"To have some place like this to come to, it secludes you. When you're in penitentiaries, county jails, boxing camps, they're the only places that keep me from losing it. Without places like this, I'd be dead or doing life." -- Paul Spadafora.
Paul Spadafora at his training camp in LaPorte, Ind., this week. Why out-of-the-way LaPorte? Because it represents a haven from his temptations.
Peter Diana / Post-Gazette
Paul Spadafora works out at his training camp.
Peter Diana / Post-Gazette
Paul Spadafora is at 142 pounds going into his fight Wednesday -- a perfect weight, says Spadafora.
By Gene Collier Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Inside this boxing ring in a converted garage an hour east of Chicago, inside any boxing ring anywhere for that matter, the Pittsburgh Kid cannot stand directly in front of an opponent, because his frame is a little too narrow, his center of gravity a little too high. The laws of boxing, unfortunately, just happen to fully encompass the laws of physics.
This is a game of balance and butchery, but balance is first. Which is easier to topple, goes one layman's example, a spent roll of paper towel standing on its edge, or a fresh roll of toilet paper?
And still he wants to stand right where he can be toppled.
That just happens to be the story of his life.
"Malcolm!" he screams from inside this ring during some of the final preparations for his fight Wednesday at the amphitheatre at Station Square, "it's goin' down!"
He wants to slug. He wants to stand in front of Argentinian Ivan Bustos and bang away. He wants to end it in one round, with one punch.
It is crazy.
No less decorated a fistic scientist than Pernell Whitaker, who once upon a lifetime won championships in four divisions and weaved the name of Sweet Pea Whitaker into plenty of boxing's greatest pound-for-pound discussions, is here in remote northern Indiana to talk the Kid out of this very thing. But this is, again, the story of his life, Paul Spadafora's life -- the one where everyone who loves him and plenty who don't try again and again and still again to get him to do the opposite of what he wants to do.
"Alcohol!" Spadafora said in the apartment over the garage, virtually barking the answer to a question that still had not been properly asked. "I'm the type of guy, I'm extreme with stuff. I hate to say I'm the same way with everything, but it's the truth. After I won the [IBF lightweight] title, it was a bad situation. Before that, people would say, 'Paul, you can come out to my bar, but you can't drink, because you were screwed up there the other night and you did this and this and this,' but after I won the title, it went backward. It was 'give him anything he wants.'
"To have some place like this to come to, it secludes you. When you're in penitentiaries, county jails, boxing camps, they're the only places that keep me from losing it. Without places like this, I'd be dead or doing life."
This place is fight trainer Malcolm Garrett's out-of-the-way facility, the latest launch point for the latest comeback in the brilliant if besotted career of The Pittsburgh Kid, a nickname lifted from the late Billy Conn, and it is all right because Spadafora's 33-year-old face bears an almost eerie resemblance to that Pittsburgh Kid who battled to within a whisker of Joe Louis' heavyweight title one night in 1941.
This is where Whitaker is training Spadafora to take the next first step Wednesday, where Spadafora cooks steak dinners and fish lunches for himself, for Whitaker, for manager Al McCauley and for sparring partners Leo Martinez and Ricky Benavides. The place smells strongly of liniment and gets its low soundtrack from the Bonanza and Bewitched dialogue leaking from a small television. That soundtrack usually melts within the fight talk, which is pretty much all that happens when Spadafora isn't running or shadowboxing or sparring or doing sit-ups or jumping rope or whapping big bags, small bags, and bags that shimmy on a floor-to-ceiling wire.
"It's dull," McCauley said helpfully. "If boxing isn't dull, you're not doin' it right."
Whitaker, in his Dodgers baseball cap and gold necklace, considers this great dullness a sharpening endeavor and considers Spadafora a worthy enough talent that he is not wasting Whitaker's time.
"I don't have time for you doin' that," Whitaker snapped from the ring ropes as Spadafora went seven rounds with Martinez the other day. "I don't have time for that, either. Don't paw with that jab!"
But Whitaker rides him only like any trainer, meaning with the standard running commentary of corrections and admonishments.
"I like this cat," Whitaker said. "My intention is to get him to keep moving, to box, to drop combinations in the right places, to practice good defense. He's doing the things he used to do right, but on a more consistent basis. I don't want him to be flashy, but to be consistent. I've tried to slow his pace a little and get him in a good rhythm.
"This is a fighter with a lot of potential. That's what I saw right away. There's a lot of fight left in him. He's a determined guy; you gotta give the cat credit. He's been a champion. He's 40-0. He's gone in the ring 40 times and won 40 times. If he wants to be a champion again, he will be, but only if he works hard."
Spadafora, actually 41-0-1, has worked like a dog here most of the past month. He weighs 142, which he calls perfect. In a perfect world, he beats Bustos, takes another fight or two he can win impressively and sets himself up as a title agitator in the junior welterweight division sometime in 2010.
There is no one here to tell the fighter it can't be done, and if there were, he would not believe it.
"I don't think I'll be satisfied unless I get two or three big fights -- [Ricky] Hatton, [Manny] Pacquiao, [Floyd] Mayweather, that's who I want," he said. "The only person who can beat me is me. I'm glad to have Pernell here, because I don't have to second guess stuff. My grandfather always told me, 'There's always gonna be someone around who wants you to do things one way, but they don't have to take the punches.'
"With Pernell, when I started, he was one of the guys I'd emulate his style. I watched him fight [Buddy] McGirt 150 times prior to me fighting for the title. When he first saw me, he pointed out so many bad habits I had from being away. I didn't want to move my feet, that was his main concern. He's getting me to move to my right, and then stuff just started to click in with me, like, hey, that's the way I always wanted to fight.
"He told me the only chance I have to win the title is to fight like this. He told me, 'You've got four more years to do this. You can make money. You can be in the history books. You can be in the Hall of Fame.' He's taught me a lot about hitting combinations and getting out, about making my opponent miss. That way, instead of fighting once or twice a year, you can fight three or four times, because you don't get worn down."
If there's anyone in camp with an excuse to be worn down, it is McCauley, the everyman manager who has been with Spadafora through the whole twisted iliad that is the fighter's adult life (not that his childhood was any picnic). McCauley's been ringside for the whole show, Spadafora's IBF lightweight championship, Spadafora's six successful defenses, Spadafora's half-million dollar purses, Spadafora's insane spending, Spadafora's equally insane drinking, Spadafora's arrests, Spadafora's prison terms, everything but the two flat tires on Spadafora's Hummer that somehow ("Alcohol!") led him to shoot his girlfriend -- accidentally they both say, even though she was closer to him than the length of a ring rope that Sunday morning in McKees Rocks -- and still McCauley considers Spadafora an up-and-comer.
He had to be asked, candidly, that if he thought Spadafora was finished, could he tell him? Would he tell him?
"Sure," he said in about one one-hundredth of a second. "I'd have told him to retire. The last thing I want is to see him get hurt. Eventually, I think he'll open a restaurant, he's that good a cook.
"He's not ruined. He still has his best years in front of him. He's as sharp as he's ever been. The only time he's ever been in trouble in the ring is when he's standing in front of people. I've been with him since he's 23. Now he's 33, but Bernard Hopkins fought when he was 43. The thing is, Paul doesn't have an ego like a lot of guys. He's old school that way.
"He likes to listen to a trainer. He listens to Pernell. Pernell tells him to turn the music down, he turns it down. His best fights are in front of him, and we're not lookin' at seven or eight tuneups. But I guess when you've been gone a year, there are no tuneups."
Spadafora last fought in May 2008, and that was only his third fight since he was paroled after serving 13 months on the aggravated assault rap (reduced from attempted homicide) for shooting Nadine Russo in October '03. And that's where the real fight is, the fight of his life, the one where his conscience is pounded day after day by one inescapable truth: Every bad thing he has done can be multiplied again by a single beer.
"When I pick that first one up, I need to be put in freaking jail," he says. "You drink like me, you're delusional. You're doing crazy stuff in bars in the McKees Rocks Bottoms. I'm a binge drinker. I go four or five days. I don't underestimate alcohol. I've been shot because of it [during a police chase]. I'd never have got shot if not for alcohol. My girlfriend got shot. It was an accident, but it happened. There really are no excuses.
"The stories I've heard from people at AA scare me to death. A guy's clean 20 years, then he picks one up one night, then he's dead.
"This is hard, what I'm doing, putting myself back in a situation like this. If my personal life was as good as my boxing, I wouldn't have to do this. When I was champ, when I was fighting for four and five hundred grand, my child support was paid. But, now, it's years later, and that money's not there, but the problems are still there."
Spadafora has three small children by two women. Russo is the mother of his 3-year-old son Geno, of whom he hopes to gain custody when his parole expires in September. He has two daughters by Crystal Connor, 7-year-old Giana, and a 3-year-old they call Tua.
"It's like the judge said, if I do everything right, do my parole right, if I've got stability, I can do it. I'm living in Erie. I'm stable. The only way I will not do all the things I need to do is if I drink.
"Imagine saying that.
"Imagine how crazy that is."
If he weren't such a city boy, Spadafora's life would be its own country lyric, maybe the one about the high cost of livin' got nothin' on the cost of livin' high. But that's not his art form. His story is in the body art that covers his upper half, most poignantly in the ink profiles of two men. The first, the one on his right breast, is a smiling, confident image.
"That's right before the first drink," he said, pointing gently.
The other, on his left breast, is of the same man crying.
"That's later. Smile now, cry later. And it leads to this."
In large Gothic letters that traverse his breastbone:
Just as space simply does not permit a full description of Spadafora's body art, there probably is not a body in boxing or anywhere with enough skin to depict the life of the modern Pittsburgh Kid. He earned more than $2 million in boxing. He has been both a shooter and a shootee. He has fought on HBO, and intends to again.
"I was watchin' myself on TV with my mum," he said, "and she would point this out, me tellin' Larry Merchant, 'If I can take care of myself outside the ring, I'll be all right.' She said, 'Listen to yourself!' "
Paul Spadafora has been reduced to public tears before when he thinks of all the people who stuck with him through everything. The devil of it is matching their confidence in him with some version of his own.
"Today, this day, is the best I've felt about myself since I won the world title."
Sounds like a start.
• Main event: Paul Spadafora (41-0-1) vs. Ivan Bustos (27-12-3) in a junior welterweight bout.