“SOMETIMES – and, I’m gonna be honest and transparent now – once in a blue moon, I can’t remember where I’ve parked. But it doesn’t happen too often. I just have to make sure I know where I’ve parked my car, so that’s a bit difficult for me.”
Those words linger, hanging at the end of the call, unwanted like damaged fruit. The struggles endured by retired fighters are often swept under the carpet; they are almost expected, these haunting tales from men who broke their hands, faces and hearts for our entertainment.
It’s been over a decade since fans of former WBA and IBF super-welterweight champion Fernando Vargas, 26-5 (22), frantically waved their Mexican flags and hoisted full-size, cardboard cut-outs of their champion above their heads, blocking the view of the frustrated ticket holders sat patiently behind them. His legendary, brutal contest with Felix Trinidad, his fight with Golden Boy Oscar De La Hoya, those later bouts with Shane Mosley and Ricardo Mayorga, and that remarkable run of title defences (including Raul Marquez, Ronald ‘Winky’ Wright and Ike Quartey) have cemented his place in boxing’s history.
But through it all, Vargas just wants to be remembered as a skilled fighter, who was ready to die in the ring. Life has continued throwing challenges in his direction; he’s succumbed to temptation at times, and has emerged at the other side, a healthy, loving husband and father.
Speaking to Boxing News, the Oxnard, California local opened up on his own struggles after his eventual retirement: “After a while, I started gaining weight because I wasn’t fighting and I wasn’t taking care of myself. It was tough, man. Boxing was my life. That’s how I became an alcoholic, because I thought, ‘What am I gonna do now?’ I knew there was money in the bank; I had so much time on my hands and I thought, ‘Okay, I’ll just drink.’ So, I became an alcoholic – it was stupid.
“Thank god I never did any drugs, but alcohol was my drug. I thank god for keeping me sober now; I have a gym that I opened up which keeps me busy; I have the Fernando Vargas Fighting Foundation, giving inner-city kids a fighting chance. I want to get these kids off the streets; get kids off of drugs, keeping them away from that stuff, and it keeps me busy, I love it. That’s why I can say today, the negatives that I endure, I can turn those to positives.
“It’s difficult, because when you acquire success, then you acquire fame and you acquire wealth. It’s not easy to stay disciplined. I’m five years sober now, and that’s something I’m proud of – I don’t drink anymore. Look at Ricky Hatton, he was depressed too, that’s why he ended up drinking. We try to fill this void in our heart that’s just not there. You can’t do that all the time; you can’t win every time, and depression definitely plays a part in a fighter’s career.”
Still only 42 years old, it’s easy to forget how young Vargas was when he conquered the boxing world. Fighting came easy on the way up; his introduction to the sport was by chance, after another brush with his high school’s authorities. Raised by a single mother and partly by a step-father, the plucky, teenage El Feroz sought his solace in the gym. Street fighting had knocked the fear from his thoughts, and punching vastly more experienced amateurs in the gym came naturally.
When speaking of early life in California, Vargas said he knew, “the very definition of being treated like a step-child”. He wasn’t brought up in a rough area but if you were looking for a fight in Oxnard and crossed paths with Fernando – you were going to get one. After being slapped with another suspension for fighting, he trudged down the school’s long hallway, scanning the walls that were plastered in motivational, extra-curricular material for the normal kids.
That anger and misplaced aggression came from his lack of having a reliable father-figure, he explained, vividly recalling ‘Father & Son’ exhibition days at school, and the pain they used to cause him: “Going to school back then, and seeing all the kids with their fathers; I didn’t have nothing. I didn’t have a dad. I found out where this gym was – it was a local boxing gym – so I went and called their number, and that was it for me.
“I can remember it took me an hour to get to there, and an hour to get back. After a week at the gym, they asked me if I wanted to spar, but I didn’t know anything. I just said, ‘Yeah,’ of course I was gonna spar. They put me in to spar with this dude who was much more experienced; he was going wild, but I remember leaving this kid with a bloody nose.
“They paired people up, and there were two solid kids there, so they were gonna prepare us to spar in a month’s time. The trainers were working with a fighter each, but before the month was up, I ran both of those guys out of the gym; I whooped them all – correct. It wasn’t like I wanted to do this for a little while; I wanted to be huge in this game. I said to myself, ‘Everybody is gonna know my name,’ and thanks to god, that actually happened.”
Vargas became America’s youngest-ever national amateur champion at just 16, before capturing the top spot in four different divisions. He was ranked as the nation’s best amateur at 132lbs and was one of their Olympic boxing representatives for the Atlanta games in 1996. After losing controversially in the second round, he cried on his trip home. He was broken-hearted as the tournament continued without him, crowning Oleg Saitov its gold medallist.
But the young fighter was swiftly reassured by trainer Garcia, who told him, “I shouldn’t worry about the medal – he would fill my belly with gold.” Signing with Main Events, the blue-chip prospect turned professional following his Olympic disappointment. After just 21 months and 14 routine victories, he would challenge IBF king, Yori Boy Campas (in the Mexican’s 75th fight), to become the youngest light-middleweight champion in boxing history.
It wasn’t the first time the two had squared off, with the reigning champion boastfully taunting the young amateur after a session held behind closed doors in a local gym. Fernando remembered that feeling – disrespected and underestimated again, with Campas repeatedly talking between rounds, referring to him as “the Olympian”. He couldn’t do anything about it then, and again, he wept as he made his way back home.
But in December of 1998, the roles were reversed. Yori Boy Campas retired in his corner after seven, punishing rounds; the Aztec Warrior was the champion of the world.
“All the nights of going to sleep hungry; all the running and the sparring; all the sacrifices that I made, not going out with friends… Everything was worth it,” exclaimed an elated Vargas. “They carried me on my trainer’s shoulders and I broke down; I was totally flabbergasted. Everything I went through was worth it. It was so great; I was blessed to have the best fans and they have supported me through the thick and the thin of my career.
After he’d beaten Ross Thompson to defend his IBF title for the fifth time, Fernando signed up to fight unbeaten Puerto Rican superstar, Felix Trinidad. It was – as his wife Martha recalls – the most difficult fight she would ever watch, with her husband knocked down on five occasions before being stopped on his feet in the 12th round.
“She saw me as an amateur and she knew that nobody had ever beaten me,” Vargas recalled. “That fight was the first time that she’d seen me being beaten like that. I got up – it wasn’t really a knockout – I ended every one of my fights on my feet, but that was the most difficult for her. Every fight before, after the rounds were done, I’d look at her and I’d wink my eye at her, like, ‘I got this baby, don’t worry.’ But in that fight, I didn’t do that anymore. I was so out of it.
“It took everything out of me. I’m gonna be honest with you, I don’t remember the whole fight. I only remember bits and pieces of the fight; I remember thinking, ‘Man, this guy hits like a tonne of bricks,’ and I didn’t even know he’d knocked me down five times. When I was in the ambulance with my wife, I thought I only went down that one time, so I asked her if it looked bad when I went down. She said, ‘Baby, you got up every time,’ I said, ‘What the f**k? How many times did I go down?’
“It was tough to come back; I felt like I let my people down. People would say, ‘Hey, everybody loves you,’ but, how can they love me? How can they love me if I’ve lost? They were still my Mexican people, and they had respect for the way I thought. That support was amazing, man. Grown men were crying, I’d never seen anything like that in my life – people tell me that my defeats were like wins.”
For boxers, defeat never feels like victory. That hand, left stranded by its waist as the opponent’s is raised aloft in celebration, becomes idle. The walk from the ring to the backstage area seems painfully slow, despite thoughts racing with every stride; should have, could have, but didn’t. The echoed cheers and chants from behind the walls of the changing room, the spoils of victory for the better man, pierce any silence or time for reflection. The room seems bigger than it was before the fight, or maybe it was just busier? That is losing in boxing.
Vargas fought another 10 times after losing to Trinidad, adding six wins and suffering four defeats against some of the sport’s biggest names. He made the walk for the last time in 2007, tackling Nicaraguan wild man Ricardo Mayorga, losing on points. By that time, the fire didn’t burn the same, and the hungry kid who used to fight on the streets of Oxnard had already become extremely successful.
Now, he lives through the eyes of his children – particularly his three sons, Amado, Emiliano and Fernando Jnr. All three are set to fight professionally, with Fernando Snr leading from the front as their head trainer. It wasn’t originally a part of the Vargas family plan: “I know what this sport can do. This is the hurt business and we’re playing with people’s lives. People can lose their lives, our lives could be taken themselves, and so I didn’t want my kids to fight.”
All three have been sparring with some of the sport’s best talents, and look set to become top fighters in their own right. Fernando was just delighted to be with his boys, strengthening their relationship. His wife Martha spoke of her complete trust in their father’s ability to keep them safe, although she worried, as she would when her husband used to compete. Their bond, 27 years on, is both strong and inspiring.
As Vargas talks about his health now, 13 years on from his last fight, he begins to openly discuss visits to the doctors and certain exercises designed for brain stimulation and memory. How does he feel? Fine. He feels good, though he’s not stupid. It’s the little things – like forgetting where he’s parked the car – that still worry him.
Fernando Vargas loved and appreciated everything about his career in boxing – it seems only fair that the sport and all of those involved return the favour for one of its truly fearless warriors. “This is the riskiest sport ever; the most dangerous sport ever. Any punch could be the last punch you ever take, so it’s tough. But it’s the sport that I love and I don’t regret anything at all.”