The golden shadow always seems to be there, hovering over Fernando Vargas.

It was there when he was putting together one of the finest amateur careers ever assembled.  It was there when he moved into the professional ranks, winning world titles and moving ferociously through fighter after fighter. It has been there through good times and bad, through victories and defeats.

And it was there Saturday night in Chicago.

Vargas is trying to pick up all the pieces of his battered professional career and put them back in all the right places. On the surface, it all still looks pretty good. The man is 26-2, sending 22 of those fighters to bed early. But, at 27, Fernando Vargas has had to deal with all the injuries and headaches and real life dramas that every man on the street must face.

Saturday night Vargas put on a methodical boxing clinic for many of the 10 rounds. He worked his jab, sticking it in Javier Castillejo’s face with some spice. He worked the body, digging in and doing the hard grunt work that it takes to go downstairs. And he utilized some solid defense, moving his feet, moving his head and picking off Castillejo punches with his gloves.

In the end, Michael Buffer read the scores … scores that even a novice judge could have come up with — 97-92, 97-92, 98-91. It was not a shutout, but it was an easy victory for the Oxnard, Calif., fighter.

He should have been happy … right?

No.

It was a subdued fighter who talked with HBO’s Larry Merchant afterward. His left jaw was swollen, maybe broken. His spirit seemed to be riding with that jaw.

When Merchant asked him if the jaw was broken, he responded with a shrug: “Maybe. Oh well.”

When asked to grade himself, Vargas said, “An F. I felt bad. I didn’t feel good from round one. I felt slow.”

Anything good about this fight?

“I was able to still work on some of the things, even though I wasn’t feeling the way I should.”

Even there in the ring, when it was all over — this win that was less than fun, less than satisfying — the golden shadow hovered above the man.

Oscar De La Hoya seems to have always been the Vargas nemesis. The two men grew up in the Los Angeles area, each with outstanding lefts, each with thunder in their right mitts, each with adoring fans, each with outstanding amateur careers.

But De La Hoya has always been out there, a step ahead. He won gold in Barcelona in 1992. Despite a 100-5 amateur ledger, Vargas lost a decision — albeit a controversial decision — in the second round of the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. Advantage De La Hoya.

The two had parallel professional careers in the early going and Vargas was always in pursuit of that golden shadow. But you know how that goes. Can you ever land a good combination on a shadow?

Finally, finally, finally Vargas got his chance. It was the moment of moments in his career. Face to face with the golden shadow. It was a chance to shoo away the shadow, to emerge as the No. 1 man in Los Angeles, in California, in the hearts of all those many, passionate Mexican-American fight fans. And Vargas fought well. He might have been winning early. He was always in the fight — until talented the Golden Boy ended it with an 11th round TKO.

Vargas has always taken pride in being a true warrior. He once said they would have to carry him out on his shield. They have almost done that twice — first against Felix Trinidad, then that night against De La Hoya.

But the psyche of Fernando Vargas was damaged far worse than his flesh and bones in those losses.

The golden shadow lurked over him and still hovers there.

Vargas, under the tutelage of Danny Smith, is trying to be a better fighter, a smarter fighter. Yet the crowd in Chicago Saturday night wanted the old warrior back.

At one point, Smith told Vargas in his corner, “You’re making a war out of this. Don’t worry about the bleepin’ crowd. You turn. You jab. You turn. You jab.”

And, to his credit, Vargas followed orders.

When it was over, he told Merchant, “They (the fans) want me to go to war and I’m not about to do that.”

He said he is his own worst critic, that he should just be content to win this fight and hope to feel better, look better in the next one. He said he wants to fight again before the spring.

And then that golden shadow was almost visible.

Spring, of course, is the time of awakenings, of a rebirth, of new beginnings. This spring, of course, is a time when Vargas hopes to get another shot at his career-long nemesis, De La Hoya. Perhaps the two will stage a Cinco de Mayo duel in L.A. It would sell. And it would give Vargas another chance to eliminate that shadow.

It is most certainly still there.

“This is the first time I’ve fought at 154 since I fought Oscar,” he said Saturday night. “Oscar’s a Hall of Famer, a great world champion. He says publicly he will fight me and that shows what kind of champion he is.”

It also shows that golden shadow still hovers there.

Is Fernando Vargas learning new aspects to his trade, aspects that will make him more equipped to trade body shots with a shadow? Impossible to say. Only time will tell us that.

Perhaps, in the end, Vargas should let the shadow go away, be happy with a strong, financially successful career and be happy with being loved by so many passionate fight fans. If he could let that cloud go, life might be a little easier and a little happier.

And, who knows? Maybe if he could let that golden shadow drift away, he could enjoy that moment in May simply for what it is — an interesting fight between a pair of well-loved former champions.