The Way of The Aztec Warrior: The Origin of Fernando Vargas
By Thomas Gerbasi
The traditional costume of an Aztec warrior is that of a ferocious beast, teeth bared and prepared for war. In a similar fashion, Fernando Vargas, a modern day Aztec warrior, enters the boxing ring with traditional Mexican songs blaring behind him, and with ferocity befitting his forefathers, he bares his mouthpiece before the opening bell, ready for battle.
Born on December 7, 1977 in Oxnard, California, a small town located an hour north of Los Angeles, Vargas beat the odds from an early age. Abandoned by his father Javier before he was born, he was forced to make his own way in the world, a daunting task and one with a number of obstacles. "Sometimes I wish I was . . . normal," Vargas once said. "I never had any direction in my life. I never had a father to tell me, 'Son, you shouldn't do that.' I did what I wanted."
"I don't want anything to do with that man He wasn't there when I went through some things in my life. I envy anybody who has a close relationship with their father," said Vargas, who regardless of his past, has been a model father to his two young sons, Fernando Jr. and Amado. "I don't know how to be a good father," he once told the Associated Press. "But you know what? I try."
Without a father around, yet lovingly raised by his mother, what the young Vargas did want to do was fight. "I guess it was always in me, in the sense of me always fighting in the streets," Vargas, one of three children, said in September of 1998. "I didn't know anything about boxing, the form of fighting. But as a little kid I was always a good streetfighter, fighting in the streets, getting in trouble, getting suspended; only for fighting. And that's really how I got into it."
"It wasn't so much that I would pick on little kids," Vargas continues. "I would just pick on anybody. I didn't care. It's not something I'm proud about now. The way I was going, I'd end up being the person I didn't want to be. I'd never be there for my kids, like the father I didn't have."
Fighting anywhere and anyone as a child, Vargas continuously faced suspensions from school, and he was unable to harness his fierce fighting spirit until he happened to be sitting in front of a television one day.
"I was switching the channel one day and I found out there was boxing," he remembered. "There was amateur boxing, and there were kids fighting. I was astounded. I had never seen anything like that before. I mean, I knew names like Evander Holyfield and Mike Tyson, but those were just names. They were grown men. I didn't know kids could do it. And they were handing out trophies to these guys. I wanted one of those trophies So I found out where the gym was and I was so happy I found it. I never let up. I actually got out of trouble because of boxing."
And much like the Aztec youth that left their homes to go to the telpuchcalli (house of youth) to learn the art of war from the elders of each clan, ten-year-old Fernando Vargas entered a boxing gym to learn the art of boxing from a man named Eduardo Garcia. And Garcia taught the youngster about life as well. "Fernando loves my dad like my dad was his own dad," said Roberto Garcia, a friend and former junior lightweight champion.
Once he began boxing, Vargas knew that he found his calling. "I knew from the beginning when they put the gloves on me," he said. "I said to myself 'I'm going to be the best', and I think that's what helped me out through the years. I really didn't think about a career when I was an amateur, I was just thinking about winning amateur titles and getting to the Olympic games."
Vargas dedicated himself fully to boxing, and the amateur accolades piled up. And with this success also came maturity, a maturity that kept 'Ferocious' off the streets and in the gym. And Vargas didn't regret his decision for a moment. "I still get to go out sometimes, but it's moderate," he said in 1998. "I get to go and be with my friends when I can; I have specific times when I can do it. I think that it (boxing) has instilled a lot of discipline in me and I don't think that I missed out on anything really. I think I grew up a little quicker than everyone else."
He grew up quickly in a boxing sense as well. Starting at 14, Vargas won the 132-pound championship at the Junior Olympic Box-Offs, and came in second at the Junior Olympics in 1992. In 1993, he was the 132-pound champion at the Junior Olympic Box-Offs, the Junior Olympics and the Junior Olympic International tournament. And the following year he won a gold medal at the Olympic Festival, the US Junior Championship, and inspired by Mexican legend Julio Cesar Chavez, at 16, Vargas became the youngest fighter to win a US national amateur championship surpassing world champion Meldrick Taylor's record.
With remarkable poise for someone so young, he never caved in to the pressure of being on the national stage. "I think there's pressure in every fight you fight and you've got to thrive off it," he said. "Just like Michael Jordan thrives off being in the championship and making that last shot. You've got to thrive off the pressure and make it. That's what great fighters do."
The young warrior added a Pan Am games bronze medal to his trophy case in 1995, and soon after, Fernando reached the pinnacle of any amateur boxer's career by being selected to the 1996 United States Olympic team. And he did it the hard way, by using brains, not brawn. "I consider myself to be an intelligent boxer-puncher," he said. "I always want to use my head. I don't always try to go in there to bang. That's how I consider my style, being an intelligent fighter. Intelligence first, I feel, in anything."
The Atlanta games of 1996 ended in disappointment for Fernando, as the bizarre amateur boxing scoring system left Vargas one point shy of victory in the medal round. But for the young Mexican-American, his journey was just beginning.
"It makes me feel real good," said Vargas. "I think back and say, man, I could have gone down any other avenue and I chose boxing, and God did it for a reason. Look at me now. I feel very happy about all my accomplishments. I thank God for what I have, because I know a lot of people my age don't have what I have and have been where I've been."