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Vinny Pazienza switched the script. It was as if we shelled out six bucks to see a John Wayne movie but what we got was Fred Astaire. Not that you can blame Pazienza: The first two times he fought Greg Haugen, his nose was broken each time and he took a total of 24 stitches in the neighborhood of his left eye. But instead of the expected frontal assault, Pazienza chose to dance. "I didn't know you could score points with the fox-trot," growled Haugen, obviously distressed after losing to Pazienza Sunday afternoon at the Convention Center in Atlantic City.
Haugen, the ex-IBF lightweight champion who learned his trade smacking around lumberjacks and stevedores in the Gussie L'Amour Dance Hall & Saloon in Anchorage, Alaska, was with the majority in thinking that Pazienza once more was going to meet him in the trenches. That notion was reinforced just a half hour before the fight, when Pazienza braced Haugen in the men's room near their dressing quarters.
"Vinny starts shoving me and threatening me because of some things I said about him in a magazine article," said Haugen. "He says I'm going to pay in the ring. I told him, 'Fine, let's go do it.' He was trying to intimidate the wrong guy. I thought that meant we were going to have a fight."
Pazienza, who won the IBF title from Haugen in 1987 and then returned it to him the following year, both on 15-round decisions, had his own agenda for Sunday's 10-rounder. He began his career as a pure boxer, but after he knocked out his first 11 opponents with barrages of blows that earned him the nickname the Pazmanian Devil, finesse was forsaken. He became a hard-charging pit bull. As such, he and Haugen were made for each other. Both previous fights were hard fought to bloody endings and drew high television ratings. Their savagery was rewarded. For their second meeting, Pazienza was paid $375,000, Haugen $350,000. And on the strength of their two fights, both earned $425,000 paydays in other bouts, Pazienza in losing to Hector Camacho, Haugen in losing to Pernell Whitaker. This time, Pazienza got $150,000, Haugen $125,000.
"Without each other there is no way these guys could have made that kind of money," said promoter Dan Duva. "Their chemistry is great. They are just two tough kids who make great fights, the kind the public loves to see."
Except Pazienza went back to the chemistry lab and came up with a less volatile formula. It wasn't that he minded slugfests; he just hated losing them.
"There's a better way," he said in a Trump Plaza suite a few days before the fight. "People forget that when I started out, I was a mover, a flashy boxer. But the knockouts started coming, and I got away from that. No more. I'm still strong. I can still knock out a guy. But I'm going back to a lot of movement, a lot of speed, a lot of flash. This isn't just another fight for me. I've got to win. There is no way I should lose if I box him. If I do lose, then I've got a serious problem."
After 30 rounds of war, Haugen was obviously perplexed by Pazienza's hit-and-run strategy. He lost four of the first five rounds, although he did draw blood from above Pazienza's right eye. Each taunted the other, without telling effect, although Pazienza did show up for the sixth round with more bull than butterfly. As Pazienza stood his ground, Haugen found his jab, a piercing weapon, and he won the next three rounds easily.
With the fight even after eight rounds, Duva groaned. "One thing I don't want to see is a draw," he had said earlier. "Those officials had better find a winner. There isn't going to be a Haugen-Pazienza IV."
Pazienza made it easy for Duva and the officials by reverting to the successful flash-and-speed strategy. At one point Haugen, who also opened two slices over Pazienza's left eye, stopped and shouted, "Damn it, are you going to run or fight?" Pazienza laughed, ran on and won the last two rounds, and the fight, on all three official cards. One warrior had beaten another warrior in a footrace. A winner in the series had been declared. Still, you couldn't help but sense that something was wrong. It was Pazienza's nose. It wasn't broken.