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Big Bear Market

September 03, 2002|STEVE SPRINGER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BIG BEAR — This is where it all began.

Supposedly.

Fernando Vargas will no longer talk about it and Oscar De La Hoya says he doesn't remember it.

But back when he couldn't seem to stop talking about it, Vargas claimed his hatred of De La Hoya, whom he will face Sept. 14 in a 154-pound title fight at Las Vegas' Mandalay Bay Events Center, began on a snow-covered trail in this skiing/boating resort atop the San Bernardino mountains 120 miles from Los Angeles.

It was 1993 and De La Hoya, the gold medal winner from East Los Angeles, was a Latino hero to Vargas, who had learned his fighting skills on the streets of Oxnard.

Vargas, an amateur then, said he was doing roadwork when he bogged down in a heavy snow bank and fell.

When he looked up, his frustration turned to excitement. Here came De La Hoya, doing some roadwork of his own. Surely this rising star would stop to lift up a kid following his own uphill path.

Instead, Vargas claimed, De La Hoya took one look at him, laughed and continued on his way.

When the story was relayed to Robert Alcazar, De La Hoya's former trainer, he reacted with a laugh, saying, "No, no, Vargas has it all wrong. What happened was, I was following Oscar on a snowmobile and, when I saw Vargas laying there, I ran him over."

Whatever happened on that snowy road, it chilled the relationship between De La Hoya and Vargas and ignited a feud that has become the hottest in boxing.

And the fact that they are still here, still using the high altitude and wooded trails to prepare themselves for battle, has only intensified the feud.

Twice in recent weeks, they have crossed paths in their early-morning runs around Big Bear Lake. The first time the fighters, surrounded by their entourages, came face to face, Floyd Mayweather Sr., De La Hoya's trainer, and Vargas exchanged insults.

Mayweather mocked the outfit Vargas was wearing, saying it looked like a rubber suit, commonly employed to sweat off excessive fat.

Vargas, noting that he was finishing his run while De La Hoya was just starting his, yelled back, "You'll have to get up earlier than this to beat me."

When they passed each other the next time, De La Hoya held up six fingers, his way of telling Vargas he will go down in six rounds.

It is difficult for the two men to avoid each other in this community of 21,000. They are living in gated homes only half a mile apart. They could almost practice their prefight stares by looking over their back fences.

But neither man is about to give up his spot in town. That puts them in the minority.

*

After attracting fighters and trainers for a dozen years, the heyday of Big Bear as Catskills West has faded. There are more fighters going down the winding mountain roads in search of new training facilities than there are fighters coming up.

Trainer Larry Goossen is credited with starting the Big Bear craze. A member of the famed Goossen boxing family, Larry came to Big Bear to train someone who had no interest in becoming a professional fighter.

Steve Wickliff was a successful businessman in his 40s who loved boxing and wanted to play at the sport. He hired Larry, who set out to find a training site. Goossen looked at Lake Arrowhead and several other Southern California locales but wasn't impressed.

Then one day, he got a call from Wickliff.

"Man, I found the perfect spot," Wickliff told him. "I'm in Big Bear."

Goossen had never been there. Wickliff loved the remoteness of the area and the fact Big Bear had a small airport he could use to commute to his business obligations.

Goossen set up his first gym at the airport in an unused hangar. Within six months, he had built a gym in a building a couple of hundred yards away.

Larry's brother, Dan, began bringing up some of the fighters he promoted, including Gabe and Rafael Ruelas.

Soon there was a steady stream of big names making their way up the mountain. De La Hoya started using Goossen's facility. Others who came to Big Bear included Lennox Lewis, Riddick Bowe, Shane Mosley, Vernon Forrest, Bernard Hopkins, Marco Antonio Barrera, Erik Morales, Floyd Mayweather Jr., Johnny Tapia and Jorge Paez.

"It's the seclusion, the isolation," De La Hoya said. "It's not the same as before because everybody knows I train up here, but I can still relax and concentrate."

De La Hoya's presence at the Goossen gym came to an end in 1995 when he fought Rafael Ruelas. Two boxers dividing time in a small facility to prepare themselves for a blockbuster match against each other proved to be an untenable situation. The tension came out in angry confrontations between the two camps.

De La Hoya realized he didn't need that. He bought property nearby and built a luxurious, two-story cabin and has added a ring, weight area and even a putting green. He also uses the facility as a vacation retreat when he is not training.

Others in the fight game, however, feel differently.

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