Never one to back down, Pazienza manages to fight off broken neck, too

Phil Jackman

December 10, 1992|By Phil Jackman

When the doctor told Vinny Pazienza he would never figh again, maybe not even be able to walk, it was like a guy waving the red towel in front of an already enraged bull. Oh boy, a challenge.

"I never believed him, not even for five seconds. It never crossed my mind that I wouldn't be able to come back," says Pazienza, who had two vertebrae broken and a third dislocated high on his spinal column just 13 months ago.

The thing is, Paz, broken neck and all, was back working out (in a fashion) within three months. "I never went against the doctor's wishes," says the former junior middleweight champion, "I just didn't tell him what I was doing."

The results of Vinny's desire, will, persistence, grit and just plain guts will be on display for everybody to see Dec. 15 when he climbs back into the ring to oppose Luis Santana on the season finale of USA Network's "Tuesday Night Fights."

It was a little more than a month after Pazienza won the TC 154-pound title with a 12-round TKO over Gilbert Dele when Vinny was a passenger in a car "going about 50" on a highway near his home in Warwick, R.I.

"A car cut my buddy Kurt Reader off and, when he slammed on the brakes, we got carried over into the oncoming lane and got it head-on from a van. Next thing I know they were prying the door next to me open," he recalls.

"My friend seemed to be in shock. He was trembling all over. I thought I was fine. But when they started to move me, pain shot through my whole body. I said, 'Hold it,' and they stopped and immobilized me from the waist up before heading for the hospital."

A "halo," with four screws boring directly into Vinny's skull to hold it in place, went on Nov. 14. It came off three months later. "But I began working out a month after the accident," he says. "Without the halo, I began picking up the pace, stretching, doing some weights, running."

It was a far cry from a couple of months before when "family, friends and fans were coming to the hospital every day and crying, praying I'd walk again.

"I knew I wasn't done," he says. "I'm the kind of guy who always looks on the bright side. I'm not a complainer when I lose. I always go on and that's why I'm in the position I am today."

Pazienza will not deny he's aware of the magnitude of his comeback and he's looking forward to "shocking the world with this feat. Imagine coming back in just about a year's time from a broken neck at the world-class level. I'm not playing basketball here, I'm taking punches."

This isn't a one-shot deal either. For openers, Santana is no pushover. He's a rugged veteran who has won 36 of 50 fights. He'll prepare Pazienza well for a possible challenge for a middleweight title.

Meanwhile, he sees himself as a shot in the arm boxing needs right now, and this isn't false aggrandizement.

"There's a lot of good fighters out there," says Paz, "but they're boring. The fights HBO had on the other night, they were awful. I'm really excited about bringing excitement back, with my story and all. And I'm going to make a lot of money doing it."

Ever since he arrived on the scene with his "Pazmanian Devil" routine and my-chin-or-yours style, he has turned on the fans. "It's always been important for me not only to win but to put on a good show," he says.

Pazienza began sparring at the end of June, "and I've been going against guys weighing anywhere from 140 to 210 pounds since," he says. "I'm 100 percent and doctors will attest to that. My neck gets extra sore when I cool down sometimes, but I can work through that.

"I know there are going to be long-term effects with this thing, but I think all the work I've been doing will minimize it down the road.

"You know," he continued, "my life's been something, full of ups and downs. It's always something with me: Had to lose 30 pounds to begin fighting . . . lost money when a bank around here folded . . . broken neck. If it wasn't so true, it would be sickening."

Pazienza was asked if he was following the ongoing story of New York Jets linebacker Dennis Byrd, who remains partially paralyzed from a spinal injury he suffered two weeks ago.

"Of course, and I've got a message for him," he replied. "He's gotta keep the faith. And I'm praying he turns out even half as well as I did.

"They told me I wouldn't box again, but I wasn't going to accept that, so I took things into my own hands. I figure if I'm alive I'll fight."

And he'll probably win -- or the other guy is going to know he was in the toughest kind of battle.

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