Fernando Vargas, father, clothing entrepreneur, philanthropist, and former world champion boxer has another alias these days: Man on a Mission. Right when Vargas felt certain of overtaking Shane Mosley down the stretch of their February, 2006 Mandalay Bay Resort punch-up, his eye swelled to Rahman vs. Holyfield proportions, the ultimate statement upon the resumption of a top flight fistic career blindsided by Joe Cortez’s adjudicating discretion, a tough irony given that the WBA title eliminator had tightened to a dead heat with two fateful rounds to go. For Fernando Vargas, as blunt and blood and guts a guy as Arturo Gatti has ever been, those two un-materialized rounds represent the essence of his remaining career in boxing: short, critical timeframes to do what god and will demand of him.
It seems like throughout the 21st Century the Ferocious One has been living on a knife edge. Yet for all of his mercurial moments as a professional fighter, few in boxing have grappled with as much adversity, shone as brilliantly or left his adoring fans as perplexed, all after having waged just twenty-nine fights. Vargas’ life has been short and eventful and seemingly always tinged with outrageous happenstance. One might also suggest that the hero of Oxnard, California remains as likeable a controversial figure as there has been over the last twenty years in boxing. Failing a mandatory post-title fight drug test for Stanozolol after his blood lusting mega bout with Oscar De La Hoya – the war of Mexican-American fighting icons – pawing his way to a pedantic 10 round nod over Raymond Joval or blazing to a signature career championship victory over the brilliant Ike Quartey, Vargas makes a habit of defying the logic of reasonable expectation.
And it has been the ebbing defeats coming upon punctuating brilliance that has defined his odyssey within the upper echelons of the sport of boxing. His nine month suspension following the De La Hoya fight actually heightened his popularity, in some circles, as if the symbolism of his street smart bad boy risk taker image had been verified, confirmed by a competitively villainous – small ‘v’ – compunction to push the margins of the acceptable. Now of course, Vargas seems more a homebody than a homeboy, his purposefulness as much economic as egotistical as his tries to brand himself via his Nawshis clothing line more than billboarding his body with the tattoos of provocative display. Mature as a man of means, he sees himself for the final time a jr. middleweight set to reverse the course of a stalled boxing career, before pushing on to the full-blown matters he sees awaiting him at middleweight.
Living a life of achievement, certainly in America, you have to think big, dreams force-fed to the wide-eyed masses endlessly awaiting stimulation. Vargas gets the entire project of being somebody, reaching to attain, gaining to profit and ensuring legacies to provide for those who dare to come after you. All of that Vargas gets; he understands where he resides in the big picture. In the specific terms of boxing, his essential profession of dedicated conscience, he’s not about to let himself slip into the background, not just yet.
When it comes to this passionate, flawed man – considering the past or present tense – most boxing fans tend to think the best of him, wanting to give him the benefit of the doubt, offering freely a kind of suspension of disbelief, generally wishing him only good fortune. He may not always agree with that hypothesis – he’s so often projected his own brooding doubt on the boxing media who have largely tried to understand his idiosyncrasies – but, short of empirical data to the contrary, it certainly helps to comprehend the diffuse elements of character, action and intention that makes up the self-labeled Aztec Warrior.
The phases of Fernando Vargas’s career now seem to have melded one into the other, safe within timelines and clichés, though those do not always fill in adequate detailing for comprehensive understanding. One cliché does hold truth and perspective: Fernando Vargas has done it all and he’s not yet reached thirty or indeed twenty-nine years. Though 2006 means he’s been a professional for a decade, he’s only managed to hold mind and body together for six fights since 2002. The critical juncture of his savage bout with all-time great Felix Trinidad, in December of 2000, has been a debilitating nexus to get beyond for Vargas. Was that the turning point in his championship career? Many in boxing assess his having been so brutally damaged in the Trinidad fight and then to have also suffered a considerable battering in losing to De La Hoya as proof positive that we have, sadly, seen the best of Vargas come and go.
During his December 12, 2003 fight with Tony Marshall Vargas suffered a major disc injury to his back. Deciding to employ extensive therapy rather than undergo surgery, his August 20, 2005 right hand fracture during his ten-round unanimous decision victory over Javier Castillejo seemed to stall the gradual positive momentum Vargas and his trainer Danny Smith felt the former jr. middleweight king had been making by 2005. Then, as if providential, Shane Mosley agreed to be a willing participant in the WBA title box-off and thus a reason to put in the extended road work and dietary discipline to remain below the 154 pound threshold. Heading into 2006, at 28, Fernando Vargas with only two professional losses was looking for a foothold in top flight boxing and championship relevance where the big money justifies the ultimate sacrificial offerings and mercenary inspirations. Yet even losing to Mosley his heroism remained intact, the fans still craving more from Fernando Vargas, still interested in his explorations in the ring.
It seems ages ago that Vargas turned pro, catapulted by an astonishing 100-5 amateur record; Vargas from the get-go was a Main Events star in the making, one of Lou Duva’s can’t miss protégé prodigies. His seventeen straight stoppages famously included his annexing Luis Ramon “Yory Boy” Campas’ IBF 154-pound title. Ready to astonish and entertain, Vargas came at us with a pugnacious excitement, the designer haired man-child admitting to interviewers he was living out his dream with every conquest. Such was his heightened sense of destiny as inevitability glinting gold and silver from around his shock absorbing neck. When he climbed into the ring and surpassed the defensive mastery of “Winky” Wright, three days shy of his twenty-second birthday, only Oscar De La Hoya and Felix Trinidad seemed noble enough for the glorious burden of his propitious stardom.
For all of the hype we might indulge in just thinking of Vargas, mainly a contender now, he’s looked vulnerable for years, never quite fighting at the frightening pace or with the punishing power of his performances pre-Trinidad. Vargas says he remains committed to being the guy with elite boxing ability who wants to fight the best, fighting with decisive power and masterful craft. He’ll repeat himself to explain that he’s always been the guy who the fans can count on to put on a show, reliably being the warrior he was born and bred to be, one who closes the deal. The problem for Vargas remains he’s not been able to do all that he’s promised to do, not exactly, the visceral theatricality of his fights having waned. At times he’s tried to over elaborate his boxing and at times he’s been trapped in the ultimate endgame of boxing, going for knockouts. One wonders if he understood he was not quite the technical master that Oscar was nor the bomber Trinidad was, that dilemma left unresolved, complicated by injury, until today.
There’s still something of the wonder-boy who crowded and connected down the stretch willfully against the force known as Winky, Ronald Wright, just as there remains a touch of the angry young man, not secure with a title belt, never quite the Pound for Pound prototype he envisioned for himself daily, shadowboxing in the mirror. He’s been telling us his strength work, cardio fitness and diet is better than ever, ‘ever’ meaning right now, as opposed to most recently. All fighters, not named James or Toney, tend to make those claims. The years of working with his personal training guru Robert Ferguson meant to be understood as his mature man phase of clean living integrity becomes more than just a symbolic counterweight to his youthful steroid indiscretions; that’s just so much old news, light years removed from the man of the moment.
We don’t even have to ask Fernando Vargas if he hates Oscar De La Hoya anymore; the question too absurd, antiquated, ready for historical notation. Fernando Vargas doesn’t worry about the characterization, by some in the media, of his rematch with Shane Mosley as a mega-non event because he knows his fans, real boxing fans will show up, tune in and pay to view. He believes he still has plenty to offer, more heroic acts yet to be performed. He’s not lost in technique, burdened by constantly having to overcome his reputation.
He and trainer Danny Smith are as certain as ever that “El Feroz” has only got to make small adjustments, at the right times, to realize the results they know are possible. Beating Mosley was about to be accomplished, in the mind of Fernando Vargas. So of course he’s going to do what he still does well, at the vital junctures to make the percentages shift, making the end come out differently, changing the whole world, instantaneously, forever.
(Patrick Kehoe may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)