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A Puncher Hits A Rough Patch Fernando Vargas took some lumps but kept his IBF junior middleweight title

Fernando Vargas's head, cleanly shaven for the first time,
looked like a globe, with entire continents mapped in purple.
Bright archipelagoes ringed his eyes. Island nations had risen
on his cheekbones. Hey, there's Greenland above his left ear!

But for all the colorful topography of his scalp after his
narrow win over Ronald (Winky) Wright last Saturday night, it
was the inside of Vargas's skull that was hurting him most. One
of boxing's brightest young champions, Vargas complained after
the fight in Lincoln City, Ore., that he had been dogged in
training by personal problems so aggravating that he nearly
called off the bout. "I'm hurting," he said, and he didn't mean
the deep bruising he'd received earlier that evening.

Vargas, who won a 12-round majority decision to keep his IBF
junior middleweight crown, finds himself in the position that
every precocious puncher before him has occupied. Money and fame
complicate a life in ways for which no 22-year-old can be
prepared. Some survive this patch and move on to become old
champions. Others don't and lead curious and unfulfilled careers.

Vargas may be in the middle of his dangerous season. Although he
wouldn't specify the nature of his worries, except to say they
were family-related, he let it be known that they are severe and
ongoing. A close associate said Vargas's unsettled state had
nothing to do with legal issues--the fighter is scheduled to go
to court on Dec. 17 to face an assault charge--and nothing to do
with his domestic situation, which includes a three-year-old son
he takes to training camp, and the boy's mother, who remains by
Vargas's side. In fact, Vargas's angst may be entirely
unremarkable, the kind that preys on any young celebrity, whose
cash and cachet might suddenly be seen as up for grabs.

Whatever it is, though, it seemed to affect Saturday's fight
profoundly. "He was on the phone to me a week and a half before
the fight, crying," said a member of his camp. Vargas himself
said his worries hurt him mentally, at the very least.

This is not to discount the hurting abilities of Wright, a
largely unknown southpaw. Wright, 24, who had fought 20 of his
last 26 bouts overseas, proved to be as slick as they come, with
a nice right jab and no fear. Through most of the bout Wright
seemed in charge, and not a few ringsiders had him winning.

Certainly it was not the star-making turn Vargas's fans, or HBO,
had expected. Through his first 17 fights, all KO wins, Vargas
had steadily raised expectations until he had become a kind of
gatekeeper of the middle weights. Delicious matches loomed as
other young stars such as Shane Mosley and David Reid and Felix
Trinidad, and even hated rival Oscar De La Hoya, climbed up to
meet him.

Vargas seemed to understand that charisma was part of the
package as well. He has plenty, radiating confidence and
adopting nice little marketing hooks. The blond tuft of hair at
his forehead (temporarily gone) was clever, inasmuch as it was
adopted by everyone in his camp, even Fernando Jr. Before
Saturday's fight, held at the Chinook Winds Casino on the Oregon
coast, he arranged to be placed in a cage, alongside another
holding a tiger. Vargas paced back and forth during the
ring-walk music, looking very much like a caged animal.

The imagery is fitting, for despite all his promise Vargas seems
a little untamed. He remains dogged by childhood issues, still
furious that his father left him when he was young. Certainly
he's used that abandonment as inspiration in his own fatherhood,
doting on his son. But even as he does the right thing, he boils
over at those who didn't. "How could somebody make something so
beautiful," he says, bouncing his son on his knee the day before
the fight, "and leave him? My son will always have affection,
caring and love." His eyes grow hard, remembering that he didn't.

The anger works for him in the ring, mostly, but it makes him a
little wild outside. His raging resentment of De La Hoya, who
did nothing more than fail to acknowledge him when Vargas was
training at the same camp ("I slept on a roll-away bed, and he
was in a five-bedroom house," he says), is comical. But the
anger is not always well placed. A serious charge awaits him for
a messy incident near his hometown of Oxnard, Calif., in which
he is accused of assaulting a man. Even if, as Vargas insists,
he is innocent, the discomfit will linger. "It's embarrassing,"
he admits.

It is also, unfortunately, typical of young boxers as they make
the treacherous passage into full adulthood. Vargas is in the
middle of his, and we won't know he's made it through until he
has a bout that, win or lose, doesn't hinge on personal problems.

COLOR PHOTO: V.J. LOVERO Vargas is learning that money and fame complicate a life in ways for which no 22-year-old can be prepared.