I put heart and soul into people – Vinny Paz makes his case for the Hall of Fame

Vinny Paz looks the same as he ever did.

He’s thickset, there’s a humour to his grin and when he fixes his stare on you, it feels like you’re sitting next to a stick of dynamite with the fuse lit.

Paz was a renowned wild child and hardman of boxing and, aged 60, he’s not mellowed yet.

The look remains the same; sleeveless shirt, a flat cap, a thick silver chain around his thick, rebuilt neck and a gruffness in his voice that belies emotion, until you can either get him to laugh or bristle.

I’d expected a chip on Paz’s shoulder, and I don’t know why. I remember the bad blood feuds with Greg Haugen and Dana Rosenblatt, the highlight reel knockouts, the movie, the Roberto Duran fights, and I’d typecast Paz in my own mind. 

Part fighter, part-gangster, part hoodlum. Was it the Italian-American stereotype in him? Was it the reputation? The attitude? The swagger? Or all of the above? Because it’s all still there, and it’s on the surface, but Paz is not mad like I thought he might be.

At the International Boxing Hall of Fame last month, crowds swirled around the Rhode Island legend, many talking to him about Bleed for This, the cinematic story of his life with Miles Teller in the lead role, and Paz was happy for that recognition.

Of course, the real plan was for Paz to be appreciated as a fighter first and the guy who had the movie of his life made second, and to different generations maybe that’s the case, but more on that later.

“Yeah, that’s pretty cool, I didn’t mean for it to be that way, but it just happened,” Paz said, of those coming up to him to talk about his astonishing life away from boxing before the actual sport itself. 

The tale everyone wants to discuss is how Paz’s neck was turned into mush from a head-on car crash and how he was left fighting for his life, unlikely to walk again and damn sure never to return to the ring. That is the dark centrepiece of the movie and Paz as the man who never knew when to quit. He had no respect for the odds or those taking bets that he would not box again. Fighting was all he knew, and he had a huge one on his hands. Rehabilitation couldn’t be rushed, but he only knew one way to do it.

“In my mind, I was fighting, or that was it,” he snarled. “Balls to the wall. I went through everything. It felt like I was going through brick walls, like it couldn’t be done. Like, ‘What am I doing? Am I doing this? Are you crazy? Just stop.’ But I kept going, and I worked hard.”

Paz had won world titles at lightweight and junior-middle before fate tossed him that unwanted curveball. He was the passenger in a car going around 60kmph and in a resulting wreck so grim the car had to be sawn in half to get him out.

There were multiple fractures in his neck. He had to relinquish his title. He had to have a metal orb, called a halo, screwed into his head and into his neck, fixing him in position, to aid his recovery.

Instantly those around him understood Vinny’s career was over. Instantly, Vinny knew there was more left in the tank.

A year later, ferociously-stubborn Paz was back in fighting shape and ready to return to the ring. There had been depression, darkness, tears, defiance, but never acceptance.

“It was like I was on the verge of being handicapped, to be held in a wheelchair, who wants to do that?” Paz explained. “I would tell myself, ‘What are you doing, you moron? You’re an idiot.” Then I said, “You’re doing it, and that’s how it’s going down. That’s the bottom line. So suck it up.”

That mentality has inspired two generations, those who were fight fans when Paz was boxing and who saw his incredible comeback playing out, and those who recognise his name and his story through pop-culture references. 

As Paz talks, he folds his arms but it’s not seemingly a defensive position and he leans forwards. His biceps flex, he smiles and he talks with pride and satisfaction. Is he okay with that, being the guy from the film to some and the fighter to others? Of course, there are some who just know him as a walking miracle. 

“A thousand per cent, yeah, and I get at least one message a day, every day. It’s unbelievable,” Paz said. “It’s cool, I feel like I put a lot of heart and soul into people. I made quite a few people do things that they didn’t think they could do. It’s a cool thing for me.”

There is also an enjoyable self-deprecating side to Paz. In 1994 and 1995 he had two bouts with a very old Roberto Duran, who still had 15 fights to go but not much left to offer. Duran had been at his best 10-20 years earlier, but he first fought Paz in Las Vegas, and they rematched in Atlantic City, where Paz was a bona fide attraction. Paz won both 12-rounders on points and quipped, “He [Duran] was 52 when I fought him the first time, he was 74 when I fought him the second time!”

There was six months between the fights.

“The first fight was incredible but he got old the second fight,” surmised Paz. “He fought way closer to when he was a champion when he fought me the first fight. He was awesome. I was like, ‘Oh my God, I can’t hit this guy.’ I’ve only said that in a couple of fights… Roy Jones, and Roberto Duran. In the second [Duran] fight, we fought in Atlantic City [at the Convention Hall near the Trump Plaza]. [Donald] Trump’s cool as hell, I hope he gets back in the presidency… Anyways, the second fight with Roberto, I was moving around in the first and second round, in the third round I go, ‘Wow! This guy slowed up.’ He got old overnight. When you’re in your 40s, you can’t fight nobody at the top level. You can’t fight at that top level, but when you’re in your early 30s, your 20s, you’re an animal. He [Duran] was an animal, but I was saying, ‘Wow, did he get old?’ In the first fight, I couldn’t hit him.”

Now they are pals. There is mutual respect and they have been known to be drinking partners recently. “I got him drunk last Saturday,” Paz smiled.

Along with Muhammad Ali, it was Duran who got Paz into boxing. Vinny was inspired by both warriors and their differing styles and identities. “It didn’t get any better than that for me,” he said, talking about the greats. “Y’know, that’s what made me box, I wouldn’t be here now [doing an interview] if I hadn’t seen them, I probably would’ve been a DJ somewhere, a DJ in Rhode Island. I went to the Olympic training centre, and I was just good. I don’t know why, I was just good.”

Paz jokes that he is 48, and dares anyone to laugh at his deduction of 12 years. He does not even look overly bothered when the touchy subject of him not being in the International Boxing Hall of Fame arises.

Asked whether he should be in, one senses there are two answers racing through his mind, and one is substantially more diplomatic than the other. 

The question is like catnip, however. He is at the Hall of Fame answering the questions and is an invited guest, but he is not in the Hall of Fame, despite an annual groundswell of opinion that electors should relent and check the space by his name.

“Well, I think I should 1,000 per cent be in the Hall of Fame, for obvious reasons, and for not so obvious reasons,” Paz said. 

“People tuned in when I fought on TV, I got so many people into boxing, which I think is the reason why I should be in the boxing Hall of Fame. I won 50 pro fights, five different world titles, but the main thing is that I got people into boxing that never turned to boxing. Ever. They tuned in when I fought. It’s big. It made the game of boxing a little bit better, a little bigger, for everybody. So, I don’t know….” Paz sighed. But he continued: “I should be in here, and there’s a reason why I’m not. There’s some fat bastard called [journalist] Dan Rafael, and I don’t even know him, but he wrote some shit about me that I didn’t like, so I voiced my opinion back at him, and that seems to be the problem here.”

A week does not go by without someone encouraging Paz on social media about him belonging in the Hall, and its manifested itself into a little resentment.

At the Hall of Fame banquet last month, Paz was invited to speak. What followed divided opinion, with some shaking their heads and saying Vinny made his case a little too strongly while others found his speech hilarious and lapped up every punchline. 

The man who fought Duran, Roy Jones, Hector Camacho, Haugen and many others did not focus his ire on Rafael but on Hall of Fame president Ed Brophy.

“Whenever I fought on TV, it was No. 1 rated a bunch of times,” Paz said. “I brought people to boxing. I made people watch boxing and never mind the broken neck, coming back and winning world titles. I don’t even think of that when I think I should be in the Hall of Fame. And Ed, who runs this, you’re a good guy, but I’m going to fucking kill you sooner or later. It’s only a matter of time, and then everybody’s going to say, ‘Oh, that boxer’s crazy.’ Nah, I’m not crazy. I want to be in the Hall of Fame. I think I deserve it… They said, ‘Ed can’t put you in, it’s not Ed’s thing.’ Wait a minute, the last time I looked, Ed Brophy was the president of this organization. Am I correct, or not? So, he’s the president, not the vice-president, not the treasurer, not the secretary of state, he’s the fucking president of the Hall of Fame [and] you can’t put me in? Oh my God, Ed. Be careful when you come around me. If I’ve had a couple of drinks, you might get knocked the fuck out.”

The words alone sound intimidating but the delivery was not. Mischievous Paz had many in the crowd eating out of the palm of his hand, and Brophy was smiling awkwardly on stage alongside him. Paz had made his case to be inducted for the umpteenth time and maybe in 2024 someone will be listening. When these legends are passed, they are a long time gone. And when so many have been inducted later in life, a neurological decline has set in and they’ve either been unable to go or in poor health when they have. 

For now, Paz is in a good place, even if he’s not enshrined in Canastota. He is a boxing legend. He’s the man immortalised in a movie.

“I mean, this is really cool, I’m happy to be here,” Paz said, in front of Brophy. “I’m surprised, and honoured that so many people came here and this is a great event, a great turnout, and I don’t know, I should be in the Hall, yeah. There are some guys in there, and I love and respect fighters, but there are some guys – and this is not the fault of anybody – but there are some guys that are in the Hall of Fame that literally did half of what I’ve done. Like, half. I won 50 fights, out of 60, and I fought all world champions. I stopped 50 guys, 30 by KO. That’s cool. Yeah, thank you, thank you very much. I’m proud of that, y’know.”