As Vernon Forrest’s family and friends reflect on the life and death of the 38-year-old cherished boxer, Atlanta police continue to look for the men accused of gunning him down in a robbery gone awry.
Atlanta Police detectives interviewed several witnesses over the weekend about the events that led to Forrest’s death near a gas station around 11 p.m. Saturday, but have made no arrests, said Atlanta Police Detective Lt. Keith Meadows.
Forrest’s family, friends and fans are still reeling from the loss of the man they say was plugged into the world outside his own little corner of boxing.
Vernon Forrest was a curious, outspoken, engaging man who “always was talking about current events,” said his long-time manager and friend, Charles Watson.
Lately, Watson said, that meant often discussing the recent murders of Tennessee Titans quarterback Steve McNair and former boxing champion Arturo Gatti.
Over the weekend, Atlanta’s Forrest himself became yet another well-known athlete to die violently in July.
Gunned down and robbed in southwest Atlanta on Saturday night, Forrest left behind a 12-year-old son, Vernon Jr., a cache of three major boxing titles and a legacy of charitable works in a sport not known for its good citizenship.
“Everybody is in shock, everybody who knows Vernon or knows about him,” said Ronnie Shields, the Houston-based trainer who guided Forrest through his most memorable victories, a pair of 2002 decisions over Shane Mosley. “He was always a good guy, never did anything to anybody, was respected in the boxing community. This is tough for people to take because of who Vernon was.”
According to Atlanta Police Detective Lt. Keith Meadows, Forrest had stopped at a gas station on Whitehall Street around 11 p.m. Saturday night. With him was his 11-year-old godson, visiting from Texas.
As the boy went inside to use the bathroom and buy snacks, Forrest went to the rear of his Jaguar to add air to a low tire. It was then when a male suspect robbed him at gunpoint and fled.
Forrest, reportedly armed, chased after the man a short distance, to an area near McDaniel and Fulton streets. Shots were exchanged, police said. Giving up the chase, and turning to return to the gas station, Forrest was shot seven to eight times in the back, according to police.
Police say the shooter and a second suspect left in a red Monte Carlo.
“Vernon always was the type of guy who wasn’t going to let anybody take anything from him,” Watson said. “He would give you the shirt off his back, but if you tried to take something from him, he was going to fight you for it.”
Atlanta’s other boxing champion, Evander Holyfield, recalled a story from the 1992 Olympics. When a thief snatched the cap from atop his head, Forrest ran after him through the streets of Barcelona. “Chased him about a half a mile. Got his hat back. And got in a few punches too,” said Holyfield, chuckling at the memory from another place, another time.
Born in Augusta, Forrest lost in the first round of those ’92 Games while suffering from a case of food poisoning. That set the stage for a career that often was a difficult climb.
Refusing to let himself be tied to any one promoter — “He was his own man,” said Holyfield — Forrest initially was denied a shot at a significant championship.
Finally, at the age of 31, Forrest got his breakthrough opportunity against Mosley. With the quickness that earned him the nickname “The Viper,” Forrest dispatched the unbeaten 147-pound champ and then won the rematch later that year. He was Ring Magazine’s fighter of the year in 2002.
An award not often mentioned is one that came in 2003. That one was for his work in starting Destiny’s Child, a business that houses mentally challenged young adults, as well as for his gregarious personality. Forrest remains the only active fighter to have ever won the Boxing Writers’ Good Guy Award.
Forrest, 41-3 with 29 KOs, suffered his first two professional losses to Ricardo Mayorga in 2003, and then took two years off while recovering from a series of shoulder and elbow surgeries. He won back a share of the 154-pound title in 2007, lost it, then reclaimed it last year against a fighter (Sergio Mora) 10 years his junior.
“What a lot of people don’t know is all the pain he was going through with his shoulder,” Shields said. “For him to be champion of the world showed you what kind of heart he had.” Forrest had hoped to continue fighting at least another year, and get back the WBC title of which he was stripped while recovering from a rib injury this year.
Instead, there are only the empty, what-might-have-yet-been sentiments that surface whenever an athlete dies young.
“He had another big fight in him,” Shields said.
-- Staff writers Katie Leslie, Marcus Garner, Jeff Schultz, Alyse Knorr and the Associated Press contributed to this report.