This probably wasn’t how Paul Iannuzzi pictured 52 years old to look like when he was 35, the age of his July 15 opponent, Lucinei Santos.
But life does take its own twists and turns when it wants to, and for the last ten years, the junior middleweight from Brooklyn, Connecticut did know that he was going to eventually be back in the ring for one night only. He had to. He made a promise to his six-year-old daughter, Grace, that he would beat Dewey Bozella’s record as the oldest boxer to make his professional debut.
And Iannuzzi takes promises seriously.
“I’m really big on making promises and keeping them and I believe in handshakes and a lot of things that are kind of old school,” he said.
So he wasn’t about to break one, especially not to Grace, who was born at a rough time in Iannuzzi’s life and marriage.
“When my daughter was born, I was so poor and I didn’t have my life together,” he said. “Actually, the day that she was born, the first words I ever said to her was, ‘I’m sorry I’m your father, you could do so much better.’ I was just so sad. I knew that her mother and I were at the end of our relationship, and I knew I had no money, and I knew that she could do so much better than me.”
By then, boxing professionally was a faded memory. In the late 1980s, the Providence native was a promising amateur, winning the Southern New England Golden Gloves and scoring a couple wins over Sammy Stewart. But in his late teens, he got married and did what he assumed he had to. He went to college, got a job and hung up the gloves.
Eventually, he returned to the sport through his gym, Rude Dog Boxing, Masters boxing, and the “Life in Balance” wellness program which is closest to his heart. And while the program has become known for its work with those dealing with Parkinson’s disease, he insists that what he and his second wife Jill are offering their clients has little to do with other similarly aimed programs.
“There is a difference though between Richard Simmons and Arnold Schwarzenegger,” said Iannuzzi. “There really is. They’re both moving, but I think we’d be okay if we both met Richard Simmons in an alley. So I can appreciate some of these other programs like ‘Rock Steady,’ because they base it off of primarily boxing. And it’s very clappy and a very ‘You can do it’ mentality. But mine was based off not just me being a fighter. I just happened to be a boxer but what it came down to was, my mother had some mobility issues. She was overweight, she had fibromyalgia, neuropathy, diabetes, massive depression because of the weight, joint pain, probably needed a knee replacement, vertigo issues, and I just sat there watching her getting worse and worse.”
The son rose to help his mom, and in the process, something was born that continues to help so many others.
“She was on 37 medications,” Iannuzzi continues. “So I started cross-referencing some of her medications and realizing that maybe she didn’t need all of them. We got it down to around 17, but the fact is that our program is based on body mechanics and everything is an if-then statement. If this happened, then this must happen. If my knees are giving out, then it’s because I can’t stay away from the all-you-can-eat buffet. If I want that to get better, then I must do this. And there’s no sugar coating it. I’ll say, you need to lose 50 pounds. If someone needs to do it, I’ll just tell them the truth. I work on body mechanics. I find the people who have problems with posture. The human head weighs between eight to 12 pounds. Most of my friends, if you’ve seen them, probably four to six pounds. It’s an ugly group here. I teach them to enter the room like they’re a mafia boss – shoulders back, chin up, you step into the room, you pause a second, you scan the room, and then you start walking in straight and tall.”
All the while, from 2011 on, when Bozella was given the Arthur Ashe Courage Award at that year’s ESPYs and Grace told her dad he could beat that record, Iannuzzi knew that there was still one more fight left. Actually, there were more than that, as he competed in – and won – Masters tournaments in his 40s. But fighting pro, even if it was against an 0-4 opponent with four first-round KO losses, was different, and he knew it. In other words, don’t try this at home.
“I’ve been fighting since I was 18,” he said. “I got married and my first marriage ended my career as a boxer, and rightfully so. I went off to college and did what I was supposed to do, I guess. It was the right path. But, to start up at 46, I’m telling everybody publicly, don’t. I’ve been walking around at 150 pounds, I own a gym, I’m in shape. Don’t come off the couch, as Micky Ward said, and start throwing.”
The day of the fight at the Palladium in Worcester, Massachusetts, Iannuzzi was a wreck.
“That last seven hours, from one until eight o’clock when I get on there,” he said of the fight day stress he dealt with. “Mind you, I’m a coach, I’ve been boxing, I know the sport, I know this guy had been beaten before, I know I got a pretty good right hand. And although the shoulder was gone, I knew if I landed it correctly, I could drop him. So all the variables are tilted in my way, and all I could think of was, if I lose this fight, there is nothing for me anywhere. (Laughs) People are gonna go, ‘How am I gonna follow this guy, he’s an idiot.’ That’s what I was reduced to. And I’m in the bathroom dry heaving a half hour before the fight. They think you walk in there like ‘Iron’ Mike Tyson, where you just go, ‘I got this, I’m gonna kill him.’ That’s not the way it is.
At the bell, it was Brazil’s Santos trying to play the Mike Tyson role, trying to end the fight with the first punch he threw, but Iannuzzi stayed out of trouble, and at 2:55 of the opening round, it was the “Rude Dog” getting the knockout victory.
“Maybe it’s not so bad to be my daughter, is it?” Iannuzzi asked Grace after the fight.
“Dad, it’s never been bad to be your daughter,” she responded.
The two hugged, Grace telling her hero, “Thank you for keeping your promise.”
Iannuzzi pauses, then continues.
“To have a 16-year-old daughter look at you with the affection that my daughter looks at me, there are probably better dads out there, but there aren’t luckier dads than me. I think it brought peace to her, but it also brought peace to me.”
With that, Paul Iannuzzi’s boxing career was over. Yeah, he’s still in the gym and he’s still going to get that itch, but coaching is just fine with him.
“It’s tough to put it down, it really is,” he said. “It’s like an old, comfortable shoe – it’s tough to get rid of them and get a new pair, but, for me, it’s totally different. I’m walking away and I’m happy with it because I made a promise to have the fight, but I also made a promise to never have another one. And I keep my word.”