A sport often is defined by its stars. So it follows that boxing’s reputation has been soiled for decades. Too many champions have ended up destitute or on the police blotter. Or both.
Vernon Forrest was different. It doesn’t seem right that we just lost a great champion — not merely in boxing, but in life.
Forrest was killed Saturday night. It was a random, senseless act, and the wrong guy was caught in the middle of it. Forrest was shot during a robbery, which led to an exchange of gunfire.
“Here’s a guy who did everything right,” Al Mitchell, his long-time trainer and friend, said by phone. “He didn’t take drugs. He wasn’t involved with gangs. He lived his life the right way. He was a gentleman.”
Forrest was one of the most engaging athletes I’ve ever come across. He did charity work. He started a foundation, “Destiny’s Child,” which benefited people with mental disabilities. He was a guy you pulled for. Boxing needed more like him.
Mitchell had known Forrest since he was 15. He brought him into the U.S. Olympic Training and Education Program at Northern Michigan University. He trained him through his amateur days leading up the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, then resumed working with Forrest as a pro in 2000. He was there when Forrest won the welterweight title 2001, then the super-welterweight belt six years later. He saw how Forrest lived his life, a contrast to so many others in the sport.
“I’m down,” Mitchell said. “Here’s a kid that did everything right. I trained a lot of kids in that program in Marquette (Mich.) and most of them are now teachers or doing something else. They’re all good role models. They understand what life is about. They take care of their family. Vernon was like that. He took care of his mother, his sister, his son. He took care of his friends. How can something like this happen? Just in the wrong place at the wrong time – that’s all it was.”
Mitchell said he last spoke to Forrest two days ago. “He had called me two weeks ago because he heard I was going back to Philly for something,” he said. “He knew I was from a bad neighborhood in Philly and he told me, ‘Hey, you better be careful there. Nobody knows who you are any more.’ I told him not to worry because I wasn’t bringing my rings or anything.’ Then he called me two days ago and said, ‘I see you made it back safe.”
Forrest lost, then reclaimed, the super-welterweight belt from Sergio Mora in 2008. He was scheduled to fight again in April, but suffered a rib injury and vacated his title. But he planned to have a comeback fight in September, leading to a possible title shot in December.
“He was excited,” Mitchell said. “He said he would call me back this week.”
A true champion is lost.