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Spadafora's son following in father's footsteps

| Saturday, June 21, 2014, 9:10 p.m.
Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
Champion boxer, Paul Spadafora readies his nine year-old son, Geno Spadafora, before Geno's amateur boxing match at the Hill District, Saturday.
Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
Champion boxer, Paul Spadafora stands next to his nine year-old son, Geno Spadafora, before Geno's amateur boxing match at the Hill District, Saturday.
Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
Champion boxer, Paul Spadafora readies his nine year-old son, Geno Spadafora, before Geno's amateur boxing match at the Hill District, Saturday.
Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
Champion boxer, Paul Spadafora laughs with his nine year-old son, Geno Spadafora, before Geno's amateur boxing match at the Hill District, Saturday.

The boy wore oversized gold trunks with black trim that hung below his knees, looking as if he were dressed in his father's clothes.

And, to some extent, he was.

Geno Spadafora, 9, is the son of former IBF lightweight champion Paul Spadafora, who in 1999 became the first Pittsburgh fighter in a half-century to win a world title.

“It feels awesome,” Geno said of being the son of a champ. “All the kids ask me about him. They say my dad's a great boxer.”

That Geno has followed his father into the ring is an old boxing story. So is Paul working his son's corner as trainer.

Yet theirs is a tale with a unique twist.

Geno is the child of Spadafora and Nadine Russo, the ex-girlfriend Paul shot in October 2003 outside a gas station in McKees Rocks.

Spadafora served a seven-month prison sentence and more jail time for subsequent probation violations, spoiling his prime fighting years.

As much as he regrets the split-second decision and what it cost his career, Spadafora is thankful his relationship with Russo produced Geno.

“You know what?” said Spadafora, who has two daughters, Giovanna and Giana, with another woman. “Something great came out of it.”

Something that saved Paul.

Paul was Geno's age when his father, Silvio, died of a drug overdose at age 33.

Paul turned to others as father figures. One was his trainer, P.K. Pecora, whose initials Paul wore on his trunks. Another was his grandfather, Geno Polecritti, for whom Paul's son is named and “R.I.P. Pap” is tattooed on his right hand.

Both men died - Pecora in 1997, Polecritti in 2001 - before Paul's downward spiral.

By 2011, Paul said he was strung out and living in a squat house in Bloomfield when a friend, Mike Monz, prodded him to enter a rehabilitation center.

Getting better for Geno, Paul says, was his motivation.

”It was everything,” Paul said. “If I didn't have to go get my son, I probably would have died. Everybody was waiting for me to bottom out, but I don't know no bottom.”

Paul's family history explains his addiction to alcohol and drugs, along with his fear of abandonment. It's also why he never imagined living to see his 40th birthday.

Paul now envisions a post-boxing career as a trainer. And Geno is giving him the chance at the father-son relationship he never experienced as a child.

“That's nice, to have someone look forward to you coming home,” Paul said. “I never had that, except for my dogs.”

Geno is the spitting image of his mother. Otherwise he's Paul's mini-me. He loves basketball and boxing and mimics his dad's movements, rolling his shoulders and throwing five-punch combinations.

“I'm going to be a pro when I grow up,” Geno said.

Paul calls training his son “a dream come true” but also said he doesn't care if Geno becomes a boxer. The modern-day Pittsburgh Kid just wants to be a good father to his own kid.

“All I want to do is be there for my son,” he said. “I'm trying my hardest to make him a better guy. I don't want him to live like I did.”

To ease Geno into the sport, Paul had him fight several exhibitions this past spring against Jelani Saunders, son of Beltzhoover boxer Rayco Saunders. They agreed in advance that the result would be a draw.

“I always have a raised eyebrow when I see young people boxing, and the other eyebrow raises when I see fathers training their kids,” said Jimmy Cvetic, who runs the Western Pennsylvania Police Athletic League Golden Gloves. “But the father-son interaction, the communion and bond between those guys and their dads is nice to see. Paul's doing what fathers should do: take the time with your child.”

Still, Paul was worried before Geno's bout June 7 at Thelma Lovette YMCA in the Hill District. Paul warned Geno that his opponent, Saieed Reed of Cleveland, was older, taller and heavier. Paul instructed Geno to keep up his guard, use his jab and move his feet to stay out of harm's way. Geno appeared unfazed, saying, “I can go like this,” then jumped to swing at an imaginary taller target.

Paul laughed but confided he was a nervous wreck.

“I just want him to be OK, you know what I'm saying?” Paul said. “He likes to fight. But I can't control what he's going to do in there.”

Reed landed a left hook to Geno's face in the first round and wobbled Geno with a hard right in the second round. But Geno withstood the punches and fought back.

“I'm so proud of you,” Paul told Geno, kissing him before the referee announces the verdict, a split-decision defeat that left Geno in tears.

“That's hard, for a little kid to get knocked around like that in front of a crowd of people,” Paul said. “He's a tough kid. He's gritty. If he keeps doing what he does - if he wants to be a fighter - he's going to be pretty good.”

Just like his dad, the father who figures to always be in his son's corner.

Kevin Gorman is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at kgorman@tribweb.com or via Twitter @KGorman_Trib.

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