Photos courtesy of Paul Vaden
Over an extended two-part interview, Paul Zanon and Luca Rosi shine a torch into the fascinating, inspiring and at times, emotional life of the former light middleweight IBF champion of the world, Paul Vaden. In part one, Zanon speaks to Vaden about the triumphs and tragedies of his ring career…
How did you get into boxing?
It started when I saw Muhammad Ali fighting. I was four years old and I knew that I wanted to be like him. It was the equivalent of wanting to be a super hero. In the summer of 1976, I got that opportunity when my late father got me and my brother involved with Jackie Robinson at the YMCA. I asked the boxing coach, Robert Coons, if I was too young to box, because I was only eight years old. He said, ‘No. You can box and these are the times.’
I had to convince my father that is what I wanted to do, because I was a mama’s boy. I wasn’t an individual that anyone would have predicted would have become a boxer. I wasn’t aggressive and never got involved in tussles or anything like that. My father gave me a two week trial, thinking I would quit because I was so young and because the hard work, discipline and repetition would consume me. But he was wrong. I’d found my home in the boxing gym.
You amassed an incredible amount as an amateur, clocking up a record of 327 wins with only 10 defeats. What were your highlights?
Honestly? The friendships which I generated. I’m all about winning and my record proves that, but the friendships I consumed along my journey stepping up to the next levels helped me acquire some pretty cool friendships. Some, still to this day are strong as ever.
Who was your toughest opponent as an amateur?
Oh gosh. There’s a guy called Israel Akppkokhyan out of Russia, USSR back then. He was much older, a left hander, and he’d beaten quite a few reputable individuals. He had a very unorthodox style and I had a split decision loss against him at the Goodwill Games. I learnt so much in that match.
You were a prime candidate for the 1992 Barcelona Olympics but decided not to progress. Why?
In 1989 when I qualified for the US team in Moscow, Russia, they adopted the new computer scoring system and initially, I thought it was going to be fun. I thought it was going to be like a video game. I thought I’d get credited points with punches I landed, but quickly I realised I wasn’t the ideal boxer to be successful with this system. After Russia, I soon decided that my goal was going to be to use the next Goodwill Games as a springboard to turning professional. You also have to remember that I was a few years older than my team-mates, Oscar De La Hoya, Shane Mosley and individuals like that. My goal since I was four years old was always to become a professional boxing world champion, never to be an Olympic champion and if I waited an additional two years who knows what could have happened. I might have stopped or hindered the process of my progression as a pro – or maxed out early.
You turn pro on 5 April 1991. Who gave you the nickname of ‘The Ultimate’ and why?
As an amateur, I took up the name, ‘Kid Ultimate’, around 1989. It was a natural progression to become ‘The Ultimate.’ Now, when I say ‘The Ultimate,’ it’s about everything. I want to be the ultimate person, athlete, giver, listener, the person who will go the extra mile for you. ‘The Ultimate,’ goes far deeper than just being a boxer. I wanted a name that gave me something to live up to. And trust me, I worked hard to live up to the name.
Was Abel Sanchez with you from the beginning?
No, he came on in the summer of 1992, right after the John Armijo fight, which was my 11th pro fight.
What made Abel such a good trainer?
Abel is the guy I credit for my professional development, meaning, he taught me how to be a professional performer. Abel was cool, calm, never got over anxious, but most importantly, he understood me. And here’s the thing, we had a lot of fun. We did a lot of hard work, but we got to know each other well and had a great deal of fun along the way. Abel was training Terry Norris at the time, who was in the top pound for pound fighters, so I didn’t think it was going to work, but it did. One thing I did realise was how professional he was from the time I got in the gym.
Everything from wrapping my hands, having everything ready, the gauze, his technique in wrapping, through to the process of teaching me the development of using certain punches. After watching me for about a week, he said, ‘With your hand speed and everything else you got going on, you’re going to be able to throw a punch better than anyone. I don’t know what that is yet, but we’re going to find out.’ That punch would be the uppercut. It would become my go-to punch and the one which I knew that if I was in deep waters, I could use and turn the fight around. Once we knew what the punch was, we worked on how to be able to successfully deliver it. In one year, he gave me the additional believe-ability that I was going to be successful and be able to make use of everything he taught me.
After 24 fights you take on Vincent Pettway for the IBF world light middle strap and win with only 28 seconds to go in the final round. Memories of that fight?
I’m eight years old again. I’m that kid. This is always what I wanted to do. I remember time standing still for me and kind of taking it all in. It’s an indescribable feeling. To have made that declaration in a third grade class that against the odds I was going to become world champion and fulfil that, was an incredible feeling.
It’s well documented that you and Terry Norris had bad beef. Are you happy to expand?
I’ve talked about this in my book, ‘Answer The Bell’. One thing about my book was, it was very therapeutic to discuss many things that had gone on in my life. This was one of them. First off, when I started training with Abel, I would stay after or before Terry’s training session and would watch like a student. I really respected his work ethic, he worked hard, his talent and I loved watching him. Then we reached a point where I think Terry had a problem that Abel was training me and he made some comments in the paper about that and actually fired Abel. There was this big news thing in the paper and he [Terry] threw in some stuff and then called me on the phone and made some comments about my father who’d passed away [on 24 May 1992], which were not flattering. At the time, someone had approached me, who was close to him and I was pushing away from that situation, for my respect for him. However, because of what he said about my father, the disrespect, it pushed me to take part and do something, wrongfully. The thing that I was not going to do, I was going to do now. That’s how things got started and it went on for a while. What I’m referring to was a romantic relationship with his wife.
You then take on Terry in your first defence four months later on 16 December 1995, in what was clearly a grudge match. You lose a very wide points decision. What happened?
The right thing happened. A couple of things to mention. We were originally supposed to fight on 4 November 1995 in Las Vegas. I was ready to go. Two days before, the fight gets cancelled because of a supposed Mike Tyson fractured thumb. I got to be honest with you, I thought I subsequently over-trained. I’d never dealt with a situation like that before when a fight had been cancelled and I had to wait and see what happened.
Don King then came up with an idea to put a fight on the east coast, with two west coast boxers. We were basically legitimising the Mike Tyson versus Buster Mathis Jr card, which was a non-title fight, which should have originally been in Vegas. Anyway, that’s by the by. In terms of the result between me and Terry Norris, the right thing happened. I lost for all the right reasons. My first loss in a long, long time as an amateur or pro. I did some things I shouldn’t have done and despite what Terry Norris had said about me and my father, I did the wrong thing. That was the first time I’d let words make me do certain actions in my life and that was my lesson – the justice that was served to me. It was more than a boxing lesson, it was a life lesson.
You then win three fights, move up a weight division and take on Keith Holmes for the WBC world middleweight title. You suffer an 11th round stoppage. Memories of that fight?
That was my first and only stoppage in my career as both an amateur and professional. In terms of the fight, I was in tremendous shape. Abel trained me in Vegas for this match and had a great camp. One thing I’ve always been told is that styles make fights. I could fight Keith Holmes 10 times and I would lose to him 10 times. Like Ken Norton and Muhammad Ali, there was something about Keith Holmes’s style that gave me problems and I had to salute and take my hat off to him.
You’ve had to deal with challenge in the face of adversity many times as a fighter. Yet circumstances out of the ring were at times your biggest opponent. On 3 January 1999, you lost a cousin to suicide. His father, your uncle after an initial failed attempt, eight months later also committed suicide. Later that year you fought Stephan Johnson for the USBA 154lbs title, knocking him out in the 10th round. He never regained consciousness and died 15 days later.
After the episodes with my cousin and my uncle, the fight with Stephan Johnson was supposed to be my therapy to help me get through my hurt, my sorrow. When he went down and wasn’t getting up, I started to think, ‘What is going on in my world? Why are things happening like this?’ I got back to the dressing room and everything felt so dark. I’m always an optimist and was waiting to hear some good news that he’d regained consciousness or some indication that he was pulling through, but instead, everyone had very grim looks on their faces. That night, he was in a coma and it was horrible. The ride back home was terrible. When this happened it immediately created my exit from boxing. That’s how I felt.
On December 5 you received a phone call. Tell us about that moment….
I was in torture. For 15 days all the papers, the media were all talking about Stephan. I felt insensitive by saying I was in torture, because Stephan was fighting for his life and I’m saying I’m feeling tortured. Learning of his passing I thought would give me closure. It didn’t.
1999 was a very tough year for you. Please share with us the coming days, weeks and months after the Johnson fight and how hard it was to come to terms with his death.
What happened in the coming weeks is where the real fight began for me. All of a sudden, out of the blue, I got to a place in my life where I became scared. Scared to live. I started to feel this immense level of guilt for what had happened, but also felt, because of what happened, that I was going to be paid back for it. I became scared to run, or in fact do any form of physical exertion because I thought I was going to drop dead. I even went and had an MRI scan to check everything was fine with my brain. Once that was fine, I started focusing on another thing. Scratchy throat – could I have throat cancer? My legs don’t feel right – could I have MS? All these things started happening. I became a difficult person to live with, while I had a difficult time living. I didn’t want to die, so I needed to counter punch potential death. I decided to put myself one more time into the hostile waters of boxing and on 15 April 2000, I fought Jose Flores. I needed to find out my answer. This was strictly about training for a fight to see if I was going to live or die and make it to the final bell alive. And that’s what happened. When the final bell went, I had my relief. I was able to live again.
Ultimately, what’s important to Paul Vaden in 2018?
I’ve found my niche. As a boxer I had the opportunity to perform in the ring all over the world and absorb all the unique cultures. Boxing was one of my extraordinary gifts, but I’d say my biggest gift is people. The opportunity to be able to connect with people and to help them to go to that next level that they don’t even believe they can go, help them to hear what they don’t hear, see what they don’t see – that’s what I see as truly magical. Once again, building up to that name, ‘Ultimate,’ I don’t take that name lightly. I literally want to make sure that when people experience me, they can get inspired by my journey to date. My boxing days have been long gone, yet I’m thriving more than ever and I’m nowhere near done.
In part two tomorrow, you’ll get to read more about Paul Vaden’s journey post-boxing…