Vinny Paz on his miracle comeback and why boxing will never hit the heights of old 5 years ago

Vinny Paz on his miracle comeback and why boxing will never hit the heights of old

Hiding in plain sight just yards from London's Warren Street, the boxing gym where I meet Vinny Paz feels symbolic of the three-weight world champion's own remarkable comeback.

Were it not for the huddle of journalists on the street outside, you would walk straight past Ringtone Gym, just like few would have thought Paz's parents' house in Rhode Island was home to the makeshift gym which helped the American return to boxing just one year after a car accident left him with a broken neck.

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Paz, still known then as Vinny Pazienza, was touch-and-go to even make a full recovery at the time, let alone return to the ring.

Not only did he do that, but he managed to add more world titles to his résumé, ending his career at the age of 42 with 50 victories to his name.

Vinny PazienzaVinny Pazienza during his world title fight against Roberto Duran in 1994 (Holly Stein/Getty Images)

"I won't forget when I lifted my first weight in my parents' house and the pain shot through my body, my neck, it was unbelievable," says Paz, whose comeback is documented in Ben Younger's film Bleed For This, out in the UK on December 2.

"But I dropped the weights, I sat down, and I said I'm going to get back up and do it again - make this happen or die trying.

"And that's a good motto for a lot of people, make this happen sucker or you're going to die trying."

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Paz's recovery was made all the more remarkable by the fact that his rehabilitation came while he was still wearing a halo, a supportive brace which required screws to be embedded in his skull.

haloMiles Teller as Vinny Paz (Open Road Films/YouTube)

He laughs when recalling how Miles Teller, who plays him in the film, was complaining at the pain of the screws merely resting on his head, and speaks fondly of his back-and-forths with the Whiplash star.

"I was talking to him one day and he said 'Vinny, I want to be the greatest actor in the world.'

"I said 'holy shit, I'm so glad you're playing me, that's fucking cool!'

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"When I saw Whiplash, that's when I knew that he could play me. I said if this kid does a little bit of work with the boxing he's going to really nail this, and he did - he really did a great job."

GettyImages-618160478Cindy Ord/Getty Images

Paz ended his career having been able to call himself a three-weight world champion, something which few others can say.

He was just 24 years old when he won the IBF world lightweight title, but a dangerous weight cut for shot at the a junior welterweight belt against Roger Mayweather ended with him collapsing through dehydration and being rushed to hospital.

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His later titles came at light middleweight and super middleweight, but he admits that health risks were no match for pride - something which he feels is still prominent in the sport.

"Even after I almost died, the doctor was telling me 'you can't be doing this' and I was like 'nah I'm okay, I know what I'm doing'," he recalls.

"Nothing's going to ever change, that's always going to be around. It's a money thing and it's a personal thing, like why would I want to fight a heavyweight when I can make middleweight.

"Well you don't have to lose 30 pounds, but people don't think like that. It's weird how the boxing game makes a fighter think."

He admits that his trainer, Kevin Rooney, was crucial to teaching him humility and convincing him to move up to a more appropriate weight, saying the decision to step up was "the best thing that ever happened to me".

Rooney is played in Bleed For This, by Aaron Eckhart, and the portrayal gained a great deal of authenticity thanks to the Golden Globe nominee's conversations with the son of the boxing veteran, who coached Mike Tyson in the former world heavyweight champion's younger days.

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GettyImages-623234516Eckhart produces one of the performances of his career as Kevin Rooney (Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images)

Tyson retired just a year after Paz, and the Rhode Island native has noticed boxing's appeal diminish in the absence of a popular and charismatic heavyweight champion.

He has strong feelings about the Klitschko brothers, claiming the Ukrainians have "killed" boxing, perhaps to the point that it will never return to the popularity it enjoyed at its peak.

Paz acknowledges the growth of MMA, which is beginning to eat into boxing's audience, but wants to embrace it even if he maintains that "If I wanted to wrestle I would have wrestled".

"I go back to the days of VHS 8-track tapes and when cassettes came after that I was like 'no way, I ain't getting a cassette' and you had to go with it, you had no choice - that's the same thing with MMA, you have no choice," he says.

"Whenever boxing is at its highest, it's when there's a great heavyweight champion.

"Tyson, Foreman, Holyfield, when there's a great heavyweight then boxing's big, but now they're not putting the focus on anybody.

"[Wladimir Klitschko] was the heavyweight champion of the world and nobody gave a f**k about him. He could fight but boring as hell, that's when boxing started going down."

Open Road With Men's Fitness Host The Premiere Of "Bleed For This"Paz and Teller with executive producer Martin Scorsese and director Ben Younger (Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images)

The one man capable of making a difference at heavyweight, according to Paz, at least, is Deontay Wilder.

The 31-year-old has held the WBC heavyweight belt for more than a year, launching four successful defences, and has yet to lose in a professional career dating back to 2008.

And Paz thinks Wilder has a number of qualities which brought him to prominence in the late 1980s and early 1990s - perhaps more so than any other heavyweight around at the moment.

"Deontay's got an awesome record, a great attitude, great mouthpiece and he can fight - and you need all those things," he says.

"You can't just be a talker and not back it.

"Part of it is because I was tough, part of it was because I could fight...and part of it was because I talked shit before my fights but I made people watch fights and Deontay could be that guy.

"He could bring back boxing a little bit, but it's never going to be back fully. Boxing is never going to go away but I don't know if it's ever going to have the stature it had at one time."

Deontay Wilder v Chris ArreolaWilder defeated Chris Arreola in July to go 37-0 for his career (David A. Smith/Getty Images)

While Paz himself never fought above 168 lbs, his career saw him step up from lightweight all the way to super middleweight, and that brought with it a great deal of variety.

He reflects on some of his earlier opponents like Joe Frazier Jr, but when it comes to the question of who hit the hardest, there's no question in his mind.

"I always say the hardest I ever got hit was Roberto Duran," he says, casting his mind back to his first bout against the man he defeated to claim the IBC belt in 1994.

"I couldn't believe it. I said holy shit, I've got to stick around for 12 more rounds of this shit?! But you've got to do it, just suck it up.

"I told Miles Teller when he first came to me about the screws in his head, they weren't even in his head, they were just resting against his head. He was going to me 'I don't believe how you did this, I wanna take this off now, it's killing me'.

"That's how 'suck it up, twatcakes' became the theme of this movie."

Bleed For This is in UK cinemas this Friday