"Getting under my skin like that, I guess he did a good job, getting this fight."
—OSCAR FERNANDO DE LA HOYA
"I want him to be a man, admit it in the ring [what he did to start this feud]."
It could have been different, of course. Should have been. They're countrymen, neighbors, colleagues. Why not friends? Yet when Oscar De La Hoya and Fernando Vargas passed each other last month, jogging at cross-purposes in the piney air of an early morning in Big Bear, Calif., it became another strike point in their combustible collaboration.
Vargas, who plays raffish punk to De La Hoya's crooning sophisticate, was always the provocateur in these predawn run-bys. "You'll have to start earlier than this," yelled Vargas, who took pride in his 5 a.m. wake-up calls. Vargas, who's had a little history of late-night living and has even done time for it, has lately come to believe in a spartan lifestyle and counts his sacrifices as a miser totes up his hoarded gold.
De La Hoya, his senior by five years and by nearly as many tides, admits it's increasingly difficult to roll out of bed by 6 a.m. ("In his silk pajamas," guesses Vargas.) After all these years of fight camps, De La Hoya counts his sacrifices with some resentment, as a landlord does late rent. And he doubts, in any case, that their Sept. 14 showdown in Las Vegas will be won at breakfast. As he did his roadwork, he held up six fingers, not to signal time of day but time of departure; he's got Vargas down for six rounds. A smug smile crinkled his aggravatingly unmarked mug.
It was left to his trainer, the gum-flapping Floyd Mayweather, to provide the morning's verbal volley. Mayweather, who regards the mountain silence as a personal reproach, was without prepared remarks and had to riff: "Fatso!" he shouted at Vargas. That kicked off a dialogue that was not conducted on as high a plane as it might have been. "Turtle!" was Vargas's camp's unfathomable reply.
The two camps, conjoined by years of hatred—press conference melees, egg-throwing skirmishes, reams of bitter copy—and now fully depleted of repartee, moved along in the morning's crisp-ness, each satisfied that it had undermined, possibly even shattered, the other's confidence. The De La Hoya camp clomped on through the thin blue air, finally reaching his rather upscale log cabin compound (well, there is a babbling brook and a putting green) at Golden Boy Avenue (no fighter's driveway in Big Bear shall be without a vanity signpost) to continue preparations to put his 154-pound WBC championship up against Vargas's WBA belt. The Vargas group headed for his slightly grittier spread on Ferocious Way, no more than five blocks away, to nurse old and mysterious grudges and to plot his comeback.
Oh, it's on, all right!
It's strange, when you think about it: that there aren't more feuds in boxing—really, that they're not all feuds. To muster the resolve to face another man at fisticuffs, well, shouldn't that require personal involvement beyond financial or professional gain? What could provoke a man to hit another in the face? Just hatred, right?
Yet boxing is a surprisingly gentlemanly profession, with opponents more respectful of their shared jeopardy, both physical and emotional, than in perhaps any other profession. There are hardly any feuds—even baseball has more—and those that do exist are generally for show, for promotional purposes only. If Mike Tyson takes a bite out of Lennox Lewis (he did, he did), it is not because he hates him. It's simply to satisfy the requirements of public confrontation, which these days need to be exaggerated to highly dangerous levels just to make the evening news.