It was one of the more embarrassing moments of the Olympic Festival. In the second round of his gold medal bout with Fernando Vargas, lightweight boxer Datris Biagas reached down to hike up his shorts. Vargas unhesitatingly tagged him in the kisser.
The jab merely deepened the humiliation of Biagas, a 25-year-old Army specialist who was already being outfoxed and outboxed by Vargas, a 16-year-old about to enter his junior year at Channel Island High in Oxnard, Calif. But then getting thrashed by Vargas, regardless of your age, is no disgrace. He is the most promising young amateur boxer in the U.S.
However, Vargas might have been expected to have cut Biagas a little slack when he was pulling up his shorts, because Vargas sees himself as part peacock and part pugilist. "I like to look good," he says. "I want to be the kind of fighter people remember."
If that sounds a bit brash for someone 16, well, the young Muhammad Ali was brash, too. And so is 21-year-old Oscar De La Hoya, the 1992 Olympic lightweight gold medalist, to whom the fluid Vargas is often compared.
Vargas got his start in the fight game six years ago when he begged his mother, Alicia, to let him try the sport. "You're not getting into that," she told her 10-year-old son, who replied with finality, "Mom, I'm getting into it."
Later that week she dropped him off at Oxnard's La Colonia Boxing Club, where Fernando failed to impress Eduardo Garcia, a field foreman on a strawberry farm who moonlights as a fight trainer. "He says he saw fear in me," says Vargas, who translates for Garcia. "He thought I was the kind of fighter who would take a punch and go down, which, of course, I'm not."
That was evident last March when Vargas became the youngest fighter ever to win a U.S. Championship. At the weigh-in the day before his lightweight semifinal bout in Colorado Springs, his opponent, defending champ Abayomi Miller, took one look at him and said, "How is a guy in Pampers gonna beat me?" With dazzlingly quick feet and hands, that's how.
After last week's three-round decision over Biagas, Vargas was happy but not thrilled with his performance. Sure, he'd won, but his win hadn't been aesthetically pleasing enough to suit him. "He didn't want to fight," complained Vargas. "He didn't want to mix it up."
Shut up and take your medal, would be the advice of trainer Lou Duva, who sat ringside. Though he has high expectations for Vargas—"Watch out for that kid by the time the Olympics come around," says Duva—he has little patience for pugs who put too high a premium on prettiness. "Pernell Whitaker used to ask me, 'When is it time to showboat?' And I'd say, 'Win the damn fight and put the show on in the next fight.' "
In other words, never. That's a lesson Vargas has yet to learn as he moves toward his 17th birthday, with one eye on the '96 Games and the other on the mirror.
The 16-year-old lightweight won the gold—and looked-good doing it.