Gorman: McKees Rocks boxer Spadafora ready to reclaim a title
Almost a decade has passed since Paul Spadafora owned a world title belt, yet he wears one as a reminder of what once was and what he hopes to become again.
A replica of the International Boxing Federation lightweight championship belt is tattooed on Spadafora's right wrist, below another spelling out “CHAMP” in shadow-boxed letters down the right arm of his now ink-covered upper body.
“I had it for five years,” Spadafora said of his IBF belt. “Eight title defenses. It wasn't no accident.”
What has happened since he relinquished that title following his draw with Leonard Dorin in May 2003 has been nothing short of tragic: In a drunken blackout, Spadafora shot Nadine Russo, his girlfriend at the time. He served time in state prison. The McKees Rocks boxer slipped into the abyss of addiction, from alcohol abuse to harder drugs, and wasted the prime of his career with a series of monumental mistakes.
Somehow, at age 37, he's still undefeated and positioned to win another belt. Spadafora (47-0-1, 19 knockouts) will fight “Red Hot” Rob Frankel (32-12-1) for the vacant NABF light welterweight title Saturday night at Mountaineer Casino Racetrack & Resort.
Spadafora is ranked in the top 10 by three governing bodies — No. 8 by the IBF, No. 9 by the WBA and No. 10 by the WBO — and knows that a victory could propel him into a top-five world ranking and another shot at a recognized world championship.
That's something few, if anyone, thought possible when Spadafora was throwing his life away.
“It just shows you can persevere through anything,” Spadafora trainer Tom Yankello said. “With a win, he puts himself right back in the mix where he's a viable contender for a title. It's not a comeback anymore. He's back. … He's done a lot of damage to himself outside the ring, but he hasn't shown it. In the gym, he's been performing like he was when he was the champion.”
Frankel provides a paradox to Spadafora's story. An Albuquerque native who fights out of Denver, Frankel said he smoked a pack of cigarettes a day and abused alcohol, and his addiction escalated to cocaine and crack abuse before he ever stepped into a boxing ring at age 22.
“Boxing found me,” Frankel said. “It saved my life.”
At the same age Frankel began boxing, Spadafora was already 20-0 and preparing to fight for the International Boxing Council lightweight title. By the time Frankel turned pro in September 2003, Spadafora had relinquished his IBF belt. Soon, his world spiraled out of control.
“You've got to respect the man for getting off the ground like that,” Frankel said of Spadafora. “I think he has a lot of wear and tear. We've both been through a lot, but I changed my life a long time ago.”
Not entirely. In June 2009, Frankel was sentenced to 10 years in prison for a domestic incident involving his wife, who was pregnant at the time. Originally charged with false imprisonment, kidnapping, child abuse and second-degree assault, he plea bargained his way to a year in jail.
So anyone portraying the heavily tattooed Spadafora as the villain and the clean-cut Frankel as a model citizen isn't painting the perfect picture. They are a lot more alike than they are different, even if Frankel fights out of an orthodox style and Spadafora is a southpaw.
“Right now, my team's calling me the ‘Southpaw Killer,'” said Frankel, who doesn't remember Spadafora's title reign but has watched video of his bouts.
“I don't think he's the same fighter. I don't think he's as fast. I know he's a defensive fighter. His offense is lacking, from what I've seen. His defense is good, but if you can place that right hand when he's moving and throw your combinations, I believe he can be hit.
Try telling that to Spadafora, who has grown from Pittsburgh Kid to Pittsburgh Dad without losing a fight. He wants to be remembered as one of the great fighters in the boxing-rich history of the city and knows that winning another world championship would do just that.
“You're going to have to mention my name when you mention Pittsburgh and boxing, not just for what I did but for what I came back and did,” Spadafora said.
“This is another step closer to getting to where I believe I need to be, where I believe that I should be. I've got to prove it. I thank God for giving me the opportunity to make this happen. I thank Pittsburgh for being there for me. I came a long way, and I feel great about it.”
Spadafora wants to be Champ again, transforming his story from one about a world-title belt that went to waste to wearing another one around his waist.