Fernando Vargas's head, cleanly shaven for the first time, looked like a globe, with entire continents mapped in purple. Bright archipelagoes ringed his eyes. Island nations had risen on his cheekbones. Hey, there's Greenland above his left ear!
But for all the colorful topography of his scalp after his narrow win over Ronald (Winky) Wright last Saturday night, it was the inside of Vargas's skull that was hurting him most. One of boxing's brightest young champions, Vargas complained after the fight in Lincoln City, Ore., that he had been dogged in training by personal problems so aggravating that he nearly called off the bout. "I'm hurting," he said, and he didn't mean the deep bruising he'd received earlier that evening.
Vargas, who won a 12-round majority decision to keep his IBF junior middleweight crown, finds himself in the position that every precocious puncher before him has occupied. Money and fame complicate a life in ways for which no 22-year-old can be prepared. Some survive this patch and move on to become old champions. Others don't and lead curious and unfulfilled careers.
Vargas may be in the middle of his dangerous season. Although he wouldn't specify the nature of his worries, except to say they were family-related, he let it be known that they are severe and ongoing. A close associate said Vargas's unsettled state had nothing to do with legal issues—the fighter is scheduled to go to court on Dec. 17 to face an assault charge—and nothing to do with his domestic situation, which includes a three-year-old son he takes to training camp, and the boy's mother, who remains by Vargas's side. In fact, Vargas's angst may be entirely unremarkable, the kind that preys on any young celebrity, whose cash and cachet might suddenly be seen as up for grabs.
Whatever it is, though, it seemed to affect Saturday's fight profoundly. "He was on the phone to me a week and a half before the fight, crying," said a member of his camp. Vargas himself said his worries hurt him mentally, at the very least.
This is not to discount the hurting abilities of Wright, a largely unknown southpaw. Wright, 24, who had fought 20 of his last 26 bouts overseas, proved to be as slick as they come, with a nice right jab and no fear. Through most of the bout Wright seemed in charge, and not a few ringsiders had him winning.
Certainly it was not the star-making turn Vargas's fans, or HBO, had expected. Through his first 17 fights, all KO wins, Vargas had steadily raised expectations until he had become a kind of gatekeeper of the middle weights. Delicious matches loomed as other young stars such as Shane Mosley and David Reid and Felix Trinidad, and even hated rival Oscar De La Hoya, climbed up to meet him.
Vargas seemed to understand that charisma was part of the package as well. He has plenty, radiating confidence and adopting nice little marketing hooks. The blond tuft of hair at his forehead (temporarily gone) was clever, inasmuch as it was adopted by everyone in his camp, even Fernando Jr. Before Saturday's fight, held at the Chinook Winds Casino on the Oregon coast, he arranged to be placed in a cage, alongside another holding a tiger. Vargas paced back and forth during the ring-walk music, looking very much like a caged animal.
The imagery is fitting, for despite all his promise Vargas seems a little untamed. He remains dogged by childhood issues, still furious that his father left him when he was young. Certainly he's used that abandonment as inspiration in his own fatherhood, doting on his son. But even as he does the right thing, he boils over at those who didn't. "How could somebody make something so beautiful," he says, bouncing his son on his knee the day before the fight, "and leave him? My son will always have affection, caring and love." His eyes grow hard, remembering that he didn't.
The anger works for him in the ring, mostly, but it makes him a little wild outside. His raging resentment of De La Hoya, who did nothing more than fail to acknowledge him when Vargas was training at the same camp ("I slept on a roll-away bed, and he was in a five-bedroom house," he says), is comical. But the anger is not always well placed. A serious charge awaits him for a messy incident near his hometown of Oxnard, Calif., in which he is accused of assaulting a man. Even if, as Vargas insists, he is innocent, the discomfit will linger. "It's embarrassing," he admits.