By Thomas Gerbasi
For most fighters out of the Pittsburgh area, Paul Spadafora is both hero and cautionary tale.
A former world lightweight champion, “The Pittsburgh Kid” squandered his gifts and lost several prime years to out of the ring issues, yet at the same time, the 38-year-old is also still here as an example of what is possible for those who are dedicated to the craft in the ring and disciplined outside of it.
Fighters like Sammy Vasquez Jr., who has not only worked in the gym with Spadafora, but picked up lessons beyond a good 1-2.
“I was in camp with him last year and he said ‘I want to see you guys succeed and do great things and learn from my mistakes and not get involved what I got involved with,’” Vasquez recalled. “And I look up to Paul Spadafora and I appreciate his words of wisdom.”
This weekend is a big one for Pittsburgh boxing. Saturday night, Bunola’s Rod Salka tackles unified junior welterweight champion Danny Garcia in a Showtime main event in Brooklyn, and tonight, it’s time for Monessen’s Vasquez to shine when he headlines a Fox Sports 1 bout at the CONSOL Energy Center in Pittsburgh against fellow unbeaten James Stevenson.
“It’s always been here,” Vasquez said of boxing in the area. “We just had to wait for the right time and the right moment, and I’m glad to help get this ball rolling and try to get more notice on the Pittsburgh area, because it wasn’t on the map for a while.”
Vasquez, 28, may be its brightest hope, an idea that wasn’t even on his mind during his first tour of duty in Iraq as a member of the U.S. National Guard.
“I wasn’t sure what my plans were, and at that time in my life, you wake up every morning not knowing if today’s your last day,” Vasquez said. “So at that time, everything was on the backburner and I didn’t have time to think about anything else. I was in charge of protecting the guy in front of me, and the guy behind me, his job is to protect me in front of him. So I wasn’t thinking about boxing at the time.”
During his second tour though, Vasquez, who had been boxing since the age of nine, was introduced to the U.S. Army’s World Class Athlete Program, and he put the gloves back on, becoming a two-time All-Army and Armed Forces champion, and even fighting his way to the Olympic Trials, where he lost to eventual Team USA representative Errol Spence. Offered a spot as the 2012 team alternate, Vasquez instead turned pro, making his debut in April of 2012 with a second round TKO of Clifford Gregory.
He hasn’t slowed down since, fighting six times in 2012, five times in 2013, and four times thus far in 2014. It’s a hectic schedule, but one he’s embracing.
“As long as I’m healthy, I want to fight,” Vasquez said. “I’ve had more fights in the past two years than a lot of pros. We just like to stay busy, and obviously the amateurs are a lot different than the pros, but in the amateurs, you fight a week straight every day. So fighting once a month or once every other month isn’t a big deal to me.”
It’s that attitude, and the ability to knock out quality foes like Jay Krupp, Juan Rodriguez Jr., and Berlin Abreu, that not only took the welterweight southpaw to a perfect 15-0 (11 KOs) record, but that also attracted a pretty big name to his corner in the form of former heavyweight champion Mike Tyson, who signed on as Vasquez’ promoter.
Given Tyson’s iconic status in the game among fighters and fans, Vasquez admits to playing it cool in public around “Iron Mike,” but in his head, yeah, the Pennsylvanian is as big a fan as the rest of us.
“In my mind, I definitely feel that way,” Vasquez laughs. “It’s crazy to be under somebody who was so prestigious in the heavyweight division and in boxing period, but in front of everybody else, it’s like scoring a touchdown. You gotta act like you’ve been there before. Mike Tyson’s my promoter, and he sees what I see in myself and we’re going to make it to the top together. But in the back of my mind, I’m excited, like ‘man, Mike Tyson’s my promoter, this is awesome.’ (Laughs) It puts a lot of pressure on you. You know what he wants, you know what he stands for and what type of guy he is and the type of guys he wants, so you need to live up to that.”
Vasquez has yet to disappoint, and while Baltimore’s Stevenson has a glossy 21-0 (14 KOs) slate, 15 of his 21 foes had losing records, as opposed to four out of 15 for Vasquez, making this look like another win for the hometown kid.
The bout does have a little more attached to it though, as the vacant USBA title is on the line, meaning that with a victory, Vasquez will be looking at an IBF ranking. From there, it’s bigger and better fights and eventually a shot at a belt.
“We’re gonna keep climbing the rankings, and hopefully by this time next year, I’ll be in a world title fight,” Vasquez said, and he is happy at where he’s at, but far from content. What does make him content though, is the reality that when he puts on the gloves to fight Stevenson or anybody else, nothing they can throw at him compares to a bullet or an IED.
“I learned to have fun,” said of his post-Iraq boxing career. “I love the sport of boxing and it (time in the service) made me have fun, as well as train 110 percent to where I could focus and be more mature about what I’m doing in the ring. You know you’re gonna live, you’re gonna fight another day in the ring. And if anything, I gained a lot of maturity, a lot of self-realization, and I think I needed that to help better myself and learn to not take things for granted as much.”