Getting down to business Fernando Vargas brought his rage and muscle to the ring, but Oscar De La Hoya had the savvy and skills to make a bloody 11th-round TKO look as measured as a day at the office

September 22, 2002

Oscar De La Hoya has been dismissed as a dilettante, a dabbler,
someone who'd rather be doing something--maybe anything--other than
boxing. Three years ago, before the biggest fight of his career,
against Felix Trinidad, he was taking singing lessons. And before
that he toyed with architecture, golf, just about whatever came
to mind. His dabbling was put down to lack of commitment, lack of
resolve, perhaps even lack of passion. How could you not wonder
where his career was going? It was as if De La Hoya, not having
the courage to risk failure at a game in which he was so gifted,
chose to distribute his talents helter-skelter so that he could
dilute eventual disappointment.

But in considering his gritty and surprisingly bloody destruction
of Fernando Vargas last Saturday in their 154-pound title bout in
Las Vegas, it's necessary to reevaluate. What De La Hoya had last
weekend, and what he's always had, now that we think about it, is
a profound professionalism, which too often has been mistaken for
detachment and a lack of interest. He does something much harder
than what the average hothead does: He fights when he doesn't
want to, he beats opponents he doesn't hate, he takes punishment
he doesn't need to take. He elevates payday--"another day at the
office" is what he said before the Vargas fight--to event.

In a way this makes him the noblest athlete out there. Unlike
Vargas, who nursed a grudge until it became highly volatile
(plexiglass had to be rigged between the two opponents at their
press conference), De La Hoya didn't have much in the way of
inspiration for this fight. Vargas meant little to him besides a
$14 million guarantee. Only circumstances of geography and
ethnicity goaded him into the match. If he didn't answer
Vargas's challenge--who was the true representative of Southern
California's Mexican-American culture, machismo and all?--De La
Hoya's championships in five weight classes, his gold medal in
the 1992 Olympics, would be discounted by his Latino fan base.
Except for that, what Vargas amounted to in De La Hoya's eyes
was just...work.

If De La Hoya has any ambition left after a decade of
professional boxing--and he says he does, though not always
convincingly--it's to remedy his two losses and then retire into
history. The Trinidad debacle, during which he needlessly
pussyfooted to defeat, may never be avenged. Trinidad insists
that he's retired. A rematch with Sugar Shane Mosley may be
easier to arrange, Mosley having just been beaten twice by
Vernon Forrest. How Vargas insinuated himself into De La Hoya's
plans is testament more to Vargas's promotional skills than his
boxing, but it's admirable all the same. Vargas made himself an
unavoidable obstacle in De La Hoya's path. He became a job that
had to get done.

And look how De La Hoya did it. He outboxed Vargas, of course.
Vargas had expected as much. But De La Hoya, who was fighting at
154 pounds for only the second time (and who was fighting at all
for only the second time in 15 months), did more than use his jab
to build up points against a stronger and younger opponent.
Placing himself in more jeopardy than he'd faced in any previous
fight--he wasn't roughed up as much, combined, in his two
defeats--De La Hoya defused Vargas's fury with a near reckless
game plan: He invited his offense, "the objective being to brush
a lot of his punches," says De La Hoya, "to lure him in, make him
tired," before systematically dismantling him.

It was a braver plot than De La Hoya was used to constructing.
Ordinarily he eschews the suffering of violence, preferring to
peck away behind his jab. Before this fight he said, "If I have
to be aggressive, I'll do it very carefully." That's Oscar, all
right. Except he wasn't being particularly careful in the early
going. Vargas, who put his WBA title into play along with De La
Hoya's WBC version, battered the Golden Boy into the ropes almost
immediately. And his supporters, or De La Hoya's detractors (hard
to tell one from the other), must have been cheered by an ugly
red abrasion on De La Hoya's right cheek after the first round.
First round! Where could this be headed?

It appeared this little character study would play out in the
most obvious way. Vargas, 24, might have been less talented, but
he was hungrier, more determined. His perceived slights at the
hands of De La Hoya (which the latter was unaware of) were only
part of his motivation. He was all Aztec warrior to De La Hoya's
crossover crooner. (A Grammy nomination? C'mon!) Vargas was, in
the Hispanic culture that produced both fighters, proudly
(perhaps stubbornly) unassimilated; De La Hoya, 29, grown rich
and overcautious and American (he wore a red, white and blue robe
into the ring), was a comparative sellout.

Of course, if Vargas could hijack De La Hoya's life, it appears
he would. "He copies everything!" complained De La Hoya at one
point. And it's true, even beyond the copycat bus that the Vargas
entourage piloted into Vegas. Vargas, rough-hewn fury and all,
finds himself moving closer to De La Hoya's suburban lifestyle
than he seems to realize. He's long since left the barrios of
Oxnard, where he roamed fatherless and unmoored, and now raises
his kids ("my two beautiful cubs") in a gated community 10 miles
east of Oxnard overlooking the strawberry fields in which many of
his fans labor. "It's called Spanish Hills," he said, laughing at
his own uppityness, "though I'm the only one there who speaks
Spanish."

The contrast between the two fighters was, then, largely
illusory. They were more alike than, apparently, Vargas would
admit. About all that differentiated them, really, was talk.
Vargas had said, "I'd rather die in the ring than lose." And De
La Hoya, incredulous, replied, "Who wants to die in the ring?
That's ridiculous." That Vargas seemed so theatrically passionate
and De La Hoya so annoyingly realistic--"I ask myself why I do
this," he admitted--certainly seemed a setup for upset.

But as the rounds went by, with De La Hoya sticking that jab into
Vargas's face, taking hard right hands and then returning to jab
some more, it appeared that the character study was getting
turned on its head. Suddenly using his right hand in the seventh
round (he fought one-handed up to then), De La Hoya drew blood
under Vargas's right eye. Uncharacteristically the Grammy nominee
said, "I wanted more."

Vargas began to wilt under the assault, and De La Hoya, the
pretty boy, grew ugly in his intentions. The fight was still
close until the 10th round, but the balance was already tilting
in De La Hoya's favor when he staggered Vargas with a left hook
at the bell.

Then in the 11th De La Hoya feinted with his right--"I noticed he
was squinting with every punch, even jabs; he was hurting"--and
came behind it with a sweeping left hook that caught Vargas
flush. He went down suddenly, cartoonlike, then bounced up, also
cartoonlike. But De La Hoya caught him against a ring post and
battered him with 15 straight punches until the fight was,
amazingly, called.

The astonishment was not that De La Hoya had won, or even that
he'd knocked out a formidable opponent (which he had not been
doing as he climbed in weight). Hoopla aside, De La Hoya had
been favored. The astonishment was that despite his apparent
misgivings, De La Hoya delivered a passionate and colorful
exercise of his talents. It wasn't the work of a dabbler, that's
for sure. Just a fighter, doing what he does best, finally.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOHN IACONO BUSYBODY De La Hoya (right) threw 135 more punches than Vargas and landed the ones that did the most damage. TWO COLOR PHOTOS: ROBERT BECK PUNCHING IN Vargas (in white) went to work early with power shots and kept the fight close until Round 7, when De La Hoya cut with a right and began to rock him repeatedly.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)