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Oscar Gets Off the Hook

Boxing: De La Hoya, behind early in bout, knocks down Vargas in the 11th round and finishes him off a few moments later.

September 15, 2002|STEVE SPRINGER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LAS VEGAS — A feud that began in a cold snow bank in Big Bear ended under the hot lights of the Mandalay Bay Events Center on Saturday night, Fernando Vargas, blood flowing from a cut under his right eye, defenseless against the ropes as the man he has repeatedly professed hatred for, Oscar De La Hoya, responded with 16 unanswered punches.

Finally, mercifully, referee Joe Cortez stepped in and ended the match at 1:48 of the 11th round, allowing De La Hoya to retain his World Boxing Council 154-pound championship, capture the World Boxing Assn. 154-pound title and settle this much-hyped Southern California feud that had been labeled "Bad Blood."

Both fighters shed blood, De La Hoya's nose sporadically bleeding, but there was nothing bad about this fight, a much-hyped match that lived up to expectations for a change.

When it was over, De La Hoya (35-2, 28 knockouts), who hadn't fought in 15 months and had lost to his last two big-name opponents--Felix Trinidad and Shane Mosley--had stepped up to a new level, proving that he could not only regain the form that had earned him the nickname Golden Boy, but could also could regain the power he had possessed at the lower weight divisions. He had the only knockdown, moments before the finish, with a solid left hook.

Vargas (22-2), on the other hand, failed to prove wrong those critics who questioned his chin after he had been knocked down five times by Trinidad and once by light-hitting Wilfredo Rivera.

The fight had been billed as De La Hoya's superior speed and boxing ability against Vargas' power. It was thought that De La Hoya had to stay out of Vargas' reach, use his superior jab, cut up Vargas, frustrate him and stay out of reach of those potentially damaging right-hand punches.

In the first round, Vargas seemed to have torn those pages out of De La Hoya's playbook. He burrowed in with a left-right combination, nearly put De La Hoya down, bruised his cheek and perhaps battered his confidence. Only the ropes, it appeared, prevented De La Hoya from going down.

Vargas had predicted his power would prove overwhelming. He had strutted around at the weigh-in as if he were preparing for a bodybuilding contest.

Had De La Hoya's promise to use his right hand more effectively than ever and display the defensive tactics taught him by trainer Floyd Mayweather Sr. been just so much prefight gibberish?

"Vargas was very strong," De La Hoya said. "I had to be patient, go to the body and use combinations. He really surprised me."

In the second round, De La Hoya came out with the form he had promised, his jab working smoothly, his footwork sharp, his defensive skills on display.

And so it went from round to round, first Vargas coming on, and then De La Hoya responding in the ensuing round.

After the fifth round, De La Hoya's nose bleeding, blood smeared on his face, Vargas' corner was in a celebratory mood.

"He's yours," Eduardo Garcia, Vargas' trainer, told him in the corner. "He's liable to quit. You got him."

But few celebrations in the back-and-forth match lasted more than a round until the end.

In the sixth, De La Hoya opened the cut under Vargas' eye and, by the ninth round, De La Hoya seemed in command.

But suddenly, he seemed to fade. He was backtracking, he looked tired and he was sitting on his lead.

Hadn't this act been seen before? Was the sellout crowd of 11,425 viewing a replay of De La Hoya's 1999 match against Trinidad when he danced away for the final three rounds and gave away the match?

Not this time.

Instead, De La Hoya dug down and found a reservoir of strength he had not shown since he beat Ike Quartey. And in the 10th round, there was a familiar look on Vargas' face, the look of fatigue. Vargas looked as he had in December of 2000 when Trinidad had demolished him.

At the end of the 10th round, De La Hoya delivered his most telling blow of the fight to that point, a left hook that staggered Vargas, perhaps only the bell saving him from more serious damage.

That damage came in the 11th round.

De La Hoya, as he has all his career, won the fight with his left hand. A devastating left hook sent Vargas to the canvas with such force that his head bounced. De La Hoya was so confident victory was within his grasp that he did a little dance before heading to the neutral corner.

His confidence proved justified.

Vargas got up, but his evening was over. The feud was about to be settled.

According to Vargas, an Oxnard fighter, it had begun in 1993 when his hero, De La Hoya from East Los Angeles, refused to help him up after he had fallen in the snow while doing roadwork, laughing instead as he ran by. De La Hoya claimed he didn't recall the incident.

No matter, Vargas began a campaign to fight De La Hoya that took almost a decade to complete.

"I don't understand why Vargas was talking so much. It doesn't make sense," De La Hoya said. "Imagine Tiger Woods talking bad about Jack Nicklaus. You should show it in the ring. Let your fists do the talking. Tonight my fists did the talking."

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