This is the sixth piece in a ten-part series looking at the fighters whose stories make Donald McRae’s Dark Trade the enduring classic that it is. Learn more about the 1st U.S. edition of Dark Trade: Lost in Boxing.
Then hate me when thou wilt, if ever, now. Sonnet 90
Was it a false memory? An instance of persecution mania? The manifestation of an inferiority complex? Did it ever really happen? Somewhere along the way, the resentment Fernando Vargas felt against Oscar De La Hoya, his SoCal rival, who cast a long shadow from barrio to barrio, mutated into raw hatred. Spleen. Obsession.
And it was all because of an incident that may or may not have taken place. For Vargas, this tale—true or not—may have been the textual generator he needed to rouse himself for a pitched battle. Ever since he had turned pro after representing the U.S. in the 1996 Olympics, Vargas had been trying to goad De La Hoya into a fight. He made cryptic references to the event that led to a vendetta. “I had a chance to spar with Oscar when I was a kid,” Vargas told Eric Raskin in 2002, “and there was a personal incident that happened, which I’m not going to speak about. But in the ring, after the fight, God willing, I beat him, I’m going to speak about it and hopefully word it in a way that he cannot deny that it’s true. He never knew that snot-nosed kid was going to grow up to be ‘El Feroz.’”
Later, Vargas would add a few details to his story: he had been doing roadwork when he tumbled into a snow bank in Big Bear, California; a guffawing De La Hoya, coincidentally also out for a run, refused to help Vargas. You can almost imagine the pealing echo of laughter as De La Hoya trotted off into the distance. That this scenario seemed plucked out of an old issue of Archie comics or a made-for-TV movie hardly seemed to matter.
“It never happened,” De La Hoya wrote in his memoir, American Son. “I cannot picture myself refusing to help somebody who had fallen. Maybe he made up that story to stir fan and media interest in seeing us settle our differences in the ring, or maybe he just needed a reason to hate me if I was going to be a future opponent.”
Robert Alcazar, who trained De La Hoya at the time of the alleged Snow Bank Affair, added his own unique viewpoint. “No, no, Vargas has it all wrong,” Alcazar told the Los Angeles Times. “What happened was, I was following Oscar on a snowmobile and, when I saw Vargas laying there, I ran him over.”
After years of ignoring Vargas, who sniped at him through the press whenever possible, De La Hoya agreed to a fight. Somehow, Vargas had decided (via curbside psychology) that “The Golden Boy” was just too posh for the rigors of a blood sport. It was true, of course, that De La Hoya had been spending less time as a prizefighter and more as a celebrity—his eponymous CD, a collection of pre-Auto-Tune, Latin-tinged schmaltz, proved only that the Grammys can be as ludicrous as the IBF or the WBC—but underneath that glitz was always an ego that found its place in the ring.
The late 1990s, the Y2K era, had left De La Hoya with a career hangover. His loss to Felix Trinidad on September 18, 1999, may have been controversial, but the negative impact was undeniable. Flitting from turnbuckle to turnbuckle over the last few rounds against Trinidad cost him both his undefeated record and a certain amount of respect. Don King called him “Chief Running Coyote,” and the criticism he received for his late track-and-field act left him bitter.
When, a year later, De La Hoya lost a decision to Shane Mosley, he responded by adding flex time to his training routine. In addition, liquor, gambling, drugs, and women had been temptations for years, and De La Hoya, one of the young and the restless, could not always resist them. “The Golden Boy,” trailing glitter, celebrity, and paparazzi for nearly a decade, was only twenty-nine, but the downgrade was clear. The twilight-midnight-daylight specials had blunted his stamina and his focus seemed awry. If Vargas had any chance of beating his nemesis, now seemed the perfect moment to strike.
To some, Vargas epitomized that awful phrase “damaged goods” applied to fighters who seemingly lose their spark after taking a drawn-out beating in the ring. Since being kayoed by Felix Trinidad in a bout so grueling that even the winner wept at the post-fight press conference, Vargas had been dropped by Wilfredo Rivera and had taken numberless right hands from limited Shibata Flores before rallying for a TKO win. It was clear: Vargas had left a piece of himself behind against Trinidad in 2000. In the twelfth round of that fight, Referee Jay Nady (along with Team Vargas in the corner) was guilty of malpractice when he allowed a wobbly Vargas to hit the canvas three times. When the slaughter was finally over, Vargas was teetering on the edge of consciousness, swaying in a fog from which he never really emerged. Now he was set to a face an opponent he had built up into some sort of personal hobgoblin. Adding an element of psychomachia to the proceedings seemed almost counterproductive, but Vargas could not restrain his animosity.
Because De La Hoya had spent most of his childhood in sweltering gyms and traveling to amateur tournaments at the behest of his disciplinarian father, his general demeanor was not shaped by the mean streets of East L.A. Not Gene Tunney, perhaps, or even Muhammad Ali (no one could be that bombastic), De La Hoya was nevertheless eloquent for a professional pug. In a war of words, Vargas was overmatched. In fact, the kickoff press conference at the Biltmore Hotel was an easy KO win for De La Hoya, whose barbs were almost as hurtful as his left hook. He referred to Vargas as a celebrity stalker and cut his macho image down with a single declaration: “He’s in love with me,” De La Hoya said, “why else would he talk about me so much?” Vargas, his face contorted in rage, could only react one way: he shoved De La Hoya, prompting a mini-scrum between camps that left Ricardo Jimenez, Top Rank PR man, with a broken leg. Both men would have to wait for vengeance, however, when De La Hoya pulled out of the scheduled May fight with a hand injury. Naturally, Vargas suspected De La Hoya of cowardice.
Not long after the bout was canceled, Vargas appeared on Friday Night Fights via video hookup and was encouraged by Max Kellerman to remove his shirt and flex for the cameras. Vargas complied, unveiling a physique at odds with memories of some of his pudgier outings. “And a Mexican’s not supposed to look like this, people,” Vargas told the ESPN audience. “A Mexican’s not supposed to look like this. We love tortillas, we love frijoles, we love everything … When you see a Mexican across the ring that looks good, that works hard, and you see him ripped, you know that guy’s coming out there, you know, for blood, and that cat, right there, you’re going to have to kill to beat.”
The chiseled six-pack, the bulging traps, the stacked pecs and biceps—later revealed to be courtesy of Stanozolol—suggested that Vargas himself realized he had lost some lifeforce against Trinidad and was trying to compensate for it with the aid of high-tech pharmaceuticals. We know that Roberto Duran entered the ring at least once with the blessing of a Santeria priestess and that Ken Norton, among others, used a hypnotherapist for an edge, but banking everything on the periodic table of elements and a misreading of character seemed iffy propositions at best. Even so, Vargas seemed confident that he could waylay the aging superstar. In his mind, Vargas had not one, but two, secret weapons: PEDs coursing through his reconstructed body and the knowledge that De La Hoya was not man enough to withstand his Aztec Warrior shtick. Yes, Vargas was far, far, far behind the times. He might as well have been walking around in a flannel shirt and listening to Kid Frost cassettes on a Sony Walkman. That bland gosh-gee public persona De La Hoya had played to the hilt had fueled his critics until the mid-1990s, but De La Hoya had proven his toughness between the ropes, where it mattered most, and now he had a rival who was ready-made to spark motivation. “His claim that he was more Mexican than I because, in his mind, he was more macho, got to me,” De La Hoya wrote in his memoir. “It ate at me inside, though I wouldn’t show it. It made me want to destroy him, really hurt him. Vargas was the first opponent I had ever felt that way about.”
They met on September 14, 2002, at the Mandalay Bay Events Center in Las Vegas, Nevada, in a partial unification bout for the WBA and WBC junior middleweight titles. At ringside for the HBO broadcast crew was Larry Merchant, who compared the feverish buildup of De La Hoya-Vargas to a grand opera. And the match itself, played out in front of a sellout crowd of 11, 524, would eventually earn such an analogy.
As fight night approached, Vargas showed more signs of psychological uncertainty. He refused to participate in publicity ops, delayed his ring entrance by fifteen to twenty minutes, and was accompanied to the squared circle by Julio Cesar Chavez, as if he felt, subconsciously, that he needed some sort of backup to face his archenemy.
For his part, De La Hoya was coming off surgery on his chronically sore left hand and would enter the ring after the longest layoff of his career, 447 days. He came out boxing, working behind his jab and throwing flashy combinations to the body. Halfway through the round, however, Vargas established stalking mode, pushing De La Hoya back with his jab, and firing single shots to the body. Late in the round, a flurry drove De La Hoya into the ropes and drew a roar from the crowd. De La Hoya returned to his corner with a welt under his right. For the next five rounds, the two Southern California rivals traded shots and leads in a seesaw battle.
Halfway through the fight, Vargas had built up a slight lead on the scorecards, but he was already en route to the bitterest moment of his career. When De La Hoya began to land right-hand leads, in the seventh round, the fight was essentially over. De La Hoya was a converted southpaw and had slapped with his neglected right throughout his career. Now, the straight rights and crosses were landing with thudding accuracy, particularly in the eighth, staggering Vargas and raising welts, scrapes, and lumps across his face. (After the bout, Vargas would later be treated for a broken orbital bone.)
Along with a volcanic personality, Vargas had more than enough heart to match. “El Feroz” answered the bell for the ninth round determined to change his fate. He drove De La Hoya back with an aggressive two-handed assault and opened the tenth the same violent way. But with ten seconds to go in the round, Vargas pulled out of an exchange with his chin up and hands down and De La Hoya connected with a left hook that shook him to his boots. A woozy Vargas stutter-stepped to his stool, where the tumult of his cornermen failed to revive him.
A minute into the eleventh, Vargas, practically in slow-motion at this point, lowered his hands as if to open up offensively and De La Hoya struck with his trademark left hook, circa 1994, “The Forty-Five,” a jump-cut blow that landed with an audible pop. Vargas plunged to the mat, where his head thudded beneath the bottom rope, while De La Hoya did his own spry variation of the Ali shuffle before heading off to a neutral corner. A groggy Vargas beat the count, but when the action resumed he was immediately sent reeling from one corner to another by a man whose killer instinct perpetually belied his movie-star looks. “I know it sounds brutal,” De La Hoya said gleefully after the fight, “but when I see blood, I want more.” As a gory Vargas sagged against the turnbuckle, De La Hoya unleashed a blinding fusillade of punches with what appeared to be joy. Referee Joe Cortez intervened with 1:13 left in the round. “It felt great hitting Vargas,” De La Hoya recalled, “but I could have seriously hurt him.”
In the last six years of his career, De La Hoya never won another major fight, and his struggles outside of the ring became TMZ fodder. The future, as an elite professional, was behind him now. But the past, even the recent past, had never been more real—or glorious.