LEDYARD, Conn. -- It was somewhere during the 45-minute ride between his home in Providence and his appointment with danger last night that Vinny Pazienza turned to his buddy, Kurt Reader, with tears in his eyes.
"I just hugged him in the limousine and said, 'What did I tell you?' " Pazienza said. "We had a good cry."
It was 14 months ago, in another car and with Reader driving, that Pazienza met disaster, near-paralysis and the almost certain end of his boxing career when he suffered a broken neck when the car flipped over in midday Providence traffic.
But there was nothing to cry about after Pazienza made a successful return to the ring with a lopsided and emotional decision over trial horse Luis Santana at Foxwoods High Stakes Bingo & Casino on the grounds of the Mashantucket Pequot Indian Reservation.
"This was better than any championship," said Pazienza, who has won two of them. "This was just a great, great day."
Not that beating Santana is such a rare feat -- it has been done by 14 other men. Or that Pazienza's win was an artistic success -- he was so wound up that, in the first round, he missed a wild punch and fell gracelessly to the canvas. But it was a triumph of a man over pain and fear and the objections of those who would take a safer path in life. Defying the wishes of his father and at least two neurologists, Pazienza took the first step in what his trainer, Kevin Rooney, called "the greatest comeback in the history of sports."
Pazienza won every round on all cards. He decked Santana twice in the ninth round. He got hit rarely and almost never twice in succession. But because of the nature of his injury -- he fractured the third and fourth vertebrae -- the arena held its collective breath in fear for the winner until the final bell.
Even Pazienza, who pushed Santana to the canvas in the sixth round for holding him behind the head, admitted that in the moments before the fight his mind wandered to dark thoughts. "I was thinking, 'What if something happens with my neck?' " he said. "And I decided, if anything does happen, I'm just going to go on. Do or die."
Earlier in the week, he warned Rooney not to stop the fight under any circumstances. "I wanted to be out, flat on my back, not moving," he said. Last night, he was never in any danger of such a fate. Santana, 34, had not fought in two years and had lost six of seven fights. "I tried like hell to knock him out," said Pazienza (32-5). "But [Santana] had a chin of steel."
He came closest in the last minute of the ninth, when he dropped Santana, for only the second time in his 53-bout career, with a left hook. Santana took eight on one knee only to be floored seconds later by a right. But he weathered Pazienza's round-closing flurry and went the distance for the 20th time in his career.
Pazienza, who faced some opposition from Connecticut boxing officials before being medically cleared to fight on Saturday, said he hopes the injury will become a "non-issue," but he knows it never really will.
"This is probably the most emotional moment of my life," he said, wiping away tears. "Nobody thought I could do it, not even me at times. But I did it."