Growing Up as Matt Vanda
Amidst the rumble of Harleys and chants of “East Side”, Matt “The Predator” Vanda enters the arena, pumped to get in the ring. It’s a bold entry, no doubt, and venues like Madison Square Garden are a long way from St. Paul’s East side. Yet somehow The Predator is right at home, like that is where he’d always belonged.
Then again, some lines don’t blur so easily.
Born in Mesa, Arizona, Vanda moved to St. Paul when he was only a couple years old. When we sat down he recalled hearing a lot of sirens from the police cars, fire trucks, and ambulances. But they never bothered him.
“There was always stuff going on. It was a fun time growing up. It was a blue collar neighborhood.” Vanda reminisced.
He liked the neighborhood so much that he didn’t leave. He now lives one house down from his mother, Lili, in St. Paul. They call him The Pride of the East Side. I’m not going to dispute that.
When Vanda was twelve he played football with a nephew of one of the nationally-known Flanagan brothers. The brothers were credited with helping to put Minnesota on the map in the boxing world. When Vanda’s young friend said he was going to the gym to try boxing, he invited Vanda to come along and try it, too.
It didn’t work out for his friend. Vanda fell in love.
“I liked all the activity; the head gear, the gym, all of it. I would watch from the window for my mom to come home from work. Then I’d run out to the car with my gym bag and beg her to take me to the gym.” And how could Lili refuse?
Vanda was being exposed to a great sport that involved minimal financial commitment. Perhaps that is why boxing is such a draw for typically blue collar neighborhoods. It doesn’t require a lot of time or money from parents, and it teaches youth respect and dedication.
Just ask Chuck Horton, Duluth, Minnesota boxing coach and trainer. He ran a program up north that worked with troubled youth and taught them boxing…and life lessons. Currently run as Jungle Boy Boxing with former Pro boxer Zach “Jungle Boy” Walters in the lead, the gym doesn’t turn away anyone because of inability to pay. Life lessons, in the ring and out.
When asked about bullying, Vanda is quick to voice his opinion.
“I hate that shit. It makes me sick!” He admits to having a few fights outside the ring, lunchroom antics that boys tend to get involved in, but nothing major. However he did step in a few times when he saw other kids getting picked on.
A scrappy underdog. It’s no wonder the kid went pro at seventeen.