De La Hoya-Vargas: Bad Blood remembered
Editor’s Note: This feature originally appeared in the Oscar De La Hoya Special Issue, which is available for purchase at The Ring Shop.
FERNANDO VARGAS’ LONG-HELD GRUDGE AGAINST DE LA HOYA EVENTUALLY FESTERED INTO ONE OF THE GREAT 154-POUND SHOWDOWNS AND ONE OF THE GOLDEN BOY’S MOST SATISFYING VICTORIES
Nine years is a long time to hold a grudge. But the ill will that festered between Oscar De La Hoya and “Ferocious” Fernando Vargas – mostly, but not entirely, on Vargas’ side of the equation – began nearly a decade before they squared off in a junior middleweight title unification showdown on September 14, 2002, at Las Vegas’ Mandalay Bay, a matchup that was appropriately dubbed “Bad Blood,” given the increasingly hostile war of words that preceded the first punch thrown in the ring.
Color commentator Larry Merchant set the stage for viewers of the HBO pay-per-view telecast by reciting some of the back-and-forth taunts flung by the two proud Mexican-American fighters, and they were as legitimate as it ever gets in boxing, not part of a contrived and orchestrated feud to help hype an event that needed no such chicanery.
“I’ve got to decide whether this is a fight or a grand opera,” Merchant said between rattling off some of the derogatory remarks that called to mind the verbal antagonism that for so long marked the relationship, or non-relationship, of legendary archrivals Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier. “For years, these two fighters have been behaving like tenors barking at each other across a stage. ‘You’re a phony!’ ‘You’re a thug!’ ‘I’d die to win!’ ‘I’ll retire if I lose!’ ‘I’ll swallow the worm with my tequila!’ ‘I have more hot chilies in my blood!’ ‘I hate you!’”
Nor was any hint of even a tenuous peace accord reached when De La Hoya annexed Vargas’ WBA 154-pound title and the vacant Ring championship to go along with the WBC belt he already possessed, adding an exclamation point to a bout he was leading on two of the three official scorecards by registering an 11th-round stoppage. Determining that a bleeding Vargas, who had been dropped and hurt by an Oscar left hook, was too impaired to continue, referee Joe Cortez stepped in and waved things off after an elapsed time of 1 minute, 48 seconds.
The then-24-year-old Vargas, whose record dipped to 22-2 with 20 KOs, did not stick around to offer his post-fight thoughts to Merchant, although for this story he did insist, two decades later and contrary to the official scorecards that had De La Hoya up by margins of 96-94 (as tallied by judges Paul Smith and Doug Tucker), that the truest ament of what had transpired to that point was the card of the third judge, Patricia Morse Jarman, who had the Oxnard, California, resident ahead by 97-94.
“I thought I was winning the fight ’til I got caught,” Vargas, now 44, said. “I was winning the fight on our scorecards. I was kicking ass. But the first time I got hurt, the fight was stopped.
“But my hat’s off to Oscar. He’s the best fighter that I ever faced. I’ve fought a lot of world champions in my career, a lot of Hall of Famers, but Oscar is the best – intelligent, boxing ability, good chin, offense, defense.”
Such conciliatory words about a once-despised foe would not seem to be in keeping with Vargas’ younger version of himself. That firebrand, now decidedly more mellow, admitted he fought with “a lot of rage, a lot of anger,” primarily directed at the now-deceased biological father who wasn’t there for him during his formative years. In his only defeat before snagging the dream shot against De La Hoya, Vargas was floored five times en route to a 12th-round TKO to Felix Trinidad. Before that epic fight, Vargas boasted that he had so roughed up nine sparring partners that they decided to pack up their gear and go home rather than to continue serving as human heavy bags.
“I’m not here to go soft on anybody,” the unapologetically violent Vargas said as that camp wound down. “I’m in the business of hurtin’ people, and business is good.”
The hoped-for opponent upon whom he most wanted to inflict pain was De La Hoya, America’s “Golden Boy” Olympic champion of the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. For a time, Oscar was the hero and role model of the younger fighter, who would himself become a member of the U.S. boxing team at the 1996 Atlanta Games. But then an incident allegedly occurred in 1993, when the two fighters were training separately at altitude in Big Bear Lake, California, and Vargas, still an amateur, had eagerly consented to serve as a De La Hoya sparring partner. As Vargas recalls it, he slipped and fell into a snowbank during a run on an unfamiliar trail, coming up with a face full of snow and mud. Just then, Oscar ran by and laughed at Fernando’s unsightly predicament.
“People had been saying I would be the next Oscar De La Hoya,” Vargas said for this story. “But after that, I was, like, ‘Fuck no, I’m the first Fernando Vargas.’ That’s how it began.”
De La Hoya, now 49, says he has no such recollection of what Vargas described, but it was perhaps inevitable that the two Olympians would someday square off as pros, although Oscar for an extended period held firm to his stated belief that he would never grant the chirpy kid a career-high payday as a penalty for the barrage of sneers and put-downs. As part of his campaign to entice, or maybe goad, De La Hoya into taking him on inside the ropes, Vargas depicted himself as being “more Mexican” than Oscar, who hardly had grown up in the lap of luxury in East Los Angeles. The way Vargas told it, The Golden Boy had somehow turned his back on his ethnic roots by – gasp! – taking up the rich white guys’ sport of golf.
It was a curious attack tactic, given that one of the most popular Mexican-American athletes ever is Texas-born golf legend Lee Trevino, affectionately known as “Merry Mex” and “Supermex,” a Marine who learned the game as a caddie on public courses and is one of only four golfers to win the U.S. Open, the British Open and the PGA Championship at least twice.
Interestingly, Vargas now says that the golf thing was the one part of his sniping that was done mostly for the effect of infuriating De La Hoya, not because of any genuine dislike of the sport.
“I just wanted to have something to talk shit about,” he says now. “I gotta be honest, I’ve played some golf. I don’t see nothin’ wrong with that. But at that time it was just something to get him aggravated so he would fight me.”
De La Hoya readily admits that he did get aggravated, and increasingly so. “Everyone wants to fight me, and everyone wants to beat me,” he said after the once-canceled, once-postponed fight (by four months because of an injury to De La Hoya’s left hand that was slow to heal) finally neared, for which Oscar was to receive $14 million and Vargas $6 million. “I think it is strange he is so obsessed with me.
“What is being Mexican? Because I don’t talk like him or dress like him, I’m not Mexican? I grew up on the same hard streets. But the fact is, I wanted to do something better in life. It’s degrading to Mexicans, this image that they have to dress like a thug and talk hard to be a Mexican.”
“I gotta be honest, I’ve played some golf. I don’t see nothin’ wrong with that. But at that time it was just something to get [Oscar] aggravated so he would fight me.”
– Fernando Vargas
Countered Vargas: “It’s one thing to say you are Mexican. It’s another thing to show it. I’m proud of being Mexican. I fight like a warrior, like Mexicans do. People are attracted to me because of my pride.
“Look, if I didn’t lose [to Trinidad], I wouldn’t have this fight. De La Hoya is only fighting me because I lost to Trinidad and got knocked down a lot. But maybe it took that loss for the fans to love me like they do now.”
Seating inside the Mandalay Bay was, as might be expected, a very hot ticket, with a sellout of 11,425 on hand and ringside tickets having a face value of $1,200 but being scalped for much more. Multiple story lines had already whipped fans of each man into a frenzy before the opening bell rang. Although De La Hoya – who came in at 34-2 with 27 KOs – was a tight 2-1 betting pick in the local sportsbooks, 20 of 21 credentialed boxing writers polled by the Las Vegas Review-Journal picked the favorite to emerge victorious, a veritable landslide. Among those bucking the chalk were a couple of notables, esteemed trainer Emanuel Steward and two-time heavyweight champion George Foreman, each of whom figured that the larger (although both fighters weighed in at exactly 154 pounds), presumably stronger Vargas was likely to have his hand raised if the bout ended inside the distance.
The outcome envisioned by Manny and Big George was certainly reasonable. Vargas, not always the most diligent worker in the gym, had whipped himself into phenomenal shape with the aid of a nutritionist, a first for him, along with father-figure trainer Eduardo Garcia and other physique-crafters who had transformed what sometimes had been a semi-soft midsection into rock-hard, six-pack abs. The fact that De La Hoya had successfully lobbied for 10-ounce gloves to be used instead of eight-ounce ones and had requested that Vargas be tested for performance-enhancing drugs beforehand lent some credence to the notion that “Ferocious” Fernando indeed had the edge in power, which would work even more in his favor if he could herd Oscar away from his comfort zone in the center of the ring and into the ropes.
“Look at this body. Look at this,” Vargas said before the fight, patting his stomach. “Does De La Hoya have something like this? Does he have this?”
The first round was something of a revelation as De La Hoya did find himself fighting with his back to the ropes, where he had some shaky moments as Vargas connected with authority. It might even have appeared that the underdog would bag his quarry then and there, but, as was also the case in Rounds 3 and 5, other plus-stanzas for Vargas, the perhaps initially ring-rusty Oscar – who had been inactive for a career-long 448 days since he had wrested the WBC strap from Spain’s Javier Castillejo on a wide UD – began to find his rhythm as well as spacing more to his liking. Even as he gained momentum, though, it was apparent that De La Hoya still was not clear of danger.
“Oscar De La Hoya is taking more punishment in the first five rounds of this fight than he’s ever taken in five rounds of any fight!” exclaimed HBO blow-by-blow announcer Jim Lampley. “Blood’s coming out of his nose, Vargas ripping him with shots along the ropes, and Fernando Vargas grins at De La Hoya as they complete Round 5!”
But De La Hoya employed his superior mobility, a busier and more accurate jab, and a newfound weapon – a normally decorative right hand mandated for more extensive use by trainer Floyd Mayweather Sr. – to claw ahead on the scorecards of judges Smith and Tucker. The strategy paid off big when Oscar called upon his preferred difference-maker, a left hook that landed flush to the jaw and sent Vargas tumbling to the canvas. A dazed Vargas beat the count, but once De La Hoya had his man on the hook, and especially this man, he wasn’t about to let him wriggle off it. In a case of “turnabout is fair play,” De La Hoya pinned Vargas along the ropes and teed off on him like a baseball player participating in the Home Run Derby.
“It’s got to rank up there,” Oscar said when asked if beating Vargas was his most satisfying victory. “I mean, Fernando Vargas is no pushover. He’s a strong puncher, but I knew I was faster … At first I thought he was too strong for me, but when I was rolling and he was missing, I knew he would get tired in the later rounds.
“It feels great because of all the talk he was saying. I just got fed up with it. I wasn’t going to fight him, but he got under my skin. So I told everybody that inside the ring, my fists are going to do the talking.”
That might have been the end of it, just another one-and-done. Vargas, not surprisingly, loudly demanded a rematch, but his chance went up in flames after his fight-night drug test came back positive for stanozolol. He was hit with a $100,000 fine and a nine-month suspension while Oscar moved on to a defense against Yori Boy Campas and a rematch with Shane Mosley. But De La Hoya – and this is at least somewhat surprising – did make an honest effort to broker a truce with Vargas several weeks after their fight in a private meeting at a restaurant in Pasadena.
“I don’t know that many people know this, but I called him to set up that meeting,” De La Hoya recalled. “I was sitting alone at a table – we had closed the restaurant for the day – waiting for Vargas. When he finally walked in, he told me, ‘You didn’t beat me.’ All I wanted to get out of the meeting was to hug it out, let’s be friends and move on. But it never got to that. So I stood up and walked away.”
Vargas confirms that such a meeting took place, but he said before he and De La Hoya went their separate ways, Oscar mentioned that although he didn’t recall the snowbank brouhaha, he would apologize for it and that Fernando had accepted the apology, if not necessarily The Golden Boy’s insistence of a faulty memory. Maybe their frosty relationship didn’t totally thaw in that fleeting moment of goodwill, but it was nonetheless an important step in the right direction.
“I forgave him and that was that,” Vargas said. “Since then, we’ve been pretty cool. Oscar’s a good dude. He wound up being a big supporter of my foundation. I have my own boxing gym and will be opening another pretty soon. I have no hard feelings toward him anymore. Whenever we see each other now, we’re cordial.”
Vargas has transformed himself in other ways as well. The perpetually angry young man who once spat on an opponent he had just knocked down (Ross Thompson, because Thompson had the temerity to “take it to the streets”) is now training his three boxer-sons – Fernando Jr., Amado and Emiliano – who, curiously enough, have forged an unlikely friendship with Oscar’s son, Devon De La Hoya.
Hey, if Ali and Frazier could eventually come to a meeting of the minds, isn’t anything possible?