Vernon Forrest made his living with his fists, but his true calling, friends say, was helping children and others with disabilities, treating them like members of his family.
The 38-year-old former two-division champion, who gained stardom when he became the first boxer to defeat Shane Mosley, was shot to death Saturday night in what police are calling an attempted robbery in Atlanta. Police Sgt. Lisa Keyes said in an e-mail Sunday that Forrest was shot several times in the back on a street just southwest of downtown and that there were no suspects.
Longtime publicist Kelly Swanson called Forrest “a caring humanitarian who always stood up for what he believed to be the fairness of life.”
“It was truly his calling,” Swanson said of his work with children. “When he wasn’t boxing, this was his full-time job. … When they would see him, they would just light up, and some of them couldn’t even talk. Vernon was very much involved. He’d have some of the kids over to his house on Sundays. They were part of his family.”
Forrest’s manager, Charles Watson, said the 1992 Olympian stopped at a gas station to put air in his car tires when a man asked for money. When he pulled his wallet out, the man snatched it and started running, and Forrest took off after him, Watson said.
“The guy turned the corner and Vernon didn’t see him. He turned around to go back to the car. That’s when he started firing,” Watson said.
“Maybe Vernon’s lasting legacy will be for Americans everywhere to rise up and end this kind of senseless violence,” said HBO Sports president Ross Greenburg, who helped put on eight of Forrest’s fights.
Fulton County medical examiner Michele Stauffenberg confirmed the case was a homicide and that the autopsy showed Forrest died from “multiple gunshot wounds involving the torso and thigh.”
The death quickly sent a ripple through the close-knit boxing world, which recently lost two other champions to violence.
“Vernon was one of the few decent people in boxing,” his promoter Gary Shaw told The Associated Press. “I don’t know what to say. I’m still in disbelief, I’m still in shock.”
Forrest, a native of Augusta, Ga., who lived in Atlanta, was a member of the Olympic team along with Oscar De La Hoya. The popular fighter later won welterweight and junior middleweight titles and compiled a professional record of 41-3 with 29 knockouts.
Those who knew Forrest praised his role in launching the Destiny’s Child group homes in Atlanta, which work to provide homes for the mentally disabled. Swanson said Forrest was not married and had one son, Vernon Jr.
Forrest turned pro not long after the Barcelona Olympics, when he was stricken by food poisoning and lost in the opening round. He won his first world title by defeating Raul Frank at Madison Square Garden for the vacant IBF welterweight belt in May 2001, and less than a year later handed Mosley his first career loss to capture the WBC title.
The smooth-punching Forrest defended the belt against Mosley, winning by unanimous decision six months later, before losing to Ricardo Mayora in January 2003. It was Forrest’s first loss, and he’d lose again to Mayorga in a close bout many believe he won.
After taking two years off because of injuries, Forrest embarked on an impressive comeback that included a win over Ike Quartey and a victory over Carlos Baldomir for the vacant WBC junior middleweight title. Forrest defended it once, before losing it in a stunning upset to Sergio Mora in June 2008.
FILE – In this Sept. 13, 2008 file photo, Vernon Forrest, left, lands a body blow to Sergio Mora, in the seventh round of their WBC super welterweight title boxing match in Las Vegas. Police say Forrest has been shot and killed in an apparent robbery. Atlanta Police Sgt. Lisa Keyes said in an e-mail Sunday, July 26, 2009 that Forrest may have been robbed and was shot “multiple times in the back” Saturday night in Atlanta.
Like a true champion, the soft-spoken yet hard-punching Forrest reclaimed it when he won a lopsided decision last September in what turned out to be his final fight.
“He was a great fighter, a great champion,” said Ken Hershman, vice president in charge of boxing at Showtime. “He was coming to the end of his career, but wasn’t ready to hang ‘em up. He still had a lot of life ahead of him.”
There were tentative plans for a title fight against Sergio Martinez, perhaps in October, Shaw said. Plans for an August fight against Martinez were pushed back because of a rib injury, and the delay led the WBC to strip Forrest of his title.
This is the third high-profile death of a boxing champion in recent weeks.
Hall of Famer Alexis Arguello, the mayor of Managua, Nicaragua, was found dead at his home on July 1 in an apparent suicide. Two weeks ago, popular brawler Arturo Gatti was found dead in a condominium in Brazil. Gatti’s wife remains the prime suspect in that case.