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Fury and Soundness

Trainer and father-figure Garcia helped Vargas harness his anger and make it work for him in the ring

September 14, 2002|PAUL GUTIERREZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Eduardo Garcia had seen this kind before, a street kid with an attitude and a penchant for fighting.

So it was no wonder that Garcia, a respected longtime boxing trainer, paid little attention to 10-year-old Fernando Vargas when the angry young pup came strutting into Oxnard's La Colonia boxing club. A dime a dozen, Garcia thought, until he saw something in the fuming youngster that surprised even him--ganas. Desire.

Vargas, in desperate need of someone to help harness his rage, a fury born of a broken home in an Oxnard barrio, would walk five miles from his home for his workout, then trudge the five miles back home.

Finally one day, Garcia offered him a ride.

It was the start of a relationship that not only propelled Vargas to the Olympics and a pair of world championships, but also gave him a father figure, a stabilizing influence.

Garcia will be in Vargas' corner tonight when the World Boxing Assn. super-welterweight champion meets World Boxing Council champion Oscar De La Hoya at the Mandalay Bay Events Center in a 154-pound unification bout, the biggest fight of Vargas' career.

"God puts people in your path in life so you can learn from them or just experience life with them," Vargas said. "As a kid, I was always in trouble. I was very angry because my father wasn't there. My stepfather was a [jerk] and my mother ... sided with him. I was always in trouble.

"But Eduardo Garcia, he's the father I never had. He's taught me how to be a man inside and outside the ring."

As a young man, Garcia would often come north from Michoacan, Mexico, looking for work. He found it on the docks of the L.A. harbor and in the fields of the San Fernando Valley.

As a youngster, his athletic love was soccer. When he was 14, though, and with his family one day in Guadalajara, he noticed that a church was holding a boxing show as a fund-raiser. One problem--there weren't enough boxers.

A God-fearing youth who wanted to help the church, Garcia laced up the gloves, jumped in the ring and fell in love with the sweet science.

When he came to the United States for good in 1964, he began training fighters. And years later, he found Vargas.

"Fernando was a cocky little guy, but he had a lot of talent," said Garcia, 57, who still speaks only in Spanish. "He was strong and had a lot of interest. He ... wanted to learn, so I taught him."

Vargas, the second-oldest of three brothers and two sisters, has had a chip on his shoulder for as long as he can remember.

"I've been an underdog since I came out of the womb," he said.

He said his biological father left the family "before I was born," and refers to him as a "maggot." He uses similarly colorful language to describe his stepfather.

Bitter at being virtually fatherless in his formative years, Vargas became a schoolyard bully.

On one of the numerous days he was home on school suspension, Vargas happened upon an amateur boxing show on local cable. Kids his age and younger were duking it out--and being praised.

Vargas was inspired and began his life-altering walks to La Colonia that afternoon.

"It was just like I had found gold," Vargas said. "I didn't know kids could box. I mean, I was like, 'I love to fight. I want some of those trophies.' "

Under Garcia's tutelage, he got plenty of them, compiling an amateur record of 100-5 and earning a reputation as an up-and-comer who had great things awaiting him in the ring ... if he could steer clear of trouble out of the ring.

He still isn't always able to do that--he is on probation after having pleaded no contest in an assault case--but he says he has matured. And Garcia still is there to help.

"Oh, man, if he hadn't met my dad that day and not gone straight to the gym, Fernando would have ended up locked up or even dead," said Garcia's son Robert, a former junior-lightweight champion. "He was a little troublemaker going in the wrong direction."

A gold medal was predicted for the 18-year-old Vargas at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, a feat that would have mirrored the accomplishment of De La Hoya at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics.

But Vargas, fighting at 147 pounds, lost a controversial decision, 8-7, to Romania's Marian Simion in the second round of the tournament.

A distraught Vargas sought Garcia's counsel.

"He told me not to worry about it, to not let it get me down. 'Voy a llenar su estomago,' " Vargas said. " 'I'm going to fill your stomach with gold,' he told me."

Garcia was telling his eager pupil that better days lay ahead. "I'm very happy with our relationship," Garcia said. "He respects me as a father and I respect him as a son. There is nothing but respect between us so I can be honest with him."

It took Vargas 15 fights to win his first title, beating Yory Boy Campas into submission and taking his International Boxing Federation junior-middleweight title on Dec. 12, 1998, in Atlantic City.

A run-in with his management team ensued.

Main Events, which had signed Vargas when he turned pro, had brought in Lou Duva to share training duties with Garcia.

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