While flashbulbs went off at the January 16, 2002 press conference, the press clamored for good photos of the impending stare down between Oscar De La Hoya and Fernando Vargas. As the two finally came face-to-face, tensions boiled over as Vargas, with both hands, leaned forward and shoved De La Hoya sending him reeling back.
As De La Hoya immediately lurched towards Vargas to retaliate, the two were separated by Top Rank staff and their camps. It’s no coincidence that this battle between the two 154-pound champions was being billed as “Bad Blood.”
To understand the hostilities, it is important to reflect back. As Bob Costas reported in the pre-fight conversation, Vargas had once idolized De La Hoya. In their first encounter, according to Vargas, De La Hoya snubbed and virtually ignored him.
A short time later, again according to Vargas, while both were training for separate fights in Big Bear, CA, Vargas slipped and fell into a snowbank while doing his roadwork. De La Hoya and his team jogged by a short time later and laughed and offered no help.
These episodes deeply wounded Vargas and from that point on he viewed De La Hoya with contempt.
Those feelings spilled over several months later when Vargas was training at Emmanuel Steward’s Kronk Gym when in walked De La Hoya. According to Steward, “Vargas went crazy, virtually foaming at the mouth” as he tried to get at De La Hoya.
Steward went on to say it took him, Shane Mosely, and Shane Mosely Sr. to restrain Vargas. According to Steward, “Oscar stayed for a short time and then left.”
Vargas did little to hide the animosity he had for De La Hoya, calling him out whenever the opportunity presented itself.
After a postponement due to a De La Hoya hand injury, the 154-pound unification fight was rescheduled and now set to take place on September 14, 2002, at the Mandalay Bay Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, NV. HBO PPV would carry the fight and a sold out Mandalay Bay would witness an unforgettable duel in the desert.
After a two fight televised undercard that featured two young fighters in separate action, Nate Campbell and Miguel Cotto, “Ferocious” Fernando Vargas made his way to the ring. The proud 24-year-old champion was donned in his Mexican heritage, wearing green, white, and red.
Vargas had been in with top-flight competition. He had already fought the likes of Felix Trinidad, Yori Boy Campas, Winky Wright, and Ike Quartey. Most fans and experts believed that De La Hoya would be his most stern test.
Vargas (22-1, 20 KOs) was led to the ring by trainer and father figure Eduardo Garcia. Garcia also trained his son and future trainer of champions, Robert, who was also part of team Vargas. Vargas was entering the ring coming off the longest layoff of his career.
In an early jab at De La Hoya, Vargas invited one time De La Hoya rival Julio Cesar Chavez to join his entourage. Chavez would be at Vargas’ side the entire evening and walk with him as he entered the ring.
To his credit, De La Hoya ducked no one. He had been in against countless top fighters like Chavez, Trinidad, Quartey, Shane Mosley, and Pernell Whitaker.
Although De La Hoya was a 2-1 favorite, questions had been raised about whether or not he had the desire and the power to hang in with a younger, stronger lion like Vargas. He too was coming off a lengthy absence from the ring, 446 days to be exact.
Ring announcer Michael Buffer, complete with fireworks inside the sold out Mandalay Bay arena, launched his patented “Let’s get ready to rumble!”
Both fighters then received instructions from fair, but firm referee Joe Cortez. As the instructions were given, two Nevada State Athletic Officials, with arms extended in front of the fighters, held hands in an attempt to ensure the fighters didn’t go at each other before the opening bell.
As Round 1 began, De La Hoya tried to set the tone, moving, bouncing, boxing and jabbing.
Vargas, on the other hand, tried to impose his will through power and brute strength. With less than a minute to go in the round, Vargas drove De La Hoya into the ropes, as Lampley cried, “Oscar De La Hoya was stunned by the counter left hook!”
Vargas’ power and relentless stalking of De La Hoya seemed to have won him the first round.
In the second, De La Hoya controlled the action from center ring. It soon became apparent that Oscar’s comfort zone and best chance to win was boxing in the center of the ring. Vargas’ best chance was when he plowed De La Hoya into the ropes. Now with a bloody nose, Vargas tried to muscle De La Hoya in the second round but was not able to do it.
The third round began in the center of the ring, but Vargas quickly bullied De La Hoya, pounding him into the ropes. Although he controlled the third, De La Hoya came back in the fourth and controlled the action by jabbing to the head and body.
De La Hoya continued to be the master in the center of the ring, beautifully mixing in right crosses and uppercuts. The bout appeared to be, and Harold Lederman concurred, even after four rounds.
Vargas reclaimed control in the fifth. The ebb-and-flow of the action was sizzling. First, Vargas blasted De La Hoya with a combination. De La Hoya countered with his own. The crowd began to chant, “Vargas! Vargas! Vargas!” Over the roar of the crowd, an energized George Foreman concluded, “Both guys are hurting each other!”
As the fifth round was winding down, De La Hoya now had blood coming from his nose. Vargas then drove De La Hoya into a corner as Lampley exclaimed, “Oscar De La Hoya is taking more punishment in the first five rounds of this fight than he’s ever taken in five rounds of any fight!”
As the bell sounded to end the fifth, Vargas smiled at De La Hoya.
As the Golden Boy rose from his stool to begin the sixth, the right side of his face was red and had begun to swell. Vargas was also battle damaged, blood streaming down his face from a cut under his right eye. The sixth round was close, Lederman giving it to De La Hoya based on his ability to stay off the ropes, out of the corner, and keeping the fight in the middle of the ring.
In Round 7 De La Hoya seized command, strafing the Ferocious one with rights and lefts. Lampley bellowed “Big left hook from De La Hoya! His best punch of the fight! Vargas says come on, come on! Do it again!” As if taking orders, De La Hoya again pounded Vargas. Lampley continued, “And he does it again!”
Round 8 looked much like the round before, De La Hoya in command. Lederman had the Golden Boy ahead, 67-66.
Merchant tried to make sense out of what we were seeing in a moment of calm in an otherwise action packed battle. “It almost looks like Vargas is a bit confused.” De La Hoya then landed back-to-back one-two combinations, snapping Vargas’ head back. The most dominant round so far belonged to De La Hoya.
Vargas showed his heart and dogged-like determination by recapturing control in Round 9. He punched and punched and drove De La Hoya backwards, ripping to the body. Vargas was again on the attack, stalking De La Hoya and winning the round.
As the battered warriors entered Round 10, the action was relatively quiet for the first two and a half minutes. As the HBO crew spoke about Oscar possibly slowing down and getting tired, he stepped in towards Vargas and ripped a right-left to the body followed by a left hook bomb that landed flush on Vargas.
Vargas’ legs went limp as he staggered back. De La Hoya rushed him to close the show and the bell sounded to end the tenth. The crowd, on its feet, seemed to have been won over by Oscar’s power and ability to have hurt his younger, stronger opponent.
As the fight entered Round 11, De La Hoya was in total command. Vargas stood in front of De La Hoya, trying to press him. He was hurt, his legs gone, but he refused to back down. The Golden Boy left Merchant wondering, “Why hasn’t De La Hoya pressed the advantage? Why hasn’t he explored whether Vargas is still groggy?”
Right on cue, De La Hoya landed a vicious left hook that sent Vargas crashing to the deck. The hurt, wobbled, bloodied young lion rose to his feet.
De La Hoya went in for the kill and drove Vargas into the corner landing picture perfect lefts and rights at will, snapping Vargas’ head back from the brutal onslaught. Cortez leapt in, holding Vargas up with his left arm, waiving his right hand over his head. The fight was over.
With the crowd on its feet, Lampley shouted over the wave of noise to be heard by the millions watching at home, “Oscar De La Hoya has the most satisfying, the richest, the biggest, the most emotional win of his whole career!”
De La Hoya, interviewed by Merchant immediately after the fight, gave credit to his jab and his conditioning. After all the talk, he concluded, “Inside the ring, my fists did the talking.”
Vargas didn’t stick around for a post-fight interview, leaving the ring and heading back to his dressing room. Costas later reported the Vargas had left the building altogether and was headed to the hospital.
Lampley summed up the evenings action with one simple statement. “A great, great fight. A fight which will be remembered for a long, long time.”
Indeed it was. The Golden Boy had achieved one of his most celebrated victories.
Header photo by Richard Slone/Slone Art