If all goes according to schedule, Viviana Vanda will make her entrance into the world Oct. 31. As Matt Vanda anticipates the birth of his second daughter, he is continuing his own rebirth, from a boxer who contemplated retirement a year ago to a person fully immersed in his second act as an athlete and as a man.
The tattooed bad boy from St. Paul's East Side has seen some of the rough edges smoothed by life's milestones: his marriage last month, his 30th birthday next month, his status as stay-at-home dad to a growing family. He is still a fighter, in every sense of the word. Once on top of the local boxing world with a 31-0 record, Vanda's status took a hit as he lost five of eight bouts over the past two years. But he was unable to walk away, and his perseverance won him a chance to redefine himself in the ring.
After Saturday's fight against Dezi Ford at Treasure Island Casino in Red Wing, Vanda will prepare for his Las Vegas rematch against Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. Vanda's second shot at the son and namesake of the legendary six-time world champion will come four months after Vanda lost a gritty split decision to Chavez and one day after Vanda's wife, Cyndi, is due to give birth.
"Everything in my life is going great," said Vanda, the co-headliner of a Treasure Island card that also includes Anthony Bonsante, Wilton Hilario and Raphael Butler. "A year ago, I didn't know how much longer I wanted to do this. I had to step away and think about it.
"I decided I wasn't ready to be done yet, because boxing has been pretty good to me. I feel very blessed."
The guy known as "The Predator" now enjoys yard work and fatherhood. He delights in playing games and doing puzzles with Gabriella Grace, 4, and shuttling her to and from preschool in between his training sessions.
Those have gotten more serious, too. Like many athletes stretching their careers over time, Vanda began to recognize the value of keeping his body in prime condition. A personal trainer designs workouts that have given Vanda greater strength and endurance, while sparring partner Cerresso Fort keeps him sharp in the ring.
About the time Gabriella was born, Vanda experienced his first losses since he turned pro at age 17. An undefeated record built over eight years ended in his 32nd fight, when Vanda was knocked out by Armando Velardez in 2004. He rebounded to beat Luis Campas for his first title -- the International Boxing Association Americas light middleweight belt -- a year later.
Vanda already had begun talking about retiring for a quieter existence in the construction trades. But he kept getting offered decent fights with decent paydays, prompting him to stay in the ring. Every time he lost -- including decisions against local fighters Bonsante, Kenny Kost and Andy Kolle -- he pondered retirement again, only to remain with the sport he has practiced since age 12.
"I've had ups and downs in my career," Vanda said. "Sometimes, I needed to think about where I was at, what I wanted. Every time, I thought, 'I still love this sport.' As long as I can stay healthy, make good money and win, I want to keep fighting."
Age and experience has made Vanda a smarter boxer, one who relies more on guile and strategy than raw power. Vanda said he understands how to set the tempo, avoid getting hurt and roll with the momentum shifts in a bout.
He handled Chavez Jr. unexpectedly well in their first matchup last July. The highly ranked Mexican entered the fight in his home country with a 36-0-1 record. He exited with a victory by split decision, as fans who felt Vanda was robbed booed and hurled beer into the ring.
Vanda got in lots of shots late in the fight and said it ranked among the best performances of his career. The two will meet again Nov. 1 at Mandalay Bay Casino. He's hoping Viviana might arrive a little late, so he can be home for her birth. Besides, he understands now that life's greatest gifts are worth the wait.
"I knew I could beat Chavez, because I've become a better fighter with age," Vanda said. "I really wanted that fight, and I've worked hard for the rematch.
"I know there is a time when every fighter comes to the end. But I feel so good right now. I'm living the dream."
Rachel Blount • email@example.com