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The Rise and Fall of Paul Vaden

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His career is one that would make a good movie-a drama. Paul Vaden's career and life have been marked by both success and defeat, as well as tragedy. He briefly captured the IBF light middleweight title by stopping the excellent Vincent Pettway in 1995, but then lost it after only four months to the great Terry Norris. As if losing his title after such a short span of time wasn't bad enough, the manner at which he lost furthermore damaged his career and reputation. He then tried to reinvent himself as a middleweight, but failed in his only world title attempt there, when he was stopped late by Keith Holmes in 1997. His career furthermore unravelled and hit the rocks after a tragic fight where his opponent died. This is the story of the rise and fall of Paul Vaden.


Vaden was born 29 December 1967 in San Diego, California. Early on in his boxing career, he was known under the moniker "Kid Ultimate", which he later shortened to "The Ultimate". He had a stellar amateur career, compiling a record of 327-10 and winning US national amateur championships in 1990 as a light middleweight. He also won the bronze medal in the middleweight division at the 1990 Goodwill Games. He was the top candidate for the 1992 Olympics team, but instead chose to turn professional, citing his dissatisfaction with the new scoring system and the political side of the sport as well. At 6'1 1/2, Vaden was extremely tall for the light middleweight division, he had a big reach as well (75 inches), fast hands and was good technical boxer with enough punching power. His first pro fight was on 5 April '91 and he won a UD4 against Quirino Garcia. He was 18-0 with 9 ko's when he fought John Montes, a former world class lightweight contender, for the IBF Intercontinental title and won by UD12. He defended the title by another UD12 against then-undefeated Jason Papillion, a future Winky Wright-challenger. He vacated the title and won three more fights before receiving his first world title shot against the reigning IBF champion Vincent Pettway. Pettway had won it by knocking out Gianfranco Rosi, the longest-reigning light middleweight champion at the time, and had defended it by knocking out Simon Brown in devastating fashion, so he was considered a favorite, despite at 5'9 being significantly shorter and without Vaden's amateur credentials. Pettway also had 4 losses by then. The fight happened 12 August 1995 at the MGM Grand and Vaden utilized his great height and reach advantage and his boxing skills, but the fight was close and Pettway ahead by 105-104 on all scorecards when Vaden pulled off a 12th-round TKO by battering Pettway in the last round until Richard Steele waved it off with only 27 seconds to go.


"The Ultimate" was now the first San Diego-born and raised boxer to win a world title as a pro. But the high times would not last. He was offered a unification fight already in his first defense-against noone else than Terry Norris, who then held the WBC title, having recaptured it against Simon Brown previously. As Norris also was based in San Diego and the two were reputed to harbor intense dislike towards one another, the promoters jumped at the opportunity of a grudgematch, hoping for a classic fight. But-it didn't turn out so. To the chagrin and detriment of both the fans and the boxing authorities, Vaden came into the fight a totally different man than against Pettway and avoided exchanges. It was 16 December that 1995 and the stage was Core Stages Spectrum in Philadelphia. Vaden turned in an overly cautious and even cowardly performance, absorbing Norris' punches while leaning against the ropes and not throwing much. In the end, naturally, Norris was the winner by a wide unanimous decision and Paul Vaden "The Ultimate" had suddenly been reduced to "The Secondary". Not only that, but his purse of 250 K was suspended by the Philadelphia boxing commissioner Paul Bochetto for "conduct unbecoming a champion". He decided to move up to 160 as it seems the problems with making weight were partly to blame for this fiasco. His power there seemed to improve, as he stopped the 16-0 Clem Tucker Jr by TKO 6 in his first fight at the weight. He also stopped Wayne Powell, the former NABF light middleweight champ, by TKO 8, in April '97. This victory got him a crack at the WBC title held by Keith Holmes, a new star in the division. For the first time in his career, Vaden faced someone slightly taller than him, as Holmes stands 6'2.


The fight happened 5 December '97 at the Amphitheater in Pompano Beach, Florida. Vaden had a good start and won the second round while the first one was even, but at the end of the third he was hurt by a combination. Early in the fourth, he ran right into a straight left from Holmes and was dropped to the seat of his trunks. He got up and eventually weathered the storm and started throwing back and landed some good shots, but at the end of the round he was down again as he was crouching against the ropes and got hurt by two rights to the temple. Vaden made it out of the round and came back, winning rounds 6, 7 and 9, also hurting Holmes with a good right in the 9th. But he also got cut over the left eye in round 7 and the wound kept bleeding. In round 11, with the fight still competitive despite Holmes being unfairly convincingly ahead on the scorecards, Holmes once again drove Vaden to the ropes and hit him with a big straight right which put him down for the third time in the fight. Vaden made the count at 7, but following a doctor's inspection, the fight was stopped. His eye was in bad shape and thus Vaden was stopped for the first time in his career. It would remain the only time. He was then gone from the ring the next year before returning in June 1999, again as a light middleweight, and stopping Jorge Luis Vado, a former Terry Norris-challenger, by a corner retirement in 6. It was in his next fight that the tragedy part of the story would unfold: he got a fight for the vacant USBA title against Stephan Johnson, a journeyman with a record of 27-8-1. He had been knocked out in 11 rounds by Fitz Vanderpool 7 months prior to this fight, which was on 20 November at the Trump Taj Mahal, and many believe he came into the fight with a brain damage. Once again, he would be knocked out late, this time in 10 rounds and Vaden was victorious, but Johnson would never fight again as he slipped into a coma right after the knockout and died 15 days later.


This death of course profoundly affected Vaden and he considered quitting the sport, but agreed to a unification fight against the NABF champion Jose Alfredo Flores. The fight happened 15 April 2000 at Mandalay Bay and Vaden lost a close unanimous decision after 12 rounds. He then announced his retirement and that was it. He finished his career with 29 wins, 16 inside the distance, and 3 losses, 1 inside the distance. He reached out to the family of Stephan Johnson and established a relationship with his fiancee Bonnie, the two also appearing together in a Bryant Gumbel special on HBO. He has since worked for JDRF, an organization fighting against diabetes and helping those affected with it. In 2018, he was elected president of the board of directors of JDRF. Thus, his story has gotten a happy ending. In 2017, he was inducted into the West Coast Boxing Hall of Fame. In the end, one might say that Paul Vaden was a talented top fighter, whose career never went as far as it could have. The Norris fight came too early for him and it was obvious he wasn't in the right mindset when it happened. The Holmes loss was simply about him getting stopped by a naturally bigger man in a close and competitive fight. And the Flores loss was at the end of his career and a close one. He had all the tools, but the motivation and mental focus wasn't always there.

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