Remorse and Renewal: A Life of Paul Vaden

By Brian D'Ambrosio on August 8, 2015
Remorse and Renewal: A Life of Paul Vaden
Resigned, he accepted death as part of the desperate, unforgiving nature of prizefighting.

Boxing — the source of the death tale forever attached to his name — has strangely enough given Vaden so many good reasons to live, to grow, to be…

On November 20, 1999, Paul Vaden prodded Stephan Johnson with a left jab in the 10th round of their USBA junior middleweight title fight in Atlantic City. Johnson had received harder punches than that from Vaden all night — and had responded in kind. But after this jab, he staggered slowly backward, then dropped down the ropes and fell on his left side. Soon a vivid yellow stretcher was squeezed through the ropes. They heaved him onto it.

Johnson died two weeks later.

Since that dreadful day, Vaden has been asked about Johnson’s death and its personal effects, well, hundreds of times; he’s seen fingers pointed, eyebrows raised, and the gulps in the throats of those too timid to ask him about what it is like being the athlete who killed another athlete. There was the stranger at the social gathering who introduced him as a murderer. There was the preoccupied person at the party who brought it up over and over. There was Bryant Gumbel, who on the CBS morning show posed the inevitable, “Do you feel like you murdered him?”

“You know, the great thing about being a boxer is that there is so much more to it than you think,” said Vaden. “It’s not about hitting and not being hit. You have to have stamina, you have to absorb. Some people think it is two people hitting each other, and that’s not true. There is so much grace and so much strategy. When they ask me a question about Stephan, I know how to handle it, just like I knew how to handle a southpaw, a slugger, a European style, or a boxer who boxed just like me. Sometimes it is asked with grace and true sensitivity. I’ve never had a person ask me the question in the way that was mean-spirited.”

Born December 29, 1967 in San Diego, Paul Vaden made his pro debut in New Mexico in 1991. There is no single galvanizing factor that pushed Vaden into boxing; its athleticism and competitive combustion fanned his flames. He liked the self-motivated preparation, the repetitive nature of the fundamentals, and simply being his own backup plan and bodyguard.

“I grew up poor, but with a lot of love and support.” said Vaden. “There was crime and it was drug-infested, hearing gunshots and things like that. But I’ve never been in any form of gangs. I knew those avenues would only deter my course. I’ve never had a drink in my life, never smoked in my life. I knew that I was loved — though my father was strict. He was doing it because he didn’t want to see the authorities doing it to us. I was not in fights. I wasn’t violent or anything like that. I liked that boxing was one on one, my skill versus your skill.”

Vaden’s chance at greatness came against Vincent Pettway on August 12, 1995 for the IBF junior middleweight title. Pettway had his detractors: some said he was too nice for boxing, too protected for his own good. Some said that he lacked the aggressive instinct to succeed.  Critics didn’t like that he was so damn smiley all of the time. He beamed even wider after halting Pettway in the 12th.

“Pettway was a classy individual and champion,” said Vaden. “But since I was four, this is what I wanted to be. I was a three to one underdog. I am proud of the moment, proud to have shared the ring with Pettway. Pettway was coming off a bone-chilling knockout of Simon Brown. He had a lot of momentum and a lot of confidence. People don’t see what you see. You have to make them understand. Even today, I don’t look at a lot of film of that fight. I’m a perfectionist. I see the Pettway fight, and at certain increments, I wish that I could have done this, that, and that. No matter. That fight was done with honor and class.”

Four months later, Vaden lost to Terry Norris in a WBC/IBF junior middleweight title unification bout.  That fight was marked by intense animosity. Norris said Vaden was jealous of him and was “one of the lowest people on earth.” Vaden countered that Norris was ignorant and had no class. In a sparring session at a San Diego gym three years earlier, Norris claimed that he broke Vaden’s nose, and that he was a “crybaby.” Insiders alleged that the feud stemmed from Vaden’s romantic interest in Norris’ eventual wife.

“There was a lot of disdain between Terry and me and other things like that,” said Vaden. “When you lose you see how people can be. The blame game starts. When you go out there and beat Pettway, no one apologizes or says they are wrong. When you lose, everyone holding a bucket is now an expert. They blamed my wife, my relationship. It opened my eyes. Remember that some of the best pound-for-pound guys wouldn’t get in the ring with Terry Norris.”

Two years later, Vaden earned a crack at the WBC middleweight title held by Keith Holmes. (Holmes stopped Vaden in the 11th.)

“Keith Holmes was probably one of my best training camps,” said Vaden. “It was one of those situations when you come to the conclusion that no matter what you could have done, he would have beaten you. He had an answer for everything. Sometimes your confidence can be shaky, because you haven’t lost for so long, and you have no answer. If I fought Holmes 10 times, I believe I would have lost all 10 times. I lost when it came to his strength versus mine. There were things I wasn’t able to do.”

“Nothing was handed to me. When I look in the mirror I know what I did in my career was with honor, talent, will and sacrifice. A lot of people relent, and can be defined by the script, defined by what others say you are, what’s wrong with you, what you can’t do. I like to build on what’s right. If you hear the negative, you become labeled, and take off the gloves.”

Boxing requires opponents in order to have its heroes; the flip side of its triumphs is its tragedies. The Stephan Johnson incident seized the deepest, harshest elements of what Vaden has ever had to endure.

Vaden knew something was amiss as soon as a crowd gathered around a stationary Johnson. People huddled over him. The stretcher arrived. Outside the ring there was a young woman, panic-stricken, and an older woman next to her trying to calm her. This woman was Johnson’s fiancée, Bonnie Smith, who talked with Vaden every day that Stephan was comatose.

Pneumonia had set into Johnson’s inflamed brain, and Vaden prayed for a miracle. Resigned, he accepted death as part of the desperate, unforgiving nature of prizefighting. He feared the worst.

The 31-year-old New York fighter died December 5, 1999. (Johnson had sustained another head injury in a fight in Canada on April 14, 1999 but on that occasion he was released from hospital within hours.)

After Johnson’s death, Vaden was certain that some sort of wicked comeuppance was coming his way. He became disturbed by the idea that the heartbreak might define his young son Dayne’s impression of him. Dayne was two at the time. Hypochondria overtook him. He thought he had multiple sclerosis, then cancer, and then lupus. Vaden showed up to the hospital time and time again.

“I was scared to live,” said Vaden. “It was challenging to see myself take the next breath and see the next day. Every deep breath was like a victory for me. I was not living, I was only existing. I had lost that person who I was. I had to re-invent myself. I had to come back stronger and better and I am still re-inventing myself.”

He scheduled one more fight six months later — a loss by unanimous decision to Jose Flores — but the depression, anxiety and remorse didn’t stop. Intense long-term counseling and therapy have changed his outlook, and so too has a purposeful plan shrouded in volunteerism and charity.

Vaden serves on the board of directors for the Junior Diabetes Research Foundation and volunteers for Big Brothers Big Sisters of San Diego County. He donates his time on behalf of anti-bullying campaigns. CEOs utilize his mentorship and clients put trust in his personal training sessions. He has a full plate of motivational speaking engagements.

“Before when I performed under those lights as a boxer, I would put myself in a sea of people,” said Vaden. “Boxing is the process of having the opportunity to be potentially humiliated. It can be an embarrassing situation. But I was never nervous then or now. Like boxing, public speaking is putting yourself before a sea of people, and staying very competitive.”

Several years ago, Bonnie Smith cut off communication with Vaden. She didn’t want the resurfaced hurt that Vaden’s voice could activate. Occasionally, she would read an article or story about Vaden’s involvement with different charities or in the schools and it made her feel as if some benefit could still be done in Stephan Johnson’s memory.

“We’ve resumed talks,” said Vaden. “It had got to a place that was uncomfortable for her. And I didn’t know that. She was running from me. It was something I didn’t understand. Now I understand. It took getting in touch and talking. She was there for me at a time when I was incredibly lonely and scared. At a time when I was the most scared. Bonnie was there for me. She knew I was hurting. We both had to endure the same episode.”

Boxing — the source of the death tale forever attached to his name — has strangely enough given Vaden so many good reasons to live, to grow, to be. 

“I’m futuristic, and I’ve been working on this path — the future path — for a long time,” said Vaden. “Boxing has given me the vehicle to do something positive. I like to give people hopes, things, and ideas, add positive possibilities. My life has a beginning, a middle and an end. My life is an album, not a single.”

Follow us on Twitter@boxing_com to continue the discussion

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)

Paul Vaden Interview with Bryant Gumbel


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  1. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel 11:28am, 08/09/2015

    Brian D-Great article. Red Flag….“head injury” in a fight nine months earlier. These traumatic brain injuries are cumulative and sometimes develop over the years from thousands of rounds of sparring and competition. Terry Norris is showing the effects, some of which could have been caused by sparring with his big brother Orlin.

  2. peter 07:32am, 08/09/2015

    I forgot all about Paul Vaden. Thanks for bringing him back. He has an interesting story to tell and he is a breath of fresh air.

  3. KB 06:42am, 08/09/2015

    I am full of self-loathing that I didn’t write about Vaden, A very interesting story indeed.

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