By Fiona Manning
Yoni Vargas, one of the most popular fighters on the California circuit hasn’t had much luck in his last two, very highly-publicized boxing matches. Back to back losses to big-name foes Joel Casamayor and Phillip Ndou would send lesser mortals to the sanctuary of retirement but Yoni Vargas isn’t like everybody else.
One of the hardest-working fighters in the business, his managers LA-based attorney Norman Kaplan and businessman Mike Jacoby aren’t the boxing types to just throw their man into the ring as cannon fodder.
Which is why they are giving their charge one more chance; on Friday December 27, he faces Carlos Cisneros for the California state lightweight championship in an eight round bout set for the Big Bear Civic Center in Big Bear Lake, CA.
Vargas, who is 24-5, 12 KOs took a five round pounding from South African bomber Ndou in the main undercover bout on the Klitshcko-Lewis card in April at Staples Center.
Since then, he has been quietly going back to the boards with a new trainer, veteran Al Lira who has been whipping Vargas into shape for his return to the ring.
“Let’s face it,” Lira said during a small break in training at the Wild Card Gym in Hollywood. “Part of what makes Yoni such an exciting fighter for fans to watch is exactly what is the worst thing for him to do as a fighter. He likes to go to war.
“He’s a very proud man and that pride hurts him because as soon as he gets hit in the ring he forgets everything we’ve been doing in the gym and he just brawls. It’s not a smart way to fight. He can punch hard but now I am trying to get him to think about boxing instead.”
Nobody questions Vargas’ love for the game or his discipline. He is one of the most tenacious fighters in the gym who in the past has even trained with an injured hand.
“I love this sport,” Vargas said. “I haven’t had great luck. In my last fight, my trainer never showed up to the fight and I have still never heard from him and that was in April. To me, that was like putting a very long, very sharp knife in my back.
“Last month I went to Germany with my best friend Julio Gonzalez and worked in his corner and I feel very inspired by that fight. He went to Germany and beat the champion. I think that’s why we are boxers. We fight to do the things that are supposed to be impossible.
“I remember saying to Julio, ‘Julio you can do this. This is your one chance.’ Well this is how I feel. I will win this fight and I will win this belt.”
Vargas previously held the 130 pound state title and although he is moving up to135 for this fight, says he may move back to 130 in the future if good opportunities present themselves.
“I feel good at 135 but I am used to fighting at 130,” he said. “I am going to have to train all through Christmas so no turkey for me.
“What keeps me going in the gym is knowing that right after the weigh-in for the fight, I can have my three favorite things; tamales, frijoles and a milk shake.”
Lira is a no-nonsense type who scrutinizes Vargas in the ring during sparring and points out every perceived flaw for the fighter to correct on the spot.
“I never stop talking to him,” Lira said. “I am constantly in his ear which fighters hate but I have to teach this old dog some new tricks.
“In his fights I am going to have to speak to him constantly. I am going to have to make him think all the rime. I want him to be aware at all times of what he’s doing.”
Vargas and Lira seem to have forged a good relationship. “I have respect for him,” Lira said. “Because he is trying. I am not going to kid you and say you’re going to se a brand new fighter in the ring next weekend because you’re not.
“What you will see though is a fighter who fights more defensively, works off his jab more and gives his opponent more angles.”
For his part, Vargas has such a desire to do well that his trainer says he gets tight and tense as soon as his managers appear in the gym to watch the sparring.
“I know very few fighters who are as anxious to do well, to look good and impress people the way Yoni is,” Lira said. “I am working on that. I want him to relax. I want him to be confident about what he’s doing.”
In a sport where many fighters are deemed damaged goods after big losses, what sets Vargas and his handlers apart from others is the fact that they forced him to take time off after the Ndou fight. They forced him to really think about the future and whether he wanted to return to boxing.
They have watched him carefully in the gym ring and have sparred him with several different people.
“He’s doing very well,” Lira said. “He had a great session yesterday and we’ll have another one tomorrow. He’s listening to me and if we can get him to fight that aggressive way people love but also fighting more defensively, then we’ll all be happy.”
Vargas plans to stick with boxing because he believes it is the best sport for his temperament. “I can’t see me playing golf,” he joked.
“I am doing what I love,” he said as he prepared to hit the mitts with Pepper Roach who sees a huge improvement in the fighter since working with Al Lira.
“This kid has a heart as big as an ocean,” said Pepper. “He drives himself constantly. He has the support of every single person in the gym because he’s such a great kid and he keeps coming back for more. You gotta love a guy like that.”