Spadafora is proof a Pittsburgh-born boxer can win a world championship. And a cautionary tale of how alcohol and drug abuse can spoil such a success story.
Sammy Vasquez is an Army veteran who served two tours in Iraq and fought in the Olympic Trials last summer. Now a promising pro, the Monessen native wants to follow in Spadafora’s footsteps while avoiding the mistakes of his missteps.
It’s easy to paint them with a broad brush, billing Vasquez as everything you would want to promote in a boxer and Spadafora as everything you don’t.
“You don’t have to paint it,” Spadafora said. “It’s real.”
They are boxing on back-to-back nights this weekend. Vasquez knocked out Austin Marcum at 1:46 of the first round as the headliner of a pro-am card Friday night in Rostraver, while Spadafora serves as the main event Saturday at Mountaineer Race Track and Gaming Resort, where he won the IBF lightweight championship 13 years ago this week.
On the eve of his return to the ring after a 20-month hiatus that included a seven-month stint in rehab, Spadafora slung a Sammy Vasquez Jr. T-shirt over his shoulder and said, “I honestly think this kid is going to be the next superstar.”
Spadafora recalled his rapid rise, one that saw him go from The Bottoms of McKees Rocks to the top of the boxing world before hitting rock bottom.
One year, he was fighting Jose Aponte for $1,200. The next, he was winning a $40,000 purse and a world title belt to become a celebrity in his hometown.
“Now, I’m flipping the coin for the Steelers and throwing out the first pitch for the Pirates,” he said. “People start to know you.”
And everyone wants something. Fame and fortune soon become a trap for Spadafora, a self-described street kid.
“He’s definitely proof that it can be done around here,” said Bob Healy, who trains Vasquez. “It’s definitely incentive for guys from here.
“Sammy was a war hero, with two stints in Iraq and fighting for the Army team. If he gets off track, it’s not going to be some of the unfortunate things that happened with Paul, who grew up in McKees Rocks and didn’t have much.”
Healy knows there are no guarantees, not after training Jesse Lubash, a once-promising welterweight from Munhall who is 15-0 but hasn’t fought since March 2011.
“I don’t know if he’s ever going to fight again,” Healy said, noting that when Jesse Lubash and his older brother Jimmy turned pro “they sort of lived the lifestyle a little too quick. They were like the mayors of the South Side, and that definitely held them back.”
Vasquez, who lives in Colorado Springs, Colo., between bouts, is vowing to avoid the destructive habits and negative influences that caused the 36-year-old Spadafora to squander much of his prime.
“I’m someone who won’t change, no matter how much publicity I get,” Vasquez said. “I don’t want to fall into that trap — the wrong crowd, drugs, alcohol — and I’ve got a great family and fiancee behind me.”
Spadafora will be the first to tell you that he didn’t have the most ability of Pittsburgh boxers but rather a “ridiculous” drive that keeps him fighting.
Now, Spadafora (45-0-1) is hoping that signing with eight-time champion Roy Jones Jr. and TNT Promotions will lead to another title shot, starting with his fight against Humberto Toledo (45-7-2) of Ecuador.
“It’s going to draw a lot more attention for Paul,” said trainer Tom Yankello, who is reunited with Spadafora. “It’s just a matter of proving himself that he’s serious, has no baggage and that he’s a good investment.”
Spadafora’s struggles to sever ties with promoter Michael Acri and manager Al McCauley haven’t gone unnoticed by Vasquez, who has yet to sign with a promoter or manager.
“We’re taking this slow,” he said. “I want to build myself up the right way. You’ve got to watch who you sign with. I’m new to this game. I’m not going to sign the first contract I see.”
As someone who reached the pinnacle of his profession but learned hard lessons along the way, Spadafora isn’t shy about sharing advice for Vasquez.
“He’s got to get there first,” Spadafora said. “When he gets there, he’s got to remember what it took to get there.”
And be careful of the dangers that can drag him down to unimaginable depths. Spadafora is proof that both are possible in the broad brush of his career.
You don’t have to paint it.