WARWICK, R.I. — When the Champ smiles, you can still see where the quarter-inch metal screws were drilled into his forehead.
Vinny Paz was a two-time world boxing champion when he broke his neck in a car crash in 1991. Doctors told him that he would never fight again and that he was fortunate he wasn’t a paraplegic. They drilled four holes into his skull and fitted him with a halo, a metal-rod brace to immobilize his head.
But the Pazmanian Devil had other ideas. He secretly lifted weights and worked out, despite the searing pain. Within a year, he returned to the ring and went on to win three more titles.
Paz’s story will be turned into a movie, “Bleed for This,” which is scheduled to begin shooting next month in Rhode Island. He is thrilled.
“I’m going to be the main inspiration in the world for people, and how cool is that?” he says.
A visit to his Warwick, R.I., home is like a treasure hunt. His modest, pink-trimmed, single-family home is loaded with souvenirs of a warrior who never quit.
Paz, 51, who was formerly known as Vinny Pazienza, is in the process of remodeling the house after pipes burst and caused water damage. There are stacks of photos piled on the dining room table, some stuck together.
There’s Paz and his Penthouse girlfriend. Paz and O.J. Simpson, Paz and Tom Brady, Pete Rose, Barry Bonds, Hugh Hefner, Stevie Wonder.
“Here’s Ali,” says Paz. “I said, ‘I’m only doing this because of you. You’re the reason I started boxing.’ And he pulled me in and whispered, ‘Pretty boy,’ and I said, ‘No, no, you’re the pretty boy.’ It was really cool.”
Paz is ecstatic that Martin Scorsese is the executive producer of the film. Scorsese made “Raging Bull,” for which Robert De Niro won an Academy Award for portraying prizefighter Jake La Motta.
Paz pulls out a photo of himself with the real Raging Bull.
“Jake La Motta,” he says. “Not a good guy. Nasty.”
He laughs while looking at a photo of himself and Sylvester Stallone. “Rocky” is his favorite boxing movie. After he saw it as a 15-year-old, he says, “I was in, hook, line, and sinker.”
Paz gets pumped up when he talks about Miles Teller, who will play him in “Bleed For This.”
“I love the kid,” says Paz. “They’re trying to make him the next Leonardo DiCaprio. He’s going to be the next big kid on the block.”
Aaron Eckhart will portray his trainer, Kevin Rooney, and Katey Sagal is cast as his mother. Ben Younger is the director.
Paz moves to a wall of photographs that explain the title of the movie. There’s more blood in these pictures than in any episode of “True Blood.”
“It’s the Wall of Pain, bro,” he says. “Here’s me with my broken neck, a broken nose here, here I’m bleeding like a pig, here bleeding from one eyebrow to one eyebrow.”
Was it worth it?
“Abso-[expletive]-lutely,” he says.
Bumps in the road
According to Paz, who compiled a 50-10 record in the ring with 30 knockouts, he made $5 million-$7 million fighting.
“The problem is I’ve spent 8,” he says, laughing.
He lost a fortune gambling and in the stock market, he says. He was arrested multiple times for DUI, and also for assault, disorderly conduct, and domestic violence.
“I have a good brain,” he says. “I just don’t use it a lot.”
The domestic violence charges bothered him the most.
“I don’t hit girls, never have,” he says. “It’s not my style. I was going around Rhode Island and people were looking at me in disgust. It was the worst moment of my life.”
He acknowledges that he likes to drink.
“I’m not ashamed of it, I’m not proud of it, it’s just what I like to do,” he says.
Paz has a wine coming out called Five Times Better, a nod to his five championship titles.
A merlot? A cabernet? Paz isn’t sure.
“Red wine,” he says. “I want it priced low and taste great.”
Born Vincenzo Edward Pazienza (later legally changed to Paz) in Cranston, he says he got his toughness from his parents. Paz says his father fled Italy after pitchforking a Nazi soldier who stole cattle from his farm.
His mother, says Paz, fell while carrying home groceries one day. She climbed the stairs and made everyone dinner before asking for a ride to the hospital. Her knee was shattered in eight places.
Paz started fighting at age 5. He trained with Mike Tyson and Evander Holyfield at the Olympic headquarters in Colorado and had 100 amateur fights before turning pro.
He captured the World Boxing Association junior middleweight title with a TKO of Gilbert Dele in the 12th round on Oct. 1, 1991.
He was on top of the world, only the second boxer in history to win both the world lightweight and junior middleweight titles.
“I thought I was going to be the next white Muhammad Ali,” he says.
But tragedy struck on Route 1. After a midday workout, Paz climbed into the passenger seat of his friend’s Camaro. They were doing over 50 miles per hour when they were cut off and their car skidded into oncoming traffic. Paz wasn’t wearing a seat belt, so he held on for dear life.
“My last thought was I’m never going to defend my world title,” says Paz.
A truck narrowly avoided them.
“Then a big town car hit us,” says Paz. “And that was it. Whiplash.”
The Jaws of Life were used to cut him out of the wreckage. EMTs stabilized him, placed him on a stretcher, and took him to the ambulance.
Then they wheeled the driver of the other vehicle toward Paz’s ambulance. He was angry.
“He’s saying, ‘Those kids had to be drinking — you better check those kids,’ ” says Paz.
Paz, broken neck and all, made a stand.
“I put my foot out on the top of [his stretcher] and said, ‘He’s not coming here. Get this [expletive] guy outta here.’ Finally they put my friend in with me.”
At Kent County Hospital in Warwick, neurosurgeon Walter Cotter gave Paz the bad news that he would never fight again. Doctors were worried that he might not be able to walk because he had cracked two vertebrae and a third was mere centimeters from his spinal column. Paz threw a tantrum and insisted the doctor was wrong.
Defying the doctors
After weeks in the hospital, Paz went home to a hospital bed in his parents’ house. He would stare at himself in the mirror, with the contraption on his head.
“I said, ‘I gotta do something. I just can’t stay like this.’ ”
Four days later, while he was home alone, he sneaked down to the basement and stared at the weights.
“I put my hand on two 30-pound dumbbells,” says Paz. “I’m taking deep breaths. I can do this. Gonna do this. I lift them up. OWWW! And I immediately dropped them. Pain shot through my body. My head started pounding around the screws.”
He sat down for 10 minutes, again staring at the weights.
“I get back up,” he says. “I grab the 25-pound ones and I lift em. AHHH! I throw ’em over my shoulder and start doing shoulder presses with them. And that was it. I sucked up the pain.”
His mother eventually got wise to him, though.
“She started washing my clothes and they were sweaty, they were wet,” says Paz, “and she said, ‘Vinny, you could be paralyzed. Are you out of your mind?’ ”
Still, friends took him to a gym to accelerate his workouts. Then he went to the doctor’s office for X-rays, which looked good. His doctor told him to keep doing whatever he was doing.
“Then I started lifting heavier weights,” says Paz.
Three months later, on Valentine’s Day, the halo was removed. Paz refused a pain-killing injection.
“I’ve probably had a thousand stitches in my face,” he says, “but this was the most pain I’ve ever had.”
He was cleared to box again and won his next nine fights.
“Listen, I won 50 professional fights,” says Paz. “I won five world titles and I have three brain cells left and I’m very fortunate I have them. I’m sooo lucky.”
Rough night in Vegas
Paz’s fights weren’t pretty, but he was fearless.
“People would think I didn’t have good defense because I was blood and guts,” he says. “I would get cut and the cut would run because I was taking anti-inflammatories before the fight. People would think I was getting killed, but I had good defense. You gotta have good defense to last.”
His style was flamboyant. Sometimes he wore horns or face paint into the ring. He taunted opponents. He wanted to hate them. If he couldn’t find motivation to hate, he compensated.
“I had to have no sex and nine cappuccinos before the fight to get me pissed,” he says.
He says the 1988 fight against Roger Mayweather for the WBC world light welterweight title in Las Vegas nearly killed him. First, he had trouble making the 140-pound weight.
“I had to go back in my room, put the heat on, the shower on hot, hot, hot,” he says. “Put a towel underneath the door, and I got plastics on and I’m shadow boxing and doing jumping jacks.”
He didn’t feel good.
“It was one of my ‘Oh God’ nights,” says Paz. “As in, ‘Please God, let this [expletive] Roger Mayweather have a bad night.”
Mayweather won a unanimous decision.
“He dropped me once with an uppercut,” says Paz. “I was so embarrassed. It was the first time it ever happened to me.”
After the fight, Paz collapsed from the beating and the dehydration and was hospitalized.
“I’m lying there and I literally said to myself, ‘[Expletive] it. I’m gonna die. I don’t give a [expletive]. I lost the fight. Stallone was in the first row, [expletive] it.
“I saw myself going up through white clouds and it felt so good. The nurse said to my father — and I could hear this — ‘Mr. Pazienza, we’re losing your son, he’s only got one heartbeat every six seconds.’
“When she said that, he grabbed me and started shaking me violently. I heard him in slow motion, he’s going, ‘C-H-A-M-P, I don’t c-a-r-e- that you lost, d-o-n’t do this.’
“If my father hadn’t done that, I would’ve died on that [expletive] table, without a doubt. And I came back.”
Paz later beat Hall of Famer Roberto Duran twice.
“I don’t brag about it, because he was, like, 90,” says Paz, laughing.
At the press conference before their first fight, Paz was hoping that Duran, one of his heroes, would say he’s a tough kid. Instead Duran fired away in Spanish.
“His interpreter gets up there and says, ‘Roberto said he can’t wait to kick your [expletive] ass, and your Playboy girlfriend is going to have to take care of you when he puts you in the hospital,’ ” says Paz. “It’s like somebody stabbed me through the heart.”
Duran still had the “Hands of Stone,” though, and he surprised Paz, who was 11 years younger.
“It was like hitting an oak tree,” says Paz. “I’m thinking to myself, ‘Imagine what this [expletive] was at 25.’
“So the fifth round comes up, I start throwing a bomb from Providence and we are in Vegas, The next thing I see is canvas next to my eyeball.”
Paz popped up and went to a neutral corner.
“I start banging myself in the head, trying to wake up,” he says. “There’s 15,000 people screaming, and I lock eyes with Montel Williams, who had me on his show with my mother. He’s going, fist in air, ‘Come on, come on, Vinny, you can do it.’ And in my mind I was thinking, ‘You get up here with this animal, you see how hard this is.’
“After the round ends, Duran walks to the neutral corner, I follow him and I’m yelling at him, ‘Duran, I ain’t goin’ nowhere!’ He literally looked at me and went, ‘Crazy gringo.’ That’s when I got his respect, ’cause I beat him after that.”
Paz says he never got married, despite reports to the contrary. He still wears his shirt open, with the Tasmanian devil dangling from his chest, and he still tells the ladies he’s 39.
He says his life is looking up again, thanks to the silver screen. He says he will have a cameo in the film, probably as a bartender.
“I’ve done my thing here,” he says. “I want to see my movie, rock out for another 5 or 10 years, and then I’m cool.
“No one is changing the champ’s underwear. That’s for goddamn sure.”
Stan Grossfeld can be reached at email@example.com.