Hunger can make a person do things he otherwise might shrink from doing and it’s a major driving force behind California’s Sergio “The Latin Snake” Mora.
“He loves big fights,” says Dean Campos, who trains Mora.
It doesn’t get much bigger than Mora challenging Vernon “The Viper” Forrest (40-2, 29 KOs) for his WBC junior middleweight title on Saturday June 7 at the Mohegan Sun Casino. The title fight will be aired on Showtime.
The East Los Angeles native lived in a garage for many years and didn’t own a car until he was victorious during a television challenge on the Contender reality television show in 2005. He was already 25.
Most people think his big break came during the Contender show, but it actually came much earlier when he served as a sparring partner for Oxnard’s Fernando “El Feroz” Vargas.
The pair traded blows and moves in that first sparring session with Vargas eager to exploit the slick fighter’s weaknesses.
“He was trying to kill me,” says Mora about that first sparring session.
If you know the real Vargas then you know he doesn’t like to leave things uncertain. The former world champion invited Mora once again to spar and the East L.A. boxer accepted.
“In the second sparring session Vargas was catching Sergio with a right hand,” said Campos, who taught Mora his unique fighting style. “We figured it out and then Sergio wasn’t getting hit with that punch any more.”
Vargas came with guns blazing for the rest of the sparring session.
But after it was over, the fiery Vargas told Mora’s team that he was impressed with him and that he would try to help him. Also helping Mora was the Oxnard fighter’s co-manager Rolando Arrellano. It was the best thing that could have happened to Mora.
It was Vargas who convinced the Contender producers to include Mora in the roster of fighters that would perform in secret, then be shown to a national audience.
Before that show, Mora had been searching for fights to no avail. He came close to signing a contract with Golden Boy Promotions when they first emerged, but the money offered wouldn’t even buy him a used set of wheels. So he declined.
Other promoters offered the same or less and though it looked bleak, the fighter’s team kept intact, including his coach John Montelongo, the Montebello Police officer who first discovered Mora when he was a young teen.
Montelongo, a quiet unassuming human being, always sought the best for his fighter including lending him a car whenever he needed one. As a boxing trainer he realized that Mora began winning with Campos' boxing style and stepped away. Any other person might have had ego problems.
After the success of Mora during the Contender, many other fighters might have sought more high-powered help in his corner and management. But Mora, who was often helped financially and emotionally by Montelongo and Campos, stuck by his team and remains fiercely loyal to them.
It was Campos' arrival in the late 1990s that proved the difference for Mora. Before Campos, the East L.A. fighter fought in a conventional boxing style but remained a steady but rather mediocre fighter. After Campos employed a different style the wins kept racking up and Mora found himself in the box offs in Florida. He fought and beat several prominent fighters such as Sechew Powell and eventually lost a close fight to Jermain Taylor in the finals.
“Lot of people don’t realize how strong Sergio Mora is,” said former middleweight champion Taylor last year. “He’s real strong.”
Strength is one of Mora’s hidden assets. He has superior strength inside as most of his opponents discover too late and he is also mentally tough.
“Sergio never seems to do well against the unknown fighters,” Campos said while waiting for Mora to come out of the dressing room. “But he really gets up for big fights.”
Another addition to the boxing team is physical trainer Robert Ferguson, another Vargas guy who now plies his knowledge with Mora.
Ferguson has the Latin Snake running up a pillar located in the middle of the boxing gym in Montebello. Mora takes a five-yard sprint and runs up the thick pillar as far as he can go.
It reminds me of the Hollywood film classic Singing in the Rain when dancer Donald O’Connor runs up the wall and eventually does a back somersault. That’s similar to Mora’s routine.
When Forrest and Mora clash on Saturday it pits two distinctive fighting styles: the classic American style of Forrest and the quirky yet effective boxing method of Mora.
“Garbage, is how I describe his style,” said Forrest, 37. “He’s garbage.”
Both fighters are familiar with each other from a sparring match that took place at the Wild Card Boxing gym in Los Angeles.
“I was preparing for the finale of the Contender when we sparred,” said Mora (20-0-1, 5 KOs), who won that fight by defeating Peter Manfredo Jr. in Las Vegas on May 24, 2005. “Vernon got mad at me and kept saying things 'cause he couldn’t hit me.”
Forrest claims he laughed at Mora and suggests the boxer out of East Los Angeles is afraid of him.
“I only had one arm when we sparred,” said Forrest of the sparring match that took place three years ago when the Georgia-based boxer was experiencing several injuries to his arm.
Mora shakes his head and bites his tongue. He knows words aren’t going to win this fight.
“We’ll see what happens in the ring,” says Mora.
The Mexican-American fighter does not want to engage in a verbal war with the titleholder, he knows that the boxing world is not convinced of his talent. He knows a big invisible question mark hangs over his head.
“I have to prove myself,” he says.
Since turning professional in 2000, Mora’s unique boxing style has been a source of debate for fans and boxing experts alike. Some call him a wannabe Roy Jones Jr. and others call him a hard fighter to figure out, but he does attract viewers.
Last year Mora turned down an opportunity to fight his old nemesis Taylor.
“I declined the Jermain Taylor fight for reasons being I didn’t want to fight in Memphis and other reasons,” said Mora who felt Arkansas’s Taylor would receive a hometown decision. Memphis is located across the Mississippi River from Arkansas. “I didn’t think I could get a fair decision.”
So Mora took a public beating instead from fans and critics who derided him for refusing a world title opportunity. Now he gets a second crack at the world title, but at a lower weight 154 pounds, not 160 pounds.
“For Vernon Forrest I figured he’s a lighter fighter and a smaller fighter,” said Mora, who is the exact same height as Forrest but accustomed to fighting bigger and stronger fighters. “Plus it’s not his home town and it’s not my home town. It’s whoever the crowd wants to root for.”
Likes big fights
Ever since Mora captured the Contender reality television show championship in 2005 people have wondered if he could contend for a real world championship.
“Sergio has always been the kind of guy who likes big fights,” said Campos, who taught Mora the boxing style he uses today. “He really gets up for fights against good opponents. That’s just the way he is.”
They don’t get better than Forrest who was a U.S. Olympian in 1992 in Barcelona, Spain and former welterweight world champion.
“As a fighter I think very highly of him. That guy has every punch in the book,” says Mora who has studied tapes and experienced sparring with Forrest. “He does everything right.”
Forrest doesn’t think the same of Mora and basically feels the East Los Angeles fighter is unworthy of challenging for the title.
“I’ve been training for this fight for three months. Trust me, I’m not taking this guy lightly at all,” said Forrest, who owns two wins over Sugar Shane Mosley. “I only had one guy I didn’t take seriously and I got an L (loss) on my record.”
It was on Jan. 25, 2003, Forrest was coming off back-to-back wins over Mosley and met Nicaragua’s unknown Ricardo Mayorga at the Pechanga Resort and Casino. The lean boxer from Georgia danced his way to the ring with a large entourage, and then left without the title after getting battered and stripped of the world title by brash cigar-chomping Mayorga.
Forrest thought Mayorga’s fighting ability was garbage too and paid for that with not just one loss, but two losses. He never could figure out Mayorga’s style.
Mora feels his diving in and out style with quick combos could be the antidote to Forrest’s conventional boxer-puncher formula.
“The fight will come down to who can adapt to whose style and to attrition too,” says Mora. “I’ve fought tall fighters before. I like fighting tall guys.”
It also comes to the strength and the age factor. Can Forrest, who is 10 years older than Mora, still fight at the same level as he did during his prime?
Forrest thinks so.
“There won’t be no upset,” snarls Forrest. “You can forget about that.”
Mora gives just a hint of a smile as he thinks about Forrest.
“He’s a great fighter but everybody makes mistakes just like everybody else,” said Mora. “I’m going to try and capitalize on those mistakes.”
Last year when Mora was chastised for not accepting the world title fight against Taylor, he withstood a lot of abuse from fans and critics alike. Now he gets another shot at a world title.
“It’s definitely a big step for me,” Mora says.
The East Los Angeles boxer is literally scampering up walls over his world title shot.