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Staying Power Though lacking a knockout punch, lightweight Paul Spadafora thrives on guile and determination

May 26, 2003
May 26, 2003

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May 26, 2003

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Staying Power Though lacking a knockout punch, lightweight Paul Spadafora thrives on guile and determination

Here are a few things Paul Spadafora has in common with Rocky
Balboa: He's a vague, musing brute of a man, a combination of
bullnecked energy and lamblike innocence. (During one training
camp Spadafora phoned a cornerman at midnight to confess, "I know
I'm supposed to lose weight, but I ate two boxes of Milk Duds.
I'm really, really sorry.") Like the cinematic heavyweight,
Spadafora, the IBF lightweight champ, is an Italian-American and
a Great White Hope--in fact, he's the only U.S.-born, white
prizefighter who holds a world title.

This is an article from the May 26, 2003 issue

Here are a few things that separate Spadafora from Rocky:
Spadafora doesn't spar with sides of beef, he couldn't punch out
a time clock and his body looks like it was squeezed from a tube.
And while Rocky was a favorite son of Philadelphia, Spadafora is
a native of western Pennsylvania, where ecstatic home crowds
revere him as the Pittsburgh Kid.

Spadafora, 27, is the latest boxer to take the Rocky road and
show that in the ring it's sometimes not the strongest who
survive but the shrewdest and most stubborn. The 5'9" southpaw
has lots of polish but little power, yet a refusal to give in to
his limitations has become a sort of self-fulfilling destiny.
That was evident in the gritty draw Spadafora (36-0-1) scratched
out against WBA 135-pound champ Leonard Dorin last Saturday in
Pittsburgh in what was billed as a title unification bout. (WBC
champ Floyd Mayweather Jr. is considered the premier
lightweight.)

Short and stubby, the 5'4" Dorin (21-0-1) is the toughest
opponent Spadafora has faced, a reckless, swarming clubber with
the grace of a warthog. Spadafora tried to go toe-to-toe with him
and looked like a sapling under siege by a bulldozer. Horribly
hammered by Dorin's heaviest rights and bleeding from the left
eye for most of the bout, he held himself together on sheer will
alone.

Spadafora needed to win the final three rounds just to pull even.
He did, fetching from some hidden reservoir the strength to feint
and spin and--despite repeatedly pawing at his eyes to clear his
sight--outbox Dorin. "I fought like a true champion," said
Spadafora. "I stood in front of Dorin and threw punches."

There's no quit in Spadafora, a virtue he had already displayed
three years ago in a title defense against Victoriano Sosa. Early
on, the challenger gave him a frightful beating. Spadafora
stumbled around the ring, senses scattered. "It was like he had
borrowed somebody else's legs," veteran trainer Teddy Atlas
recalls.

Yet, as he did against Dorin, Spadafora rose to the challenge,
winning the last seven rounds and the decision. "I told myself,
I've got to outgut him," he says. "Now I know if I ever get in a
real hard situation, I can do more than survive, I can pull the
win off."

Spadafora's survival skills were honed in the tumbledown
Pittsburgh suburb of McKees Rocks. He was raised by his mother,
Annie, who tended bar after his father died when Paul was young.
"My mom's a tough s.o.b.," he says. "I've seen her clear out bars
and rip the living s---out of people of both sexes." One
Thanksgiving young Paul watched helplessly as his mother's
boyfriend demanded she hand over her welfare check. "He bashed
her head against the TV, grabbed a knife and rolled on her," he
recalls. "She managed to grab his knife and stick him."

Another incident, on Christmas Day 1994, nearly cost Spadafora
his boxing career. He was riding in a friend's car when the
friend ran a red light. A cop gave chase. The friend crashed his
car and tried to restart it. "I guess the cop thought my buddy
was trying to run him over," says Spadafora. "He drew his gun."
The cop fired. Spadafora took a bullet in the left calf. He was
laid up for several weeks and couldn't run for nine months.
"Everybody told me I'd never fight again," he says. For
inspiration, Spadafora had boxing gloves tattooed on his chest.
"Now when I doubt myself, I just look at the tattoo in the
mirror," he says. "How could you have gloves on your chest and
not be champ? It would be, like, embarrassing."

COLOR PHOTO: KEITH SRAKOCIC/AP IRON WILL Spadafora (right) took Dorin's punishment but battled back for a draw.

Fists of Steel

Here are four other famed Pittsburgh boxers.

Charley Burley, 84-11-2, middleweight. After losing 10-round
decision to Burley in '44, Archie Moore called him toughest man
he'd ever fought.

Billy Conn, 63-12-1, light heavyweight champ 1939-41. Thoroughly
outboxed Joe Louis in '41 heavyweight title bout, but rather than
play it safe, went for knockout and was KO'd in 13th. Explained
Conn after being revived, "What's the use of being Irish if you
can't be stupid?"

Harry Greb, 105-8-3, middleweight champ 1923-26. Relentless
attacker known as the Human Windmill fought his final bouts after
going blind in one eye. Only man to beat Gene Tunney.

Fritzie Zivic, 159-64-9, welterweight champ 1940-41. Wildly
popular, "Croat Comet" set attendance marks at Madison Square
Garden despite reputation as "the dirtiest fighter in the history
of the Queensberry rules."