The look on his face, after the first knockdown by Felix Trinidad Jr., was a mixture of astonishment and bewilderment. The fight had just started, He was the champion, and there he was, on the ground. Through his confusion he knew he was hurt, really hurt. Amazing as that must have seemed to Fernando Vargas, it was nothing compared to his surviving the round.
This, ladies and gentlemen, is a fighter. After 16 months away to take care of back problems, it’s nice to use the present tense about him again. El Feroz brings his ferocity back March 26 in Corpus Christi, Texas, a boxing backwater where he hopes to restart his career. Only because it’s Vargas, and the fierce loyalty he commands from his fans, the bout against an elderly fringe middleweight contender, Raymond Joval of the Netherlands, was deemed worthy for telecast by HBO.
There are few fighters who incite passion these days. Mike Tyson and Oscar de la Hoya, of course, and in colder climes, maybe Arturo Gatti. But no one is about to stand on a long line outdoors to buy tickets for say Vitali Klitschko, Bernard Hopkins or Floyd Mayweather Jr. Vargas, like Gatti, is beloved because he is a pure fighter. Oh, he can box, too — see his handling of the dangerous Ike Quartey — but he is a warrior’s warrior.
Vargas takes his rare beatings; Hector Camacho Sr. did against de la Hoya and Julio Cesar Chavez. But unlike Camacho, Vargas at least tries to fight back. He still tries to win, not simply survive. In that Dec. 2, 2000, fight with Trinidad, he staggered to his corner at the end of the opening round and a few rounds later was dropping Trinidad.
That Trinidad hurt him again and finally caused a stoppage in the 12th round was no black eye. It is no shame to be hurt by Felix Trinidad or to run out of gas (probably because of steroid use), against Oscar de la Hoya. He has always fought like the angry young man he is.
That’s the deal. He’s still only 27. There are those who would have you believe that the beatings he took from Trinidad and, at the end, from his bitter California rival, de la Hoya, were of the kind most men do not usually recover. Those were the only two losses, against 24 victories, (22 by knockout).
His last two fights (after a suspension for being caught using steroids against de la Hoya and before his bum back sidelined him) did not resemble the contender he was, even while stopping Fitz Vanderpool and Tony Marshall. Of course, the back was bothering him and now he is supposedly rejuvenated and refreshed. And, he could be matured.
We saw how ragged he could become when he fought Winky Wright back in 1999. He was distracted because of personal problems and, for my money, was extremely lucky to get the decision. But even on a bad night, knowing he was in trouble on the cards, he closed ferociously.
His immaturity showed worse by his resorting to steroids and getting in frequent fights outside the ring. But the reports are that he has matured into a solid family-loving businessman. Under Rolando Arrelano, who co-manages him with the ubiquitous Shelly Finkel, Vargas has made some healthy investments and may not need boxing anymore.
But I don’t believe for a moment that lack of financial hunger will satisfy his appetite for the battle. He looked like a heavyweight during his long recess and the meeting with Joval was made at middleweight. Vargas has said he plans to move back to his old junior middleweight division, unless something interesting (Bernard Hopkins, rematches with Trinidad or Wright?) entices him.
This is not a betting fight. The only way Vargas loses is if his back goes on him and he decides that real estate is a lot more comfortable than a career as a wounded boxer. Joval is not a piece of Dutch cheese, Edam or Gouda. The 36-year-old veteran knows his way around the ring, especially the section of it in front of the other guy. He does not move much, and he doesn’t hit that hard — only 15 knockouts on a 33-3 ledger. But, he is durable and of sufficient quality to give the Vargas camp an idea of just how quick he can rejoin the upper echelons.
Joval should give Vargas, who will probably need a few rounds to discard the ring rust, what should amount to a spirited workout. Oh, Joval will try. He is a solid citizen, a former WB-Who champion of one of the minor, minor sanctioning bodies. Joval went the distance with Sam Soliman, the Australian who’s been calling out Hopkins. Last July, though, Soliman was dropped in that one.
In any case, just having Vargas back in the mix again with de la Hoya, Trinidad, Wright, Kasim Ouma, Vernon Forrest (also getting ready to return soon from injury), Sugar Shane Mosley and all the lads is a winning proposition for fans, if not yet for gamblers.