Paul Vaden: Washing Away the Guilt

By Robert Mladinich on September 13, 2012
Paul Vaden: Washing Away the Guilt
“If I got a twinge in my legs,” remembered Vaden, “I’d think it was muscular sclerosis.”

Vaden was closing in on another title shot when he was matched with New Yorker Stephan Johnson in Atlantic City on November 20, 1999…

“The Good Son: The Life of Ray ‘Boom Boom’ Mancini,” a new book by esteemed author Mark Kriegel, will be released on September 18th. It chronicles Mancini’s hardscrabble beginnings in mobbed-up Youngstown, Ohio, and his rise through the boxing ranks where he stopped Arturo Frias at the end of a wild first round to win the WBA lightweight title in May 1982. 

According to the book description on Amazon.com, Mancini was “cast as the savior of a sport: a righteous kid in a corrupt game, symbolically potent and demographically perfect, the last white ethnic.”

The description goes on to say that Mancini “fought for those left behind in busted-out mill towns across America. But most of all he fought for his father. Lenny Mancini – the original Boom Boom, as he was called, had been a contender himself” until his dreams were shattered by a German mortar shell while serving in the military during World War II.

Ray Mancini, who compiled a 29-5 (23 KOs) record between 1979 and 1992, worshipped his father, a lightweight who campaigned between 1937 and 1947, amassing a 46-12-3 (16 KOs) record along the way. Despite having 12 losses, Lenny Mancini was never stopped during his pro career. 

The younger Mancini, who had been brilliantly managed by the late David Wolf, was a true American Golden Boy. According to the Amazon book description, Frank Sinatra fawned over him, Warren Zevon wrote a tribute song about him, and Sylvester Stallone produced his life story as a television movie of the week.

But while Lenny was never the same after the injuries he incurred during the war, his son Ray was never the same after making his second title defense against unheralded Korean challenger Duk Koo Kim, 17-1-1 (8 KOs), in Las Vegas in November 1982.

After a vicious give-and-take battle, Mancini knocked out Kim in the 14th round. The challenger never regained consciousness and died a few days later. Three months after that, Kim’s grief-stricken mother took her own life by drinking a bottle of pesticide. Both events haunted the inherently decent and spiritual Mancini in ways he would rather forget. The tragedy was compounded again in July 1983, when the bout’s referee, Richard Greene, also took his own life. 

Although he had lost much of his emotional muse, Mancini fought eight more times, finally retiring after consecutive losses to Livingstone Bramble (twice), Hector Camacho and Greg Haugen.

There is no doubt that Kriegel, a compelling writer who authored best-selling books on New York Jets quarterback Joe Namath and basketball legend “Pistol” Pete Maravich, will handle the Kim tragedy with great skill. We will learn how Mancini found the strength to battle on, and how he has managed to live with the calamity that is never far from his mind. 

Another championship caliber fighter who did not cope so well under similar circumstances is Paul “Ultimate” Vaden, a lifelong resident of San Diego, California, who won the IBF junior middleweight title from Vincent Pettway in August 1995. He lost the crown in his first defense four months later to cross-town rival Terry Norris on the undercard of the Mike Tyson-Buster Mathis Jr. fight in Philadelphia in December 1995.

On the comeback trail within six months, Vaden was closing in on another title shot when he was matched with New Yorker Stephan Johnson, 27-8-1 (18 KOs), in Atlantic City on November 20, 1999. Their fight, for the vacant USBA junior middleweight title, was the lead-in to the heavyweight matchup between Andrew Golota and Michael Grant.

When Vaden brutally stopped Johnson in the 10th round, the gravely injured loser had to be rushed to the hospital. Like Kim, he never regained consciousness and passed away from injuries incurred in that bout on December 5th. The devastated Vaden fought just once more, a decision loss to Jose “Shibata” Flores, before calling it quits for good in April 2000. 

For most of the next 10 years, the extremely sensitive Vaden said he would spend the month leading up to November 20th “preparing” for the heartbreaking anniversary.

“My body and mind would go into a sort of shock, and I would get very cranky and sad,” said the now 44-year-old Vaden. “All I wanted to do was wash away the guilt that I was feeling. I always had a feeling of dread; that something bad was going to happen to me so I would be paid back. I was punishing myself. It was horrible.”

On November 20, 2009, ten years to the day of the Johnson debacle, Vaden learned that bantamweight Francisco Rodriguez was teetering near death after a 10th round TKO loss to Teon Kennedy in Philadelphia. Vaden immediately spiraled into a downward emotional funk, which got even worse when the 25-year-old Rodriguez, a Chicago resident with a 14-3 (8 KOs) record, succumbed to his injuries two days later.

Vaden’s grief and guilt manifested itself in his developing an uncontrollable case of hypochondria. Every time he got a sniffle or a cough, he convinced himself that it was the beginning of a dreadful illness that might lead to a long, slow death. If he pushed his son’s stroller as he jogged, he’d silently pray that if something happened to him his son would somehow get home safely.

“I became scared to live,” said the refreshingly candid Vaden. “I would call my doctor every second, for every little thing. As a fighter I was a counterpuncher, always very defensive, and I was rarely hit solidly by punches, but I would always ask the doctor if something was wrong with my brain.”

Vaden would invariably get clean bills of health, but they did little to ease his obsession. “If I got a throat scratch, I’d think it was cancer,” he said. “If I got a twinge in my legs, I’d think it was muscular sclerosis.”

Vaden desperately needed someone to share his pain with, someone who could personally understand his emotional turmoil which was exacerbated by the suicide of two relatives with whom he was very close. He finally reached out to Johnson’s former fiancée and received a much-needed, albeit temporary respite.

Her involvement in a new relationship made him realize that she had, to some degree, moved on with her life. It was the first time that Johnson was able to put the death behind him long enough to live with any degree of normalcy.

One of his first orders of business was embarking on a health regimen, vowing to participate in at least one physical or family activity or altruistic endeavor per day. He walked, ran, sparred, played basketball, ate healthier, played with his children more, or did a good deed for a stranger. After seven months he lost over 50 pounds, and felt immeasurably better about himself.

Things were looking up for him for the first time in years when the Rodriguez tragedy brought him back to his unpleasant internal reality.

“I started thinking, probably way too much,” said Vaden. “He (Rodriguez) and I were both out-of-town fighters, and we had both flown into the Philadelphia airport for our fights. That’s how much I started reaching to put myself back there. The whole punishment thing was happening all over again. It was a big backwards step.”

It took several months, but Vaden was finally able to once again find some peace within himself. Utilizing all of his internal tools, he became a motivational speaker and a personal trainer with a very popular program called The Ultimate Workout. He also volunteers with special needs children and is very active in the San Diego chapters of Big Brothers, Big Sisters and the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation.

“My goal is to help those in need,” said Vaden, who it seems would be just as civically oriented even if the Johnson fight never took place.”

Besides drawing great strength from his activities and his beloved son Dane Taylor, Vaden credits former heavyweight titlist Chris Byrd for helping him through his emotional ordeal. During Vaden’s illustrious amateur career, which included 337 bouts, of which he lost only 10, he and Byrd often met in the finals of major tournaments. While Byrd represented the United States on the 1992 Olympic boxing team, Vaden, who was also one of the country’s top amateurs, opted to turn pro in 1991. They remain great friends to this day.

“I thought I closed the door completely on boxing in 2000,” said Vaden. “After the situation with Johnson, I read a quote by Michael Jordan, where he said once he retired all he wanted to do was take his kids to school, get a pot belly and gain weight. I thought that sounded pretty cool.”

But at that time he still suffered bouts of sporadic depression, which could easily overwhelm him. Taking inventory of his life, he realized he had to rid himself of other demons that stood in the way of him making any kind of recovery.

Some of those demons revolved around his relationship with Norris. Besides the fact that both Vaden and Norris hailed from the San Diego area, prior to their fight they had been involved in a sordid love triangle that was a well known “secret” in boxing at the time. 

While Vaden will still not discuss the details, he said the animosity that he and Norris once had for each other has since waned. For that, he could not be happier.

“For so many years there was nothing but disdain between us,” said Vaden. “Every time we saw each other we just stared or snarled. It was very uncomfortable.”

Several years ago the two met at an amateur show, where they shook hands and made up. They now treat each other with the respect and cordiality that each deserves.

“The moment we shook hands all of the disdain and hate for him left my body,” said Vaden. “I wish Terry nothing but good things, and I am honored and privileged to have shared the ring with a Hall of Famer.”

In many ways, having the positive relationship with Norris has helped Vaden come to grips with the Johnson tragedy, whenever the emotional remnants of that fight rear their ugly head.

“Life is too short to spend it second-guessing or punishing yourself,” said Vaden. “You can only do your best, which is what I try to do every day. That is why I am involved in so many charitable activities. I want to make a difference, a positive difference.  Until I take my final breath, I want to help those in need in whatever way that I can.”

The Mancini book can be pre-ordered on Amazon.com. For more information on Paul Vaden, log onto: www.paulvaden.com.

Follow us on Twitter@boxing_com to continue the discussion

Paul Vaden Interview with Bryant Gumbel



Terry Norris vs Paul Vaden



Paul Vaden vs. Vincent Pettway (Part 1 of 5)



Paul Vaden vs. Vincent Pettway (Part 2 of 5)



Paul Vaden vs. Vincent Pettway (Part 3 of 5)



Paul Vaden vs. Vincent Pettway (Part 4 of 5)



Paul Vaden vs. Vincent Pettway (Part 5 of 5)



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  1. AyoBob 01:27pm, 03/29/2016

    Norris, at 40-6 , at 2 time WBC champion (who KO’d Mugabi in 1, retired Leonard dropping him twice,KO’d Curry, KO’d Castro KO’d undefeated Carl Daniels, KO’d Meldrick Taylor, KO’d Maruice Blocker and in his over 3 year run as badass he made his 11th defense vs Simon Brown who KO’d him, in the rematch Norris won a decision, winning back the title, late 1994 and early 1995 was spend fighting Luis Satana three times, getting DQ’d the first two times and knocking him out the third )That year of 1995 , IBF jir middle champ Paul Vaden would win that title, though had not nearly enough experience nor names and it was his fight fight as a champion, Norris would win 12 round PERSONAL DECISION unifying IBF/WBC titles - if anyone has more to offer on this story, and what it is about, let me know, Im’ an author, and do boxing articles, Norris was then WBC/IBF Jr Middle champ who would defend those titles by KO 4 times but he should not have been in the ring and by 1997 got KO’d by 14-4-1 Keith Mullings, in a huge upset, Norris woudl then lose a decision to Dana Rosenblatt, and in 1998 then get a shot at the WBA world title, getting KO’d by Laurent Boudouani and retiring.

  2. the thresher 05:28am, 09/14/2012

    if we throw that dart toward the border down San Diego way, a number of great fighters emerge including “Irish Bob” Murphy (65-11-2), Paul “Ultimate” Vaden (29-3), Hall of Famer Terry Norris(47-9), Orlin “Night Train” Norris (57-10-4), Hall of Famer Ken Norton (42-7-1), Lee Ramage (40-14-8), Charlie Powell (25-11-3), WBA World Lightweight Champ Arturo Frias, and of course the legendary Archie “The Old Mongoose” Moore (194-26-9).

  3. the thresher 05:21am, 09/14/2012

    Given Terry’s condition today—or at least what I have read about his condition, Vaden should consider himself fortunate. But anything about a “sordid love triangle” gets my attention ASAP.

  4. THE THRESHER 05:17am, 09/14/2012

    Vaden was one hell of a fighter. I had him on my radar for an article but Rapid Robert beat me to the punch AGAIN!!

  5. pete 03:21am, 09/14/2012

    What a nice surprise—waking up early in the morning because I can’t sleep, clicking onto Boxing.com and seeing a story about Paul Vaden, a forgotten name. And then I listen to Vaden being interviewed by Bryant Gumbel, and then I watch a bit of his fight with “Terrible” Terry Norris.  I’m set for the day. Thanks!

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