One night in November 1991, Vinny Pazienza was a two-time light middleweight champion of the world preparing for his next fight. And then he wasn't — at least, according to medical experts.
Just 28 years old at the time, Pazienza, known as Paz, was a passenger in a car struck head-on after veering into the opposite lane near his home in Warwick, Rhode Island. Paz suffered two broken and one dislocated vertebrae high along his spinal column.
His doctors said Paz would never fight again. But 13 months later, he was back in the ring. And he not only defeated the Dominican Republic's Luis Santana in a 10-round unanimous decision but also would continue fighting for the next 13 years.
That harrowing, emotionally-charged and gutsy comeback — standing as a testament both to Paz's determination and that of athletes around the world — is the main plotline for the film "Bleed For This," which comes out Nov. 18 and stars actor Miles Teller.
As far as his place in boxing's rich history, Paz isn't considered one of the greats, or even elite. But he did face some of the best fighters of the 1980s and 1990s en route to a 50-10 record, including 30 knockouts that flexed the might from his big right.
Now, it's his comeback story, with Teller, "Boiler Room" director Ben Young and "Raging Bull" film legend Martin Scorsese at the helm, that truly makes Paz stand out. Early film reviews have landed "Bleed For This" a 75 percent rating on RottenTomatoes.com.
Born in Cranston, Rhode Island, Paz, nicknamed "The Pazmanian Devil," would begin his career in 1983 hoping to join the ranks of some of the greatest boxers to come out of the Northeast. These include undefeated heavyweight Rocky Marciano, middleweight titan Marvin Hagler and John L. Sullivan, to name just a few.
Paz would string together 14 consecutive victories over the course of 18 months before tasting defeat for the first time during a fifth-round technical knockout at the hands of France's Abdelkader Marbi.
But four years later, Paz claimed eight more wins to earn his first title shot against fellow American Greg Haugen, who Paz defeated for the International Boxing Foundation (IBF) world lightweight crown on June 7, 1987. Paz would lose to him in the rematch eight months later.
Then, in November 1988, Paz got another shot at the title. However, he fell to Roger Mayweather, the father of now-retired and undefeated middleweight Floyd Mayweather. Paz had two more shots at a belt over the next three years but lost to both the legendary Puerto Rican boxer Hector Camacho and American Loreto Garza.
Paz finally earned the right to call himself the champ on July 2, 1991, just four months before his life-altering accident, when he sewed up a 12-round unanimous decision over Ron Amundsen for the IBF/United States Boxing Association light middleweight belt. Three months later he picked apart France's Gilbert Dele.
His career, though, was nearly taken away in an instant.
"A car cut my buddy Kurt Reader off and, when he slammed on the brakes, we got carried over into the oncoming lane and got it head-on from a van. Next thing I know they were prying the door next to me open," Paz told the Baltimore Sun just before he re-entered the ring in December 1992. "My friend seemed to be in shock. He was trembling all over. I thought I was fine. But when they started to move me, pain shot through my whole body. I said, 'Hold it,' and they stopped and immobilized me from the waist up before heading for the hospital."
To help with his injuries, doctors fitted Paz with a "halo," a circular metal ring affixed to the shoulders with screws inserted into the skull to immobilize a patient's neck and spine. But according to Teller, the boxer began working out shortly after the accident. Even Hollywood was afraid viewers wouldn’t believe Paz's resilience.
"Vinny actually started working out five days after breaking his neck," Teller said in a recent appearance on "Jimmy Kimmel Live!" "We didn't think that was believable, so in our movie it makes it seem like it happened a month later."
Following the win over Santana in 1992, Paz laid waste to the competition and won eight straight fights, including two against an over-the-hill Roberto Duran. But he'd lose his crown to the up-and-coming Roy Jones Jr. via a knockout in the sixth round.
Paz fought 14 more times before hanging up his gloves in 2004. Now 53, he recently told Boxing News in an interview that the journey was one he always wanted and never gave up on.
"People say to me a lot of times, 'Vinny, what would you had done if you didn't box?'" he told the website. "I tell them I'm not even gonna answer that or entertain the question because there was nothing that I wanted to do since I was five f------ years old other than box. I saw Muhammad Ali on TV, I loved him, that's what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. And that's what I did. So I don’t have an answer for them because I never thought about that. I never once thought I wouldn't fight. Never once."