Vinny Paz (formerly Vinny Pazienza) doesn’t know how to give up. If you looked at his DNA a hundred times, you wouldn’t find the ability to give up anywhere in his body. “The Pazmanian Devil” of Cranston, Rhode Island, won his first title fight at 25 years old in a thrilling decision over IBF World Lightweight champion Greg Haugen. After two more grueling fights with Haugen, Paz failed in title fights against Roger Mayweather, Hector Camacho, and Loreto Garza at welterweight. Some would say finish there. Paz wasn’t done yet.
On October 1, 1991, Paz would defeat WBA World Junior Middleweight champion Gilbert Dele, putting him down in the 12th round. He had won two title fights before his 30th birthday in different weight classes. Before there was Manny Pacquiao, there was Vinny Paz! After the fight, Paz would suffer a broken neck in a car accident and was told by the doctors he would never walk again. Fighting wasn’t an option, but Paz wasn’t done yet.
Paz’s remarkable story and comeback from that brutal life changing injury is the subject of director Ben Younger’s new film, Bleed For This. Miles Teller plays Paz, and Aaron Eckhart plays his loyal trainer, Kevin. The film shows Paz during the rise, fall, and rise that made his career a golden cinematic highway. I spoke with Paz over the summer about his story, the will he had to persevere and collect 50 wins, and why he never gave up.
BUFFA: There’d be 99 percent of other boxers who would have quit after the car accident. Why didn’t you?
Vinny Paz: I just had to keep going. I just won a world title a couple weeks earlier. You know, when you get counted out so many times, it feels good when you make that comeback. That’s what it was for me. I won the world title at lightweight in 1987. I couldn’t make the weight. I kept trying to do it. It was killing me. I met up with Kevin Rooney. I fought for the junior welterweight championship and lost. He bet on me when I was fighting Mayweather. He bet on me to knock him out. I was so drained for that fight. The movie starts out with that fight.
I boxed in Kevin’s gym and with his best middleweight. I sweat off like ten pounds. Kevin put me on the scale and boom it went up past 150, so he made me move up to junior middleweight and I went on to win two more titles. And then, bam, I got in that car accident. I wasn’t ready to hand it in. I did it a little different.
BUFFA: What was the process in recovering from the accident?
Paz: The halo was on and I had four screws a quarter inch into my skull for three months. I started working out after a week and I didn’t tell the doctor. I kept going back to get X-rays and it looked good every time. Finally, at the end, I told him and he was blown away. He told me to keep going. That’s when I called the media there to film me. It worked out good. Sometimes in life, you got to do things that are a little crazy. Sometimes you have to do things that you don’t want to do. You have to bust down walls with your heart and soul. That’s what I did and I got lucky. I was strong enough to make it happen.
BUFFA: Ben Younger doesn’t work a lot. This is his first film in 11 years. How did this film come together?
Paz: A friend of mine from the state of Rhode Island contacted some people and made things happen. We have a state representative, Sheldon Whitehouse, who is friends with Martin Scorsese. He thought he could get Marty interested. When Scorsese saw it, he instantly wanted to do it. We got the biggest actors on the scene. It’s the greatest producing cast in the history of films. Scorsese, Younger, and Bruce Cohen among them. Miles Teller did a fantastic job. You would think he was a fighter and around me his entire life. He nailed it his entire life. Katey Segal. Aaron Eckhart was unbelievable as Kevin Rooney.
BUFFA: Any advice you gave Miles before the shoot?
Paz: I told him you have to be a little crazy to do what I did. He’s a good dude. He is one helluva actor. He nailed me where I thought they were going to have a hard time. When this thing first started and I broke my neck, people were talking about a movie. Back then, Tom Cruise was going to play Vinny Paz. I thought I was going to be on set going, “Cruise, don’t act like that.” I told (Miles) to suck it up. He had the screws on and the halo on his head. He was losing weight. He told me he didn’t know how I did it. In the end, he did though.
BUFFA: How did it feel to see the trailer for the film when it was released? Did some memories come floating back in?
Paz: I was balling. My girlfriend was wiping tears out of my eyes. Younger was looking at me through the corner of his eye every few seconds. He wanted to see my reaction. I was hitting him in the arm telling him it was unbelievable. Ben went home with a ton of bruises.
BUFFA: One of my actor friends is Frank Grillo, who is also from New York and a big time boxing fan and trains with the gloves as well. He’s a friend of Ben Younger as well. Told me the guy is a pro.
Paz: I don’t think anybody could have done it better than Ben Younger. He did the greatest job. It’s like all of these people have been around me my whole life. Ciaran Hinds played my dad. Katey Sagal playing my mother. I told her at first that she was too sexy to play my mother, but she pulled it off. She looked like my mother. Aaron was fabulous as Kevin Rooney. Miles is going to get all kinds of awards for this movie. It’s not an easy part to play. I was a little wild and different.
BUFFA: I have an immense respect for boxing. It’s an intimate relationship. Jim Lampley said it best. You don’t play boxing. You fight.
Paz: Exactly. You fight. You play baseball and football. In boxing, you fight.
BUFFA: This is an inspiring tale and you feel it during the preview.
Paz: It’s going to give people a lot of courage. Tenacity and a ton of emotion to do things they normally don’t do.
BUFFA: Normal convention was telling you to shut it down back in 1991.
Paz: When you think you are down and out and there are no openings, you just have to keep working and you can’t quit. Four world titles.
BUFFA: I get to talk to tough guys from time to time. Actors and athletes. Presumed tough guys. You’re something different. You didn’t let life kick your butt. You kicked life’s butt instead.
Paz: That’s nice. Big time. That’s very nice of you to say.
BUFFA: Can you imagine though? The struggle you went through to get back and now, 25 years later, a movie is coming out about it.
Paz: It’s crazy. It’s blowing up. It’s the biggest thing. I can’t believe how great the movie came out. It’s humbling and really cool.
BUFFA: Sometimes people are afraid to do these things because the movie can mess it up. Did that cross your mind at any point?
Paz: Yes. There were a couple things that they were doing that I didn’t like and those things didn’t make the cut. It was edited perfectly. I can’t wait for people to see it.
There are tough guys and then there are guys who have been to the brink and back. Vinny Paz was counted out a lot in his life. His back is friends with a brick wall. He was counted out when he was a short yet fiery young fighter in the 1980’s. He was counted out when he couldn’t make it as a welterweight. He was counted out when he was deemed unable to walk again after a serious car wreck.
Every single time, Paz gathered himself and got off the canvas to fight another day. He retired on his own terms after not only coming back but returning with fury and vengeance.
Bleed for This was made by people who understand and love Paz’s story. It wasn’t made to simply turn a buck. It was made to inspire those who think life has knocked them down that it’s possible to get back up. If you don’t know Vinny Paz’s story, you’ll know it this weekend and you won’t be able to stop replaying it for your son, daughter, wife, husband, friends, and family.
Vinny Paz is a reminder of the strength of the human spirit. When everything else breaks, that stands tall. See his story this weekend in theaters everywhere.