A Fighting Chance
Spadafora’s Fate Rests In His Hands
By Jim Frazier
“It’ll be remarkable if Paul succeeds…because
not many people think he will.”
-- Allegheny County Judge Jeffrey A. Manning
Monday, September 5, 2005, former International Boxing Federation
World Lightweight Champion Paul Spadafora will spend the 30th
anniversary of his birth locked in the Pennsylvania state correctional
institution at Camp Hill. Unblemished in the ring at 38-0-1, Spadafora,
with troubles fueled by a severe drinking problem, has taken a
beating out of the ring the last few years.
First, he relinquished his title out of health concerns after
a controversial draw against Leonard Dorin at the Petersen Events
Center in May 2003. Then, in October 2003, he was arrested twice,
once for public intoxication after urinating on a city street
and, just three days later, Spadafora was charged in the attempted
murder of his girlfriend, Nadine Russo. He now sits in jail.
RISE AND FALL
Al McCauley, the man who manages Spadafora, once called his fighter
“Pittsburgh’s fourth franchise,” after the Steelers,
Pirates and Penguins. “The man who single-handedly resurrected
boxing in Pittsburgh,” McCauley said of a man now faced
with resurrecting a public persona, a career – and a life.
Spaddy’s appeal as a blue collar fighter in a blue collar
town was immediate. His tattooed upper body made him noticeable
inside the ring, but his generosity and caring outside it made
him a working class hero. He was the people’s champion,
signing autographs for kids, taking care of his brothers, buying
groups of random fans rounds at the local watering hole. “The
Pittsburgh Kid” became the first world boxing champion from
Allegheny County in more than a half a century.
And he was slowly but surely becoming much more than just a local
attraction. Spadafora drew national television audiences and staggering
crowds to Duquesne’s Palumbo Center, the Petersen Events
Center and his home away from home, Mountaineer Park in Chester,
Rocky Marciano, Rocky Graziano, Boom-Boom Mancini (and, of course,
Rocky Balboa) were other Italian-American boxers whose skill and
charisma built a fan base with the sporting public, just as Spadafora
But Spadafora’s life, especially his youth, was anything
but the stuff of Hollywood. He was raised in tough neighborhoods
and dropped out of school at age 13. Drugs, guns and crime were
everywhere and Spadafora was no stranger to any of them. While
other kids snacked on chocolate chip cookies, Kool-Aid, and peanut
butter and jelly sandwiches, Spaddy was drinking beer and becoming
addicted to alcohol. But he found boxing as a 13-year old, and
like Mike Tyson, the sweet science stepped in at the right time
and saved him from a future of incarceration or death.
“I known Paul since he was 13 and I have never seen him
drink alcohol,” Jimmy Cvetic, Executive director of Iron
City Boxing, said. “All I ever seen him do was come to the
gym and work harder than anybody.”
The ring was a release for Spadafora, a place to be free of the
dreadful reality of the streets. And so he stayed in the ring
for hours, days, weeks and years until he became a champion. Whenever
he stepped off the canvas, his demons were there waiting for him.
Over time, the demons caught him.
As his prowess as a boxer grew, so did his addiction to the bottle.
It proved to be a thirst Spadafora could not quench.
“People love to see the pedestal kicked over,” said
Cvetic. “Maybe Paul kicked his own pedestal over.”
FACING THE MUSIC
Currently serving time for shooting his fiancée, Spadafora
could be paroled in June 2006 at the earliest.
“It’s not going to be an easy ride,” said Judge
Jeffrey Manning, who sentenced Spadafora. “Other inmates
will be gunning for him; maybe even corrections officers. He’s
going to have to keep his hands in his pockets, his mouth shut
and toe the line.”
“Prison does two things to you, “said former NABC
cruiserweight champion Rayco “War” Saunders. “It
makes you harder or it makes you softer. You never come out the
same – ever.”
Saunders was stabbed in the back at age 15 and shot in the chest
at 21. He was arrested six times between 1994 and 1997, and received
a sentence for shooting at a police officer that earned him 36
months behind bars in Graterford Prison in eastern Pennsylvania.
Saunders is never at a loss for words, yet he keeps quiet about
the things that went on while he was locked up. There is, however,
little doubt that at some point during his stretch, he had a long
talk with himself. During the 1,000-plus days that he spent among
killers, rapists, drug dealers, and other violent offenders –
men who kept doing what they did best behind bars – Saunders
began his plan to change his patterns for good.
“You can’t know where you’re going if you don’t
know where you came from,” Saunders said. “Paul will
get a second chance and it will be up to him to take advantage
ESPN boxing writer Dan Rafael also foresees a second chance.
“It’s not like he’s old,” Rafael explains.
“He’s not going to come out of jail as a 37 year-old
boxer who hasn’t fought in several years. He’s still
a young man. If he wants it, I think he will be able to give it
Precedent is on Spadafora’s side. In 1987, George Foreman
ended a 10-year absence from the ring and in 1994 recaptured the
heavyweight title. Other notables who experienced long absence
from the ring include Sugar Ray Robinson, Muhammad Ali, Sugar
Ray Leonard, Felix Trinidad, Mike Tyson, Roberto Duran and Bernard
Hopkins. In 1942, Joe Louis began a period of service in the army
and it would be four years before Louis again returned to the
Before he can even think about facing another pugilist, however,
McCauley says his fighter has another opponent to defeat.
“He has to defeat the alcohol. Until he defeats the alcohol,
he can’t fight again in my opinion. I won’t let him,”
McCauley says. “It’s going to be a long process, but
once we see a progression of two or three months where he can
go without drinking at all, then that will be a good sign. “
Manning, who says this is “make or break time” for
Spadafora, notes that two things – potential earnings and
being surrounded by people concerned with his well being –
give Spadafora a chance that most others in his situation do not
“They have got to be enormous carrots for him,” the
judge says. “He has the potential to make a lot of money.
For someone coming out of prison that opportunity is rare…most
people, when they come out, are on their own.”
McCauley seems to have a solid grasp on what will be most important
for Spadafora. “Money has to be secondary. I could bring
him back in an incorrect manner and make money, but I am not.
I wouldn’t do that to him. He is like a son to me.”
PICKING UP THE PIECES
When he gets out of jail – whenever that is – he will
still be an undefeated world championship caliber boxer who happens
to be the sport’s most marketable color, white, and he should
still be able to attract the big money fights.
“Once he comes out of jail, boxing is not a problem,”
His former trainer Tommy Yankello agrees – sort of. “Paul
only needs one non-title fight to knock off the rust. If Paul
comes back with me, he can beat anybody in the world.”
During Spadafora’s reign as champion, he was known as very
good technical and defensive fighter. While ESPN’s Rafael
believes those things will not change, he notes that he’ll
be fighting at a higher weight than he did before. He also was
never a big puncher at the lower weights, so the adjustment to
a higher weight class will be a challenge.
“I don’t know if he can be a champion again, but
he can definitely resurrect his boxing career,” Rafael said.
“I think a lot of guys that are looking for a name will
think maybe he is vulnerable, and every top fighter likes to get
a good name on his record. I think there is opportunity for him.”
THE TOUGHEST FOE
Once Spadafora is released, he’ll be on parole and he’ll
have to pass random urinalysis. Otherwise, he’ll be back
behind bars rather than climbing through the ropes. But the ring
is where he longs to be, where he needs to be. It’s all
“Paul Spadafora is a fighter and that’s what he does,”
says Rafael. “When he gets out, it’s not like he is
going go work for IBM or be the president of a company. He’s
going to do what he has always done in his life and that’s
“He’s wasted a lot of time, but it’s not over.
There is still a chance to maybe get a little bit back.”
Cvetic, loyal to the fighter he has known for so many years,
does not believe any boxer can beat his man.
“Everybody they have put in front of him, he has beaten,”
said Cvetic. “Nobody’s beaten him yet. Nobody has
beaten Paul Spadafora.”
Only the bottle can make that claim.
Tony DeFazio contributed to this story.