It probably wasn't a star-making turn; Fernando Vargas didn't suddenly become boxing's franchise. You need more than a unanimous decision, even over a formidable former champion like Ike Quartey, to capture a sport's imagination. But it was a pretty good start all the same.
We now know that Vargas, with only 19 fights under his belt, is in this for the long haul. His first 17 bouts went the way they do for a lot of young prospects, easy knockouts all the way, the usual well-greased path. The 18th, in which Vargas struggled to retain his IBF 154-pound title in December against Winky Wright, was a red flag. That stumble, along with an arrest on assault charges (in which a stripper figured prominently), suggested that Vargas, whatever his talents, might choose an even better-greased path. A lot of phenoms slip at the first sign of competition or celebrity.
The charges still loom over Vargas. He's scheduled to appear in Superior Court in Santa Barbara, Calif., later this month for an alleged attack on a man last July in which a golf club figured nearly as prominently as that stripper. But other questions got knocked down (even if Quartey didn't) in the ring at Mandalay Bay's arena in Las Vegas last Saturday. Vargas didn't overwhelm Quartey, a former welterweight champion who lost a disputed decision to Oscar De La Hoya 14 months ago, or seriously hurt him. He did prove he belongs in that upper echelon of boxers, with all the other De La Hoyas out there, the pay-per-view boys. He has the skills, the toughness, the ability to think on his feet, the showmanship, the desire to win.
It wasn't just that he was willing to stand in with Quartey, who, despite his inactivity, remains a good benchmark for young talent. Consider that Vargas, a child of California's fast-food culture, was willing to subject himself to a dietary-disciplinarian strength coach while preparing for this fight. "For three months," Vargas said, "I didn't have ketchup on anything."
Harder bouts may require even greater resolve, but it was encouraging to see Vargas parading around the casino all week, lifting his shirt at any provocation to show his new abs. So he has pride. The best ones do.
Vargas's makeover was a little more to the point than Quartey's. For some reason, Quartey showed up with a Rodmanesque dye job. Maybe that's what happens when a guy fights just three times in 3� years—he starts visiting hairdressers.
It seemed damning to point out that in the three years since the 30-year-old Quartey had last won a fight, the 22-year-old Vargas had won all 18 of his. Still, when it came to abdominal definition, Quartey was Vargas's equal. As he pointed out all week, he was in top shape, from having carried a grudge so long. Poor Quartey continues to believe he got jobbed in that De La Hoya fight, the one that sent the winner on to a $20 million-plus payday with Felix Trinidad (and Quartey back to the hotel he owns in Ghana).
It was Quartey's intention to redeem himself, just as it was Vargas's to move into the pay-per-view stratosphere. For the first time in his career Vargas was facing a fighter who was something more than a mere opponent. Quartey was there to win too.
The stakes were high, for a lot of the meaningful action in boxing has become centered in the lower weight classes. As De La Hoya prepares for his June 17 bout with Shane Mosley, negotiations continue for a rematch with Trinidad, the only man to have beaten De La Hoya. If Vargas could enter this tournament, his opportunities would be almost as vast as the pay-per-view money. For that matter, a Quartey win would put him back in the money.
The only meaningful pre-fight volleys were fired by Quartey, who knew what buttons to push. "Oscar is definitely better than this guy," he said, comparing the two Southern California fighters. "Who has he fought? Look at Oscar; he's fought everybody."