Unbeaten super lightweight Vernon Paris boxes with a bullet an inch from his spine
Unbeaten boxer Vernon Paris carries two bullets with him everywhere, a sobering reminder of how quickly a bad decision can turn into a life-threatening moment. He has no choice because the bullets are lodged in his groin and back, the latter so close to his spinal cord doctors won’t remove it.
A third bullet hit him squarely in the back of the head that day in 2006. Paris hit the ground in the back of an old, abandoned house on Detroit’s west side. He was disoriented, but looked up at the sky and realized he was still alive.
His first thoughts weren’t of fear, or dread, about the consequences of being shot multiple times. Rather, the promising young boxer was angry he hadn’t listened to his father.
“The first thing that popped into my head was, ‘Pops just told me not to hang with these people,’ ” he said. “He had just told me, and then I let them get me. I let them get me. I was hit in the back of the head, and I thought I was done, and I said to myself, ‘I should have listened to Pops.’ ”
Paris, 24, has survived a tumultuous life to make it to a point where, on Saturday in Brooklyn, N.Y., on the NBC Sports Network, he’ll fight ex-champion Zab Judah in a 12-round bout for the No. 1 contender’s spot at super lightweight.
It’s been quite a career. Paris is 26-0 with 15 knockouts and three no contests, moving him to within a win over Judah from getting a shot at the International Boxing Federation 140-pound title.
Carlos Llinas, who signed him to a promotional contract on the boxer’s 18th birthday, is convinced Paris’ indomitable will to win will lead him to a title. Llinas calls Paris his “Miracle Man,” and said every time he hears Paris speak, he thinks of some crazy episode or another from his life.
It’s a movie, waiting to be told, though it’s up to Paris now to give it the happy ending.
“You know, Vernon is a talented guy and if he came from different circumstances and had that powerful promoter and the connected people around him taking care of him, he’d already have a championship and done who knows what in boxing,” Llinas said. “We’ve had some very big fights, fighting on national TV and winning, and now we’re fighting to be No. 1 in the world.
“But the lows this kid has had, man. The lows were like nothing I’ve ever seen, or could imagined. Forget about getting close to getting the title, I can’t believe that Vernon is still here and talking to you today. That’s as big of a miracle as anything.”
It was July 25, 2006, and Paris was 18 years old. He was an unbeaten boxer with dreams of glory that seemed about to die with him in the back of a crumbling home in one of the country’s most notorious neighborhoods.
Paris had talent – lots of it – but there had always been questions about his dedication and commitment. He lived in one of the most crime-ridden areas in the country, where shootings are a way of life, and the police seemed powerless to stop it.
Llinas signed him amid a slew of skepticism.
“When I signed him, so many people came up to me and said, ‘Why would you do that? He’s going to be dead or in a jail cell in six months,’ ” Llinas said.
As it turns out, the skeptics were correct, or just about.
Only seven months after turning pro, Paris said he was lured to the abandoned home by two boxers he had handled fairly easily in sparring a bit earlier.
When he got there, he quickly realized he wasn’t making a social call. Other men were waiting for him. This was a set-up. Paris walked out the back door of the house and was shot in the center of the back of the head, about three inches above his hair line.
Several more shots were fired. Paris fell and braced for a series of bullets into his back that he figured would probably end his life.
But the shots never came. Paris looked up and saw the four men who had shot him running away.
And then it dawned on him, “I haven’t died.”
He moved his head ever so slightly as the bullet flew at him. The force of the bullet knocked him down, but because of the angle of his head, what should have been a lethal shot simply ricocheted away.
Paris lay on the ground a moment, then struggled to his feet, oozing blood. A second bullet struck in the center of his back, an inch or so from the spinal cord. A third bullet lodged in his groin, close to his scrotum.
Paris struggled to his feet and ran 13 blocks to his neighborhood. He went into the front door of a pharmacy and collapsed in a heap.
It was 45 minutes until an ambulance arrived to take Paris to a hospital.
“The details of this kid’s life are horrible, and when you hear about him being shot in the head and stabbed all over his body, those are only two incidents,” Llinas said. “There are so many things that have happened, we’d be here talking forever. I could tell you things that would curdle your blood, trust me.
“The details of his life are truly frightening, and tragic. That it could happen here in America, in Detroit, is appalling. The police haven’t done a thing about [the shooting]. The ambulance didn’t get there for 45 minutes with a young guy dying. Imagine that? … I’m from Colombia, and I never would have expected to see some of the things here I’ve seen. Never. In a third world country, yes. But not in America.”
Paris, though, is a fighter, and not just in the boxing ring. He wasn’t ready to die.
And so, he didn’t.
“I just didn’t want to pass out, because who knows what would have happened then, so I kept running,” Paris said of the aftermath of his shooting. “The whole time I was running, I kept thinking that bullet would come out of my head, come out my eyeball or something. I didn’t know what was going to happen.
“Once I made it to the [pharmacy], I pretty much wasn’t scared any more, because I knew it was in God’s hands and I knew He wasn’t going to let me die after I had made it that far.”
The bullets remain in his body and can’t be removed because of a risk of paralysis, a daily reminder of the night his life nearly ended before it truly began. He has trouble with his back and can’t, for instance, do sit-ups on a hard, flat surface, because it causes the bullet to move and creates pain.
He believes he’s in for a lifetime of pain because of it, but he says it’s all worth it. He has a 4-year-old daughter and his girlfriend is pregnant with twins, and he said he fights to try to give them a better life than he’s had.
“I’m going to have some [back] problems when I’m older or whatever, but I got to do what I got to do,” he said. “I got to win this title and take care of my family.”
Paris returned to fight just 45 days after being shot. His manager, Dave “Bing” Shumate, is a legend on the streets of Detroit and says, with a laugh, “I’m respected here… real respected.”
Shumate, 48, has been convicted of four felonies himself, but he gave Paris the best advice he may have received in his young life. Paris knew the guys who shot him, and he could have, and probably would have, set out for retribution.
Doing that, though, would have created a never-ending cycle of one-upping each other, with violence the main component. Shumate interceded and convinced him to forget about revenge.
“I spent my time in prison and I’m from the streets, but let me tell you something: I’m smart as hell,” Shumate said. “I told Vernon he had to forget about all this. This [shooting] happened because of jealousy. Them kids can’t box. …
“Vernon can fight. He has a special talent. I told him, ‘Look, focus on your career and not on getting even. Let the police do their job. You do yours.’ If Vernon focuses, he’s got the ability to win that title, to beat anyone. That’s the kind of guy he is.”
Paris listened to Shumate, but only for so long. On May 4, 2008, less than two years after he was shot, Paris was stabbed seven times.
A woman, who had come to his home with a man, plunged a knife into his back, his chest, his side and his abdomen. His lung was punctured, his liver sliced, his kidney stabbed.
Again, Paris seemed to be on borrowed time.
“My baby mama was in the house and she was six months pregnant with my daughter,” Paris said. “She had her four-year-old son. I’m in the house by myself. You know, I got to protect my home, so I opened the door. This dude was going crazy trying to grab me, bigger dude, so I swung on him. We got to tussling, but the whole time we’re tussling, his girl had pulled a knife out of her pocket and started stabbing me up.
“She stabbed me real good, too, and she finally got me that one real good one in my back. That’s the one where I almost passed out. I jumped off the porch. I grabbed my baby mama and my stepson and we ran down the street. I went to my neighbor’s house. I ended up collapsing on her couch and I waited for the ambulance to come then.”
Paris’ lung collapsed and he was struggling to breathe.
“I thought I was going to die that time,” Paris said.
No arrests were made in either case.
“It just kind of fell through the cracks,” said Mike Brudenell, a sports writer for the Detroit Free Press who has covered Paris’ career. “No one was killed and Vernon survived and nothing really happened.”
The stabbing kept Paris from the ring until November 2009. He’s gone 10-0 with four knockouts since the stabbing. These are heady times for a man who rightly should have been dead and gone years ago.
But he’s engaged Judah in a war of words and promised to stop him. He mocked Judah, a former world champion at 140 and 147 pounds, for getting knocked out by a body shot from Amir Khan in his last fight. Judah contends the punch was low, but Paris, like most observers, believes it was a legal punch.
It shows, he said, a big difference between the men.
“Zab got hit with a so-called low blow that everyone knows was a body shot and he wouldn’t get up from it,” Paris said. “I got shot three times and I got up a few seconds later and ran 13 blocks to get to where I lived. I was in the hospital for three days, stayed with my Mama for a month, got back in the gym the second month and the third month, I didn’t have one fight. I had two fights.
“I did that because I wasn’t going to let the haters win or keep me down and keep me from doing what God put me here for.”
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