A Glimpse of Canaan: The Career of Fernando Vargas


27.02.06 – By Kevin Kincade: In the Old Testament in the Christian Bible, there is a story of a great leader named Moses who lead his people, the Hebrews, out of bondage in Egypt to the promised land of Canaan, only to be told by the Almighty, at the very borders of the land they had sought together for forty years, that he could not enter in with them; but he was given a glimpse. Likewise, Martin Luther King Jr. gave a speech not so many years ago, entitled, “I Have a Dream”, in which he outlines the promised land of racial harmony for the masses gathered in Washington D.C.; but said, “I may not get there with you…” Of course, he didn’t; and we’re not quite there yet.

Of course, this is a rather grandiose analogy. Don’t misunderstand me; I’m not comparing “El Feroz’s” pugilistic plight with the trek of these two great leaders from history; but merely the notion of getting so close to where you want to be, to what you’ve been striving for your whole life, only to fall short when you reach the cusp. To be able to feel the adoration and respect of the fans and experts of your chosen profession, only to have it vanish into the mist as you awaken from the dream into the reality that you will forever be remembered as second best. Welcome to the world of Fernando Vargas..

Fernando’s career started off with enough promise. I can still see him as a young kid on HBO, with Jim Lampley and Larry Merchant singing his praises, allowing the compliments to freely flow about how much potential this powerful young man possessed, how relentless he was, and how it would only be a matter of time before he was a world champion. And so it was.

Vargas rocketed through the rankings, no doubt with a little PR help, to a title fight in only his 15th contest. After only 14 fights, Vargas was thrown in with the extremely dangerous “Yori Boy” Campas, who had only heard the final bell in 9 of 74 contests. It was a huge jump up in class for Fernando; but his backers were sure if “Tito” could put a stop to Campas inside four rounds and Jose Luis Lopez could finish him off inside five, surely the young phenomenon could do the same. There is always risk when a prospect is put in with a puncher; but when it’s known the puncher’s chin isn’t the hardest grade of granite….well. The fans love a knock-out and what would further endear the public to the next big thing than a convincing stoppage over the man who had had Trinidad on the canvas just a few years ago? Fernando did not let them down. He gave it his all until Campas called it a night at the end of the seventh. Fernando was now the IBF Jr. Middleweight Champion at the tender age of twenty-one.

After securing the gold, there were some obligatory defenses to ensure Vargas’s stature as a blossoming star; a quick four-round TKO over Howard Clark, and eleventh round stoppage of Raul Marquez, who had been stopped by “Yori Boy” Campas two fights prior, and some pushover named “Winky” who didn’t turn out to be such a pushover after all. In fact, most who saw Vargas-Wright gave the nod to Winky; but the three judges weren’t among them and “El Feroz” escaped with a majority decision and his title. Something had to be done AND FAST to remove the questions that fight aroused. Enter Ike Quartey.

“Bazooka” had given Oscar De La Hoya hell in a February ’99 showdown that was supposed to be a Welterweight unification bout before the WBA decided they wanted no part of it and stripped Ike. Quartey and De La Hoya, gave the fans their money’s worth for 12 spirited rounds, each succumbing to the other one’s power and tasting the canvas in a give-and-take technical slugfest, if there is such a thing. Someone’s “0” had to go, though, and it wasn’t about to be De La Hoya’s…not in Vegas. What better way for Fernando to erase the controversy of the Wright fight, which turned out to be the wrong fight (sorry, couldn’t resist), than to convincingly beat the man who had given “The Golden Boy” such fits…And he did.

There was only one more fight left to secure Fernando’s place in the upper echelon, the man who had beaten De La Hoya just five months before his showdown with Quartey, Felix “Tito” Trinidad. Fernando, to be the best, had to beat the best; and even though “Tito’s win over De La Hoya was anything but clear cut, Felix was still the only one with an “0” left….and he was moving up to Jr. Middleweight……Fernando’s yard!

By the time Vargas and Trinidad climbed into the ring in the Madalay Bay in Las Vegas in December of 2000, you could have cut the tension with a knife. Ringsiders just knew something special was about to take place. ‘Tito” had already beaten former U.S. Olympian “The American Dream”, David Reid, pillar to post to take his WBA Jr. Middleweight crown. Reid put on a gutsy performance; but he was far too inexperienced to deal with the Borocua heat Trinidad brought to 154. It was a small miracle Reid lasted the distance. Was the same thing about to happen to “El Feroz” that happened to Reid or would the powerful young Oxnard, Californian do what another Californian by the name of Oscar could not? A little after 9:00 PM Mountain Time, the fuse was lit.

Those that were present at ringside and those who watched from the safety of their living rooms could scarcely believe the savagery those two men unleashed upon each other. “Tito” continuously hurt Vargas with the depth charges he kept dropping and his superior boxing skill allowed him to be in just the right position to keep landing and landing with authority. But, every time Fernando would go down, the very blood in his veins would come screaming back, pushing him to attack with even more viciousness, despite the incoming….and that’s just the first three rounds.

You know the outcome. It was one of the most brutal contests ever waged in the sport, in my opinion; and while Vargas gave a good account of himself, even dropping Tito in the fourth, ultimately, Trinidad’s power proved to be too much as Vargas’s “0” went the way of the Dodo in the twelfth and final round. Fernando touched greatness; but, ultimately, while his heart and courage were celebrated, and should be, he fell short against one of the greatest fighters of the last twenty years.

Fernando’s chance at redemption came two short years later in the very same ring against the man who wore on him like a bad rash, “The Golden Boy”, himself….Oscar De La Hoya. The pre-fight feud was ugly as it was clear that Vargas had a massive chip on his shoulder where De La Hoya was concerned. He painted himself as more Mexican than Oscar, and to emphasize his point, was accompanied to the ring by Mexican and All-Time Great, Julio Caesar Chavez, who had fallen victim to De La Hoya’s fists just four and six years before. Fernando was going to get revenge for Chavez and get his respect all in the same night……or so he thought; and so his followers hoped.

De La Hoya and Vargas both showed what they were made of that night. In the early going it was obvious that Vargas had the strength advantage as he bulled Oscar into the ropes and beat on him, every punch visibly moving De La Hoya. But Oscar is a thinking man’s fighter as well as tough as nails when he has to be and, true to form, he took Fernando’s best and then started doing what he does best; boxing. De La Hoya picked Vargas apart on the outside and Vargas banged Oscar on the inside. Back and forth it went until finally, in the 10th, “The Golden Boy” landed full force with the left hook and put Vargas on Queer Street. The crowd was in an uproar when both men came out for the 11th….it was to be the last round as the ring-wise De La Hoya maneuvered Vargas into position to land the hook again…and BOY DID HE LAND IT!! DOWN WENT VARGAS!!! When Fernando got up, which surprised all who didn’t know his heart, he was in no condition to continue and the referee stopped Vargas’s second chance at greatness with 1:12 to go in the round during a follow-up flurry by De La Hoya. So near, yet so far.

Sugar Shane Mosley could have been Fernando Vargas’s last chance to reach the elite level of fighters. No, Mosley is no longer at the top of his game; but he represented a rung on the ladder that could potentially lead to a chance for revenge against De La Hoya, or possibly big money against the winner of Mayweather-Judah, or maybe even Winky Wright one more time. Hell, Vargas is only 28, he still might make it; but the odds are he has now moved himself into position to be another’s stepping stone. His tenth-round stoppage at the hands of “Sugar Shane” Saturday night brought to mind the plight of another fighter not so long ago; a guy by the name of Tommy Hearns, who will always be remembered more for his losses to “Sugar” Ray Leonard & “Marvelous” Marvin Hagler than for any victory in his career. Is such a fate destined for Fernando Vargas? Are we going to see him still fighting near his 50th birthday for respect he didn’t get when the chance was there?

Obviously, Fernando still has a long way to go before he is even close to the kind of respect Tommy Hearns has earned during his great career; but will he? What is to become of this man who has not yet turned 30; but is already inspiring epitaphs from boxing pundits? His faithful followers are still waiting on the banks of the Jordan for Fernando to lead them across. The three times he’s tried to tread the water of greatness, he’s gotten in over his head. Will he ever enter the promised land of Boxing Immortality as more than just a supporting player or are the waters just too deep and too wide for Oxnard’s beloved “El Feroz”? At least, He Has the Dream.

Questions or Comments: kevin.kincade@citcomm.com