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‘Doctor, you’re wrong’

Vinny Pazienza

Vinny Pazienza after breaking his neck

As Nick Blackwell sleeps in his hospital bed, he will be unaware of the disbelief surrounding the circumstances of his latest injury. The words “stupid” and “mad” keep cropping up. But Vinny Pazienza knows better than to judge.

In March, Blackwell was sent into a coma by a combination of Chris Eubank Jr’s fists and an anaesthetist’s needle. Seven days later Blackwell awoke, before announcing his retirement from a sport that meant the world to him.

On Saturday, news began to filter through that Blackwell had been under the knife again, having suffered another head injury while sparring. It had been assumed that Blackwell would never want to set foot in a ring again, given what had previously happened to him. In truth, it’s all Blackwell ever wanted to do.

That Pazienza is in the news is a happy coincidence, because no other man in boxing history could provide such valuable insight into Blackwell’s thinking.

In the 1980s, Pazienza forged a reputation as one of the most exciting fighters on the planet. A rough and tumble, no-nonsense hero of Providence, Rhode Island, Pazienza went by the nickname ‘The Pazmanian Devil’, as much for his fast living outside of the ring as his uncompromising fighting style inside it.

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World champion boxer Vinny Paz speaks to Radio 4’s Today programme

Pazienza won the IBF lightweight title by outpointing Greg Haugen over 15 rounds in 1987 before losing it in a rematch in his next fight, which also went 15. And when Pazienza was badly beaten by Roger Mayweather (uncle of Floyd Jr) in 1988, his legendary manager, Lou Duva, advised him to do other things.

But Pazienza was only 25 – the same age as Blackwell when he suffered his first injury – and paid no heed. After all, what other things were there to do?

“I didn’t listen to people, and it’s a good job I didn’t,” says Pazienza, who is currently in the UK promoting a Hollywood film of his life, Bleed for This.

“If I’d listened to people, I never would have won the world title in the first place. Who knows where I’d be right now. Maybe a bar tender some place. And if I’d quit after losing to Mayweather, I’d never have won a world title again.”

Under the tutelage of Mike Tyson’s former trainer Kevin Rooney, Pazienza bulked up, jumped two weight divisions and claimed the WBA light-middleweight title from Frenchman Gilbert Dele in 1991. Then came darkness.

A few weeks after becoming a two-weight world champion, Pazienza was involved in a head-on car crash that broke his neck, and much more besides.

When Pazienza emerged from the hospital a few weeks later, he had a cage-like contraption called a ‘halo’ drilled into his skull. One reporter wisecracked: “There’s something ironic about the Pazmanian Devil wearing a halo.” Pazienza used to enter the ring wearing a gown with red horns attached to its hood.

The doctor had told him he was lucky to be walking, that boxing was definitely out and that doing other things was advisable. To which Pazienza replied: “Doctor, you’re wrong – you don’t understand what kind of man I am.”

Almost immediately after returning home, and in secret from his tight-knit Italian family, Pazienza began working out. He had been told that one bump might sever his spinal cord, but Pazienza began shunting weights regardless.

“The biggest lie in boxing is ‘it’s not that simple’,” says Pazienza, a camouflage baseball cap above a zig-zag nose and looking and sounding in fine fettle.

“No-one thought I would fight again but sometimes it’s not as hard as people make it seem. So I was always going to give it one hell of a try. I just wasn’t ready to call it quits. I know how Nick Blackwell is feeling. Boxing gets in your blood and I didn’t want to live if I wasn’t able to do what I wanted to do.

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Pazienza (left) fought and beat the great Roberto Duran twice after being told he would never walk again

“I’d tell my ma, ‘I’m going to do this or die trying, simple as that’. The first time I said that, she started crying. About a month after I started working out again, I told my father about it and invited him to the gym. When he drove me home, he was sweating bullets, soaking wet. I told him everything was cool.”

When Pazienza’s halo was removed, he eschewed anaesthetic, which makes for a grizzly scene in the film but also gives you some idea of his pain threshold. “I should have been shot up with morphine,” he says, “but I don’t do drugs.”

But while he eventually felt ready to climb back between the ropes, nobody wanted to spar with him. And why would they, thinking one punch might kill him? However, a good friend, Ray Oliveira, finally agreed to trade some blows.

“First round he wouldn’t hit me. Second round he wouldn’t hit me. Third round I started smashing him, he was covering up on the ropes and suddenly he started punching me back. There were 30 seconds of mayhem and when the bell went, I went over to Kevin Rooney and my father in the corner and we started hugging and high-fiving each other. That was when I knew I was going to do it.”

A little over a year after breaking his neck, Pazienza fought again. Eighteen months and six wins later, he fought the great Roberto Duran in Las Vegas. Duran, not known for his mercy, told him he intended to break his neck again.

The words “stupid” and “mad” kept cropping up and many wondered how Pazienza kept being licensed. But Pazienza’s camp argued that he had been given a clean bill of health and that his healed bones were stronger than ever.

“I loved Duran, he was one of the reasons I started boxing, but he was a mean guy and I hated him before that fight,” said Pazienza. “He said some bad things that really went through my heart. So when the first bell went, we really went at it.

“He may have been 43, but nobody hit harder than that guy. It was like nothing I’d ever felt, like one of those big wrecking balls crashing into me.

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In Bleed for This, Pazienza is played by Miles Teller (right), while Aaron Eckhart plays trainer Kevin Rooney

“He dropped me in the fifth, but after the bell went at the end of the round I followed him back to his corner and started shouting: ‘Duran, I ain’t going nowhere!’ He waved me off and called me ‘loco’ (crazy). But he knew I had balls.”

Pazienza outpointed Duran over 12 gruelling rounds – watching the fight back is like watching two rutting rams – before beating him again the following year.

There followed a failed world title challenge against Roy Jones Jr, probably the best boxer of the 1990s, and a defeat by Britain’s Herol Graham, which Pazienza blames on too much time spent working out with an adult entertainer.

The details of said story are too spicy for these pages but Pazienza, appropriately for a man who once appeared in a gentlemen’s periodical of some repute – wearing a robe and boxing gloves, while his sparring partner for the photoshoot was wearing appreciably less – relates them with relish.

Whether it was gambling away his millions, spending tens of thousands at strip clubs or hanging out at the Playboy Mansion, there isn’t much Pazienza hasn’t done with relish during his 53 years.

Asked how he keeps himself busy nowadays, he mentions a more wholesome output of motivational talks, inspirational DVDs and autograph signings. He declares himself delighted with his film portrayal and hopes it can change lives.

“The coolest thing is people saying, ‘if Vinny Paz did what he did, I can too’. It’s always great when you’re in a coffin, nobody thinks you can get out and you prove everyone wrong. Whatever that thing is – winning that world title, getting that job, learning that language – you’ve got to work to make it happen.”

There will be no fairytale comeback for Nick Blackwell, of that we can be certain. But if he can find just one thing in life to relish as much as Pazienza relishes almost everything, he might be able to lay boxing to rest for good.