It sounds like a bad plot for a “B” movie: a chamption
boxer is in a car wreck that nearly severs his spinal cord, and is
told he may never walk again, much less box.
The doctor advises a spinal fusion, but the boxer refuses to
comply. Again against
doctor's orders, he starts to work out again, even with the “halo”
still on (a metal neck brace inserted with screws into his skull).
Eventually, he not only returns to the ring, he becomes a
champion in a higher weight class.
The thing is, it's a true story.
His name is Vinny Pazienza.
In the movie “Bleed for This,” Miles Teller plays Vinny,
who's portrayed in the 1980's as a guy we would now call a slacker
Millenialist: still living
at home with his parents. Works
out in his basement with old-school barbells. His Dad is his sponsor,
and also finances the nearby boxing gym in Providence, Rhode Island.
Vinny's trained by his buddy Kevin (Aaron Eckhart), a polite
drunk who mostly manages to sober up while he's training Vinny, but
has also turned into a family friend who shares in all the holiday
events: big, boisterous,
loud gatherings with some colorful language sprinkled in, but
obviously they're all close. Vinny
also, at times, will indulge in some gambling at an Atlantic City
casino, or even frequent topless bars, but really, he doesn't seem to
have any hobbies or interests other than fighting.
That's why the car wreck (he was a passenger in the front seat)
was so devastating. They
kept telling him to let it go, find something else to do with his
life, but he wasn't ready for that.
He wanted to get back in the ring.
And he was determined to do that, with or without his buddy's
help. Kevin tells him he
doesn't know how to quit. Vinny
replies, “Yeah, I do. And
it's easy. That's why I don't want to do it.”
Finally, Kevin agrees to help train him again, but only if
he'll move up to a weight class that's more his natural size.
Actually, in “real life,” Vinny had already made the
decision to move up a weight class before the wreck, when he was
hospitalized for dehydration following a fight. But he lost several
times (including to
Mayweather and Camacho) in the junior welterweight division, before
finally moving up again, to middleweight, defeating Gilbert Dele (the
movie has this fight after the wreck).
Finding he had more punching power at higher weight, Vinny
moved up yet again to super middleweight, winning that championship,
and twice defeating Roberto Duran.
The movie has one of those Duran fights as the climactic
conclusion to the story. In
fact, Vinny fought for a decade after that, finally retiring after two
decades in the ring with a 50-10 record, and with championships in
three different weight classes.
As in the recent movie about Roberto Duran (“Hands of
Stone,” starring Edgar Ramirez, with Robert DeNiro playing his
trainer), I think it would have been more interesting to cover Vinny
Pazienza's whole career, rather than just cherry-picking a couple of
highlights. (The movie
also completely glosses over his criminal record, and his own
struggles with alcoholism.) It would have given the viewer more
insight as to the “real” inner motivation, which appeared to be
that he simply loved boxing, and really didn't want to do anything
else. At the end of this
movie, Vinny is being interviewed, and asked what's the biggest lie
he's been told, and he replies, “It's not that simple.”
That was the lie. In
his experience, it was always that simple:
do what you love. Even
when everybody around you is telling you it's a bad idea.
That's the real legacy of Vinny Pazienza.