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Former champ Spadafora attempting another comeback

| Tuesday, Aug. 7, 2012, 11:53 p.m.
Paul Spadafora takes a short break from practice to talk to Tom Yankello at World Class Boxing Gym in Ambridge on August 6, 2012. Gwen Titley | Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
One of Paul Spadafora's tattoos across his back reads, 'Only God Can Judge Us'. Spadafora was practicing at World Class Boxing Gym in Ambridge on August 6, 2012. Gwen Titley | Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
Paul Spadafora practices at World Class Boxing Gym in Ambridge on August 6, 2012. Gwen Titley | Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

Paul Spadafora's latest comeback, like most everything else in his life, is complicated.

The McKees Rocks boxer has an undefeated record in the ring, but bouts with alcohol, drug abuse and violence led to a criminal record that cost Spadafora all of his possessions since relinquishing his IBF junior lightweight title belt nine years ago.

“God took away my money, my cars, my houses, my girls,” Spadafora said, “but He didn't take these …” holding up his fists, the words True Love tattooed on his knuckles “… or this,” pounding his chest above his heart.

After spending seven months in the Transitions Recovery Program in North Miami Beach, Fla., a stay that stretched from December 2011 until July, Spadafora (45-0-1) is scheduled to fight Wilfredo Negron (26-15-1) of San Juan, Puerto Rico, on Aug. 18 at Mountaineer Casino, Race Track & Resort in Chester, W.Va.

Not only is Spadafora returning to the site where he won the IBF world championship in 1999 and twice defended it, he has reunited with trainer Tom Yankello. Spadafora is serving as the headliner on a card by TNT Promotions, the company owned by eight-time world champion Roy Jones Jr. and Ambridge native Troy Ridgley. It will be Spadafora's first bout since November 2010.

“Roy told us, ‘If you want to do legit boxing in Pittsburgh, you've got to get the Pittsburgh Kid,' ” Ridgley said, referring to Spadafora's nickname. “Having Paul adds credibility to what we're doing. It's more than boxing. We're one big family, and that's what Paul needs — people who care about him.”

As much as Spadafora is trying to recapture the glory of his past, he can't seem to escape some of its holds.

Under new management

Since he turned professional in 1995, Spadafora has had two constants in his corner: Al McCauley as his manager and Michael Acri as his promoter.

They oversaw his rise to the IBF belt and eight title defenses, to appearances on HBO and at venues like Mellon Arena, Duquesne's Palumbo Center and Pitt's Pedersen Events Center.

That they never delivered a mega-money bout with Floyd Mayweather at the height of his career remains a boiling point for Spadafora, who has animosity for Acri and is trying to sever ties with the duo.

“It's a huge deal,” Spadafora said. “It's Acri. I'm always going to look out for Al. He's the only one who didn't ever give up on me. But Al didn't want to ever leave Acri.”

Acri declined comment on the advice of his attorney, but McCauley claims Spadafora remains under contract.

“As far as I'm concerned,” McCauley said, “I'm still his manager and Mike's still his promoter.”

Joe Horn, a New Jersey-based attorney representing Spadafora, said he received word Friday from the Pennsylvania State Athletic Commission that the contract with McCauley is void.

State Athletic Commission executive director Greg Sirb said McCauley's contract expired June 24, and that his request for an extension “was not granted.”

“I think we've got most of it resolved,” Jones said. “I'm not worried at all.”

Cleaning up his act

Spadafora, who turns 37 on Sept. 4, knows the window is closing on his career.

“I look at it like, how many fights do I have left?” Spadafora said. “The only way that can be told is by me, when I'm ready to quit.”

After two arrests for driving under the influence — the first in September in Jefferson Hills, the second in October in Stowe Township (he has a hearing scheduled for September) — Spadafora reached a low point that led to his seven-month stay in the Florida treatment center.

“I was in a bad spot,” Spadafora said. “That's the first time ever in my life I seen that I had a problem. It was to the point where I was scared. Here's how it really goes: I went from the letdown to drinking to depression. One of two things was going to happen. I was either going to kill somebody or I was going to die.”

Now, at camp, Spadafora lives in a house on 8th Avenue in Ambridge. He trains across the street at Yankello's World Class Boxing Gym and runs on the track at Ambridge High School, just behind the gym. His daily meals are prepared by a chef at nearby K&N Restaurant.

“Everything Paul Spadafora needs is within one block walking distance,” Ridgley said. “It's a great setup for him.”

Spadafora spends much of his downtime in the company of Mike Rodriguez, a retired narcotics detective from Bergen County, N.J., who trained him the past month in Miami.

“It's rewarding because you see the classic underdog story, the guy making the comeback,” Rodriguez said. “And I know the complete story. I think the most important thing he needs in his life are positive people and influences who want to see him come back.

“I've dealt with every type of people there is. What he's been through in his life is not anything new to me. I've been in his world.”

Yankello sees a Spadafora who is clean for the longest stretch since childhood. With only nine fights in the past nine years, his body hasn't taken the toll of punishment of fighters his age — at least, not in the ring.

“They always say these guys have to hit rock bottom,” Yankello said. “You've got to hope he's hit rock bottom. He's lost a lot.”

Yankello hopes that having the backing of Jones, an eight-time world champion who ranks as one of boxing's all-time greats, will provide Spadafora the motivation to stay sober. Jones believes Spadafora can help him as much as he helps Spadafora.

“The fact that he's been through so much, I know he's a good fighter,” Jones said. “You just don't find a fighter who's 45-0 at 36 years old. A lot of people gave up on him, but I want to help him get somewhere.

“Without a doubt, I think he can win a world championship. He had to be good to have that record, especially with everything he's been through. It takes a man to clean himself up.”

Kevin Gorman is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at or 412-320-7812.

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