This week I interviewed former World Champion boxer, Paul “The Ultimate” Vaden. Born and raised in San Diego, Paul had a dominant amateur career before turning pro. As a pro, Paul put together a record of 29 wins (16 by knockout) and 3 losses. His career was highlighted by his 1995 victory over Vincent Pettway to become the World Light Middleweight Champion. Paul remains the only native San Diegan ever to hold a World Championship Title. Since retiring from the sport, he has kept busy as a keynote speaker, corporate consultant, documentary filmmaker and author. Paul was kind enough to chat about his career, thoughts on boxing and share some words of wisdom for life and success.


Josh Wahler: To take it back to the beginning, what sparked your initial interest in boxing and what got you started on that path?

Paul Vaden: The genesis began at four years old watching television and seeing images of Muhammad Ali. Every time I would see him, 

just the feeling I would get inside, excitement, enthusiasm. I don’t know why, but at four years old I saw possibilities and I saw something that was rare. I was never an aggressive child, I was never temperamental or anything like that. I was a mama’s boy. Yet, I was drawn to Ali and what he could do. The characteristics, just something about him, that spoke to me, that spoke poetry, that spoke class, that spoke next level, even at four years old I could sense his specialness.

When I was five years old there was a man who boxed in the Navy that lived next door, Mr. Cliff Darden and he saw that I was always around my mom. He had a punching bag in his garage and he gave me my first introduction to boxing gloves, my first introduction to a heavy bag and my first introduction to a boxing lesson. He took the time with me and was so beneficial to my beginning. Transition forward to October 30,1974, the greatest victory that I had ever seen in any aspect was Muhammad Ali defeating George Foreman in Zaire, Africa. This was two months before I would turn seven years old. That victory became my key motivation and Ali was my path. 

In the summer of 1976 my father wanted to get my brother and I involved in some form of youth activity or summer camp while he was at work. We grew up in a very poor and very tough neighbourhood and he wanted us to be somewhere safe, but also get acclimated to recreational play and get adjusted to playing with other kids.


Paul at 10 years old after winning the National Junior Golden Gloves

At the Jackie Robinson YMCA we were taking a tour and the very last feature of getting walked around by Mr. Robert Coons was a boxing ring. I saw the boxing ring and the heavy bags and I asked Robert if I was old enough to box, or if I was too young to box is actually how I asked him. And the reason I asked it that way is because you know when you’re eight years old you’re used to someone saying you’re too young, ‘come back in a few years’ but he said ‘no, we have practice at this time Monday through Friday.’ But then I had to convince my father to let me do this. I was this wimpy mama’s boy and there was nothing shown by me other than the fact that I was very excited whenever I saw Muhammad Ali. Even though Mr. Cliff Darden taught me things there was no advancement. He gave me the outlet of a place to go which I am forever grateful, but now I had to convince my father. He agreed on giving me a two-week trial. My father was always very supportive, but I honestly believe that since I was a young kid he felt the work, the repetition, the discipline, the hours that were required would be too much for me and I’d be overwhelmed. When he gave me that support I found my home, I found my possibility. So that’s how my path in boxing got started.

JW: Taking it from that point of being four years old and seeing Muhammad Ali and looking up to him, to reaching the pinnacle of your sport and becoming a world champion, what was it like going down that path and actually achieving that?

PV: As I’m listening to you ask me this question I’m getting chills. I’m that four year old again. Next to the birth of my son it was the greatest moment of my life. When someone tells me what I can’t accomplish I’ll always have this reminder to keep me in any game of life. As you can hear in my voice there’s a lot of pride. Striving to become a world champion was against all odds. NOTHING was handed to me. I had to wrest it from many who tried to prohibit it from happening. But it was important that I worked to become an even nicer person following the success. I wanted to be a much stronger human being than athlete.

Paul with Don King, his cousin Larry Dixon Jr, and manager Arnie “Tokyo” Rosenthal after his World Championship fight

JW: You were a top candidate for the 92 Olympic team but you chose to go pro instead. Looking back on it you obviously achieved so much as we just talked about, but at the time was that a difficult decision? 

PV: It really wasn’t believe it or not. My goal has always been to become a professional world boxing champion. In my book I talked about returning to boxing five months before the 1988 Olympic Trials after being away for more than three years. I moved to Puyallup, Washington and competed for the Tacoma Boxing Club under the guidance of Tom Mustin. I would qualify for those Olympic Trials and lose a split decision to the world amateur champion and eventual U.S. Olympic representative. I didn’t lose that match. But I knew what time it was. I was emotionally hurt, but extremely hyped for my future because of what I was able to accomplish in such a short time. So, I maximized my opportunities in 1989 and 1990 and moved onto the professional ranks in 1991. Zero regrets.  

JW: Boxing isn’t like other sports, where the athletes are constantly playing, there’s a ton of buildup to a fight. What’s your mentality in terms of getting prepared for that mentally and what are the emotions that go into that? Is it fear? Is it excitement? Is it focus? What’s your take on that preparation?


Paul landing a right cross on Vincent Pettway in his World Championship fight

PV: Oh, I’d say it’s all of that. It’s interesting, when I was getting prepared for a match, a transformation would take place that I honestly can’t describe. I would get laser focused and committed. It was never enough, more needed to be done. I ate and drank once a day for thirty days prior to my fights which always occurred at dinnertime, a 283 Calorie Lean Cuisine with an Orange SoBe. Yes, I was all in. There was a sense of, I wouldn’t call it fear, but very aware of the possibility this challenge could be the one to defeat you. But the beauty is the willingness of walking through the door of adversity and that it gradually gathers clarity. Through clarity you start to break things down and what happens is it causes you to train even harder and allows you to look in the mirror and start to understand who you are as well. The more I studied film of my opponents the less it mattered who it was because after six weeks of intense training I would rediscover who I am and my gifts.


Paul posing with his Breitbard Hall of Fame plaque

JW: What’s your take on of boxing now? You have developments like the UFC and mainstream MMA that were a lot more in their infancy during your career. What effect do think those have on boxing and what’s your opinion on the state of the sport today?

PV: Talent is never ending. I thoroughly enjoy watching from afar and celebrating the talent that is out there today. People tend to say boxing isn’t as exciting today as it was back in the day. First of all, we will never have another Muhammad Ali, there has not been and never will be anything like him again. As time moves past, eras are more appreciated. During my time people were saying that my era was not up to the standards, but now I have people coming up to me all the time saying, ‘oh gosh, back when you fought it was fun.’ Those people are probably the same ones that were bashing my era back then because in their minds the ones before were greater. I’ve seen some great boxing matchups these past few years and there are more ahead that I’m eagerly anticipating. Personally, I don’t watch UFC or MMA. They have a great product with a strong brand, but that’s just never been my thing. However, I know they’re definitely doing big things.


Paul with head trainer David Love and Assistant trainer Jorge Gonzalez

The sport of boxing has not received it’s death certificate and it won’t. People often say, ‘oh it’s dying’. No it’s not. I mean look at the pay per view numbers Floyd Mayweather Jr. was able to generate for his fights, the purses he acquired were astronomical. I do believe boxing is attempting to return to the formula from the 1980’s era when Sugar Ray Leonard, Marvin Hagler, Tommy Hearns and Roberto Duran were willing dance partners and all fought each other. Boxing promoters in the 80’s also maximized the benefits of free television with ABC, CBS and NBC. This gave the public a free opportunity to embrace the story of a Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini on CBS Sports Spectacular while following his path out of Youngstown, Ohio and fall in love with the charismatic and ever talented Sugar Ray Leonard on ABC’s Wide World of Sports. So, as their celebrity strengthened and they became what was then Closed Circuit TV qualified boxers, consumers were willing to shell out the money to witness their next steps. In my era everything was paid TV, it was Showtime, HBO, pay per view. Major props to Al Haymon with Premier Boxing Champions (PBC) for bringing back free television. Now other promoters have followed this recipe. The cabinet is full with a wealth of very talented boxers like Errol Spence, Terence Crawford, Mikey Garcia, Vasyl Lomachenko, I mean I could keep going on with names. Our heavyweight division has intriguing and personable champions like Anthony Joshua, Deontay Wilder and Tyson Fury. Boxing is going nowhere. 

JW: You’re a motivational speaker and inspire other people. What advice would you have for young athletes or just young people in general who are growing up and chasing their dreams and goals the way you did?

PV: I have two words: Believe and Become. Through that mindset, when you intensely believe in something you’ll work insanely hard to become it. You must have the ability to withstand the onslaught of negativity that will try to distract Championship Roundsyour vision. Naysayers and haters will try to douse your shine. These layers of your life are your tests and can be how you take on the rest of your life. You’re gonna have bad rounds, you’re gonna have bad days, but it’s how you get up for the next opportunity. It’s easy when things are going well for you, it’s easy when you’re winning, but what happens when you’re behind when you’ve never been behind before? What’s your attitude then? We’ve seen boxers and we’ve witnessed people become unglued when they’ve fallen behind, when they’re finally hit and knocked down for the first time. That’s also life unfortunately. We’ve seen people lose it when they receive their first B grade on a test or report card in school or when they don’t get that promotion at work they thought they were in line for. So, my thing is sustaining that believability while working to become. In between all of that you’ve got to put in the work, you’ve got to be repetitive, you’ve got to be disciplined, but you also have to see yourself being that champion. Everything about my instincts I try my damnedest to reflect as a champion. When I used to train for upcoming fights my focus was the full movie. I’d see myself being knocked down, even if I wasn’t going to be. I’d see myself being hurt, even if I wasn’t going to be. I’d see myself behind on points, even if I wasn’t going to be. But I always saw myself overcoming and eventually reaching my destiny. Believe. Become.