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It’s the greatest story never told, at least that’s what legendary director Martin Scorsese has said.
Vinny Pazienza, a five-time world champion boxer in three different weight divisions, suffered a broken neck in a car accident that required him to make a decision: Choose spinal fusion surgery that would end his boxing career but guarantee he could walk again or opt for a medieval-like halo literally screwed into his skull that would allow his body to heal naturally but only if he could avoid banging into anything for six months.
Pazienza chose the halo.
While there might be better sports stories never told – sports documentary makers are routinely attempting to make the case on all platforms – it is hard to image a better sports comeback story.
When Ben Younger was approached about possibly directing a movie chronicling Pazienza’s journey, he was moved by the boxer’s story. But Younger spot-checked his instincts by consulting the man who directed arguably the greatest boxing movie of all time in “Raging Bull.”
Scorsese, who had never before heard Pazienza’s story, reviewed the pitch and was so impressed he signed on to be an executive producer.
Friday “Bleed for This,” which traces Pazienza’s jagged career arc, opens in theaters nationally. It’s a film that punches above its weight, even against Hollywood’s formidable collection of boxing movies.
“Nobody knows this story,” explains Younger, who admits he’s not much of a boxing fan. “Even boxing fans who sort of remember say it is a vague memory.”
There’s nothing vague about the gritty performances of Miles Teller as Pazienza and Aaron Eckhart as his trainer Kevin Rooney. While most don’t know Pazienza or his story, many boxing fans will remember Rooney, who trained Mike Tyson to a 35-0 streak in the mid-1980s but later fell on hard times due to a drunk-driving arrest.
The in-your-face chemistry between the two characters is a highlight, as is Teller’s believability as a boxer in looks, psyche and technique. Eckhart is compelling as a man still fighting the drink while holding steady to his unorthodox methods to train his boxer over Pazienza’s father’s objections.
Younger watched all of Pazienza’s professional title bouts and many other fights by the man who was the pride of Providence, R.I. But Younger says the best material came from archival footage of family videos – and there are both touching and funny family scenes throughout the movie as proof.
“I most appreciated the three to four minutes [of the family videos] during which the camera was rolling before the party started,” says Younger. “I got to [see] the love between family members and the little things they did for each other, especially what his parents did for Vinny when he was wearing the halo. Those family videos are gold.”
Ultimately, though, the story hinges on the choice Pazienza made: the halo.
Now in his 50s and a consultant on the movie, Pazienza admits that he can’t believe he chose the halo. How that decision turned out is a journey “Bleed for This” navigates beautifully.