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After the Reign, A Legend Never Dies. PAZ – Brendan Higgins

by Brendan Higgins, contributing writer

     In the winter of 1976, my father took me to the Park Cinema in Cranston to see this new movie called Rocky. We drove down from Scituate with a neighbor completely unaware that we were about to witness a masterpiece. I came out of my seat during the heavyweight title fight scene at the end. At 13 years old, it felt real to me. Man, did I love that movie. I think most kids my age did. I found out years later another kid named Vinny watched Rocky in that same movie theatre, except he loved it more than anyone. In fact, the movie dramatically changed the course of his life. Seven years later in 1983, that same kid burst on the professional boxing scene. His name: Vinny Pazienza.

Vinny lived about 10 miles away from us in Cranston. He was around the same age as me, but he seemed much older for some reason. From day one I was impressed with him. Paz as he is known, seemed to have all the tools needed to become a major player in the boxing world. This kid had a full-blown pro wrestling personality inside a boxing ring. He had a style all his own. He sported flashy stylish clothing that only he could get away with wearing. He wore outrageous hats and glasses. He had Hollywood good looks. But most of all, Vinny could talk. Man, could he talk. It was like they took Rocky Balboa and Apollo Creed and merged them into one person – and out walked Paz.

Carl Weathers (Apollo Creed), Vinny Paz, Sylvester Stallone (Rocky Balboa)

What made Paz more impressive, he could back up his trash talking in the ring in a convincing manner. I was ringside for many of his fights in the Providence Civic Center. Going to boxing matches in the biggest arena in Rhode Island was an experience unlike anything I had ever seen. It’s what we in the Ocean State call a see and be seen event. Lots of men who looked like they walked off the set of Goodfellas, accompanied by drop dead gorgeous women.

     The building was always sold out to see Vinny fight. It was an event. The best part was he never let us down. He always delivered. He came to the ring to powerful music. He even used the song “Mama Said Knock You Out” by LL Cool J after it came out. As The Pazmanian Devil made his way to the ring, the building would erupt with an ovation that would make The Rock envious. He would storm the ring, creating this electricity in the building. It was almost like he couldn’t get there fast enough. Then, once he was in the ring, he addressed everyone as he danced around the squared circle pointing in all directions. The crowd was always right there with him pointing back. The whole thing was in a natural flow. He was really on to something with his presentation.

     He was one of us. He went to Park View Middle School. He played football at Cranston East. He was defensive team captain in his senior year. He wore #54. He played defensive back and was relentless on the field leading the league in tackles. He also ranked near the top in interceptions. I felt passionately connected to Vinny Paz the prize fighter. Along with the entire state of Rhode Island I wanted him to win very badly. He became Rhode Island’s professional sports team. He was the franchise. He wrote catch phrases on his ring gear. I remember him writing Who’s Next on his ring vest years before pro wrestler Bill Goldberg copied the idea. He was a trailblazer. He was not afraid to express to the world who Vinny Paz was and what he was all about.

PAZ prepares for battle alongside Papa PAZ Angelo

     As a former professional wrestler, I can tell you it’s easy to get a crowd to hate you. To get them to love you is much more difficult. Ultimately, with the right talent it can be accomplished in a wrestling ring nine times out of ten, simply because the wrestlers are working together. To get a loving reaction from a boxing crowd is a whole different ball game. The fighter has to have something special. In wrestling it’s referred to as the “it” factor. No one really knows what “it” is, but Vinny has plenty of “it”. Still, even that is not enough. You still have to win the fight. When you combine all the intangibles necessary to get men to like you, and women to adore you, at the same time, it’s a one in a million personality. That is Vinny Paz. During his entire career, I couldn’t wait to see what he was going to do next.

     Then tragedy came knocking. Vinny was at the top of his game. A reigning world champion in the best shape of his life. He really could do no wrong. He was involved in a horrible car accident. He was in the passenger seat and easily could have been killed. The doctors immediately told Paz they couldn’t say for sure if he would ever walk again. His boxing career was definitely over. Maybe I should rephrase that. For anyone else, they might not walk again, and their boxing career would be over.

     The rest of this story is one of a living, breathing, walking miracle. God had much bigger plans for The Pazmanian Devil. Not only did he walk again, but he got back in the ring and fought again. He became world champion again. He went on to an exceptional 50-10 record with 30 knockouts. This incredible story is beautifully told in the 2016 motion picture, “Bleed for This” starring Miles Teller, Katey Sagal, Ciaran Hinds and a brilliant supporting cast. You don’t need to be a boxing fan to witness a miracle. It’s a great movie. Vinny retired from the ring in 2004 after he defeated Tocker Pudwill. He finished his career with the equivalent of 5 Superbowl and World Series rings. He wore them around his waist. Paz walked away a 5-time world champion.

     In retirement Vinny did not ride off into the sunset. No, not by a long shot. He remained in the spotlight. From the beautiful women to the jet setting lifestyle, Paz lived his life to the fullest. He pretty much had the volume turned up to 10 at all times. The truth is, he is wired differently. From his recovery from a broken neck to his day-to-day life. He trained at maximum volume. He fought at maximum volume. Today, he still lives at maximum volume. That is who he always will be.

     In September of 2021 my longtime friend John Cardullo (also the sportswriter for RINewsToday) asked me if I had any interest in meeting Vinny. John was not fully aware of how much I loved Paz as a fighter. I said, “John that would be incredible.” Well, not only was I going to meet Paz, but we were going to his home. John and Vinny go way back. That was news to me. In the back of my mind, I thought this probably won’t happen for one reason or another. A few days went by, and John texted me “Vinny wants to meet you. Can you make it Sunday?” I was really caught off guard. I said “yes.” On that Sunday I rode my Harley to meet John and followed him in his car to have a face-to-face meeting with The Pazmanian Devil. When we arrived at his home, Paz came outside to greet us. A long set of stairs from the driveway led to his front door. Paz stood at the top of the stairs as he and John exchanged small talk. I made my way up the stairs and noticed Vinny had a serious look on his face. Probably because this big goony guy that he had never met was coming right at him. I extended my hand and said “Paz, my name is Knuckles Nelson. I’m a longtime fan.” A big smile came across his face and he laughed. Then he said, “Knuckles Nelson, I love that name.” From that moment on we were friends. My first impression was Vinny was in great shape.

A PAZTASTIC LIFE

As John made his way up the stairs, Paz invited us in. As we walked through the doorway, I could see the five world championship title belts he’d won on display in a trophy case in the living room. It was an extremely cool sight. Over the next four hours we took a walk down memory lane. Not only with boxing but as three guys who grew up in Rhode Island. After some small talk I got down to business letting the champ know how aware I was of his long and storied career. He seemed flattered and offered great conversation. His living room is filled with memorabilia from his glory days. The belts, ring attire and posters represent a hall of fame career. Then he invited me into his private office. Vinny has photos with pretty much every major celebrity known to mankind. The best part is most of them wanted a photo with Paz. He also has a wall of fame with photos of some of the most beautiful women in the world he dated over the years. Vinny had a story to go along with every photo from Frank Sinatra to Hulk Hogan. At 59 he has already lived a life most men will only dream about.

     Paz was very open detailing his extensive life experience and adventures. I liked him more and more as the afternoon progressed. He asked if we would be interested in watching a highlight video from his boxing career. I gladly accepted. The three of us sat and watched a DVD of a boxing legend with Paz providing insider information. I asked lots of questions and Vinny answered all of them. For example, in one clip of his fight with Dana Rosenblatt, Paz walked with his opponent back to his corner whispering something in Dana’s ear. I said, “What did you say to him?” Paz replied, “I told him, you ain’t gonna make it mother f(edit).” For me this was as good as it could possibly get. If I respect and admire someone, I let them know it. Vinny was a great host that day.

     When we were leaving Vinny told me to keep in touch. He said “I usually don’t meet people like you. I enjoyed our visit, Knux.” That, of course, made my day. I thought about Vinny quite a bit afterwards. We kept in touch texting back and forth, and he always sent positive upbeat messages.

     I didn’t see Vinny again until I was covering the CES RHODE WARS press conference for RINEWSTODAY.COM at Arooga’s in Warwick in February of 2022. Paz walked in wearing a black leather jacket with matching hat and dark sunglasses. He was with his longtime friend, Dave DeLuise. They sat in a booth in the back while the press conference got underway. When I scanned the table of fighters for the upcoming night of boxing, I couldn’t help but notice that they all looked like they could be regular people in the crowd. The only one that stuck out was Jaime Clampitt-Hayes. She has style. She has the aura of a champion. Everyone else wore sweatpants and t-shirts. When they had an opportunity to speak, they didn’t seem to know what to say once they had a microphone in their hand. Again, with the exception of Clampitt-Hayes who was poised and knew exactly what to say. One fighter actually said, “I don’t know what to say.” When I was leaving that day, I told Vinny he should host a workshop for these kids on how to be a showman. He said, “Can’t teach that, Knux.” After I left the building, I was standing in the parking lot and was reminded just how unique The Pazmanian Devil was in his prime. It occurred to me that Paz not only lived his life in the public eye, but he was forced to do so under a microscope with constant scrutiny. The next day I called Paz and asked if he would be open to another visit. I told him I wanted to interview him as a boxer, yes, but also as a man who does not get the credit he deserves for putting Rhode Island on the map in the boxing world. He said, “Sure Knux, anything for you.”

     On February 19th I was at the Crowne Plaza covering the Clampitt-Hayes vs Wabik fight presented by CES Boxing. Just prior to the fight Vinny Paz walked in with his girlfriend and another couple. I sat next to the champ for the evening. It didn’t take long before a line formed for photos with Rhode Island boxing royalty. Vinny took one photo after another with his fans. He made sure everyone got a photo or an autograph. When he finally sat down, he leaned over and said “I never say no to the fans because you never know what is going on in someone’s life. They could be having a hard time. They could be unhappy. A simple gesture like taking a photo might make them feel better. You never know who I might be turning away if I say no. They could be a big boxing fan. They might have supported me my whole career.”

     For the rest of the evening, I sat with Paz as we watched Jaime Clampitt-Hayes dismantle and eventually defeat her opponent, Kim Wabik. At one point in the later rounds Vinny said, “This girl is tough, but Jaime is killing her.” I asked Paz what he thought of Jaime at this point in her career. He said, “She is an unbelievable person. I love watching her fight. She is going to be world champion again.” I told Paz I saw a lot of him in Jaime and the way she mimicked him in her previous fights. He smiled and said, “That’s why she is a 4-time world champion.”

Vinny Paz ready for win #50                 5X World Champion

I reminded Paz about the interview I wanted to conduct, and he invited me to his home a few days later. When we got together, I knew I had non-boxing questions that would add a different feel for readers who know the story oh so well.

     When we got together, I immediately asked Vinny about his parents. He pointed to the championship belts and said “If it wasn’t for my mom and dad, none of those would be there. I really believe that. I knew it then, but after you grow up you can look back and see how other people are with their family and it’s nothing like my relationship with my parents. They were amazing. If I didn’t have them, I have no idea where this journey would have gone. I never had to worry about anything. They took care of everything so I could go after my dream.” Vinny added, “as soon as you asked about my mom and dad, I thought about the time my mother was walking home from the market on Pontiac Ave. My mother didn’t drive; she walked everywhere. She owned a beauty salon on Rolfe Street. After work one day she went to Star Market next to Tony’s Pizza on Pontiac Ave. She left with a grocery bag in each hand. When she got to Waterman Ave. she tripped and fell and the things in the bags went everywhere. She hurt her knee badly but still gathered the stuff that fell out of the bags, walked home, made dinner, and cleaned the kitchen before she finally told my father, “maybe I should go get my knee checked”. We took my mother to the hospital. At the time I was on top. Everybody in Rhode Island knew me. I asked the doctor how bad it was, and he said she shattered her knee in 8 places. To think she walked home 2 more blocks then up 2 flights of stairs and made dinner before she mentioned it.” That is how tough my mother was.

     I reminded Vinny about the press conference and the fighters having a lack of charisma. I asked him why he thought that ingredient is missing with some of today’s fighters. He said “What I really think I had, that these kids today don’t have, is a guy by the name of Muhammad Ali. He was just my man. He had Charisma to the 10th power. I just watched him. That’s it. I would tell all these kids today to go back and watch Muhammad Ali flicks.” On a side note, I think it would do any young fighter good to also go back and watch all the charismatic interview footage of Vinny Paz.

     I asked Vinny why he decided to live here in Rhode Island after his boxing career was over. He said, “I had a condo outside Miami in Hallandale Beach for years. I loved it there. I love the hot weather. I like it warm every day. Then my parents got sick. They were both starting to fail a little bit. So, I came back to Rhode Island and that was it. I sold the condo. I had to take care of my father. He had dementia. I went to be with him every day.” I could see Vinny was getting emotional talking about this, so I moved on from the subject. From what I was hearing, Vinny never forgot where he came from.

     I asked Vinny point blank what it’s like living his life under a microscope, being held to a standard of living that no one could possibly live up to. “It’s something I just got used to. I try to take it with a grain of salt. I had to have thick shoulders. People can really be hard. They can be mean. I have never set out to hurt anyone. I have made mistakes along the way. I thank God every day for the life I was blessed to have.”

     I wanted to know what Vinny thought of the boxing business today. He said “It’s just not what it used to be, and it never will be ever again, because of a guy named Dana White. MMA has taken over boxing. It hasn’t knocked it off the shelf, but it’s taken over boxing. Its more in demand than boxing. People love to see blood. They love to see pain inflicted on other people, and that’s why MMA is as big as it is. It’s the biggest thing on television today.”

     Ironically, it was Dana White who inducted Vinny Paz into the Nevada Boxing Hall of Fame in 2019. White expressed his love and respect for Paz in a heartfelt speech. Then they showed a highlight reel of The Pazmanian Devil at his best. As cool as that was it was Paz who made the most incredible gesture of the night. While delivering his acceptance speech, Vinny referred to the beautiful HOF ring he was receiving that night. He told the capacity crowd that he was already wearing Rocky Marciano’s world championship ring. Paz scanned the crowd and asked the audience, “Who in the crowd is the biggest Marciano fan?” He told them “Whoever you are, come up to the podium and I’ll give you this ring. I’m getting a new one tonight.” Everyone thought he was joking so he repeated his offer. This time a young woman and a man came up to the podium at the same time. Vinny told the two of them they would have to play rock, paper, scissors for the ring. The young woman who was also a fighter won the match and walked away with Rocky Marciano’s ring. That is the type of man Vinny Paz is.

Hollywood Meets the Boxing Dream Team

Vinny was fearless in the ring but that doesn’t mean he is free from fear. It’s been well documented in the past that Vinny fears 2 things – fire and marriage. During the interview Vinny revealed he is engaged to former model, Jessie Lynn St. Pierre. I told Paz this story will not be complete unless I speak with her. Paz arranged for me to speak with his fiancé. Jessie lives in Massachusetts. Today she works in the medical field. She has known Paz for almost 20 years. During our telephone conversation, I was impressed with how open she was discussing her relationship with arguably the most famous man ever from Rhode Island. She met Paz at an after party during her modeling days. Her initial impression of Vinny was not necessarily a good one. They would see each other out and she said, “Vinny was dating models and porn stars and I wasn’t interested in him at first, but over time he grew on me.” Eventually they started dating but that ended. Over the past 13 years they became best friends. Jessie said ‘I really got to know him after his life calmed down. That was when I got to know the man instead of the legend. That was who I fell in love with.”

     She went on to say, “Vinny will never be able to get away from how recognizable he is.” That fact was on full display when Jessie took him to Maine for a getaway at her father’s home. As she described the adventure, I thought the story would make a great reality show. Jessie said, “I’m an introvert. I do not like the spotlight. Being with Vinny you have to deal with it all the time. I took him to Maine, which is funny in itself, because Vinny has never been outside his elements. He is a city boy. He has never been with nature in the sticks up in Maine. For me, it was a chance to get away from the whole celebrity thing. We were going to my spot. Just the ride up there was comical in itself. We were deep in Maine and Vinny wanted to stop for dinner and drinks. I broke the news to him that everything closes by 9 o’clock in Maine. He said, ‘no, once you hit a main road something will be open.'” Jessie laughed and said, “Vinny, this is the main road. I was really looking forward to the fact that no one was going to know who Vinny was. It was just going to be me and Vinny. The first place we stopped, we walk in the store and a guy says, ‘is that Vinny Paz?’ – we are in the sticks of Maine and just like that, it was the same thing. People all over him wanting pictures. No matter where you take him, anywhere on the planet somebody knows Vinny Paz.” Once Jessie had a chance to introduce Vinny to life in Maine, she exposed him to new things like riding a snowmobile and shooting a shotgun for the first time in his life. He had to deal with no satellite TV or cell phone service as Jessie took Paz off the grid. Yup, this would have made a great reality show.

THE MAINE MAN with his lady

     I asked Jessie since she knows Vinny on such a personal level, what would you want people to know about him. She said “Sadly people always believe everything they hear. He lived his life in the news, in the spotlight, on camera, and he owns what he does. He is not a cowardly person hiding from his mistakes in life. That makes him a person I honor and respect. People reading about him in the paper have no idea who he is and what he is really like. He would never put his hands on a woman. One of the great things about being friends with him for so long, I have been around all of his ex’s. They try to hang on and won’t let go. Vinny has never been built for a serious committed relationship. That’s when women get “psycho”. He doesn’t try and explain when people are lying about him. He lets everything go. Vinny has a heart of gold. He wants everybody to be happy. It seems like there is always somebody not happy with him. He always overextends himself, his kindness, his time, and his energy trying to keep everyone happy. It has cost him his own happiness at times. A lot of people don’t take the time to get to know him, they just judge him from what they hear second hand in the media.

     Vinny and Jessie are a classic example of opposites attract. Jessie told me, “For someone who has lived the life Vinny has, and he lived it all, he gives back everything he can. It’s beautiful how many lives he has touched. People can try to put him in a negative light, but they don’t see all the video chats he does with fans or all the kids he talks to. People who have heard his story and just want to meet him. He makes time for all of it. The good far outweighs the bad.” It would appear the only thing the champ fears now is fire.

     I asked Vinny for a man who has done everything in life, is there anything left for you to accomplish. He smiled and said, ‘No. I’ve done it all, but watch my new documentary coming out soon. You will really see what I went through, and who I was back then. It’s called, The Greatest Comeback in the History of Sports.” In 2022, Vinny Paz is enjoying his life in retirement. He no longer has a big entourage. He lives a much more private life these days. When he goes out in public, he greets everyone with a handshake or a hug. He loves to talk boxing.

If you were looking to read some negative gossip about Vinny Paz, you have come to the wrong place. This story is about a man who rang every drop out of each day of his life. Even though he is closing in on 60 years old, he still enjoys life to the fullest.

I asked Vinny some rapid-fire questions and this is what he had to say.

Paz facts

  1. Besides Vegas what’s your favorite city: “New York City”
  2. What’s your favorite car: “My Porsche”
  3. Favorite boxing memory: “Knocking out Dana Rosenblatt”
  4. What makes you happy: “Coffee and Jes”
  5. Besides Ali, who’s your favorite fighter: “Roberto Duran”
  6. Besides Rocky, what’s your favorite movie: “Burt Reynolds/The Longest Yard”
  7. Do you believe in God: “Absolutely”
  8. Favorite place to train: “The fire station in Providence my father bought and turned into a gym.”
  9. Who do you admire: “Tom Brady, Donald Trump, Dana White, Mike Tyson, Sylvester Stallone, Vince McMahon. And Buddy Cianci was a really cool dude.”
  10. How do you want people to remember you: “That I was a great fighter That I was tough as nails. That I helped people.”

Most people will never experience living life as a world champion. To walk the walk, and talk the talk, during a title reign. Vinny Paz knows exactly how it feels. He did it 5 times. After the reign, he is still The Pazmanian Devil, and he always will be, because a legend never dies.

Photos courtesy Vinny Paz

_____

Brendan Higgins, writer and author, RIPTA bus driver, former professional wrestler (Knuckles Nelson), and North Kingstown resident.

We welcome Brendan as a contributing writer to RINewsToday.

To read a story about Brendan, from our sports department, go to: https://rinewstoday.com/knuckles-nelson-waking-up-from-the-wrestling-ring-to-the-yoga-mat-john-cardullo/

Higgins is the author of “Waking Up: From the Wrestling Ring to the Yoga Mat”

4 Comments

  1. Joe B on March 9, 2022 at 7:32 pm

    Great story, Vinny is the man, met him many times and always was a perfect gentleman.



  2. Rob on March 9, 2022 at 6:30 pm

    Such a well written story. Most reading this will be searching for the negative you hear in the media. Glad to see the approach here was to learn about the real person



  3. Colleen on March 1, 2022 at 3:03 pm

    Great story, I enjoy your wrighting style!

    Thank you,
    Colleen



    • Ron Cook on March 9, 2022 at 5:30 pm

      Great story. Loved watching Paz!