“GOLDEN BOY” Oscar De La Hoya, brutally ended his war of words with Fernando Vargas, at the Mandalay Bay Events Center, Nevada on September 14, 2002.
Nine years previous, amid the snow caps of Big Bear Mountain, California, one of boxing’s most ferocious and genuine rivalries peaked for the first time. Temperatures rose on the California vista as De La Hoya reportedly mocked Vargas, who had slipped over on an icy trail. The innocuous incident, which occurred during separate training camps, would haunt “El Feroz” and articulate a protracted feud, which reached fever pitch by fight night.
In 1997, Vargas was drafted in to Pernell Whitaker’s training camp, as the Virginia man squared off against De La Hoya. “Golden Boy” took a unanimous decision, much to the dissatisfaction of his bitter rival. Public displays of animosity continued between the fighters, who both resided in California.
In December 2001, Vargas looked to have landed an opportunity to settle the score in the ring. The bout, however, did not make it out of the boardroom, with both men unable to agree terms. Despite the December date collapsing, talks continued behind the scenes and contracts were eventually signed for May 2002.
Deep into training camp, De La Hoya sustained an injury to his left hand. The Olympic gold medallist was forced to pull out, just four weeks before the world championship showdown. Seven days later, the fight which had captured mainstream attention, was promptly re-scheduled for September.
Come fight week, the pre-fight posturing was in full flow. De La Hoya, who ordinarily did his talking with his fists, goaded the American as their historic bad feeling began to boil.
The fight was aptly billed as “Bad Blood.”
On September 14, 2002, the once cancelled, once postponed world title bout, finally came to fruition in front of a bouncing Mandalay Bay crowd in Nevada. Vargas, visibly in the shape of his life, landed the salient punch of the opener, buzzing De La Hoya with a countering left hook. The contest was fulfilling the pre-fight hype, with both boxers having success in an entertaining first half. Thereafter, De La Hoya moved through the gears and began to dictate the fight, dishing out a boxing lesson in the centre of the ring.
The writing was on the wall for “El Feroz” in the 10th, as De La Hoya planted a powerful left hook on his opponent, who was left staggering on rubber legs. Fortuitously for the American, the bell chimed as “Golden Boy” circled in for the kill – the damage, however, was done.
Vargas came out in the 11th, unsteady and losing blood from his cheek. De La Hoya approached his wounded rival cautiously, before dispatching another trademark left hook, rocking Vargas to the canvas. Instead of using the full count to regain his senses, the American of Mexican descent, bounced off the floor to his feet, in true warrior style.
Running on pride and adrenaline, Vargas went looking for the champion. He immediately backed up his opponent and unleashed a barrage of haymakers. Vargas, on the precipice of defeat, retreated to the opposite side of apron, but there was nowhere to hide. Akin to a heavy bag exercise in the gym, De La Hoya stood square on to his wilting opponent and unloaded a repertoire of one twos and swinging hooks, rendering his rival damaged and defenceless. The referee had seen enough and stopped the classic encounter.
Jim Lampley, the HBO commentator, had commented on Vargas’ “super human” physique during the bout. Lampley’s observation rang true after the fight, as it emerged Vargos had taken PED’s. Ironically, Vargas was working with a conditioner for the first time in his career – perhaps a smokescreen for his illegal doping.
”He did way too much talking,” said De La Hoya after the stoppage at the Mandalay Bay. ”Boxers should respect each other because it’s such a tough sport. Tonight, I let my fists do the talking.”