Boxing: Fighting talk of the devil

'Rocky came out and I was hooked. I like the pain, the thrill, the emotion: there's nothing comparable': Harry Mullan meets Vinny Pazienza, a sharp-witted fighter in the business of collecting titles
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The Independent Online
Vinny Pazienza does not believe in merging quietly into the background. Dressed in white leather jacket emblazoned with his "Pazmanian Devil" logo, multi-coloured shorts and boxing boots, he cuts an incongruous figure in a plush hotel lobby full of Japanese tourists and whispering suits. You can spot the sly glances, and almost her the sniggers behind the hands.

Yet the joke is on them: for all his street punk image and "wise guy" tough talk, the 35-year-old American is a sharply intelligent individual from a comfortable middle-class background. Many American fighters would struggle to name their father, yet Pazienza's was so supportive that he spent $70,000 on buying and equipping a gym when the boy, then 14, decided he wanted to be a fighter.

It proved a shrewd investment. Pazienza's career has so far yielded five world titles at three different weights, across a span of 33lb and involving five sanctioning bodies: IBF, WBA, IBO, IBC and WBU. Each is commemorated by a tattoo on his calf. Had he not failed in bids for WBC and WBO belts he might have run out of leg. This Saturday at Wembley Arena, he attempts to add a WBC belt to the collection, even if it is only that body's "second division" international championship rather than the full world title.

The belt is at present held by Herol Graham, a 38-year-old veteran enjoying the Indian summer of his near 20-year professional career. Pazienza has fought 11 world title bouts to Graham's two, but the Sheffield southpaw has amassed vast experience in 15 title fights involving European, British and Commonwealth championships. His successes, like Pazienza's, span three divisions from light-middle to super-middle and Saturday's match is a rare meeting of men who have completed the old 15-rounds championship course.

The American, still determinedly single after well publicised romances with models from Penthouse and Playboy has not fought since winning the vacant WBU super- middleweight title in August 1996. "I just took some time off," he explains. "I had other things to do. I made a couple of movies. It was something I enjoyed doing, something I'll do when I stop boxing."

But the call of the ring remains strong. "I like the pain, the thrill, the emotion: there's nothing comparable." He has been fighting, on and off, for nearly 30 years. "When I was six years old, I used to take kids into my garage and box with them, and nobody could leave until somebody was bleeding or knocked out. I didn't have many friends. I was a lonely kid, heh-heh-heh.

"I did that from six to ten, and then I played other sports. I was good at football in high school. If I was bigger, I'd have been a football player. Hey, if I'd two more inches on me I'd be fighting Holyfield. But then Rocky came out, and I was hooked.

"The day after seeing Rocky I woke up early, shook my parents awake and said, 'Dad, I'm going jogging. I'm going to be a boxer'. He said, 'Are your out of your mind? Go back to bed'. And my mother's yelling at me too, but I went out running anyway. So my father took me to a gym, figuring I'd get beat up and get it out of my system. My first fight, I got my ass kicked, and he said, 'OK, so are you happy now? Go play baseball', but I said, 'No, I still want to box. I'll come back and beat that guy.'

"That guy is probably pumping gas somewhere, and here am I - I've won five world titles and he's running around saying 'I beat him - I beat Pazienza', and the people are saying, 'Sure you did, sure you did - now just fill it up, would you?' When Dad saw I was serious, he built me a gym in a converted fire station."

As he grew up, Vinny took to sleeping in the gym, not always alone. "Girls liked the smell of the sweat and the blood," he told an American magazine interviewer in 1992. He turned pro in 1983 and won his first world title, at lightweight, in 1987. Making the 135lb weight limit was draining. "I'd be walking around at 170-175lb. I was anorexic, anaemic. I used to take laxatives all the time. I fought on heart a lot. I had the ability and the skill, but you can't use it when your body is so depleted. When you really want to do something, the power of the mind is unbelievable."

After losing the lightweight title, Pazienza failed in three light- welterweight challenges, being outsmarted by Roger Mayweather (WBC) and Hector Camacho (WBO) and then disqualified for throwing WBA champion Loreto Garza to the floor. He had come in 5lb overweight, finally making the weight at the third attempt. "I was so dehydrated I almost died. A week later, my bank closed down with all my money in it. I said, 'OK, I'm having a baaaad week here. Things ain't looking too good. Boy, I gotta watch when I cross the street'.

"I eventually got some of the money back, maybe $200,000 out of $300,000. Some is better than none, but if I lose to Herol Graham, it couldn't be worse than finding that bank had crashed. Nothing could be worse than that."

He returned to action as light-middle, and won his second title when he forced Gilbert Dele to retire in the final round of a WBA title challenge. Six weeks later, a car crash in his hometown of Warwick, Rhode Island, left him with two cracked vertebrae in his neck and a dislocated spine. Incredibly, a month after the accident he was training again, his neck stretched by a metal "halo" held in place by four screws drilled into his skull.

"When they put the screws in, it was bad, but when they took them out it was the worst pain I've felt in my life, like a 747 taking off inside my head. I wasn't anaesthetised, because I don't like drugs. My father was there, and he was almost crying. They were only half an inch long, but it was unbearable."

A year after the accident, he was back in the ring, and the only time he's lost since was a sixth-round stoppage by Roy Jones in 1995. He is lukewarm about Jones, but speaks warmly about Roberto Duran, whom he beat in 1994 and 1995 for the IBO and IBC super-middleweight titles. "I'll never forget being in the ring at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, and turning around and seeing Roberto in the other corner. I thought 'Oh my God, I can't believe this fight is going to happen. Holy shit, I'm actually fighting Roberto Duran.

"Even when we were doing the press conferences, I never thought the fight would happen because he was so old - he was 42 at the time. I figured something would happen, that he'd get hurt in training, that he was just trying to make some publicity, and then here I was in the ring with him - wow! He's the only guy I felt intimidated by, because of who he was.

"We got along good the second fight, because I was fooling around with his kids and that made the atmosphere between us much lighter. The first time, I hated him so much I was trying to kill him and it ended up not being a good fight, but the second time I just cleaned his clock. I always admired Duran, I liked his tenacity. I have a picture of him up in my garage to this day."

He has deep respect too for Graham, but admits: "I prefer not to like the person I'm fighting. Guys hug after they've fought, and I don't understand that. This guy just tried to knock your head off, embarrass you in front of millions of people, and then you're supposed to hug him and say thank you? Get out of here.

"Boxing is a game where only the strong survive. Nobody forces you into it, nobody forces you to watch it. It's a vicious sport and it's not for everybody. I'm very easy to live with, very easy-going outside the ring. It's just when I get focused on winning, I get a little ornery, but other than that I figure I fight for a living, and that's aggression enough for me."