With the sixth and (hopefully) final instalment of the Rocky series currently doing great business at the box office in America, I recently had the pleasure of speaking with a fighter many have called, “The closest real life similarity to the gutsy Rocky Balboa.” And certainly, New York’s Vinny Maddalone is one tough, somewhat crude, yet full of heart heavyweight.
Honest enough to put himself at the front of the queue of people asserting that he is a fighter lacking in the skills department, the down to earth Maddalone acknowledges readily that he has limitations as a boxer. Yet, as he is keen to point out as he talks to me over the phone from his home in Flushing, N.Y, heart and guts are not attributes he is short of.
Vinny prides himself on pleasing the fans. “Oh, without a doubt, I wanna give the fans their money’s worth. They pay for their tickets and I promise, I will never leave anything in the ring, I always give my all. They deserve it.”
Without much of an amateur background to speak of - save for a short tenure boxing in the New York golden gloves and some tough-man contests - Vinny soon found out for sure how hard it is making it as a professional fighter. “ I had about ten amateur fights and before that I participated in tough-man contests. I liked fighting in them, I would be up against thirty-five year old guys when I myself was just a kid. In those fights they only stop the fight when one guy gets knocked out.
People say they don’t teach you the fundamentals, but I think they teach you something else, like toughness. Without a doubt that was where I became the fighter I am today.” Like Sylvester Stallone’s famous movie creation, Maddalone boxed his first few bouts to little or no fanfare. Turning pro at age twenty-five and boxing mostly in his native New York, he won his first fifteen fights, ten by KO.
Then, in 2002, he was matched with a step up in class. Vinny met Al “Ice” Cole, the former IBF cruiserweight world champion. The 28 year old was beaten on points over six rounds. Unperturbed, the raw slugger fought again less than three months later. The loss to Cole didn’t really hurt Vinny. In fact the learning experience, as Vinny himself agrees, did him some good. His next loss, two years later, to another up and coming brawler in the then unbeaten twenty-nine year old Brian Minto did hurt though.
Boxing on his biggest stage to date - The Trump Taj Mahal in Atlantic City, and against a fighter possessing similar talents to himself - Vinny was stopped for the first time, in a thrilling encounter. “Yeah, Minto was tough as nails, no doubt about it, and he stopped me that night. I can’t take nothing from him, I wish him the best, you know. It was a great fight but in the tenth round he knocked me down with a left hook.
That was the first time I’d ever been down, and I mean ever. In sparring, whatever. I was ahead on the scorecards and I was real tired but I give it (respect) to him and he’s doing real well for himself right now and good luck to him.” Despite the fact that a KO loss had now been added to his stats, Vinny could certainly take pride in knowing he’d been involved in an excellently entertaining fight. It was perhaps around this time that the similarities between he and Rocky were first noticed.
Three confidence boosters later, Vinny was in with another respectable fighter from the club level circuit in fellow New Yorker Shannon Miller. Miller, who literally grew up in a boxing gym (his mother was one of the first promoters of the very young Mike Tyson) was an unbeaten fighter. Still, his activity level left something to be desired, in that his eleven wins had been stretched out over an agonisingly long thirteen years. Another T.V fight followed for Vinny, however, and mini-classic number two was put on his resume.
“Shannon Miller was, along with Brian Minto, my toughest opponent. He got up from shots that other guys wouldn’t have been able to get back up from. Twice in the first round I thought I had him, but he came back at me. It was another great fight and that’s what it’s all about. After that fight, though the fans were mostly on his side beforehand, they really warmed to me. Me and Shannon still talk today, he’s a good guy.” The action did indeed come thick and fast. Vinny, by this time trained by the knowledgeable Al Certo, came out throwing powerful, if somewhat wild, bombs in the opening round. Two hurtful trips to the floor later, and it looked to be all over for the thirty-one year old Miller. The bell sounded just as he beat the count for the second time, however, and a slugfest was born in the following round. If anything this fight showed the fans the quintessential Vinny Maddalone - easy to hit, easily marked up, especially around the eyes, but never willing to give an inch. “It’s funny, but I always thought I had a pretty good left hook, but I had him down with my right hand in the first round. But then I finished him off with a left hook in the fifth.” He certainly did. The hook landed flush on an opponent who had completely failed to see the shot coming and the victory was the thirty-two year old’s.
Afterwards, Teddy Atlas, doing commentary on the fight, only half jokingly asked Vinny whether or not anyone had ever told him it’s not against the law to move your head. “Teddy did tell me that I have all the heart in the world, but he also told me to start moving my head. He’s right and I appreciate that he was just looking out for me, like he does all boxers. That’s what I’m working on right now with Al, my defence.”
Now the owner of a decent and very exciting T.V fight win, Vinny was staring to get noticed. His biggest shot was offered him and the future looked good. The shot Vinny had dangled in front of him may not have been quite as big as the one the fictitious Rocky Balboa had given to him, but it still hurt like hell when it was taken away almost as fast as it had appeared. Vinny was supposed to fight Shannon Briggs, and on the under-card of the big Antonio Tarver-Roy Jones junior rubber match in Florida. Unfortunately, the deal fell through due to money issues. “I was supposed to fight Briggs, yeah, but at the last minute the money wasn’t there as it had been promised and Briggs walked out. And so did I. You know, this is a business, after all.” Instead, Vinny signed for a rematch with Minto. A revenge win over “The Beast” would go a long way towards returning the smile to big Vinny’s face.
Unlike in the movies, however, things don’t always play out the way we want them to. Minto repeated the job he did first time around, only quicker and easier. “The second fight with Minto, he out-boxed me and did what he had to do. I never went down but the ref stopped it in the seventh.” He did indeed, A defenceless Maddalone was hit with seven consecutive left hooks while stuck on the ropes and the ref had no choice but to dive in. Two defeats to the same guy can be devastating. But Vinny Maddalone is not a guy to devastate easily.
He bounced back with a quick and easy confidence restorer over one Dan Whetzel and then found himself in another gruelling type fight, the kind of which he, and by now his fans, had very much grown accustomed to. Jermell Barnes opened a nasty cut on his reddened face, but Vinny battled through the blood once more and won a razor thin majority decision. “I tell Joe (DeGuardia) my manager all the time, and I think he believes me, that I will never let him or the fans down.” After the bite down courage and desire he showed against Barnes no-one, least of all his own manager, could doubt him.
And when one watches him fight (or try to fight, as some less charitable critics would say) it’s little wonder who Vinny’s fistic heroes are. Though he chuckles when I tell him what Boxing News, the trade paper in Britain, recently called him (the “Rocky for real” tribute) Vinny tells me who his real influences are, as apposed to reel ones. “I love watching the old time fighters. Guys like Jake LaMotta and Rocky Marciano. They were kind of like my style in that they wanted to win so much and they never gave up. They might not have been the most skilled fighters in the world, but no-one could doubt their heart. I love watching them on tape.”
And now to Vinny’s most recent ring appearance. British fans will more than likely remember the name Julius Long. For a certain Audley Harrison fought and KO’d the seven foot Detroit native in two rounds - seemingly years ago now. And, just before Christmas, Long, now aged twenty-nine, was selected as Vinny’s next opponent. The decision almost proved to be a disaster. With three losses on his record, the last thing Vinny wanted was another setback, naturally. Once again though, things didn’t go smoothly for him. “Oh, that fight we took on two days notice because two other guys fell out. There was no skill in that fight, he was just throwing elbows and head-butts and his size threw my timing off. He caught me with a head butt in the fifth round and the fight was stopped. We went to the scorecards and he was ahead. The three judges had never scored a pro fight before though. I felt I was ahead, but I couldn’t nail him cleanly. The shots I did hit him with hurt him though, especially in the second round when I nearly had him out on his feet. But the judges scored points for his amateur stuff, you know.”
Fortuitously, however, the result was changed from a technical win for Long to a no-contest days later. Long was found to have been using an illegal substance and his win was gone. “In New York they test you for cocaine and marijuana, so I guess he was taking one of those. I’ll fight him again if Joe sets something up, I leave it all up to him. The stitches I had (over twenty Vinny informs me) are out now and in about a month I’ll be able to start sparring again. I’m more determined than ever and I can’t wait to get back in the ring.” I ask Vinny, a genuine nice guy if ever there was one, who he believes is the best of the current heavyweight champions. “I’d say Wladimir Klitscko. He’s the most established guy, so I’d rate him as the real number one. But there’s another champion who people don’t seem to give much credit to in Oleg Maskaev. Me and Oleg go back a long way from sparring together at Gleason’s Gym here. I tell everyone, he can punch with that right hand. People sort of wrote him off because he had three KO losses in a row, but I’m happy for Oleg, he deserves his title.”
Friendship, like many other things, tends to go out the window when dreams are at stake, however. And when the possibility of a fight between he and The Russian king is brought up Vinny lets me know straight away that he would take the fight in a heart beat. “Oh, that’s my dream fight. To fight for the title, I’d fight anyone, my brother, my father. Anyone. That’s what
it’s all about for any boxer, fighting for the world title. That would be a dream come true. And you know what, I wouldn’t disappoint the fans. I’d give it everything I have. That’s a promise.”
I for one believe him.