The old days were no better (or worse). One feud that set a precedent for Vargas-De La Hoya, in sociological terms anyway, involved Art Aragon, a popular L.A. fighter of the 1950s who happens to be the original Golden Boy. ("You're the real Golden Boy," he was told once by William Holden, star of the '39 boxing movie of that name.) Aragon was supposed to be the bitter enemy of fellow Angeleno Lauro Salas, though their rivalry had little to do with their one meeting, a 10-round decision for Aragon in 1952.
Hall of Fame publicist Bill Caplan remembers that even then, racial distinctions were subtle and sophisticated but no less real. Aragon, a Mexican-American from New Mexico, was considered neither American nor Mexican, but he was colorful, handsome and very much a ladies' man. Salas, entirely and proudly Mexican, was not similarly appealing, despite his world lightweight championship.
If Salas harbored a grudge against Aragon, it was not apparent until one New Year's Eve, when they ran into each other in a Hollywood bar. "I'm drunk, he's drunk," says Aragon, remembering the critical details, "and I greet him, 'You ugly sonuvabitch.' It was a classic."
The next day's headline, SALAS KNOCKS ARAGON DOWN FOUR TIMES, sticks in the original Golden Boy's craw after all these years. "I slipped twice," he says. The incident was inflated to an ongoing feud in newspaper reports. Aragon, now 74 and still running a bail bonds business in Los Angeles ("I'll get you out if it takes 10 years," reads his card), has no ill feelings toward Salas and says he never did.
If most grudges are either media contrivance or pure burlesque, then De La Hoya-Vargas is strictly reality programming. When Vargas was training for the 1996 Olympics (he was eliminated in early rounds in Atlanta, in sharp and infuriating contrast to De La Hoya's '92 gold), he entertained all around him with his enmity for his onetime hero. It was odd but provocative. When a p.r. man placed Vargas on Jim Rome's radio show, he reminded the fighter to make sure, for Rome's Arbitron sake, that he mentioned how he hated De La Hoya. "But I do hate him!" Vargas insisted. It wasn't a matter of p.r.
This hatred, going back at least to 1995, has not caught the two of them in anything so theatrical as a Hollywood bar, but it has produced a couple of nice moments. About four years ago, on the morning of a parade in L.A. honoring hometown hero De La Hoya, Vargas, who lived in Oxnard, organized his posse, and somehow eggs got thrown. More dramatically, at a press conference to promote their fight earlier this year (it was originally scheduled for May and postponed when De La Hoya's surgically repaired left wrist still wasn't ready for action), Vargas gave De La Hoya a push, starting a fracas in which publicist Ricardo Jimenez's leg was broken.
Vargas says he couldn't help himself once he saw De La Hoya on the dais. And he takes satisfaction in the event. "His eyes were watering," says Vargas happily. "He was crying!"
De La Hoya, a smoothy ever since he broke out of those 1992 Olympics, takes the higher road in the feud, affecting an air of, in promoter Bob Arum's words, "bemused annoyance." That is not to say he's above it all. He's just a little more passive-aggressive in his participation. When he says, "I'm not losing any sleep over the guy," well, he may not be crying, but he's certainly lying.
What may have started out as bemused annoyance quickly degenerated into full, if private, participation in the feud. Years ago, before De La Hoya had been matched with Felix Trinidad and Shane Mosley (his only defeats), his handlers were begging him to take on Vargas, then an up-and-coming junior middleweight contender. "He's young and inexperienced," explained former trainer Roberto Alcazar, "and this would be a good time to get him, before he gets much better."
De La Hoya considered the idea and asked his handlers to crunch some numbers: How much would Vargas get for the fight? When told it would produce millions for Vargas—two L.A. Olympians, how could it not?—De La Hoya nixed the idea. "He couldn't bear the idea of Vargas making that kind of money," Alcazar said.