Aspen Times Weekly: The ‘unfortunate, low-rent’ night when Vinny Pazienza brought boxing to Aspen
Two years after breaking his neck in a car accident, boxer Vinny Pazienza brought his comeback to Aspen.
The flamboyant Rhode Island fighter’s death-defying return to the ring is now the subject of a film, “Bleed For This,” starring Miles Teller as Pazienza (in theaters, Friday Nov. 18).
Pazienza’s bout in Aspen on Dec. 28, 1993 against Canadian Dan Sherry is a wild piece of Aspen sports history, which Hunter S. Thompson dubbed “that unfortunate, low-rent Fight Scene at the Ritz.” The card at the Ritz-Carlton (the hotel that is now the St. Regis) featured the first professional boxing matches held here since 1900. Boxing hasn’t returned since.
The fight came as Pazienza’s status as a determined and blood-spattered American folk hero was growing and his unbelievable comeback story was in full swing (People magazine ran a feature on him the week of the Aspen bout). The surreal scene surrounding the “Pazmanian Devil” and the oddity of boxing in Aspen were the subject of extensive coverage over the course of a month in The Aspen Times.
Pazienza and the rest of the fighters trained for a week in the basement of the Hotel Colorado in Glenwood Springs (with Pazienza’s girlfriend, Penthouse pet Leigh Anderson, looking on). But apparently Pazienza didn’t adjust to the altitude. He told Times sportswriter Dale Strode that he’d caught the “Aspen crud” and was extremely ill all week. The day of the fight, he spent four hours at Aspen Valley Hospital hooked up to IVs. But he still knocked out Sherry in the 11th round and ended the Canadian’s career.
“I’ve had insomnia, diarrhea and my hands are killing me from hitting that guy, but other than that I feel great,” the ever-quotable Pazienza told Strode after the fight.
This 15-round contest for the IBO super middleweight championship belt — refereed by a young Steve Smoger, who went on to a memorable career and last year was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame — was a fundraiser for the new Aspen Youth Center, with tickets priced from $1,000 to $2,000. When few sold, the Ritz offered $500 seats to Aspen residents. Less than 50 paying customers showed up to the ballroom for the black-tie affair, buffet and six-fight card, which included Ritz bellhop and aspiring screenwriter Mark Gordon on the undercard in his professional debut.
Gordon, the son of former pro boxer and longtime Aspenite Ted Gordon, defeated a New Mexico fighter named Tony Alcon who wore a prosthetic leg because he “had part of his lower left leg amputated in 1980 after an unsuccessful battle with an infection,” according to the Times’ coverage.
Gordon sparred with Pazienza during fight week.
“Sparring with Vinny really helped; it helped a whole lot,” he told the Times while sipping a Heineken after besting Alcon by unanimous decision. “What an honor… Having Vinny on my side for this fight.”
The Times assigned Hunter Thompson to cover the bout for his hometown paper. The legendary gonzo journalist, of course, did some of his best writing about boxing and about Muhammad Ali and also traveled to Zaire for the iconic “Rumble in the Jungle” between Ali and George Foreman.
Like the fight in Zaire, though, Thompson didn’t make it inside to see the Pazienza scrap in Aspen. But that didn’t stop him from writing about it. His column, titled “Notes on a fight scene not covered,” ran in the New Year’s Day edition of the Times alongside Strode’s fight recaps, a photo essay by Roy Willey and an atmospheric prose poem about the in-ring action.
Thompson described the smarmy atmosphere around the Aspen fight as only he could.
“It was like a Prison Movie,” he quoted one spectator saying. “There were very few women, except floozies and shills. I was fondled and mauled in public, but it was not horrible. I hate boxing, but the public were very nice.”
The fight night was promoted by the colorful Don Elbaum, who was Don King’s mentor and who would later spend several months in prison on a corruption conviction, and by local developer Andrew Corwin.
Thompson wrote that he received a last minute call to avoid the sleazy scene.
“Close friends warned me, just in time, to stay away from That Thing at all costs — lest I make a dunce-like fool of myself and get photographed in the company of known mobsters,” he wrote. “My picture would have been all over the tabloids, drinking cheap whiskey and embracing that guy with the broken neck.”
Another famous Aspenite, John Denver, incidentally, did not heed any such warning. He did attend the fight and did indeed submit to photos with Pazienza and his associates.
“One professional person who was there said all the ringside seats were taken up by Ritz hotel employees who zealously enforced a No Smoking rule and called the police on anybody who had more than two (2) drinks,” Thompson wrote. “Thank god I was warned away, and please convey my condolences to Dale and any other staff members who were sent into that degraded scene.”
The promoters hadn’t brought along anybody to ring the bell during the fights, which sent rugby players from the Gentleman of Aspen (who worked security for the night) scrambling for a Ritz employee to do the job at the last minute.
Despite the apparent failure of the bungled promotion, Pazienza’s win in Aspen was pivotal for the fighter. It helped set up his super-fight — and what would become the signature win of his comeback — with the great Roberto Duran six months later (Duran’s life, coincidentally, was also the subject of a feature film, “Hands of Stone,” earlier this year).
All things considered, getting altitude sickness and getting the shits in Aspen was no big deal for Pazienza, Strode noted as he predicted a future feature film on the fighter: “Diahrrea. Big D. Not good for a boxer. But no problem for Pazienza, who has made a career — and probably a Hollywood movie — out of overcoming tremendous odds.”
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