It could have been different, of course. Should have been. They're
countrymen, neighbors, colleagues. Why not friends? Yet when
Oscar De La Hoya and Fernando Vargas passed each other last
month, jogging at cross-purposes in the piney air of an early
morning in Big Bear, Calif., it became another strike point in
their combustible collaboration.
Vargas, who plays raffish punk to De La Hoya's crooning
sophisticate, was always the provocateur in these predawn
run-bys. "You'll have to start earlier than this," yelled Vargas,
who took pride in his 5 a.m. wake-up calls. Vargas, who's had a
little history of late-night living and has even done time for
it, has lately come to believe in a spartan lifestyle and counts
his sacrifices as a miser totes up his hoarded gold.
De La Hoya, his senior by five years and by nearly as many
titles, admits it's increasingly difficult to roll out of bed by
6 a.m. ("In his silk pajamas," guesses Vargas.) After all these
years of fight camps, De La Hoya counts his sacrifices with some
resentment, as a landlord does late rent. And he doubts, in any
case, that their Sept. 14 showdown in Las Vegas will be won at
breakfast. As he did his roadwork, he held up six fingers, not to
signal time of day but time of departure; he's got Vargas down
for six rounds. A smug smile crinkled his aggravatingly unmarked
It was left to his trainer, the gum-flapping Floyd Mayweather, to
provide the morning's verbal volley. Mayweather, who regards the
mountain silence as a personal reproach, was without prepared
remarks and had to riff: "Fatso!" he shouted at Vargas. That
kicked off a dialogue that was not conducted on as high a plane
as it might have been. "Turtle!" was Vargas's camp's unfathomable
The two camps, conjoined by years of hatred--press conference
melees, egg-throwing skirmishes, reams of bitter copy--and now
fully depleted of repartee, moved along in the morning's
crispness, each satisfied that it had undermined, possibly even
shattered, the other's confidence. The De La Hoya camp clomped on
through the thin blue air, finally reaching his rather upscale
log cabin compound (well, there is a babbling brook and a putting
green) at Golden Boy Avenue (no fighter's driveway in Big Bear
shall be without a vanity signpost) to continue preparations to
put his 154-pound WBC championship up against Vargas's WBA belt.
The Vargas group headed for his slightly grittier spread on
Ferocious Way, no more than five blocks away, to nurse old and
mysterious grudges and to plot his comeback.
Oh, it's on, all right!
It's strange, when you think about it: that there aren't more
feuds in boxing--really, that they're not all feuds. To muster the
resolve to face another man at fisticuffs, well, shouldn't that
require personal involvement beyond financial or professional
gain? What could provoke a man to hit another in the face? Just
Yet boxing is a surprisingly gentlemanly profession, with
opponents more respectful of their shared jeopardy, both physical
and emotional, than in perhaps any other profession. There are
hardly any feuds--even baseball has more--and those that do exist
are generally for show, for promotional purposes only. If Mike
Tyson takes a bite out of Lennox Lewis (he did, he did), it is
not because he hates him. It's simply to satisfy the requirements
of public confrontation, which these days need to be exaggerated
to highly dangerous levels just to make the evening news.
The old days were no better (or worse). One feud that set a
precedent for Vargas-De La Hoya, in sociological terms anyway,
involved Art Aragon, a popular L.A. fighter of the 1950s who
happens to be the original Golden Boy. ("You're the real Golden
Boy," he was told once by William Holden, star of the '39 boxing
movie of that name.) Aragon was supposed to be the bitter enemy
of fellow Angeleno Lauro Salas, though their rivalry had little
to do with their one meeting, a 10-round decision for Aragon in
Hall of Fame publicist Bill Caplan remembers that even then,
racial distinctions were subtle and sophisticated but no less
real. Aragon, a Mexican-American from New Mexico, was considered
neither American nor Mexican, but he was colorful, handsome and
very much a ladies' man. Salas, entirely and proudly Mexican, was
not similarly appealing, despite his world lightweight
If Salas harbored a grudge against Aragon, it was not apparent
until one New Year's Eve, when they ran into each other in a
Hollywood bar. "I'm drunk, he's drunk," says Aragon, remembering
the critical details, "and I greet him, 'You ugly sonuvabitch.'
It was a classic."
The next day's headline, SALAS KNOCKS ARAGON DOWN FOUR TIMES,
sticks in the original Golden Boy's craw after all these years.
"I slipped twice," he says. The incident was inflated to an
ongoing feud in newspaper reports. Aragon, now 74 and still
running a bail bonds business in Los Angeles ("I'll get you out
if it takes 10 years," reads his card), has no ill feelings
toward Salas and says he never did.
If most grudges are either media contrivance or pure burlesque,
then De La Hoya-Vargas is strictly reality programming. When
Vargas was training for the 1996 Olympics (he was eliminated in
early rounds in Atlanta, in sharp and infuriating contrast to De
La Hoya's '92 gold), he entertained all around him with his
enmity for his one-time hero. It was odd but provocative. When a
p.r. man placed Vargas on Jim Rome's radio show, he reminded the
fighter to make sure, for Rome's Arbitron sake, that he mentioned
how he hated De La Hoya. "But I do hate him!" Vargas insisted. It
wasn't a matter of p.r.
This hatred, going back at least to 1995, has not caught the two
of them in anything so theatrical as a Hollywood bar, but it has
produced a couple of nice moments. About four years ago, on the
morning of a parade in L.A. honoring hometown hero De La Hoya,
Vargas, who lived in Oxnard, organized his posse, and somehow
eggs got thrown. More dramatically, at a press conference to
promote their fight earlier this year (it was originally
scheduled for May and postponed when De La Hoya's surgically
repaired left wrist still wasn't ready for action), Vargas gave
De La Hoya a push, starting a fracas in which publicist Ricardo
Jimenez's leg was broken.
Vargas says he couldn't help himself once he saw De La Hoya on
the dais. And he takes satisfaction in the event. "His eyes were
watering," says Vargas happily. "He was crying!"
De La Hoya, a smoothy ever since he broke out of those 1992
Olympics, takes the higher road in the feud, affecting an air of,
in promoter Bob Arum's words, "bemused annoyance." That is not to
say he's above it all. He's just a little more passive-aggressive
in his participation. When he says, "I'm not losing any sleep
over the guy," well, he may not be crying, but he's certainly
What may have started out as bemused annoyance quickly
degenerated into full, if private, participation in the feud.
Years ago, before De La Hoya had been matched with Felix Trinidad
and Shane Mosley (his only defeats), his handlers were begging
him to take on Vargas, then an up-and-coming junior middleweight
contender. "He's young and inexperienced," explained former
trainer Roberto Alcazar, "and this would be a good time to get
him, before he gets much better."
De La Hoya considered the idea and asked his handlers to crunch
some numbers: How much would Vargas get for the fight? When told
it would produce millions for Vargas--two L.A. Olympians, how
could it not?--De La Hoya nixed the idea. "He couldn't bear the
idea of Vargas making that kind of money," Alcazar said.
Occasionally De La Hoya can be roused to public confrontation.
When Vargas was training for Raul Marquez, an Olympic teammate of
De La Hoya's, the Golden Boy offered up his camp to Marquez.
Then, having heard Vargas was making a public appearance, De La
Hoya and Marquez showed up at the Big Bear restaurant where he
was signing autographs and sat down, provoking a profane outburst
from Vargas. De La Hoya feigned surprise at finding Vargas there,
laughed and called him a "celebrity stalker."
And so it's gone, until the fight simply had to be made. Last
year, after De La Hoya turned 28, long past the time he thought
he would have retired, Vargas had disappeared from his plans.
There was the matter of avenging the losses to Trinidad and
Mosley--"an ego thing," he explains--and that was it. "I mean, why
am I still doing this? I ask myself that question every day. You
get aches and pains, you start to not train enough rounds, you
don't get motivated enough--it does become dangerous."
The only reason he's doing this, he reluctantly admits, is that
Vargas forced his hand. "Getting under my skin like that, I guess
he did a good job, getting this fight." Hearing this, Vargas
Were you wondering, by the way, how all this started? That's kind
of the punch line. Nobody really knows. "Took advantage of him?"
De La Hoya guesses. "Beat him up or something? I don't know."
Vargas says the source of the feud is secret, to be unveiled in
Las Vegas, when he finally confronts De La Hoya. "I want him to
be a man, admit it in the ring," he says.
Most people in the know agree that it started with some silliness
in 1995, when Vargas was invited to De La Hoya's camp to spar.
Vargas was surprised that De La Hoya didn't pay more attention to
him, offer more support. Supposedly that hurt bloomed into hatred
one morning when, during roadwork, Vargas slipped on an icy
patch, and De La Hoya trundled by, laughing at the sight.
"He never knew that kid would grow up to be Fernando Vargas,"
says Fernando Vargas.
That's a flimsy premise for a feud, but there's an underlying
sociology that supports it in the Hispanic community that
constitutes their fan base. Like Aragon and Salas before them,
there is enough racial distinction between these two
Mexican-Americans to provide separate rooting interests.
"Within any immigrant culture," opines Arum, "you have two
competing factions: those trying to assimilate and take advantage
of the adopted culture, and those trying to maintain their
heritage. So you've got Oscar, with his Latin Grammy nomination,
playing golf, belonging to the group that's running for office.
And Vargas, representing the barrio, saying Oscar's not a real
Indeed, as much as De La Hoya tries to cross over, Vargas burrows
deeper into his peoples' history, wearing Mexican flags and Aztec
symbols. So their fans are allowed in on the feud--actively fuel
it, in fact, and perhaps provide the real impetus to sustaining
it--those who prefer the slick, multicultural flash of De La Hoya,
and those who insist on the old-fashioned warrior spirit of
Vargas. Fitting neatly into this sociology is the fact that the
two fighters have defined themselves likewise in the ring.
How this pays off in their fight is anybody's guess. Will De La
Hoya, animated by his latent animosity, go toe-to-toe? Does
Vargas throw his bolt in impetuous impatience? De La Hoya is sure
that Vargas, his chin exposed when he was knocked down five times
in his TKO loss to Trinidad, will be easily solved, may even be
shot. (He has not looked sharp since that 2000 fight.) Vargas,
meanwhile, thinks De La Hoya has moved up too far in weight to
meet "a man with man's strength." Indeed, De La Hoya's power has
been conspicuously absent since he's climbed to 154 pounds.
But how it ends is predictable, which is to say, not with a hug.
And for some people that may be refreshing--or honest, anyway.
"You see these guys hugging and kissing today," says Aragon, the
original Golden Boy, "I hate them all." After all, this is
boxing! They're hitting each other in the face! Pretty hard!
You'd be mad, too.
"Getting under my skin like that, I guess he did a good job,
getting this fight."
"I want him to be a man, admit it in the ring [what he did to
start this feud]."
Vargas representing the barrio.