Vince Phillips: Fighting For Love of the Game

07.12.05 - By Gabriel DeCrease: Sadly, a man of extraordinary courage who steps into the ring resolute with passion for the brutal give-and-take of the sweet science does not ensure victory by his purity of spirit. Often, such gladiators are pounded into submission by the younger, stronger, better trained, or more naturally gifted fighters who may not understand or embrace the cardinal vitality of the fight.

However, on occasion, a fighter’s mettle, his fighting core, carries him to victory in the face of tremendous adversity. And it seems every time I have let Vince Phillips fade from my mind, he resurfaces in another situation so like the one I have described, and sheds another burst of light onto his day in the arena, which has been at its dusk for some years.

Approaching middle-age and coming off what seemed to be the last bumpy stretch of a long and laborious career, Vince “Cool” Phillips found himself at that well-treaded fork in the fighting road. He could continue taking risky beatings as a name-trialhorse for nervy prospects. Most guys that do so end up going home with bigger bruises and smaller paychecks until the scar tissue far outweighs the take. It is in this way that so many once-great fighters are broken; when the body will not follow the lead of a brave spirit. Philips other option was retirement. He had nothing left to prove. So he went out and won a tough technical decision over the highly-touted Brazilian puncher Kelson Pinto.

So why has Vince Phillips chosen to fight on into his forties?

And, moreover, why is there so much fight left in the old dog?

The answer, pretty clearly, is that Philips is going on because he looked inside himself in a moment of naked singularity and saw there were a few fights and a little fire left in his battered body that bears all the proudest scars of the veteran.

Looking back at his career, it can be said that Phillips was a solid fighter, a game fighter, and a dedicated one who stayed in the game and took tough fights no matter the odds or the situation. However he was not a great fighter. He was not blessed with that raw athletic ability that made legends like Ray Robinson, Joe Louis, Willie Pep, and Carlos Monzon. Accordingly, he was wiped out by a deadly, peaking Ike Quartey in his first shot at a world title. And shortly thereafter, dropped a decision to a razor-sharp Romalis Ellis who fought the fight of his life before self-destructing in a series of decisive losses.

Vince Phillips had a solid punch and could move and breathe in a ring, but was neither a devastating puncher nor a speed demon. He could be beaten at any point in his career by a natural, by a guy with that champion quality, but only if that great fighter fought a good fight. Vince Philips was that guy that waited for his shots, and ate leather, and hung in losing battles until his moment came. Sometimes it took several fights to come, but when it did he took the occasion to seize it. He came back just when you counted him out of a fight, or of the fight game.

After that second loss, to Ellis, the boxing public started to turn on Phillips and wonder if he would ever come close enough to see the shine on a world title belt. He was seemingly hand-picked then to begin his run as a mid-grade name-opponent by getting belted out by champion Kostya Tszyu who was looking to tune-up and show-off before tackling the top guys at 140-pounds. Phillips kept the fight tight, waited Kostya out and saw his spot and knocked Tszyu out in the 10th round. Philips was a world champion, and officially an upset artist. In addition to the IBF junior-welterweight strap, he was awarded The Ring Magazine’s “Upset of the Year Award”.

He went on to defend successfully three times, most-notably against the then-formidable Mickey Ward. Things were going well, and then Phillips was cold-cocked and clocked-out by Terron Millet who got to him basically by being fresher. Philips looked worn out in that fight, and again there were rumblings that he was on the downside of his career. Soon after, a young and sharp Vernon Forrest outboxed him all the way to a unanimous decision blowout. Forrest was an average talent for a highly-regarded world champion, but had more than enough to get over on Phillips as long as he didn’t drop the ball, and he didn’t. Phillips could never match a top notch fighter who didn’t make a mistake. Philips was a keen observer and quick to capture opportunities because he knew his own limitations, and thus sometimes transcended them.

Phillips looked even more stale and threadbare when he lost a majority decision to “Sucre” Ray Oliveira that seemed generous in that it wasn’t a more decisively scored figth. Phillips won a few fights, and then lost a one-sided match to Sharmba Mitchell himself was already slowing down when he outhustled Vince. It seemed that Philips’ career could not amble on much longer.

Then, somehow, he went the distance with Ricky Hatton. Did he get unquestionably blown out? Yes. But in going the distance and punching to the last bell Phillips showed a spark that ought to have been long-faded in that fight. He seemed to be tapping his fighting heart for all it was worth, having largely given up on everything else.

He slugged out a split-decision loss to Alex Bunema, and despite being a year older since taking Hatton to the cards, Philips looked energized. He looked more than happy to be in the ring. He looked, confident, which ought to have been impossible.

And so months later, after squashing Mauro Lucero, Phillips’ last gasp turned into a deep breathe that carried him over Kelson Pinto who was coming back strong from a knockout loss to Miguel Cotto. Philips boxed cleanly and with a tremendous zeal. He floored Pinto in the second, and won a technical decision when the fight was halted in the fifth-round because of an unintentional, yet horrific collision of heads.

So what does Vince Phillips want now?

In his own words, “I know there's one more shot for me out there. I want to put an exclamation point on my career, and go into the Hall of Fame.”

The safe money rests on Vince Phillips losing the next time he tangles with a younger or quicker guy. And the temptation is to bet big that he will never find himself more than a visitor in Canastota. But then again how many wagered their bankroll that he would take the hard goodbye from Kostya Tszyu or Mickey Ward. I lost the better part of a car payment to a bookmaker when he upset Kelson Pinto, and, despite the loss, it was a much finer thing to see Vince Phillips win, if not one more time.

Article posted on 07.12.2005

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