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ATLANTA 1996 / 16 Days To The Games

READY TO RUMBLE : Fernando Vargas' Olympic Boxing Training Started Long Ago When He Sought Out Challengers on the Streets of Oxnard

July 03, 1996|TIM KAWAKAMI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

OXNARD — The kid wanted to fight.

In the streets or inside the ropes, against big, little or any size in between, Fernando Vargas was a scuffle waiting to happen, well on his way to a many-fists-in-the-face manifest destiny.

He wasn't 11 yet, and he was way past ready to rumble.

"I was always fighting in the streets," Vargas said last week, in his last day of home training before leaving for U.S. boxing team workouts for the Summer Olympics in Atlanta. "I got into boxing because I was a roughneck in the streets.

"I was one of those little kids who got into trouble, mainly for fighting, nothing else. I think I always had it in my mind that I was going to be champion, that when I stepped into the ring, I would own the ring. That's something all fighters probably have, but I think I have a little bit more.

"The intensity wasn't given to me--I already had it."

Vargas, who just turned 18 and is a hard-slugging medal prospect in the 147-pound division, says these words at his typical rat-a-tat pace, spitting out clauses and sentences as his mind races ahead to the next thought, the next idea, the next bit of action.

The Olympics? For Vargas, that's just the next bunch of guys waiting to get run over by his power and gusto.

From his childhood, those who know him well say, Vargas has always bustled with relentless energy, and boxing was his release and his ticket to stardom.

"I remember we lived on the other side of Oxnard, which is close to the beach, and Fernando lives on that side too," said professional junior-lightweight contender Robert Garcia, whose father, Eduardo, is also Vargas' trainer.

"I'd drive to the gym, and there comes Fernando running. I'd think, 'Look at this boy, he really likes boxing!' That was his first week at the gym."

Said Eduardo Garcia, through a translator: "He was a misguided youth, in everything, boxing too. There was more work in guiding him than there was in boxing. If I hadn't put that work into guiding him, he would have been either dead or in jail.

"He was aggressive, he was wild, but that's why we gave him attention, because that's the grace of a good trainer, to take someone who doesn't have guidance and give it to him."

Garcia stayed with him, and Vargas progressed rapidly through the junior divisions as an amateur, slowly blending bits and pieces of defense to add to his natural aggression and punching power.

And as he grew from local prodigy to nationally ranked emerging star to the youngest-ever U.S. champion two years ago at age 16, Vargas began to realize that being in the spotlight was a warm and comfortable place.

"I'd fight if it was for free--it's not for the money," Vargas said. "I think I drive off of the fame. I want to be known as the baddest, greatest fighter that ever lived. That's what I train for, that's what I live for."

Garcia, 21, cracks a wide smile when he speaks about his young stablemate's quest for fame.

"When he started boxing, he always saw me getting the attention," Garcia said. "And that's one thing Fernando doesn't like. One thing that Fernando likes is him getting the attention."

Said Manuel Herrera, a long-time volunteer at La Colonia Youth Boxing Club, the Oxnard gym the elder Garcia runs: "Fernando loves publicity. When he was a kid watching Robert fight, he'd be seeing the attention Robert was getting and ask me, 'Does anybody want to come over here and talk to me?'

"And later, when he was winning more fights, he'd say, 'Manny, now does anybody talk to me?' And I just said, 'Eventually, Fernando, eventually.'

"Now that he's getting it, it's like he's been waiting for it his whole life."

*

The last thing Fernando Vargas wants to do is jump onto center stage, only to fall under someone else's shadow.

That's why the surest way to stop Vargas' tumbling commentary is to mention his Los Angeles-area Mexican-American Olympic predecessor, Oscar De La Hoya.

"Ooooooh, he hates that," said Vargas' friend, Freddie Flores. "Definitely hates that. He thinks De La Hoya hasn't fought a good fighter yet. De La Hoya fights the guys whose time is over."

Further trying to distance himself, Vargas makes it clear that he is from Oxnard, not Los Angeles--and that he plans to stay at home, an implicit knock on De La Hoya's move out of East L.A. to Montebello, then Whittier.

"Since the beginning, I've always wanted to put Oxnard on the map and represent Oxnard," said Vargas, who recently graduated from Channel Islands High. "I'm always going to stay here, I'm always going to live in Oxnard. Hopefully, if everything goes good in boxing, I'll have houses everywhere. But I do want to have a big house in Oxnard. This is where I grew up, and this is where people have supported me."

Vargas, when feeling especially tired of the are-you-the-next-Oscar questions, has derided De La Hoya, implying that the East Los Angeles-born boxer doesn't fight aggressively enough to win over the local Latino fight community.

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