It probably wasn't a star-making turn; Fernando Vargas didn't
suddenly become boxing's franchise. You need more than a
unanimous decision, even over a formidable former champion like
Ike Quartey, to capture a sport's imagination. But it was a
pretty good start all the same.
We now know that Vargas, with only 19 fights under his belt, is
in this for the long haul. His first 17 bouts went the way they
do for a lot of young prospects, easy knockouts all the way, the
usual well-greased path. The 18th, in which Vargas struggled to
retain his IBF 154-pound title in December against Winky Wright,
was a red flag. That stumble, along with an arrest on assault
charges (in which a stripper figured prominently), suggested
that Vargas, whatever his talents, might choose an even
better-greased path. A lot of phenoms slip at the first sign of
competition or celebrity.
The charges still loom over Vargas. He's scheduled to appear in
Superior Court in Santa Barbara, Calif., later this month for an
alleged attack on a man last July in which a golf club figured
nearly as prominently as that stripper. But other questions got
knocked down (even if Quartey didn't) in the ring at Mandalay
Bay's arena in Las Vegas last Saturday. Vargas didn't overwhelm
Quartey, a former welterweight champion who lost a disputed
decision to Oscar De La Hoya 14 months ago, or seriously hurt
him. He did prove he belongs in that upper echelon of boxers,
with all the other De La Hoyas out there, the pay-per-view boys.
He has the skills, the toughness, the ability to think on his
feet, the showmanship, the desire to win.
It wasn't just that he was willing to stand in with Quartey,
who, despite his inactivity, remains a good benchmark for young
talent. Consider that Vargas, a child of California's fast-food
culture, was willing to subject himself to a
dietary-disciplinarian strength coach while preparing for this
fight. "For three months," Vargas said, "I didn't have ketchup
Harder bouts may require even greater resolve, but it was
encouraging to see Vargas parading around the casino all week,
lifting his shirt at any provocation to show his new abs. So he
has pride. The best ones do.
Vargas's makeover was a little more to the point than Quartey's.
For some reason, Quartey showed up with a Rodmanesque dye job.
Maybe that's what happens when a guy fights just three times in
3 1/2 years--he starts visiting hairdressers.
It seemed damning to point out that in the three years since the
30-year-old Quartey had last won a fight, the 22-year-old Vargas
had won all 18 of his. Still, when it came to abdominal
definition, Quartey was Vargas's equal. As he pointed out all
week, he was in top shape, from having carried a grudge so long.
Poor Quartey continues to believe he got jobbed in that De La
Hoya fight, the one that sent the winner on to a $20
million-plus payday with Felix Trinidad (and Quartey back to the
hotel he owns in Ghana).
It was Quartey's intention to redeem himself, just as it was
Vargas's to move into the pay-per-view stratosphere. For the
first time in his career Vargas was facing a fighter who was
something more than a mere opponent. Quartey was there to win too.
The stakes were high, for a lot of the meaningful action in
boxing has become centered in the lower weight classes. As De La
Hoya prepares for his June 17 bout with Shane Mosley,
negotiations continue for a rematch with Trinidad, the only man
to have beaten De La Hoya. If Vargas could enter this
tournament, his opportunities would be almost as vast as the
pay-per-view money. For that matter, a Quartey win would put him
back in the money.
The only meaningful prefight volleys were fired by Quartey, who
knew what buttons to push. "Oscar is definitely better than this
guy," he said, comparing the two Southern California fighters.
"Who has he fought? Look at Oscar; he's fought everybody."
The subtext is that Vargas can't stand De La Hoya (and vice
versa). In the Mexican-American community, which has been
reluctant to embrace the more refined--and, by definition, less
macho--De La Hoya, Vargas is considered more the real thing. For
his part, Vargas can't abide comparison with De La Hoya, the
multimillionaire, multimedia, ethnic-crossover impresario.
But Vargas never took the bait. Even as his life might seem out
of control (he swears his reckless behavior is behind him), his
mouth and his fights aren't. Once in the ring with Quartey,
Vargas maintained a disciplined attack, outjabbing Quartey,
who's known for his jab, and just staying busier. There was no
high drama--no knockdowns, few trying moments. There was,
however, an ebb and flow to the fight, with Quartey coming on
strong in the middle rounds, and plenty of action. Though
CompuBox's punch stats show Vargas outthrowing Quartey by an
amazing 909 to 645, the bout wasn't one-sided. The image a lot
of people might remember from the night is Quartey banging out
Vargas's mouthpiece. Or the blood smearing beneath Vargas's nose.
Those moments were most important because they demonstrated
that, even if everything wasn't going his way, Vargas could
respond. He was artful in neutralizing the more experienced
Quartey, turning him into the ropes and unleashing his own
flurries. When the fight was over and the judges had pretty much
agreed on a wide margin of victory, Quartey's right eye was
Vargas immediately began positioning himself for a bigger-money
bout. (He received $1.35 million for Saturday's labor.) He
cannily addressed Trinidad, saying, "I'm the Mexican who won't
run away," alluding to the bout De La Hoya let go with
late-round safety-first tactics. "I'll stand and fight, show you
how a real Mexican fights."
Right now, however, Trinidad's promoter, Don King, only has ears
for Trinidad-De La Hoya II, which is penciled in for Sept. 9.
The rematch has been problematic from the get-go, with De La
Hoya, still a welterweight, and Trinidad, comfortable at 154
pounds, unable to agree on a weight. But, assuming that De La
Hoya beats Mosley (a grand assumption) Trinidad-De La Hoya
will be the fight of the rest of the year. King, who was on hand
for Saturday's bout, did allow that Vargas might be an
attractive opponent for Trinidad because, "if you noticed, he
don't fight like Carl Lewis." More likely Vargas exists in this
triangle only as a motivational ploy, as in: Of course Vargas is
in the picture; do you really believe De La Hoya will get back
in the ring with Trinidad?
Well, he almost certainly will--and Vargas will have to wait his
turn for one of these huge-money bouts. What Saturday proved,
however, is that he deserves his place in line.
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN IACONO
Disciplined and in terrific shape, Vargas (above, right), threw
far more punches than Quartey.
Vargas's win positions him for a shot at Trinidad and the big