NYF Special: Vinny Paz-Overcoming Adversity, Revisiting Bleed For This & The Future
It’s been a little over five years since Miles Teller played the accomplished, combative, and oh so colorful 5-time world champion Vinny Pazienza in the excellent (and far too underrated) film Bleed for This for Sony Pictures back in 2016. I recently watched the film a second time and when my erstwhile editor, Abe Gonzalez, offered up the opportunity for me to talk to the Pazman himself, I jumped at it. What follows is a fairly loose and rollicking conversation between two guys who could have been sitting at the end of a bar carrying on about boxing, movies, family, and life. Of course, one of those guys is far more entertaining than the other, and I was sure to get out of his way and let him regale me with story after story.
Here it is, Vinny Paz and me, and as they say, “protect yourself at all times.”
NYFights: So how are you, Paz?
Vinny Paz: You know what, I’m much better than I should be. Let’s put it like that. I should be shot, but I’m pretty good.
NYFights: How are you keeping yourself busy these days?
Vinny Paz: A bit, yeah. And not much has changed. I got all kinds of things going on, and I’m very lucky, very lucky. In the last couple of months I got back from Atlantic City, I was in Las Vegas, just doing promotions, doing meet and greets. It’s been a hell of a ride.
NYFights: In the history of Vinny Pazienza, at some point you decided to change your name to Vinny Paz. What’s the story behind that?
Vinny Paz: I changed my name in 1999 going into the new year 2000. I had just seen Larry Holmes, and Holmes was mashing up my name. “Hey Vinny Pazanea, how you doin’ Vinny. Hey Pazanea, how you doin?” And I said I’m changing my fuckin’ name. (Laughs) There’s no way I’m gonna keep this old-school Italian last name. So, I literally went and changed it to Vinny Paz when we were going through that period of ‘99 to 2000.
NYFights: There’s a lot of great fighters, and there’s a lot of great stories. In your case, you’re the double; you’ve got both. We’re going on 6 years now since the movie about your life, Bleed For This, came out. How did you get approached for the film?
Vinny Paz: Well, there were these guys from Rhode Island and another guy from New York who dealt in the stock market. The movie itself turned out great. They did a nice job with the movie.
NYFights: Were you skeptical about a movie about your life?
Vinny Paz: I thought it would be the greatest movie in the history of the world.
NYFights: [laughs] How involved were you in the making?
Vinny Paz: It’s crazy how life goes. I sold my life story to a kid I knew that followed me around. It took a while for the story to be told because people had different ideas but that’s Hollywood. But I’m glad the movie came out great. I loved Katey Sagal, who played my mother, I loved Ciarán Hinds who played my dad. Miles Teller was awesome.
NYFights: How true to life did you find what you saw on the screen?
Vinny Paz: 99% on the money. Miles played me better than I could have played myself. I have no idea how he… Well, I do have an idea. There’s so much on the internet about me. I’ve been a pro for twenty fuckin’ years. That’s a long time. There’s so much information that has built up about me and around me. I guess he just went on it and watched this fight, and this fight, and this meet and greet. Miles just did a great job. He played it better than anybody could have.
NYFights: There’s a lot in the film about your relationships in boxing. With Lou Duva it’s one way, with Kevin Rooney it’s very much another way. It very much felt like Lou was a bit of an opportunist, not looking at you as a person but as a product. Kevin seems like he became almost like family.
Vinny Paz: I loved loved loved Kevin, Lou Duva could kiss my fat ass.
NYFights: [cracks up] How fat are you, Vinny?
Vinny Paz: I’m still 185. [laughs] Let me tell you about Lou Duva—he should have went in the WWE, not into boxing. He would have been a great character in that phony wrestling shit. I loved Kevin. I loved him. I hated when he started the hard drinking and I knew it wasn’t gonna be pretty. I knew that was always coming for him because he loved to drink, but not even that, he got KTFO’d against Alexis Arguello. So once you get knocked out, and you’re out pretty damn good, when you get knocked out you are guaranteed—not 90%, not 75%, not maybe maybe not—you are guaranteed to get Alzheimers.
NYFights: Bleed For This really isn’t just a boxing movie, it’s a movie about family. You were living with your family, your dad is heavily involved, your mom can’t watch your fights, your sisters are giving you shit. How true to life was that aspect, and how important was your family to your career?
Vinny Paz: Man, it was all good. I watched it and I just laughed. “Yep, that’s my crazy family.” Now this is the truth 100%: I got so lucky. You gotta be fortunate in life to have good parents. And I lucked out. My parents were the best. They were so good. My father gave me three of everything. He didn’t just buy me one pair of hand wraps, he bought me three pairs of hand wraps. He didn’t buy me one fuckin’ face mask, one headgear, he bought me two, three headgears. Three pairs of gloves. He’s the one who bought the gym. He happened to buy the gym from a guy that owed him money. He bought the building that we turned into a boxing gym which used to be a fire house. He was unbelievable.
NYFights: How did you get into boxing?
Vinny Paz: I used to box when I was a little kid. They had a league for kids age 5-10 called CLCF, Cranston’s League for Cranston’s Future. And that made fighting the backdrop of my heart, of my soul. It ended at ten, but I kept boxing. My dad put a heavy bag in my garage for me. So, I used to box kids in my garage. I used to box them in my cellar. Go figure, I would beat everybody. I would beat up just about everybody, and that was it. And then when I was fourteen, this friggin’ stupid ass movie comes out called Rocky and I go to the gym with my father the next day.
NYFights: How many people do you think went into boxing because of Rocky?
Vinny Paz: Quite a few, but I don’t think it ended up very well for a lot of them. (Laughs).
NYFights: The profession of boxing has often been a place for young people, and a lot of people of color, who don’t have other options. It’s an escape. But it sounds like boxing was really a choice for you.
Vinny Paz: That’s true. It was something I just wanted to do, it wasn’t that I was forced into it. I didn’t have to box. My parents were awesome and the whole thing just worked. It was like it was meant to be for me to be a boxer. Growing up I only had two heroes in my whole life and they’re my dad and Muhammad Ali. When I saw Muhammad Ali the first time I went “Oh my god, this guy’s unbelievable. Holy shit, this guy’s amazing.” And I wanted to do what he did.
NYFights: Did you ever get to meet Ali?
Vinny Paz: Abso-fuckin-lutely. I was lucky enough to have met him twice. The first time I met him was at a big event in Phoenix, Arizona. They had a ring in the middle of the arena that was set up and they called all the celebrities up. A lot of superstars. Wayne Gretzky, Michael Jordan, George Foreman, on and on it goes. And when they introduced the athletes to come up into the ring, Muhammad Ali was holding the ropes for us. So they introduced me and I go up in the ring and I hug Muhammad.
I says “Muhammad, I hope you understand and believe this, but I would not be here if it was not for you. Because I started boxing ‘cause I loved you. I did everything you did.” And he smiled, and he was kind of losing it at the time, you know what I mean. So he smiled and grabbed me and pulled me into his voice and he said in my ear, he whispered “Pretty boy.” I was at the top of my game and he goes “pretty boy.” I started cracking the fuck up. I said “Muhammad, what did I say? I just told you, I did everything like you did,” I said “YOU were a pretty boy!”
NYFights: Bleed for This touches on the challenge of cutting weight for a fight. Seeing as how you eventually moved up to 165, it must have been brutal hitting 140.
Vinny Paz: It was the worst days of my life. It was horrific at times. I’m so lucky I didn’t die from that. Dehydration is huge. My first loss to Greg Haugen in the re-match, I lost thirteen pounds the day before the fight. I was DEAD as a doorknob. I’m so lucky because my career went great. To fight sixty fights, and win fifty of them, it’s unheard of. Knocked out half of them. Fifty wins. Five different world titles. But, lucky, lucky, lucky. I could have died from dehydration so many times. It was really bad. There was a little bit of a cushion for me in that era. Before, the weigh-ins were the day of the fight. Good thing they started changing it while I was fighting to the day before.
NYFights: What was your regular walking around weight?
Vinny Paz: I was always around 165-175. For the (Roger) Mayweather fight, I had to make 140. I got on and off the scale three times. I passed out after in the locker room, if my dad did not come with me in the locker room I would have died. I would have died in the hospital in Vegas. I wasn’t out like a light, but I could hear it. I was feeling weak as a peach. I could hear the nurse say to my dad “We’re losing your son” When she said that to my dad, I was going up and up through white clouds. The brightest, most magnificent vibrant white clouds. I’ll never forget it. And then my father came and he grabbed my t-shirt that I had on and he started shaking me like crazy. And he goes “Vin, don’t do this” and then I came back down.
NYFights: Obviously, the car crash that could have killed you was a big part of your life. I can’t imagine being fitted for a halo. In the movie, it’s the most excruciating part.
Vinny Paz: Oh my god, are you kidding me? (sarcastically) No it wasn’t that bad. Only four screws stuck in my skull a fuckin’ quarter of an inch. Yeah it wasn’t that bad.(Laughs)
NYFights: How did you even sleep?
Vinny Paz: You’re a smart mother-fucker because people don’t ask me that all that much. I haven’t been asked that all that much. If you look at me and see and think about what’s goin’ on, the first thing you’re gonna say is “Oh my god, how the fuck are you ever gonna sleep?” But luckily enough, things worked out for me. My parents made a room in their house for me. They did a lot for me. That thing was horrific. Screws in my skull and I had to keep that on.
NYFights: Seriously medieval shit, right?
Vinny Paz: Very much so. Medieval, good word.
NYFights: You were faced with the choice of having a surgery that would guarantee you the ability to walk, but would make it impossible for you to fight due to the fusion required. You chose the halo instead, and asked your body to heal for you. Did you ever second guess that decision?
Vinny Paz: There was never an option. It wasn’t an option for me. It was “What do I gotta do to get back in the ring?” because I’m fighting again and that’s the bottom line. Dr. Cotter was really cool. He was very good with me.
NYFights: There’s the scene in the film at the dinner table when everyone is trying to do something for you, and it’s so obvious how much you must have just wanted to feel normal. That you just wanted to get the cheese yourself.
Vinny Paz: I was almost sort of crippled. It wasn’t easy. I appreciated all the help I got, but a lot of times I didn’t want to it. I wanted to do it myself. I knew when I got that halo put on my head, I knew that every step of every day was gonna make a difference. I gotta be really on top of this all the time 24/7. There came times that I wouldn’t even give a shit and did things that were not supposed to be done by a putz who had a halo around his head. (Laughs)
NYFights: In the movie it shows you sneaking off to train in the basement of your own family house – not the easiest thing to get away with. How accurate was that?
Vinny Paz: 1000% correct. It was right on the money. They even made the cellar look like my cellar. For me it was quite amusing.
NYFights: There’s a lot of tough stuff in Bleed for This. The fight scenes are grueling, the car crash is brutal, the recovery is so difficult, but nothing was harder to watch than the removal of the halo.
Vinny Paz: It was incredible. It was the most pain I’ve ever felt in my fucking life. And I’ve been through a lot of fucking wars. They don’t put this in the movie, but the first time he moved the screw (it was a screwdriver, one of those electric screwdrivers) I’m literally in the room alone – me, the doctor, a nurse, and my dad – when Dr. Cotter pushed the screwdriver to get the first screw out of my skull, I smashed his leg. I hit him with a right hook on his leg. He was almost 70 years old at the time. He was a great doctor, smart as a whip up until his death. But I smashed his leg. I said “Doc! You’re going the wrong fucking way!” and he said to me “Vinny, no I’m not. I told you this was gonna be painful and you told me you didn’t want to take anything.” And I said alright alright come on let’s go and I held on and that was it.
NYFights: And you did that without any anesthetic?
Vinny Paz: I didn’t take nothing because I thought it wouldn’t be cool for me. I’m getting this fucking thing off and I’m gonna be training to fight again, so I don’t want no drugs in my body.
NYFights: Your recovery didn’t end with the removal of the halo. How good were you about following doctor’s orders when you got it off? I’m sure on some level, you must have felt like busting loose.
Vinny Paz: It’s so funny, because at the time, I end up going to Miami because a friend of mine flew me down right after I got my halo off. So when I go down, (of course the halo was just taken off of me two days earlier) the first thing we do is go to a strip club. I walk into the club and I opted not to have the brace on my neck. I didn’t wear it much after – they told me to wear it everyday every minute for a couple of months. I didn’t put it on hardly at all because I knew it would make my neck stronger without that. So I go into the club and think about it, my neck’s stiff as a board two days after they took the halo off, so the first girl I look at on stage – she’s got a red gown on, red gloves up to her elbows. I said “Look at that!” My friend goes to me “Vinny, come on there’s a hundred girls in this place, don’t worry about it.” And I’m like “No I wanna see this fuckin’ chick” and I’m watching this girl and I’m falling in love with her and then I see she goes with a customer and I go where she is and I start staring at her. And she sees me staring at her and she bugs out her eyes at me like “Would you look at that”. So then I go to the bar to get a drink and all of a sudden I feel hands on my ass and I turn around (and if you think about it, I’m turning but I’m turning with my whole body-if somebody grabs your ass, you just turn your neck) but I just turned my whole body around and I said “Hey, if you’re gonna squeeze it, squeeze it right.” and she goes “What’s the matter with your neck?” I said “It’s a long story. If we get to know each other, I’ll tell you later.” and that was it. I stared at her all night and I end up getting her number and I called her and next thing you know she’s in Rhode Island and I was with her for a few years after.
NYFights: As with most movies, Bleed for This cuts out certain portions of your life to fit the running time. You actually had a few fights before you took on Roberto Duran. In the movie, it’s made to look like Duran is your first fight after recovery.
Vinny Paz: I fought Louis Santana who was a world champion. I fought Brett Lally who was a tough motherfucker. Robbie Sims was a badass – Marvin Hagler’s brother. I went to see them when they sparred years before that and I was like oh my god. They were killing each other. You would never think they even knew each other, nevermind they were brothers. I kind of didn’t like Robbie Sims because he was in the New England Golden Gloves with me, and I wasn’t cool with the way that he acted and I wanted to beat the ass out of him. That day was a bad day for me, it wasn’t a good day. You know some nights you have good nights, some nights you don’t. It’s gotta be luck of the draw a lot of the times and I was just a little off. I beat him, but I wanted to knock him out so bad. He literally beat one of my best friends in the amateurs when I was a kid, Ricky McDonald, like he beat the ass out of him, and Ricky was the nicest guy in the world,
NYFights: So, what was it like fighting Roberto Duran?
Vinny Paz: You know what? That motherfucker hit me harder than anyone ever in my life hit me. I could not believe it. I was going “What the fuck?” when he hit me the first time. I’m like “Nah nah shake it off Pazman, you’re not warm. Warm up, you'll be fine.” I couldn’t believe how that guy hit. It was amazing. The hardest I ever got hit in my whole life was in fucking Atlantic City in the re-match. He hit me with a shot and I didn’t know where I was. I had to hold on to him and I got myself together and I was like “What am I doing here? What the fuck’s going on? What just happened? What am I doing?” I didn’t know who I was fighting. I see I’m holding on to Roberto Duran and I’m like “Oh my god, you just got hit with the hardest fucking punch in your life Pazman. Alright, get it together and beat this mothe fucker.” That’s exactly how that went in the second fight.
NYFights: People forget that you beat Duran twice, as well as a number of world champions.
Vinny Paz: I only fought the best. I didn’t want to fight anybody who was not known, who was not up to my ability. I fought badass motherfuckers.
NYFights: I love the quiet scene at the end of the movie where Teller, as you, says the biggest lie they tell you is it’s not that simple, but it really is.
Vinny Paz: You now how many times I’d have that fucking halo on and I’d get off camera and I’d be so full bravado and “Yeah I’m gonna fight again are you kidding me? This will be off me in a couple of months. I’m fighting again, no doubt about it.” And then I’d go in the mirror and go “What are you doing you fuckig idiot?” Right after I would say that on the news “I’m coming back there’s no way I’m not fighting again.” They’d shut the cameras off and I’d walk into the bathroom and stare in the mirror and go “You’re a moron. You’re an idiot. Why are you doing this?” Like after almost every interview I swear to God.
NYFights: It’s almost like you had two careers. The one before you broke your neck, and the one after you broke your neck.
Vinny Paz: You know what just flashed through my mind? What just flashed through my mind is me driving down in the passenger’s seat and this kid is driving me. We just got done doing a workout at the weight lifting gym that was near my house in Warwick. And he gets cut off. We’re on our way to go grab a bite to eat and then to a chiropractor. All of sudden we’re going down the road that I’m on all the time because it’s right near my house. So, we’re driving and I’m looking at the speedometer a little bit and I say to myself in my head “Jesus he’s going a little bit too fast.” It was a 25 and he was doing about 50 and I was just about to say something to him and then all of a sudden he gets cut off by a car coming in from the other lane on our right side. So the guy who’s going by us on the right hand side of us went in front of him and almost hit us, so he jammed on the brake, like jacked up on the brake and we start skidding into the next lane. And I'll never forget this. I don’t know why I remember it so well, but I remember holding on to the handle on the side and in my mind I just said “Oh my god, Pazman, you’re never going to defend your world title.” and BOOM… we got nailed by the car.
That was it, right after I said in my mind “You’re never gonna defend your world title.” And BAM we got smashed so hard. And the next thing you know, I come to – that’s a bad point in my life because I think I was out for a little bit – and then when I came back, I could hear the people saying “It’s Vinny Paz! Pazienza’s in the car! Vinny Pazienza’s in the car! Vinny Paz is in this car!” That’s all people kept saying. Because at the time, the fire department was opening the door with a crowbar and I woke up to that. Hearing “It’s Vinny Paz in the car.” I had just beat Gilbert Delé at the Providence Civic Center for the world title. Like literally I just beat him days before that. So, man, that’s my strongest memory of that accident.
NYFights: Not only did you survive, but you had one hell of a career, and a movie about your life to boot. What’s next?
Vinny Paz: I’m about to do a documentary which is gonna be the baddest event out of all of them. It’s gonna be humongous. It's gonna be a big one.