His story is set now; it has been for years. Vernon Forrest was a champion and humanitarian. That is how we remember him, such that it almost feels mundane to distinguish him as such. And isn’t that ridiculous? Consider what passes for achievement today, for personality, for character. We are so easily satisfied with less, if only because we’ve lowered expectations to ensure fulfillment. And yet Forrest lives at the recesses of boxing’s collective 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. But something in 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. The two engaged in a brief conversation. When Forrest realized Sinkfield was not the man who robbed him, he turned, heading 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. He was fighting even as a youngster. In an interview with Boxing Talk, his brother, Alphonso, described the young Forrest as “a scrappy kid.” Fighting came naturally to him; it also got him suspended from his neighborhood Boys & Girls Club. Denied his preferred hangout, a 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 considered a virtual lock for the Olympic team until he ran into “The Viper” and the style that would forever 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 2002, Shane 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.
The fight took place at the Theater in Madison Square Garden on January 26, 2002. Mosley won the first round, wobbling Forrest with a right hand. 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 media that had long ignored Forrest no longer could and the new champion reveled in kicking the door down. “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 disingenuously 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 as the records show. 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, as shared to the obituary page of the Augusta Chronicle
While the Mosley rematch provided little for the bloodthirsty, a group of Forrest supporters ringside cheered throughout. Rather than mill about the ring in the aftermath of victory, Forrest bolted for his friends, choosing to celebrate with his “special people.” Each was a member of Destiny’s Child, the not-for-profit organization Forrest started in Atlanta in 1997 with a social-worker friend named Toy Johnson. To this day the organization provides the intellectually disabled with housing and twenty-four-hour support from trained professionals.
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, becoming the first in this family to graduate college. Alphonso remembered his brother “didn’t want to just hang out and do nothing” during his downtime from boxing, he wanted to “do something positive for society.” What’s more, Forrest sought refuge in his charity work when boxing ignored him, telling the New York Times he imagined living for others might bring him some joy, might offset the frustration of 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, a challenge he was supposed to meet, but the sight of that struggle was more than Forrest could endure. He eventually intervened and tied the boy’s shoes. The episode gave the embittered fighter an epiphany: “If you sit there and watch a person take about an hour to tie his shoestrings,” Forrest told John Eligon of the New York Times, “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 then lived there with his fiance. His mother, Mildred, and brother, Alfonso, would come by to help out. Forrest found perspective in the presence of people with significant problems, and perhaps a little justice. In a piece for the New York Times, Forrest told Michael Katz, “It’s the greatest feeling, helping people that other people have given up on.” Forrest, the fighter rejected by the establishment, was coming to the aid of the abandoned, people who Forrest thought society turned its back on. 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, “but then you realize you need them more.” Perhaps Forrest, the man 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 though. According to Forrest’s former manager, Shelly Finkel, it wasn’t just the media that had been cool to Forrest. HBO had preferred not to work with Forrest after his dreary decision over Vince Phillips in 2000. But they too had a change of heart, something that happened when one of their darling fighters was upended. HBO rewarded Forrest for his domination of Mosley with a six-fight multimillion-dollar deal. In the first fight of that deal, however, the beer-swigging, dart-smoking, slugger from Nicaragua, Ricardo Mayorga, knocked him out in three rounds. Forrest acted like a fighter that night, too. Trapped in the kind 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 won the rematch by disputed decision; HBO had another character, and Forrest, derailed by defeat and sidelined by nagging shoulder and elbow injuries was again out of the spotlight.
Two years later, Forrest returned to the ring. But in his mid-thirties, having lost two years from what was already the tail end of his physical prime to injuries, this final phase of Forrest’s career was about recouping as much of what could have been as possible. Forrest fought his way back into title contention, putting himself in line for a fight against Floyd Mayweather Jr. but was stuck fighting Carlos Baldomir when Mayweather vacated his WBC super-welterweight title to fight Ricky Hatton. Forrest beat Baldomir but he was no longer the fighter too good to risk fighting. He dropped a lackluster decision to Sergio Mora that he immediately avenged but he was soon stripped of his title when a rib injury sustained training further delayed his mandatory defense against Sergio Martinez. Martinez’s promoter, Lou DiBella, was understandably pleased with the ruling that made his fighter the champion. “Enough is enough,” said DiBella, “I think Vernon is legitimately hurt this second, but I also think he doesn’t want to fight Sergio and never has wanted to fight Sergio.” As if Forrest, when in the rare position of having the chance to choose his path, 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 July night? For a ring and a watch? Alphonso remembered his brother as “the type of guy where if he met you, he would remember your name, your face . . . he remembered everything about you” the kind of person, then, who could offer much to a police investigation. And what did he stand to lose? His Rolex was replaceable, as was his ring, however dear to him. Forrest lived as a man who understood the value of human life because he knew how difficult it could be, he had perspective, and yet he tore off into the dark that night and never really came back.
For a person like Forrest, maybe it was about more than a ring and a watch. 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 have hardened him to the idea of injustice. His work with Destiny’s Child reflected his commitment to doing what he believed was right, to standing up for people who struggled to do so on their own (in a similar vein, he lobbied Congress to posthumously pardon Jack Johnson). And he was a fighter, after all, wired in that unique way perhaps only his fraternity is. So maybe Forrest was always going to try 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.