fight into a brawl where he could work the body and inside from the inside but it also made mosley’s deadly counter left hook totally ineffective because every time VF threw the right it was at the end of that long jab where even making the right miss Mosely was just too damn far out to connect the hook.

  9. raxman 04:23pm, 04/25/2012

    those of you that havent seen it should check out the 1991 amateur world champ finals Forrest vs Kostya Tszyu. see tszyu give Vernon a master class boxing lesson. it gives some idea just how good tszyu could’ve been if he, like forrest himself, wasn’t plagued and thus limited by injury

  10. the thresher 04:45am, 04/25/2012

    Vernon beats SSM twice and then Mayorga beast Vernon twice and then SSM KOs Mayorga. Only in boxing.

  11. the thresher 04:44am, 04/25/2012

    “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.” Vernon Forrest 1971-2009

    This is my signature on another site.

  12. mikecasey 03:45am, 04/25/2012

    I’ll never forget how this result stunned me. Mosley had looked so wonderfully sublime in beating De La Hoya some months before. It reminded me of Don Curry suddenly coming unglued against Honeyghan.

  13. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo 06:19pm, 04/24/2012

    Cheekay Brandon-This series just keeps getting better!...I don’t review fight videos and rely on the fight highlights in my memory bank…but I distinctly recall an un-Godly body punch that Vernon landed on Shane in the ninth or tenth round of the first fight that elicited a very loud gasp/groan from Mosley that ringside mikes were able to pick up.

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