Difficult Patient

updated 12/20/1993 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/20/1993 AT 01:00 AM EST

For Vinny, it's boxing and life—in that order

BOXER VINNY PAZIENZA LOOKS UP FROM curling 100 pounds in the basement of his Warwick, R.I., house and reflects on how he got started in the cauliflower trade. "I saw Rocky at 14 and went down to the gym the next day," says Pazienza, 30, shaking his head. "I look at that movie now, and I see this guy who can't put two syllables together taking a beating in every fight. And yet I wanted to do that? I must have been crazy."

If Pazienza was crazy then, he's certifiable now. On Dec. 28, the Pazmanian Devil, as he is known, will fight Canadian Dan Sherry for the International Boxing Organization's super middleweight title. This is not nuts in itself—if you consider that the pay-per-view bout will be in Aspen, Colo., possibly before such swells as Jack Nicholson and Bruce Willis, and Pazienza will collect some $300,000. No, the wacko part is that he is fighting for a third world title just two years after breaking his neck.

On Nov. 12, 1991, Vinny was a passenger in a Camaro that spun out of control on an icy road near his home and slid into an oncoming luxury sedan. Soon he was on an X-ray table at Kent County Memorial Hospital—his father, Angelo, tearyeyed beside him—listening to neurosurgeon Walter Cotter describe the damage. Remembers Vinny: "I said, 'Doc, let's cut through all the crap. Can I box again or not?' "

When Cotter said, "I'm sorry, son, but you'll never box again," Pazienza lost it. Though his right side was numb, he started kicking his feet and screaming at the doctor, "You can't say that! You don't know me!"

Of course, Cotter—and everyone else in Rhode Island—knew who he was: the boxer who six weeks earlier had won the junior middleweight title over Gilbert Dele of France. But now Cotter knew the man, too. So instead of operating and fusing his neck with plates and screws, which would have limited Pazienza's mobility, Cotter fitted him with a halo, which would allow Vinny's bones to mend naturally and permit him eventually to go on with his career.

"I warned Vinny that if the bones slipped, he was at great risk of becoming quadriplegic," says Cotter. "But that was okay with him."

Vinny moved back into his parents' house—which his mother, Louise, has decorated as a shrine to both her son and Jesus—in Cranston, R.I. He needed somebody to wash his hair, to help him get his shirt over the halo—that kind of thing. But Vinny wasn't helpless. In fact, he began his own secret rehab campaign—ultimately bench-pressing up to 200 pounds. "My father freaked when he found out," says Vinny. "But Dr. Cotter said, 'This kid knows his body better than I do.' "

On Valentine's Day 1992 the halo was removed—and Pazienza immediately went to the gym. His first sparring partner "didn't want to hit me," says Pazienza. "So I said, 'Hit me or I'll kill you.' " He finally did, and the neck was fine.

Vinny won his first comeback fight, on Dec. 15, 1992, against journeyman Luis Santana. Over the next 11 months, he won three more bouts, giving him a 35-5 record. "My toughest opponent has always been my weight," he says. "Four of my losses came in world championships, where I had to drop up to 20 pounds. Losing the weight made me so crazy, I can sympathize with women going through PMS—I've been there."

Now, for the first time, having moved up two weight classes to 168 pounds, Pazienza is able to eat as he pleases, especially pizza. He has also fallen in love. He met live-in girlfriend Leigh Anderson, 26—a private investigator and exotic dancer—early last year in Miami.

But Pazienza has no interest in starting a family now. He thinks one day, maybe, he would like to train fighters or do TV boxing commentary. But such talk is premature. Like many people who have teetered on the brink of disaster and survived, he believes he has been chosen for some end that is not yet apparent. "A lot of people have been calling me to do my story," he says. "But I'm still young. I still get pimples. I got a tube of Clearasil in my bedroom. I'm waiting for the final chapter."

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