Warming to his favorite subject, lightweight boxer Vinny Pazienza says, "I am white, am hyped and can fight." But what makes him tick? Can he fight a lick, or is he just another Duane Bobick?
There is something about Pazienza that inspires silliness. Trying to take him seriously requires a quantum leap in logic. After all, here is a 24-year-old who owns 50 pairs of sunglasses. Why? "Because there are many shades to Vinny Paz," he says.
Here is a guy who likes to run in St. Ann's Cemetery, near his Cranston, R.I., home, because "it's peaceful" and because he likes to mock the contention of many that in amassing what he claims is a 22-0 record, Pazienza has fought nothing but dead people dug up by his manager, Lou Duva. And here is a guy whose nickname is the Pazmanian Devil—a local TV announcer's play on the snarling, vicious Tasmanian devil, a despicable little animal indigenous to the island off Australia. So it should come as no surprise to you that Pazienza races around Cranston and through all stop signs in a BMW that he calls a Paz-mobile. Or that the license plate reads PAZMAN. The Providence Sunday Journal ran a map of New England that included Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Maine, Connecticut and Pazmania. Devotion to Vinny in the state of Pazmania is at a frenzy, and his fans call themselves Pazmaniacs. All of which may be utter Paznonsense.
The real question is whether the Paz can fight a whit or whether he is suffering from delusions of competence. That will be answered on June 7 in Providence, when Vinny struts into the ring wearing his red and white sequined outfit, dark glasses, bow tie and tasseled shoes, preceded by a supporter dressed up as a Pazmanian Devil. The Paz will be fighting for the IBF title against the current champion, Greg Haugen of Las Vegas. At a recent press conference, Haugen sniffed, "I can't see myself leaving that ring without my belt."
Said the Paz, "Bring suspenders."
While the 5'7", 135-pound Pazienza may be the stuff of which great TV is made, he is largely unknown beyond the shores of Narragansett Bay. And since opponents for Duva fighters are always carefully selected, the Paz remains suspect. In the last year he has beaten former IBF champ Harry Arroyo, who was on his way down (Vinny gave Arroyo a whistle prior to the fight, so he'd be ready to return to his former work as a policeman), and Roberto Elizondo, a 10-year journeyman who is also on the decline. And the Paz thrashed Joe Frazier Jr. in February 1986, but that wasn't much of a test either.
Pazienza has been competing in a division dominated for the last four years by Hector Camacho, Boom Boom Mancini and Edwin Rosario. But Camacho moved up to junior welter last month, Mancini has officially retired (though he may fight Camacho later this year), and Rosario is having difficulty keeping his weight at 135. All of which means the door is open for the Paz. "After I beat Haugen," said Vinny, "I'll fight Rosario, then I'll fight the winner of Camacho-Mancini, then Rosario for the junior welter title, then Hagler, then Holmes, then Reagan."
You can see what we're dealing with. The suspicion lurks that Pazienza may be no more than a cartoon character. He does devious little things, like a misbehaving eighth grader. For example, while fighting Nelson Bolanos in September, the Paz slyly stood on Bolanos's foot, then pushed him, causing the surprised fighter to sit down hard on the canvas. Pazienza looked innocent but everyone knew. "When I fight," he says, "I want to make people smile."
In an effort to be entertaining, the Paz likes to drop his hands in a taunting gesture and resort to flashy combinations. But cute won't beat Haugen, a nasty brawler who had more than 300 fights as an amateur before turning pro in 1982. If Pazienza decides to juke and jive, he will leave himself wide open to Haugen's straight-ahead power. To win, the Paz, eighth-ranked by the IBF, must stand in there and jab. But he isn't worried. "I am fun to watch," he says. "See, the chin is there. Whoops, now it's not. It gets pretty aggravating to fight me."
The Paz does have a way with words. After whipping Bolanos, Vinny explained, "I knew if I saw his legs go like spaghetti, I was gonna be all over him like the sauce." That later prompted Haugen to raise the rhetoric to new elegance by saying, "Vinny's nothin' but a pizza-faced punk." Never mind. Ethnic slurs are acceptable in boxing.
In fact, this is another of Pazienza's charms. And perhaps his weakness. He is from a middle-class Italian background and is decidedly above average in intelligence, even though he does say "youse guys." But boxing is a sport dominated by ghetto kids who know the ring is their only way out. So, is the Paz properly motivated? He insists he is. "I feel like a kid fighting for his next meal," says Vinny, "while people are holding my mother for ransom if I lose."
While this is more hyperbole, there is a strong undergirding of truth in his reference to family. The Pazienzas are a classic Italian-American family. Father Angelo used to be a barber and a haberdasher, but now he's retired and devotes full time to exaggerating Vinny's abilities. "There's no way they are gonna stop my kid!" shouts Angelo, who always shouts. "He has my genes!"
Dismayed by the seediness of boxing gyms, Angelo went out and bought an old, decrepit fire station in Cranston for $16,000, remodeled it himself and named it Father & Son's Gym.
Mom is Louise. She makes ricotta cheese pie and has more religious artifacts than the Vatican. There's the large print of da Vinci's The Last Supper, lots of illustrated copies of the Lord's Prayer, a statuette of Christ on the cross. She sprinkles holy water on a writer's notepad. Pictures of Vinny, which are everywhere, are rosary draped. When Vinny fights, Mom lights two candles—though she never goes to his bouts.
And it shouldn't surprise you to learn that Vinny lives at home. At the foot of his bed is a Rocky poster. When Vinny was 15, he went down to the Park Cinema, five blocks away, and saw the film. "It sparked something," he says. "A flame ignited, and it started burning." He began running the next day and never stopped. There's also a stuffed animal in his bedroom wearing a sign, I'M READY TO TAKE ON THE WORLD.
Most prominent, and most telling, is a photograph of Louise and Angelo dancing. "Of course," says Paz, "they're my parents." Greater love hath no son. But Angelo, isn't it about time for Vinny to have his own place? Angelo shouts, "Where's he gonna find a better place? People don't leave good things!" Louise says, "My kids don't believe the grass is greener." Would it surprise you to learn that Vinny's 31-year-old, Doreen, lives downstairs?
Angelo says Vinny was never in trouble as a kid. Well, not exactly. The Paz kept beating up other kids for sport at Eden Park Elementary School. Once, another youngster stole Vinny's bike, so the Paz went to the offender's house and "put a serious whuppin' on his garage." Eleven-year-old Vinny got off with a scolding from Angelo. Then there was the time Vinny was caught putting slugs in pinball machines. But he didn't assault anyone. That's good.
Since his first pro fight on May 26, 1983 (he won 110 fights as an amateur), the Paz has become a full-blown celebrity in Rhode Island. Which makes him a very small celebrity. Vinny says he's "the state's only pro franchise. I have an entire state on my back."
Vinny's cousin Sal Pazienza (he's a barber, too) says, "We don't have anything in Rhode Island. I can't think of anything that happened here in the past 25 years except Vinny. Oh, yeah, the America's Cup, but we lost it. We haven't lost Vinny."
The Paz wanders into a small Cranston restaurant, grandly called Creative Foods, where they sell mainly coffee and fried doughboys. "Hey," says Vinny, "how are youse guys?" Dose guys are fine. As word gets out that the Paz is in the neighborhood, admirers crowd into the restaurant. They talk at the same time, and point and laugh and jab Vinny in his biceps, which is what people do to boxers. On the walls of Creative Foods are three pictures: Vinny Pazienza, Rocky Marciano and Marvelous Marvin Hagler. Classy company. But does Vinny really belong in such close proximity to Marciano and Hagler? The Paz laughs off the inquiry: "I'm havin' fun, because nothing is more fun than winning. Although it's not a bad feeling when the check clears."
And that is why boxing needs the Paz. He is fun and flashy. And cocky. "Sugar Ray Robinson reminds me of Vinny Pazienza," says Vinny Pazienza. TV loves him, which is why NBC's SportsWorld will air the Pazienza-Haugen fight at 4:30 p.m. EDT on June 7. Of course, there's nothing wrong with entertaining people, with making them laugh.
But manager Duva frets, "My biggest concern is not his talent—he might be a helluva fighter—but the one thing he likes to do more than box is entertain." The Paz is also stubborn. Duva tells him not to lift weights. So there is Pazienza over at the gym lifting weights. "You don't get hurt liftin'," says Vinny. "You get hurt droppin' them on your feet."
The Haugen fight had to be delayed two weeks because Pazienza broke his nose while sparring on April 18, shortly after Duva had told him not to spar. Haugen, who certainly will go for the Paz's nose, says, "It's like a big pizza on the middle of his face." Haugen can't seem to get that image out of his mind.
So Greg, have you ever fought anybody like the Paz?
"Naw, I don't think so. Except for when I was in the amateurs."
But Pazienza is not troubled by criticism. "All great people are subject to ridicule," he says. He is a bit testy, though, about a discrepancy in his pro record. According to the books, he is actually 22-1. In a fight in Milan, Italy, on Dec. 1, 1984, the Paz was butted in the third round by Abdelkader Marbi of Morocco. In the fifth, with Pazienza bleeding profusely, the fight was stopped—and given to Marbi. The Paz and his people went nuts. They claim they were told afterward by officials at ringside that the fight would be ruled a no contest, since the end was brought about by an illegal act.
Whines Vinny, "I rocked him. I had him on Queer Street." The Italian Boxing Federation did not alter the decision, but Pazienza insists he is undefeated. Even so, there there will be two cutmen in his corner for the Haugen fight.
If the Paz wins, he is on his way to bigger paydays (Haugen will get $300,000, Vinny only $150,000). Duva is already conjuring up a confrontation between Pazienza and Mancini in Rome. But Haugen, at 19-0-1, is tough. Which leads to the suspicion that Haugen may be right when he says softly of his opponent, "He's fast, he's a good fighter, he's in big trouble." If true, it could spell the end of all this Pazfoolishness.
The Paz still lives at home, where he gets advice from his dad, home cooking from Mom.
But will Louise's shrine help Vinny in his fight with Haugen for the IBF lightweight crown?
Seamstress Florence Voccola made an outfit for the Paz that is as loud as the man himself.