By Fiona Manning
Former WBA 130 pound champion and reigning IBA champion Joel Casamayor faces longtime friend (and sometime sparring partner) Yoni Vargas on ESPN2 on December 2O in Miami, Florida.
“He is a very good man and a very good, strong fighter. Now we must fight. The snake I have been petting has to turn around and bite me. But I have nothing bad to say about Yoni. I have nothing but good feelings for him. When the fighting is done, our friendship will remain.”
When the two men stare at each other across the ring at Miami’s American Airlines Amphitheater for their 10 round, 133 (give or take) battle, only victory will be in both their minds.
They’ve shared a lot both in the gym and out of it. Casa-mayor is mindful of this. When La Prensa San Diego went to visit Casamayor this week, he allowed our cameras in for an exclusive sneak peek at his rigorous training session.
The first thing Casamayor was told is how highly Yoni Vargas speaks of him. Casamayor who understands better English than he lets on, nodded vigorously. “I speak well of him too,” he said.
“You won’t get any trash talking from us either,” said Casamayor’s trainer Joe Goossen. “We have a lot of respect for Yoni and his management team, Mike and Norman. We have tremendous respect for them all. We know we have to handle business now. We are all on the same page here. This is boxing. This is what we do.”
Casamayor, who is 27-1, with 17 KOs, concurs whole-heartedly. “I have seen Yoni improve so much as a fighter and I have been there watching from the beginning. I know who I am getting into the ring with. But I haven’t been idle either. I have been constantly learning and improving, too.”
Vargas recently told this reporter of a night out drinking with Casamayor in Acapulco, Mexico some years ago. At the mere mention of the world “Acapulco,” Casamayor exploded into infectious laughter.
He laughed so hard and looked so funny slapping his knees and holding his gut, that everybody in the gym soon wanted to hear the story.
“This story is true,” said Casamayor, his gold teeth glinting in his mouth. “We were drinking and - “ he imitated shaky legs - “These two guys on the street want to fight us. Can you imagine if we take this fight? We would put these two guys in the hospital! They keep saying, come on hit us! and Yoni and I won’t do it. We don’t fight on the street. We would hurt these guys.”
Casamayor wasn’t a world champion then. He had not even defected from his native Cuba to seek asylum in the US. He was an amateur star in his country and he was showing his Mexican buddy the sights whilst the two were training far from home.
“There are lots of stories we could tell you except that it would upset our wives,” Casamayor said. “We used to party but that was a long time ago. Yoni and I always stayed in touch, always made time for each other.
“Two years ago, we came to the gym to spar here and we had both just had children. I remember looking at him. His son Yoni junior had just been born the week before. And we shook hands. I thought, look at us, all grown up with children. We’ve come a long way. Now we are coming along even more.”
While Casamayor remains business-like about the fight with Vargas, he is positively seething about his controversial and highly-disputed loss to Acelino “Popo” Freitas in January which took his coveted WBA championship title from him.
Casamayor is easily upset at the mere mention of Freitas. It was a shocking loss to Casamayor, a 1996 Olympic Games gold medallist who defected to Cuba immediately after the event by driving across the border to Los Angeles.
The highly-regarded amateur star was undefeated as a pro before facing Freitas in his biggest fight. “It still hurts, especially since he won’t give me a rematch, but I look forward, not back,” he said.
“I look at this fight as working my way back to Freitas. At some point he will be forced to fight me and then we’ll see who the real world champion is.”
Casamayor welcomes the Vargas fight as part of his plan of attack on Freitas. “Revenge is sweet,” he said, strapping on his head gear for sparring with LA-based Aremenian fighter Artyom Simonyan.
“Most good fighters will tell you that yes, this is the only sport in the world where you end up fighting people you like, but the only way I can explain it is to say there is a victory, a good victory in fighting someone you have respect for, someone you admire. It brings out the best in you. It brings out the man in you.”
Trainer Goossen employed his trademark brutal 40-50 rounds of sparring per week for Casamayor, working a roster of five fighters, including three Armenian fighters.
“Doesn’t he look good?” said Goossen. “Joel is a hard worker. He doesn’t cheat himself in the gym. He knows if he cheats himself there, he pays for it in the ring. Joel is happy because he knows he’s going to be world champion again.
“That said, we’re expecting a war. We’d be foolish to expect Yoni coming in looking anything less than impressive. Yoni comes to fight. He’s a bad ass. But you know what, Joel is an even badder ass.”
Casamayor and Goossen are expecting Vargas to come straight after him. “That’s how everyone fights Joel,” said Goossen who bristled a little when told that Vargas felt Freitas beat Casamayor.
The loss still rankles with Goossen as much as Freitas.
When Casamayor caught a drift of the topic under discussion, his own feathers were a little ruffled. “Look at me. I have the body of a 20 year old. I look like a movie star,” he said, mugging for the cameras.
Yes he does.
But getting back to er...you know who, Casamayor seems the happiest since that fight than he has been in months.
It’s true,” said Goossen. “We’re very focused, we’re very ready. Are we watching tapes of Yoni? No. We have all we need to know from the 100 + hours Yoni sparred with us here. This is a good fight for us. Yoni’s a sharp puncher. He’s a smart fighter. We’re getting ready for Ground Zero.” “I know we will fight like warriors,” Casamayor said. “Yoni and I, we will fight like champions.”
After the fight will they drink in Acapulco again? “They won’t have to go as far as Acapulco,” said Goossen.
Said Casamayor: “We can hang out right here. But we can’t drink alcohol. I stopped drinking. I don’t even drink beer now. But I will drink orange juice with him. Yes, I will drink orange juice with my good friend and I will say, ‘great fight, Yoni. Great fight, my friend.’ “