Motivational speaker, corporate mentor to be inducted into Breitbard Hall of Fame
Class of 2016: Dave Roberts, Paul Vaden, Ricky Williams
What: Breitbard Hall of Fame is on display at the San Diego Hall of Champions in Balboa Park
Induction: During 70th annual Salute to the Champions dinner
When: 5 p.m. Tuesday at the Town & Country Resort
Tickets: (619) 699-2302
Paul Vaden has a unique spot in the history of San Diego sports.
He is the only native San Diegan to ever hold a world championship in boxing.
That’s not Vaden’s only distinction. Now 48, Vaden fought his way to one of the best records ever as an amateur fighter and was a leading candidate for the 1992 United States Olympic team before turning pro.
And since retiring from the ring, Vaden has become a nationally prominent motivational speaker and a corporate mentor who also serves on the boards of the local Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation and the National Conflict Resolution Center.
“Boxing gave me direction,” Vaden said recently. “The sport taught me discipline, drive, strategy . . . so many intangibles. But there was a bigger world for me. I’ve been blessed to be given a strong voice in positive change far beyond boxing.”
Vaden had an amateur record of 327-10 and won the bronze medal in the 1990 Goodwill Games as a light middleweight. He had a 29-3 record as a professional with 16 knockouts and held the International Boxing Federation super welterweight title in 1995.
His record has earned Paul “The Ultimate” Vaden a spot in San Diego’s Breitbard Hall of Fame. He will be inducted during ceremonies Tuesday during the 70th annual Salute to the Champions Dinner at the Town and Country Resort.
As a fighter, Vaden had a classic boxing style. An excellent defensive fighter who threw a fusillade of punches. Vaden’s victories were the result of an accumulation of punches rather than one knockout blow. He got stronger the longer fights went.
“My thing was hitting and trying to not get hit,” said Vaden.
“Abel Sanchez (Vaden’s professional trainer) taught me how to be a professional fighter and performer. I could throw upper cuts with either hand. I prided myself on being a 12-round fighter. I was one of those fighters who wished title fights still went 15 rounds. I needed the additional rounds. The longer fights went, the better I was.
“That might not be tantalizing to viewers, but it was effective.”
Never more than on Aug. 12, 1995 at the MGM Grand Garden in Las Vegas. Vaden entered the ring a 3½-to-1 underdog to IBF champion Vincent Pettway, who started fast and built up an early lead.
But Vaden rallied in the later rounds and won the 154-pound title when referee Richard Steele stopped the fight with 27 seconds to go in the 12th and final round. It turned out that Vaden was behind by a point on all three scorecards entering the final round, although the 12th — if the fight had gone the distance — would have been a two-point round in Vaden’s favor.
Vaden’s run as champion was short. He lost the title four months later to San Diego County rival Terry Norris.
While the loss to Norris was a setback, the fight that essentially ended Vaden’s career and changed his life came on Nov. 20, 1999.
That was the night Vaden fought Stephan Johnson for the vacant U.S. Boxing Association junior middleweight title. Vaden claimed the crown by knocking out Johnson in the 10th round.
Johnson never regained consciousness and died 15 days later.
“My career ended that night,” said Vaden. “Before then, I was all in on boxing, it was my avenue. I liked everything about boxing.”
“I fell in love with boxing when I was four and saw Muhammad Alifight on television. Ali was like Superman to me. Every time I saw him it was like he was speaking directly to me. Our next door neighbor on Z Street in Southeast San Diego was Clifford Darden who had a boxing gym in his garage.”
Vaden started boxing at age 8 after his father enrolled him in the Jackie Robinson YMCA.
“When we were taking a tour of the facility, I walked into the boxing room donated by Archie Moore,” recalled Vaden. “It was the summer of 1976 and the Montreal Olympics and the U.S. Boxing team was dominating.
“Once I had an avenue, I was all in, even after losing my very first fight. I was heartbroken. I cried. But I was determined.”
Vaden lost late in the U.S. Olympic Trials in 1988 and was favored to win an Olympic berth in 1992. But he would have been 24 by the time of those Olympics. The clock was ticking and Vaden elected to give up his dream of an Olympic medal to turn pro.
But his love of fighting couldn’t erase the memory of Stephan Johnson.
The year was already difficult for Vaden. His 21-year-old cousin committed suicide. Then his cousin’s father took his life seven months later in August 1999.
“Boxing was my form of therapy,” said Vaden, who was once labeled “too nice to box.”
“I never felt secure in a fight, but I always believed in my skills. After what had happened earlier in 1999, the Johnson fight was going to be my therapy.
“The opposite happened. I was done as a boxer. I started feeling a volume of guilt. All these deaths were a sign. I became fearful of living. I had a difficult time living, I was existing.”
Vaden did fight one more time on April 15, 2000, and lost a unanimous decision.
“I came back to the ring one more time to see if I was going to live or die. I rallied, but lost a decision. The final bell ending of that fight, my career, was the most beautiful sound. I had found my way back.”