Perez hands Spadafora first defeat in WBA title fight
CHESTER, W.Va. - This was not how Paul Spadafora envisioned the ending, with Johan Perez jumping around the ring in celebrating the announcement of the judges' scorecards and his majority decision victory over Spadafora to claim the WBA light welterweight belt.
Spadafora's story was supposed to be the one of legend, rising from The Bottoms of McKees Rocks to the top of the boxing world at age 23 to become Pittsburgh's first world champion in a half-century.
He captured the fascination of the City of Champions, wearing the initials PK on his black-and-gold trunks to honor his late trainer, P.K. Pecora, before promoters dubbed him the modern-day Pittsburgh Kid in a nod to the great Billy Conn.
Then Spadafora threw the prime of his promising career away, his life spiraling out of control in a tragic tale of alcohol and drug addiction, violence and prison sentences.
Yet here he stood, comeback of all comebacks, fighting again for a world championship at Mountaineer Casino, Racetrack and Resort at age 38, a decade after he last wore the IBF lightweight belt.
"This is like a dream come true, just fighting for a title again," Spadafora said afterward. "People don't understand how far I came back."
Spadafora was willing to bleed for another world title, that much is certain. Perez, 30, of Caracas, Venezuela, opened a cut above Spadafora's left eye early in the fight. Initially, it appeared to be below his eyebrow. Later, Spadafora had deep cuts above and below the eyebrow, each requiring stitches.
In a post-fight interview, Spadafora also kept an ice pack on his swollen left elbow, which he feared could be dislocated. That explained why the southpaw - a fighter who switched from an orthodox stance after he was shot in the leg as a teenager - never let loose with his left hand. He has never been known as a knockout artist, as his record of 19 KOs in 49 fights attests, but he couldn't throw punches with power.
"Spadafora is a good fighter, an ex-champion," Perez (18-1-1, 12 KOs) said through translator Luis Gomez, his cut man. "It was 10 years ago, but he's an ex-champion. He has heart."
That is what the judges sitting ringside saw, an ex-champion who didn't protect himself early and lacked the firepower to rally late. Still, the pro-Spadafora crowd expected a different result, if only because both the feature bout and co-main event ended in draws.
That Darnell Boone dropped Morgan Fitch to the canvas in consecutive rounds and didn't win left the impression that Spadafora need only to be standing at the final bell to earn the decision on the judges' scorecards.
Yet judges Rex Agin (117-111) and James Tia (115-113) scored the 12-round fight in favor of Perez, with Glenn Feldman calling it a draw, leaving the crowd stunned and everyone in Spadafora's camp complaining - except for Spadafora.
"I thought it was a close fight," Spadafora said. "I fought my heart out. I'm not ashamed of nothing. ... You make no excuses."
It marked the first career loss for Spadafora (48-1-1), who was seeking to win a world title for the first time since his unification bout with Leonard Dorin ended in a draw in May 2003.
His new promotion team, Roy Jones Jr.'s TNT, talked about breaking Rocky Marciano's record of 48 victories without a defeat. As much as Spadafora enjoyed the comparison - "We're both Italian," he said with a smile - it was apples to oranges, a star-crossed lightweight to one of the greatest heavyweights of all time.
The 5-foot-11 Perez, who had both a height and reach advantage, has what Spadafora's camp repeatedly referred to as an "awkward" style: fighting on the inside and then on the outside, going from aggressor to counterpuncher in any given round. He had answer for everything Spadafora tried.
"His rhythm," Spadafora said, "had me twisted."
It was in the fourth that Perez opened cuts above Spadafora's left eye and below his right. With blood trickling down the left side of his fighter's face, trainer Tom Yankello barked for Spadafora to remain the aggressor and attack the body.
The body blows had little effect on Perez, who appeared to take control in the fifth, landing the best shot of the bout with a right hand that rocked Spadafora's head back. But Perez concentrated on that left eye, using a left jab and right cross to open the cut nearly the length of the eyebrow.
Spadafora returned the favor, opening a small cut at the corner of Perez's right eye in the seventh. Perez landed a nice combo - a right to the body and left hook to the head - but Spadafora answered with a flurry.
The eighth was the most eventful round, with Perez again going right to the body and following with a left hook. Spadafora was willing to trade blows, and unloaded a few lefts that backed Perez into a corner. Perez, however, was game and used his reach advantage to remain at bay while hitting Spadafora with hooks, first with his right and then with his left.
Again, Spadafora returned the favor in the ninth. Perez paused for a moment, and Spadafora unloaded with a right hook followed by a left hook that stunned Perez. The combo appeared to rejuvenate Spadafora, and his corner compelled him to take over the fight.
While Yankello rubbed Spadafora's legs, cut man Buzz Garnic Jr. treated his eye and co-trainer Buddy McGirt - a late addition to his camp - reminded him to keep his right hand high to guard his face.
Spadafora started the 10th strong, backing Perez into a corner and unloading on him. They returned to the center of the ring, but by then Spadafora had gained control of the fight. Where Perez appeared to tire, Spadafora regained the bounce in his step. With it returned his defensive slickness, and he started slipping punches that were landing earlier.
Spadafora landed strong body shots in the 11th, but Perez absorbed them and responded once with a right uppercut and another time with a hook. But Perez won the 12th round, a pivotal one in such a close fight.
"I'm not saying I'm happy with my performance because I didn't get the win," Spadafora said, "but I'm not disappointed, either."
The loss, however, ends the likelihood of big-money bouts against Danny Garcia and pound-for-pound No. 1 Floyd Mayweather Jr. in the near future. That was Spadafora's motivation, to return to the top of the game and land fights that would set him up for life.
Yankello believes even in defeat Spadafora showed something, believing that his undefeated record was as much of an albatross as it was an attraction: taking a match against a former world champion with an undefeated record was of great risk and little reward.
"It puts him right back in the mix," Yankello said. "Before, he had no market value. This gave him market value again. He became not so dangerous to everyone who didn't want to fight him before."
There was a belief in Spadafora's locker room that he left nothing in the ring but showed enough in the ring that he still has a chance to be a contender, not just an opponent.
"Whoever was watching knows I fought my heart out and still have something left," Spadafora said. "Now, I've just got to go back to the drawing board."