East Side Story

Matt "The Predator" Vanda'a quest for boxing glory.
by Doug Frattallone
Spring 2003

“East side!”
“East side!”

These were the dominant chants of a Roy Wilkins Auditorium boxing crowd cheering on their hometown hero, Matt “The Predator” Vanda, a proud product of St. Paul's east side.

The setting is pure Hollywood: A smoke-filled venue, jammed with 4,700 fans cheering on a tattooed titan looking to keep his undefeated streak alive.

Ten rounds later, the 24-year-old Junior Middleweight wins a close decision over Atlanta's Homer Gibbins. While skeptics say Vanda got just a dash of home cookin' with the judges that January night, the winner vows he would've gotten the job done earlier had he not suffered a hand injury in the
second round.

“I guarantee I would have knocked him out before the beginning of the fifth round if I wouldn't have broke my hand,” said Vanda, now 27-0, with 18 knockouts.

“Most guys would have quit. I don't know many guys who would go eight rounds with a broken hand and my hand was broke bad. But you know what? I'm a warrior. I made it through the fight. I got the win. You quit the fight [and] you lose over a broken hand.”

Besides, Vanda says his trainer Tommy Brunette really didn't give him a choice; “I went back to the corner and I said, 'Tom, I think I broke my hand.' Tom said to me, 'Well, if it's broke it's not gonna get any worse, so you better keep using it.'”

And he did. Gibbins, a former World Boxing Federation (WBF) champ, would become the latest bit of road kill in The Predator's path, in a fight which featured snippets of smack talk, at least one rasslin' takedown and a litter of rabbit punches. “I think he was a dirty fighter,” Vanda said of Gibbins. “I didn't like the way he came at me one bit. He was hitting me in the nuts the whole fight. I hit him in the nuts one time on purpose just to say, hey, 'I know where you're coming from so keep it up and you'll be gettin' more.' And then I threw him to the mat in the last round.”

And when the 10th was over, Vanda would have his glove raised again. And yes, he's well aware of some critics (from Minneapolis, perhaps?) alleging hometown favoritism, a subject that solicits a hearty laugh when quizzed about it.

“I could care less,” Vanda chuckled. “Read the record: 27-0, 18 knockouts. If you can do better, jump in the ring.”

Vanda continues to wallop opponents.

In the months ahead, Vanda hopes to jump in the ring and paste the likes of Fernando Vargas and Oscar de la Hoya. They're two men who stand in his way of a title belt in his weight class. Trainer Brunette is confident his kid has the stuff, but is bringing him along slowly and would never put The Predator up against a fighter he didn't think he could beat. “Matt and I have been together since he was 12-years-old,” Brunette said. “I'd rather cut off one of my arms than see him hurt.”

In other words, Vanda won't be rushing into anything that resembles a quick payday. Brunette says his fighter has already been offered $200,000 to face a ranked contender, but turned it down. He wants to make sure The Predator is completely ready to win a title, which may not be until 2004. While that timetable might not satisfy the TV fight-junkie (or the ratings-hungry networks), both men — plus Tommy's business partner, brother Brian Brunette — say they'll call the shots, not East Coast money. They also want the fight spotlight to shine on St. Paul.

“Our goal is to bring a world championship fight to the Twin Cities,” said Brian, “St. Paul, preferably.”

Preferably the Xcel Energy Center, but if it's Roy Wilkins, that's okay with Vanda. It's in that intimate auditorium where he feels most at home.

“I like to hear 'east side!'” said the man from White Bear Avenue. “It's everyone from the hood gettin' back together, rockin'. For the most part, it's just like a big party. And on top of it, you get to watch professional boxing.”

Ah, the perks of admission; a party and a fight! Not to mention the showmanship of the boxer. He enters the ring to the rumble of live custom hogs (Tommy's idea), Harley's revved up to ear-piercing levels intended to rev up an already loud crowd. The boxer also sports an array of tattoos of which he's quite proud. “The Predator” is scrawled across his back, “Vanda” across his belly, the Notre Dame mascot on his shoulder. The famous leprechaun was his first tattoo, a birthday present from his mom when he turned 15. Over the years, more were added by one of Matt's best buddies, a tattoo artist. After every knockout, his pal offers The Predator free artwork. Call them everlasting symbols of victory.

“It's like a drug. It's kind of addicting, the tattoo's are,” Vanda said. “I love 'em.” And when he's 44? No tattoo regrets? “I'm gonna be lovin' 'em,” he responds. “I'm gonna be riding a Harley, kicking back, having a great time. I don't care what anyone thinks, I think they look good on me. I think for what I do, it brings out [my] character.”

Time for Pugilism Honesty 101: a good boxer is one thing, but a good boxer with character and charisma? Those types tend to stand out, and Vanda knows it. “TV would love to see a white champion,” he said, “one with charisma like me. People would buy that.”

Trainer Brunette says Vanda has had a winning combination of character and charisma since day one, pointing to an incident a few years back in Indianapolis. Vanda was 18, and was hanging out in the hotel lobby after a fight. Brunette says someone pulled him aside and said that Matt had knocked somebody out. With the official ring action long over, Brunette figured his kid might be
in trouble.

Actually, it was the other guy who was hurting. As the story goes, young Matthew saw a gentleman roughing up a lady in the lobby and wouldn't stand for it. As Tommy describes it: “Matt said, 'Hey man, what are you doing?' The guy said, 'None of your business.' Then boom, Matt knocked the guy cold. I mean, he knocked this guy out!”

It turns out the gentleman was allegedly a pimp and the lady was allegedly a hooker, but Vanda claims he never made that connection. He was just trying to do the right thing and protect the damsel in distress.

Indianapolis boxing promoter Fred Berns verifies the story, but wouldn't elaborate when pressed for the details. He just wanted to keep it simple, offering two quotes of note. One for the trainer: “Tommy's a pretty sharp guy.” And one for the boxer: “He's a tough kid.”

“When he walks into the ring, people know something's going to happen,” said promoter Brian Brunette. “Our job is to teach him how to fight.”

Which is up to Tommy, who still has the handwraps from Vanda's first fight. The old bandages are stored in a plastic bag, a grimy gift Brunette will give back to his franchise if the kid wins a title. A day they believe is coming soon to an arena near you. Says Tommy: “We have an agenda. We want him to be world champion.” Brian can only agree: “He won't be denied.”

The boxer, of course, gets the last word, a clear message to those in either the “East side!” or “Vaaan-da” camp: “We're gonna kick some ass together and win the title and bring it back to the east side of St. Paul.”