Tuesday, Jan. 20, 1998 | 3:49 a.m.
It seemed like fun at the time.
As a professional fighter, Vince Phillips had a few dollars. He was young and also relatively new to Las Vegas.
There were drugs around and the drugs, for him at least, inevitably led to women.
He was having a big time.
Until the inevitable crash landing, sparked in part by a six-month suspension by the Nevada State Athletic Commission for testing positive for cocaine. Even more influential, however, was a feeling he had gone astray and a belief it was time for repentance.
"I was hearing the spirit call me back," Phillips said. "I was hearing my God saying 'Come home.' I told my son's mother I was going to clean up my life and start going to (therapeutic) meetings."
It was May 16, 1993.
Today, still street-wise yet reverential, Phillips is the International Boxing Federation's junior welterweight world champion. In a city with probably a hundred aspiring boxers and maybe half that many accomplished ones, he is Las Vegas' only true world champion.
"I have a conscious contact with the God of my understanding," he said. "I'm not a religious person per se, but I believe in the spirit. My goal is to be who I am and stay strong within myself."
Nine years ago this month he moved to Las Vegas from his native Pensacola, Fla., and his goals were far more diverse. Publicly, he talked of becoming a world champion. Privately, his conditioning habitually lagged as he chased the dragon, the lure of crack cocaine.
"I never felt I was a real addict," he said. "But that doesn't mean I didn't get hooked. They call crack "butter" or "comeback" because once you get into it, you always want to come back to it."
He's glib, matter-of-fact about his incentives as he was running the streets of downtown Las Vegas in the early 1990s. While his best friend preferred to get crack and stay home to a world of seclusion and virtual solitude, Phillips found the drug an easy stepping-stone toward sexually active women.
The party was on.
"I was always looking to be with a female when I got high," he said, "and they were always easy to find."
Now he's engaged to Yvette Alicea and they have a May 31 wedding planned. The two live together with three children.
"I really don't have thoughts about getting high very often," Phillips said. "But I have on occasion, and, when I do, I ask God to bless me and to help me think of something else."
These days he can pause and consider the many positives in his life, including his rising stature in boxing. In what may have been the 1997 upset of the year, he overcame a bad cut near his right eye to knock out then-champion Kostya Tszyu in the 10th round of their May 31 fight in Atlantic City.
Tszyu, supposedly a superstar in the making, was ambushed in his sixth title defense and is angling for a rematch in Australia that will assure Phillips of his first seven-figure payday.
Phillips, 38-3 with an impressive 27 wins by knockout, has fought twice since defeating Tszyu, taking Mickey Ward out in three rounds Aug. 9 and stopping Freddie Pendleton with a TKO-10 Dec. 13.
His next bout is scheduled for March 14 against Alfonso Sanchez, with the site yet to be determined. HBO will televise.
"Vince has different types of expectations now," said his manager, Akbar Muhammad. "He has different interests to protect. But he'll do it; he's very conscious of what he has to do and that's what will keep him on top."
Professionally, he knows he can't afford to lose with the lucrative rematch with Tszyu on the horizon.
"Oscar De La Hoya can lose and still get a seven-figure fight," Phillips said. "(Julio Cesar) Chavez can lose and still get six or seven figures. But that's not the case with me. If, God forbid, I lose -- and I don't think I will -- I may not ever see another six-figure fight, let alone seven."
So he works at training, works on keeping his weight near the 140-pound limit where he has never been defeated, works on his focus.
"Being a champion, you can't let down," he said. "Not that I let down personally, but you have to avoid problems and things that discourage you. A distraction can cause your mind to play the wrong tune at the wrong time."
Phillips, 34, has a mind that tosses vivid premonitions at him.
For instance, prior to Muhammad re-entering his life and presenting him with the opportunity to fight Tszyu last year, Phillips was overcome with the belief he would win a red belt and all but spontaneously jump into the arms of a black man. It was a dream he had again and again.
"The red belt, I didn't know what that was," he said. "And the black man I didn't know, because I didn't have someone like that in my camp at the time. But the vision was so real, it was overwhelming."
Moments after knocking out Tszyu so convincingly the referee didn't even start a count, Phillips leapt into the arms of Muhammad and a few minutes later was presented the red IBF championship belt.
Call it a dream come true.
He had another one just last week, one he also trusts will prove to have a semblance of reality to it.
"I was in the car, sort of looking around, deep in thought," he said. "I was stopped at a light and I looked and saw this star. To me, it was the spirit telling me I was going to be a star, as long as I keep my head on my shoulders and give all praise to God."
Stardom was a distant concept not only when Phillips was abusing drugs but even after he initially cleaned up. Anthony Jones, not a particularly big puncher, handed him a TKO loss Nov. 18, 1993; world champion Ike Quartey, who is a big puncher, beat him in three rounds April 12, 1996; and Romallis Ellis, a well-schooled journeyman, took a 10-round decision over him Jan. 11, 1997.
Phillips uses a parable of sorts to explain the setbacks.
"The first loss I wasn't using drugs but I still had a lot of druggies around me," he said. "I lost, but I resisted drugs and that was strike one for the devil.
"The second loss I just shot my wad with a slugger and got stopped. No excuses. But I didn't go get high and that was strike two for the devil.
"The third loss, where I got robbed and still didn't go back to drugs, I struck the devil out.
"That brought me around to Tszyu, and I was up to bat and the devil threw a serious strike and I clocked it right back out of the ballpark."
He's still circling the bases, cautious yet euphoric.
"I don't let my good fortune go to my head," he said. "Being a world champion has put me on a higher plateau, but I accept it for what it is."
Muhammad says Phillips will stay on that plateau if not advance to a higher one.
"Everything relating to Vince is clicking at once," he said. "Physically, spiritually and mentally, he's right there. Besides, as a fighter he's a throwback to the old days, which is good. He has an old-time fighter's mentality."
All this from a man who, just a few years ago, was a young fighter with bad habits. The path he was on inevitably would have prematurely aged him.
"After I quit doing drugs I went to 80 (counseling) meetings in 90 days," Phillips said. "I looked at it as church, as if I had to go like when I was a kid and my mother made me go not only to church but to Sunday school too.
"But I went. I did it. I poured my heart out at those meetings."
He's still pouring it out in many respects, a living reminder that it's never too late to reverse course.
"I'm on a mission," he said. "I'm blessed as a champion, but it's when I'm done with this career that I'll get my real reward. I'm not sure how, but I can't help but feel God will use me as his tool in something far bigger than boxing."