By Fiona Manning
Every now and then in boxing, writers come into contact with fighters who for one reason or another, touch their lives in profound ways. It has nothing to do with the fighter’s skills, it has nothing to do with his prestige: it’s all about his heart.
For this writer, that fighter is Yoni Vargas, one of the most tenacious fighters on the California circuit.
It’s been tough seeing this personable young man lose his two big TV fights disastrously: first to Brian Adams last year, then to Joel Casamayor in January, getting dumped on the deck for the first time in his career.
After years of watching his spectacular, brutal KOs of other astonishingly good talent in local shows, his TV forays have been a disappointment, both to the fighter and his fans.
On Saturday night, Vargas, who is 24-4, with 12 KOs, gets another crack at a big TV fight opposite a formidable foe: South Africa’s 126 pound phenomenon, Phillip “The Time Bomb” Ndou, 30-1, 29 KOs on the undercard of Lennox Lewis vs Vitaly Klitschko at Staples Center in Los Angeles.
Vargas is a rare fighter. He knows he’s been hand-picked because Ndou’s promoters believe he is “bruised fruit.”
“I am aware how important this fight is,” said Vargas today. “I know other fighters tell me they wouldn’t fight him because he is tough but If I want to stay in boxing, I have to win this fight. And I want to stay in boxing. You know me. I never talk bad about my opponents. I have no disrespect for Ndou but this man, I must knock him out.”
Vargas has had a bumpy ride recently. He’s traversed some unpaved roads to find his “hunger” again. He says he has found it.
“After the Casamayor fight, my friends said I didn’t have the hunger anymore and I was surprised,” Vargas said. “I love boxing. It’s my life. But yes, I had to find the hunger again. I didn’t realize I’d lost it.”
To that end, he and team-mate, junior welter Raul Franco returned to their long-time trainer Manuel “Chato” Robles, from whom they split last year to move to the Wild Card Club to work with man-of-the-moment Freddie Roach.
Unfortunately, every other fighter in the free world and their dogs - had also migrated to Roach and very few of them got the attention they needed.
“When I got to work with Freddie, it was great. I love him and I respect everybody who works with him,” Vargas said. “They are all good people, but he wasn’t there very much and when I needed him for the Casamayor fight he wasn’t there. I understood he was busy but this is my career…” Vargas’ voice trailed off. “And I started to miss Chato.”
A few months ago, Vargas and Franco returned to Robles who was ecstatic that his young charges returned to him. Martin Castillo and Israel Vasquez followed suit (having also bounced back from Roach).
Training first at the La Brea Academy, they’re now hard at work at Shibata Flores’ First Street Gym in downtown LA (Franco is getting ready to fight July 12 on the Boxing Hall of Fame card).
Robles has a special connection with his fighters and their ears seem uniquely tuned to his voice. Unruffled, unhurried but deeply observant, Robles alternates between treating the fighters like his children and as the super-athletes that they are.
Vargas and Franco, who are co-managed by businessman Mike Jacoby and attorney Norman Kaplan are the first to admit they have a tight, caring team around them.
“I’m happy, you know why? Because I am back with Chato,” Vargas said. “I like being in this gym too. I miss the Wild Card. It was crazy and fun there but it’s nice here. I missed the attention.
“Fighters are like little children. They like the attention. I know all about this because I have two of my own. Right now, they’re in Mexico with my wife. Actually this is a good thing because I can really concentrate on my fight.”
Vargas is enjoying the odd ambience of Shibata’s gym. Shibata is a celebrity in his neighborhood and all the local children hang out in his gym as if it’s their home.
“Shibata is an old friend and he’s always coming into the gym,” Vargas said. “As you know, he lives here but since he retired from boxing, he’s concentrating on making his CD. He’s always in here singing!”
There won’t be much time for singing on Saturday night. Vargas has been watching Ndou’s fight tapes and scrutinized him at the open workout Saturday at Universal City Walk.
“He spars exactly the way he fights. He has the perfect style for me. He doesn’t run. He comes forward and stands right in front of you.”
Yeah but what about all that power, Yoni? Ndou has knocked out almost all of his opponents.
“I have power too,” he said. “My style is to stand and trade and I moved away from that style and now I am back fighting the way I like to fight. Ndou likes to fight like that too. Yes, it will be a tough fight but I have trained for a tough fight. This is what I want.”
In March, two months after his KO 5 loss to his close friend and frequent sparring partner Joel Casamayor, Vargas toned up with a lackluster eight round decision over Jose Luis Montes.
“My mind was all over the place,” he said. “I was not comfortable in that fight. I didn’t look good or feel good. It was my first fight back with Chato and believe me we had a long talk after that fight.”
Vargas’ mind and heart seem to be one for this fight. He truly seems more content than this reporter has seen him look for a long time. If sheer dedication and hard work made men world champions, Vargas would have been one a long time ago.
“He’s such a good kid,” said Jacoby. “He’s the kind of fighter you just want to do everything you can for.”
Vargas feels the same way about those who support him. “I feel like I am proving myself all over again with this fight,” he said. “I have to win. I want to win for me and for them. I am not thinking about what happens after the fight. I am thinking only of Saturday night.
“This fight is my best opportunity and I am so happy for it. I need to put on a lot of pressure and that’s what I do. It’s what I do best.”