His story has been set for years. Vernon Forrest was a champion and humanitarian. That is how we remember him; it almost feels mundane to distinguish him so. Isn’t that ridiculous? Consider what passes for achievement, for character today. We’re so easily satisfied with less, if only because we’ve lowered expectations to ensure fulfillment. Yet Forrest lives at the recesses of boxing’s memory.
The night of July 26, 2009, Forrest stopped at a gas station on Whitehall Street in Southwest Atlanta to put air in the tires of his Jaguar. His eleven-year-old godson went inside to use the bathroom and buy snacks. That’s when DeMario Ware approached Forrest, gun drawn, demanding the fighter’s Rolex, his custom “4X World Champion” ring. Forrest refused to be victimized. As Ware made off with his jewelry, Forrest pulled his own gun and gave chase, shooting as he ran.
Ware escaped; Forrest did not. At the corner of Fulton and McDaniel, Forrest encountered Charman Sinkfield. After a brief conversation, Forrest realized Sinkfield was not the man who robbed him. He turned back toward his car. That’s when Charman fired seven or eight bullets into Forrest’s back before escaping with Ware and their getaway driver, Jquante Crews. The last chapter in Forrest’s story is a tragic one.
His story began in 1971 in Augusta, Georgia, where Forrest, one of eight siblings, was born to a retired nurse’s assistant and a mechanic. Fighting came naturally to him; it also got him suspended from his neighborhood Boys & Girls Club. Denied his preferred hangout, nine-year-old Forrest went around the corner to the local boxing gym. He found more than he could handle inside; it left him infuriated but inspired. Forrest was going to be a fighter.
“Forrest kept the shorter Mosley off-balance with jabs and hurt him with a right hand in the second round.”
—San Francisco Examiner, June 13, 1992
He was a fighter then, at the 1992 US Olympic trials, where he upset Shane Mosley. An amateur phenom, Mosley was a virtual lock for the Olympic team until he ran into “The Viper” and the style that would always confound him.
Forrest was a fighter too when he let the IBF strip him of the title he fought nine years to acquire. It was 2001, Mosley was the welterweight king—that was the title that mattered, that was the fight Forrest wanted. He got it because Mosley was a fighter too.
They met at the Theater in Madison Square Garden on January 26, 2002. In the first round, Mosley wobbled Forrest with a right. Forrest, a 7-1 underdog, thrashed him thereafter. He nearly decapitated Mosley with an uppercut in the second round, one that saw “Sugar” floored for the first and second time in his career. In the tenth, Forrest cracked Mosley with a body shot that forced a scream from the soon-to-be-former champion. The scores were academic; the establishment that had long ignored Forrest no longer could. “I told ya, I told ya” he gloated to the ringside media. The rematch, held on July 20 of that year, was a dull affair; indeed, it would be charitable to say Forrest had a crowd-pleasing style. But he was for a third time too much for Mosley, too good to be denied.
“One of my boxers named Adrian Stone fought Vernon for the NABF welterweight title. We lost to Vernon who was a very talented boxer … However, his work with those who were disabled both mentally and physically makes me love Vernon the man. One of my brothers is mentally challenged and I wish he could have met Vernon. Vernon was loved by those he helped and admired by the public for being a fine human being.”
—Phillip Shevack, the obituary page of The Augusta Chronicle
Rather than mill around the ring after the Mosley rematch, Forrest bolted for his “special people” ringside: members of Destiny’s Child, the not-for-profit organization Forrest started in Atlanta in 1997 with social worker friend, Toy Johnson.
Forrest had always given back to the community, his philanthropic sense engendered, in part, by his time at Northern Michigan University, where Forrest earned a degree in Business Administration. Alphonso remembered his brother wanted to “do something positive for society” in his downtime from boxing. Moreover, Forrest sought refuge in philanthropy when boxing ignored him, telling the New York Times he imagined living for others might offset frustration with his career. The catalyst for Destiny’s Child came when Forrest witnessed an autistic boy spend an hour trying to tie his shoes (this was part of the boy’s plan of care). The sight of that struggle was more than Forrest could endure. He eventually intervened and tied the boy’s shoes. But the embittered fighter had an epiphany: “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. A light just turned on in my head.”
The man the clients of Destiny’s Child called “Uncle Vernon” didn’t just bankroll the organization—an act co-trainer Al Mitchell said almost left Forrest broke—he lived it. He bought the house Destiny’s Child started in, remodeled it to accommodate the four state wards who lived there at the time, and lived there with his fiancé. Forrest found perspective in the presence of people with significant problems, and perhaps a little justice. Forrest told Michael Katz for the New York Times, “It’s the greatest feeling, helping people that other people have given up on.” The fighter rejected by the establishment was coming to the aid of people he thought society ignored. Did Forrest believe he was restoring a sort of cosmic justice? That idea is hinted at by his publicist, Kelly Swanson, who recalls Forrest describing his relationship with clients of Destiny’s Child: “At first, you think they need you,” Forrest told her, “then you realize you need them more.” Perhaps Forrest, who Alfonso said “would help anybody,” who started a not-for-profit, who relocated families devastated by Hurricane Katrina and helped them rebuild their lives, was evening his score with the world as magnanimously as he could.
Boxing was no kinder to him, however. Former manager, Shelly Finkel, said it wasn’t just the media either: HBO was out on Forrest after his dreary decision over Vince Phillips in 2000.
They had a change of heart, though, something that happened when one of their darling fighters was upended. HBO rewarded Forrest for dominating Mosley with a six-fight, multimillion-dollar deal. In the first fight of that deal the beer-swigging, dart-smoking slugger Ricardo Mayorga knocked him out in three rounds. Forrest acted like a fighter that night, too. In the type of fight his style discouraged, one with more Hail Mary’s than a dozen rosaries, Forrest went toe-to-toe with Mayorga and paid for it. Six months later, Mayorga beat him by disputed decision; HBO had another character, and Forrest was out of the spotlight again.
Two years later, Forrest returned. In his mid-thirties, having lost two years from the twilight of his prime to injuries, Forrest still fought his way into title contention. Positioned for a fight against Floyd Mayweather Jr., Forrest was left fighting Carlos Baldomir when Mayweather vacated his WBC super-welterweight title. Despite beating Baldomir, Forrest was no longer the fighter too good to risk fighting. He dropped a lackluster decision to Sergio Mora, avenged it, but was soon stripped of his title when a rib injury delayed his mandatory defense against Sergio Martinez. Martinez’s promoter, Lou DiBella, celebrated the ruling that gifted his fighter a belt. “He [Forrest] doesn’t want to fight Sergio and never has.” As if Forrest ever shied from a challenge.
That was in May of 2009. Two months later, Forrest pulled into that gas station on Whitehall Street.
Why did Forrest run toward danger that night? For a ring and a watch? His Rolex was replaceable, as was his ring. Moreover, Forrest lived as a man who understood the value of human life because he knew how difficult life could be. Yet that night he tore off into the dark and never really came back.
Maybe it was about more than jewelry. Forrest was a champion because he refused to accept less than what he believed he deserved. He toiled for years being denied just that. How that must’ve hardened him to injustice. His work with Destiny’s Child, which continues to provide the intellectually disabled with housing and twenty-four-hour support from trained professionals, reflected his commitment to fighting for the voiceless (in a similar vein, he lobbied Congress to posthumously pardon Jack Johnson). He was a fighter, wired in the way perhaps only his fraternity is. So maybe Forrest was always going to take justice into his own hands. Better: maybe he was always going to confront injustice. That’s who he was.
“My true goal,” Forrest once said, “is to become one of those guys they talk about forever.” He isn’t. But he should be.