By Lynn Saternow
Herald Sports Editor
Undefeated former world champion boxer Paul Spadafora carries a mean punch, but even if he knocks you out, he does so with love!
That’s because the multi-tattooed, tough guy has the word “LOVE” etched on his knuckles. And that word appears to be quite big when he makes a fist as he did for show during an appearance at the outpatient therapy services at Sharon Regional Health System on Wednesday.
Spadafora’s appearance was a follow-up to knee surgery performed by Dr. Keith Lustig recently at the Sharon hospital.
Lustig, a Hickory High grad who recently returned to the area after many years of working in Erie, repaired and cleaned up torn meniscus (cartilage) in Spadafora’s knee. It’s a process that would take a few months or recovery a few decades ago, but the 41-0 boxer should be ready to go full speed in a couple of weeks, Lustig said.
“It’s not a common injury in boxing,” the sports medicine specialist said. “It’s not as common in boxing as it is in some other sports.”
Spadafora, known as “The Pittsburgh Kid” has had a checkered past. While he’s been perfect in the ring as a pro, even winning the I.B.F. world lightweight championship, he’s been far from that outside the square.
He’s spent time in jail, including a stint for shooting his girlfriend, and has had drug and alcohol problems. But as his knee was being worked on by physical therapist Susan Miller Wednesday, he said that’s all behind him.
“I’m a new man,” he said. “I want to win another world title.”
Spadafora fought April 25 in Erie, easily defeating an overmatched Shad Howard. He’s scheduled to fight again July 26 in Indianapolis, Ind.
“We don’t know the opponent yet,” said Mike Acri, long-time Erie fight promoter who handles Spadafora. “We have a list of about 5 or 6 possible opponents.”
Acri, who formerly handled Sharon area fighters Glenn and Dave Odem, said it’s difficult to fight fights for his talented fighter, who has moved up to the junior welterweight class and may even move up to welterweight “because that’s where the big-money fighters are.”
“Besides being a great fighter, Paul is a southpaw so a lot of people don’t want to fight him.”
Spadafora is a popular draw with the fans and has appeared several times on HBO Boxing.
“I started fighting when I was 12 and I had my first fight when I was 13,” said Spadafora. “My whole family fought. My brother Harry got me into fighting. My dad fought. It kind of runs in the family.”
Spadafora, although not tall, was also a very good basketball player in his younger days. He once scored 45 points in a junior high game. He also has somewhat local ties to Hickory since he played with Justin Stright — son of former Hickory High star J.O. Stright — at Shaler High as a freshman before transferring to Langley in intercity Pittsburgh.
Lustig had looked over some hand fractures before on Spadafora and has done surgery on other fighters in Acri’s stable over the years. The pair became friends about 27 years ago when both were embarking on their careers. The former Hickory High football player and wrestler did some ring physician work for Acri on local fights.
Then Lustig got the call for bigger and better things.
“After the (Roberto) Duran ‘No Mas’ fight where he quit, Mike promoted his comeback — the ‘Uno Mas’ fight in Vegas,” said Lustig. “It was 1989. I remember the year because I was driving to watch Hickory in the state football championship game when I got a call.
“Mike asked me if I could come to Vegas to be his personal physician for the fight. He made the arrangements, so I flew out.”
And while Lustig has worked on several fighters during the years since, he also has helped many other athletes return to their sports after injuries. He served as medical director of Hamot Medical Center’s Sports Medicine Center in Erie, yet still found time to do some assistant coaching in football in high school and college (Thiel).
Since returning to the Shenango Valley and joining Dr. Ernest Swanson in the Orthopaedic Center of Western Pennsylvania in Hermitage last year, he has already worked on injuries of several local high school athletes.
While none are as famous as Spadafora yet, who knows? You can bet the love their sports just as much, although they don’t show it on their knuckles.
By Lynn Saternow