Today mark’s the 22nd Anniversary of Paul Vaden’s world title victory against Vincent Pettway in dramatic fashion via 12th round TKO at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas. In the mid-1990s unification bouts were far more commonplace than they are today and so it was that Vaden would walk straight into a meeting with WBC champion Terry Norris in his very next fight.
Paul’s story & the wider significance of his boxing career go far deeper than even that though – he had an amateur record of 327-10 and should by rights have represented the United States at the Olympics in Barcelona in 1992. The Games that produced Oscar De La Hoya, Joel Casamayor, Wayne McCullough, Robin Reid, Paul’s long-time close friend Chris Byrd, David Tua & Brian Nielsen along with the first of what would be three gold medals for Félix Savón. Paul chose to not attend those Games because of (prudent) reservations about the scoring system then deployed in top level amateur boxing – particularly in the aftermath of the most infamous judging misconduct in Olympic history in the previous Games in South Korea where Vaden’s compatriot Roy Jones Junior was the victim of as clear a miscarriage of justice as has occurred in all of sporting history.
Vaden had a bittersweet relationship with professional boxing – the high of reaching his childhood ambition of claiming a world title tempered by the tragedy of his 20 November 1999 bout with Stephan Johnson which led to the death of his opponent at the age of 31 after Paul had won by 10th Round knockout. A tragedy for Johnson & his family obviously but perhaps less appreciated is the lifelong impact on a fighter in Vaden’s position – a burden no one would ask for and one capable of breaking a lesser man.
Far from being broken Paul has emerged post-career stronger than ever – crafting out a niche as a sought after and highly rated motivational speaker & author. The whole Paul Vaden story – from brilliant yet belligerent Olympic absentee to professional World champion to the tragedy of Stephan Johnson’s untimely death to his success as a motivational speaker, corporate consultant & author speaks of a man who possessed talent that was dwarfed only by his desire to remain true to himself in the face of all of the world’s temptations and pitfalls. De La Hoya might have penetrated the collective consciousness more acutely but I know which of the two I’d rather be today – and he is San Diego’s first & to this point only ever born & bred professional world boxing champion.