For an inside look into the lives of some of the greatest fighters in the sport of boxing, SI.com's Daniel Friedman will be interviewing everyone from the heavyweight champ to the underdog fighting his way up the card in a series of Q&As.
This week's story focuses on Sammy Vasquez Jr. (20–0) as he prepares to battle Aaron Martinez (20–4–1) at the Staples Center in Los Angeles on Jan. 23 in the WBC welterweight semifinal title eliminator, airing on FOX (8 p.m. ET/5 p.m. PT). After serving in the military for two tours in Iraq, Vasquez found solace in the ring. He's also got a soft spot for his wife's jambalya, has become one of the best fighters in the armed forces and much more.
Daniel Friedman: So let’s start all the way back at the beginning. What do you remember of your first experiences with boxing when you were a kid?
Sammy Vasquez Jr.: I was bullied when I was nine years old and that’s what initially got me into boxing. I remember that my first time ever fighting in a boxing match was very nerve wracking in a sense. But I had a lot of support behind me with my dad, my coach and my family. So it was a very exciting experience and it was something I wanted to continue to do.
DF: Who were some of the people that helped you get started, and how did they help you develop?
SV: My dad... I was getting bullied on the bus. Bigger kids would tell me to move out of their seat, and I’d move to another seat and then they’d tell me to move again and smack me in the back of the head. And I came home one day and I told my dad about it, and he asked me, “What do you think about trying to box?” so I could learn some self-defense.
And it prevented people from bullying me because they knew that I knew how to fight. People heard that I was going to boxing training, and after I started winning some fights and catching fire a little bit, I didn’t have anymore problems with that.
DF: As a kid growing up trying to perfect his own style and approach, who were some of the boxers you looked up to, and why?
SV: At the time, I looked up to Michael Moorer because I graduated from the same high school that he did. I’m a southpaw and he was the first heavyweight champion southpaw. So he’s somebody that I looked up to a lot growing up. I always watched his fights. Mike Tyson was another guy that we’d always watch. I remember him biting off Holyfield’s ear [laughs]. Paul Spadafora was big from our area. I looked up to him as a fighter. He’s a really good, defensive fighter. Not so good with life skills, but as a fighter I understood his defense.
Those were the guys I looked up to, and once I got a little older, I understood more about their life story and respected what they accomplished more, with so many negative things that happened in their lives. Oscar De La Hoya was another guy I looked up to. Stylistically he had great technique and stuff like that.
DF: What’s your philosophy when it comes to training for a fight as far as diet? Do you worry about that kind of thing at all?
SV: I don’t really worry about it too much. My wife cooks all the healthy meals for us, and I just come home and she knows what I can and can’t eat. Sometimes I’ll go off the plan a little bit and grab a burger, but I don’t really have too many problems with making weight. But my wife keeps a keen eye on me so I’m doing the right stuff.
And she makes a mean Jambalaya, lots of sausage and things like that so it’s not really healthy for you, but it’s so good [laughs].
DF: How do you think your military training has influenced your development in boxing? Do you think it’s given you an edge at all mentally or physically?
SV: I’d say it’s more in my attitude rather than my development in boxing. I grew up really fast being in the military. So I made sure that if I did something it was to 110%. And the military teaches you a lot of discipline and the will not to give up no matter what and things like that, so it definitely helped me out training-wise. I’m always on time. I’m always on weight, and I’m disciplined about my training and listening to my coach.
A lot of fighters sometimes overstep their coach and don’t listen to them. I always put my coach first, you know. This is the man that’s teaching me, so I need to listen to him. Even if he might be wrong, you have to have that trust in each other. And being that my coach was in the military for twenty years too, we have a good connection.
DF: You participated in the 2012 Olympic Trials and other armed forces tournaments. What was it like for you to compete on that level and what do you think you took away from those experiences as a fighter?
SV: It was awesome, man. Fighting in the armed forces and knocking guys out, it was awesome. To be part of the Army and fight against the Marines, Navy and Air Force and say you’re the best out of the whole armed forces as a whole, it was so cool to be part of something so great.
DF: You’ve talked about boxing as a form of therapy after coming back from serving in the military. Can you talk a little bit about that?
SV: After I deployed to Iraq, boxing was always a form of therapy. I first got into the sport because I was getting bullied and I took it out in the gym. So once I came back from Iraq, and the things I went through and saw and stuff like that, I’d get really anxious coming back home and a lot of soldiers deal with PTSD and they’re really on edge all the time.
I use boxing to help medicate myself because it takes out a lot of aggression, a lot of anger. It was the safest, and best way for me to let go. And I’ve been boxing all my life, and I’ve put my heart and soul into it, so it means a lot to me.
DF: Do you have any superstitions about your training or the whole pre-fight process when you’re getting ready for a bout?
SV: Not really, I don’t have any weird superstitions. I’m not a very superstitious guy. I do always eat a Snickers most of the time before a fight. I don’t know if it’s a ritual or some kind of routine, I can go without it. It’s just something that we’ve always done. That’s probably the only thing that’s really consistent [in our pre-fight routine].
DF: Do you feel a certain pressure being undefeated? Is that something that weighs on you every fight?
SV: No, I don’t think about that stuff at all. I enjoy boxing. I have a good time—and after being overseas, being deployed, fighting in a war—I do this out for enjoyment and fun. Win, lose or draw, I’m walking out of there alive. Overseas it’s totally different, you wake up every day not know if you’re going to survive or not.
I’m just blessed to be boxing. Of course I want to win, there’s no doubt in my mind that I want to win and become the world champ. But I’m just happy to be doing what I’m doing with everything that I’ve been through in my life. It’s just amazing.
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DF: What do you want your legacy to be when you’ve retired from the sport? Do you even think about that at this point in your career?
SV: I don’t really worry about my legacy too much. My story speaks for itself and it’s going to leave a lasting impression on a lot of people. And I think a lot of people will remember me just for what I’ve done in my life, and I’m a humble guy so I make sure to take time out for other people. I think people will remember me for that. So for boxing, legacy-wise, I’m creating it one fight at a time.