“Hollywood had to keep doing until they got it right. Now they have, this will be the last one.” This is Pazienza’s reply when asked why cinema consistently returns to boxing as a narrative. Cackling loudly as he speaks, it is clear the former two-weight world champion is glad his story is finally being told.
Sitting in the ring of a basement gym in north London, Pazienza bears the scars and bruises a career in boxing can leave on a person. The ones I can’t see, covered by his hat, are the four marks on his head left from the metal brace that was screwed into his skull after a serious car accident in 1991.
By his own admission, Pazienza’s story, told in Ben Younger’s latest film, is more unrealistic than most cinematic cliches. After the accident caused serious spinal injures, surgeons told Pazienza not only was his career over, but that even walking could be impossible. Ignoring all the advice from experts and friends, the Rhode Island boxer began training in secret in his basement, all while wearing the ‘Halo brace’.
“There were plenty of times I looked in the mirror and the screws in my skull and thought, ‘What are you doing?'” says Pazienza, “but then I’d say, ‘If you don’t make it, you’re going to die trying.'”
Training in a basement is one thing. Stepping back into a boxing ring is quite another. “I boxed for the first time after the accident against a friend of mine, Ray Oliveira, but because of our friendship he didn’t want to hit me,” Pazienza said. “So I started beating the tar out of him and eventually he started fighting back, shot for shot. We went at it and afterwards I turned to my father and Kevin Rooney (his trainer) and yelled, ‘I’m back!’ It was all very, very weird, but knew I was going to be OK.”
Initially hesitant about the film, it was the news that Hollywood heavyweight Martin Scorsese wanted to be involved that convinced Pazienza about the project. “It’s an inspiring story so I wanted it to be handled correctly. A friend from Rhode Island knew a politician who knew Scorsese. They asked him, he couldn’t believe it had never been told and he jumped right in. Once he was on board I was fine.”
“Miles Teller and Aaron Eckhart played Vinny Paz and Kevin Rooney better than Vinny Paz and Kevin Rooney ever could,” Pazienza said. “(Teller) resembled me greatly. It’s hard to play me, I’m a wild guy, but he nailed it. Outside the ring and even the fight scenes, too.”
It’s an opinion backed up by the almost effortless way in which actual video footage has been seamlessly included in the film itself without raising suspicion. The only person who noticed was Pazienza when watching the film for the first time with the director. “Ben was sitting one side of me, and my girlfriend the other, and there’s a bit where I walk out on the Jay Leno Show. I jumped up and yelled ‘That’s me!’ Ben just laughed, leaned over and said, ‘Of course it’s you, it’s your movie.'”
It’s reassuring that Pazienza is as surprised as everybody else that he’s had the life he’s had. It is also clear that he is genuinely thankful. He knows his story is about as unbelievable as they come. Going from world champion, to being told he’d never walk, back to world champion once again via secret gym sessions in his Rhode Island basement. It’s the stuff of make believe. Incredibly, the whole tale is the truth and the film “is pretty f*cking awesome, too.”