Paul Spadafora hasn’t fought in a year and a half, but each afternoon he is quietly plugging away with new trainer Buddy McGirt, preparing for the latest incarnation of his boxing career. Since December 1 of last year, Spadafora has been living in North Miami, Fla., far away from the city of Pittsburgh that he had once been so linked to when he held the IBF lightweight title from 1999-2003.
“Spaddy” didn’t pick South Florida for its ideal training climate, but for the opportunity to embrace sobriety.
Spadafora, an admitted alcoholic, has been living in Transitions, an outpatient drug and alcohol facility based in North Miami. The Transitions goal, according to their website, is to “work on building strong human will, balancing your life style, and putting your life back on track. We slowly transition you into the outside world, including friends and family, and we prepare you to integrate socially.”
Alcohol has been the bane of Spadafora’s life and career. In 2003, a drunken Spadafora allegedly shot his ex-girlfriend Nadine Russo in the chest at a gas station. Russo later recovered and pleaded to the judge for leniency for Spadafora, who served seven months in prison and six months in a boot camp after pleading guilty to second-degree felony assault.
There have also been parole violations and numerous DUIs, the most recent of which occurred last September. Spadafora’s case on the most recent DUI charge is still pending.
Still, Spadafora is optimistic about the path of his life for the first time in a long time. He says the move to South Florida has been life-saving.
“It’s the best thing that ever happened to me because I get a chance to get my life together,” said Spadafora, who remains unbeaten (45-0-1, 19 knockouts). “I was scared for my life. You see what just happened with Johnny Tapia? I’m one drink away from being like Johnny Tapia.
“The owner and staff at Transitions have given me my life back. Now I’m coming to peace in my life. I’m not depending on boxing. I had trouble with alcohol and s__t in the past; it’s a daily struggle. I gotta treat my s__t.”
At Transitions, Spadafora’s day consists of waking up at a predetermined time, attending group therapy, then traveling north to Ft. Lauderdale, where he meets with McGirt, who drives two hours south from Vero Beach to meet him.
At 36, Spadafora is still hoping against the odds to resurrect his career.
There have been several false starts and layoffs since emerging from prison in 2006, having fought seven times since then against nondescript opposition. His last fight was in November of 2010, a fifth-round technical knockout of Alain Hernandez.
Spadafora had been in training for the past eight weeks preparing for a return bout he himself scheduled this Friday in Tampa against Puerto Rican journeyman Wilfredo Negron (26-16-1, 19 KOs), who like Spadafora hadn’t fought since November of 2010, on a show promoted by Fight Night Productions. However, the fight was pulled on Tuesday afternoon after objections arose from Spadafora’s manager Al McCauley and promoter Mike Acri.
A livid Spadafora returned this writer’s phone calls shortly after leaving an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting on Tuesday evening.
“I told them, I will give you my money,” said Spadafora, who said he would have fought for free and given his purse to his manager to allow the fight to go through. “This ain’t about the money. I want to fight and get back to a position where I can fight a championship fight. It’s something I love to do. I love to fight and I can’t believe this. This just takes the air out of me.”
Spadafora says that he hasn’t signed a promotional contract with Acri since 1999 and that they have worked on a “handshake deal” for the last few years, making him in effect a free agent. What he doesn’t dispute is that he is still under contract with McCauley, whom Spadafora believes is holding up the fight because of Spadafora’s insistence on breaking away from Acri.
When reached for comment, Pennsylvania boxing commissioner Greg Sirb confirmed that Spadafora does have a valid contract with McCauley but says that Pennsylvania doesn’t keep promotional contracts on record.
Spadafora said neither McCauley nor Acri have reached out to him during the six months he has been in rehab, a claim that McCauley denies.
“That’s not true, I hit him up a few times,” said McCauley.
Regarding the cancellation of the fight, McCauley says it was a decision he and Acri made to pull the plug on Friday’s fight.
“We’re working on a few things and we decided that it’d be best for him not to fight Friday, that’s all,” said McCauley. “Me and his promoter Mike Acri decided that it’s best for him not to fight this Friday. He’ll fight very soon, that’s all I can tell you.”
Speaking on behalf of Acri, Acri’s assistant Rick Glaser claims that Mike Acri Boxing Promotions “has an agreement in place” with Spadafora, adding “Paul knows what’s going on and that’s the bottom line to the whole story. It’s a shame because for 17 years their relationship has gone unblemished until now. Mike Acri continues to be ready, willing and able to promote his career when Paul Spadafora wants to fight.”
Mike Rodriguez, a retired police sergeant from New Jersey, had been assisting McGirt in Spadafora’s camp for eight weeks. He says that they are disappointed that the fight fell through just days before it was scheduled to go on.
“It’s unfortunate that this had to come about after all this time he’s been training, then right before the fight this becomes an issue,” said Rodriguez. “Who is the manager acting in the best interest of? There’s no managerial problem, but who was calling on him and checking up how [Spadafora] was doing? Everyone knows where he is.”
During Spadafora’s trial for the 2003 incident involving his girlfriend, Russo told the judge, “Paul don’t know nothing but drinking and boxing.” When Spadafora wasn’t boxing, he was doing the other. The fighter says his drinking problem contributed to unrealistic career expectations that he held to prior to his latest DUI.
After registering two stoppage wins in 2010, rumors floated around about the possibility of Spadafora facing Floyd Mayweather Jr., whom Spadafora engaged in a competitive sparring session that became an internet sensation many years ago.
Spadafora claims that Acri told him that he would be fighting Mayweather. When the fight didn’t happen, Spadafora says he turned back to his bad habits.
“Whenever a fight fell through, I didn’t know how to deal with it,” said Spadafora. “I truly believe that I was supposed to fight Mayweather instead of Victor Ortiz, that’s what my promoter was telling me. I look back now sober and think, ‘Who the hell did I beat to earn a shot with Mayweather?’ But this was what I was told and I wasn’t clear-headed enough to see reality. I guess it was all bulls__t and I believed it and I was just off, waiting.”
For now, Spadafora continues to wait to resume his career. With help from the staff at Transitions, he feels confident that he won’t fall back into the patterns that plagued him during past periods of idleness.
Photos / Al Bello-Getty Images and Team Spadafora
Ryan Songalia is a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America (BWAA) and contributes to GMA News and the Filipino Reporter newspaper in New York City. He is also a member of The Ring ratings panel. He can be reached at [email protected]. An archive of his work can be found at www.ryansongalia.com. Follow him on Twitter: @RyanSongalia.