Boxing’s history is littered with grudges, beefs, and rivalries that were largely played up to sell the fight.
But some have been very real, with genuine animosity. One of those was between Oscar De La Hoya, who had by 2002 become one of boxing’s biggest and most reliable drawing cards and stars, and Fernando Vargas.
The story of how the rivalry was born — or at least Vargas’ side of it — is a particularly odd one.
Back in 1993, De La Hoya was fresh off his 1992 Olympic gold medal win, while Vargas was a rising amateur standout in Southern California. Vargas by his own admission admired De La Hoya, as he was five years younger than the “Golden Boy” and grew up seeing him fight.
Vargas was working out in De La Hoya’s camp in Big Bear in ‘93 when the fighters were out on a run. Vargas slipped and fell into a snowbank, and with De La Hoya trailing him, he reached his arm out expecting Oscar to give him a hand back up on the icy path. Instead, De La Hoya laughed, and the legend is that Vargas didn’t forgive nor forget the incident.
“I grew up looking up to Oscar,” Vargas said ahead of their 2002 bout. He didn’t specifically elaborate on the jogging thing then, but did say, “There was a personal incident. I won’t speak about it now. I’ll speak about it after the fight. It was one incident. He knows what it is and he’s going to pay for it in the ring.”
For his side, De La Hoya denied having any memory of the tale. “He keeps talking about me laughing at him running in the mountains in Big Bear when he fell on his face. I wish it did, but it never happened. I have no idea what Vargas is talking about.” Oscar’s best guess was that the real story was simply a territorial rivalry with some jealousy involved.
But whatever the story, De La Hoya had no love for Vargas, either. “It’s going to be fun not only beating the guy I really hate, but also getting paid for it. I’m going to have a ball.”
The fight had been discussed for some time, and the trash talk flowing from both for years. It nearly came together for Dec. 8, 2001, but then De La Hoya withdrew from negotiations when a deal couldn’t get done. They did finally come to an agreement for a May 4, 2002, date, but then Oscar hurt his hand and had to pull out of that fight, moving the date to Sept. 14 instead at the Mandalay Bay outside Las Vegas.
De La Hoya was 29 years old coming into the 154-pound clash, a title unification where he was putting the WBC belt up against the 24-year-old Vargas’ WBA strap. De La Hoya had two losses, both with some controversy; he was edged on the cards by Felix Trinidad in 1999 and Shane Mosley in 2000. Vargas had one defeat, a 12th-round stoppage against Trinidad in 2000 where Vargas proved plenty tough and brave, but ultimately a bit overmatched at a young age.
De La Hoya may not have fully enjoyed the fight as much as he expected he would overall. Vargas may not have had Oscar’s pure boxing skills, but he was certainly no slouch, either, and more than that was an incredibly determined fighter who gave Oscar plenty of trouble, bloodying his nose as the two went back-and-forth in the first half of the fight.
De La Hoya opened up a cut under Vargas’ right eye with an impressive stretch in the middle rounds, but “El Feroz” wouldn’t go away quietly, roaring back a bit on De La Hoya in the ninth.
Skills and experience took over late, though. De La Hoya hurt Vargas late in the 10th round, and was able to finish the fight at 1:48 of the 11th. At the time, De La Hoya led on two cards, 96-94 on each of them, while Vargas was up 97-94 on the third.
After the bout, a drug test on Vargas came back positive for steroids, and he was suspended for nine months. There were some discussions for a rematch between the pair in 2005, but it never came to pass. Vargas had his final fight in late 2007, just shy of his 30th birthday. De La Hoya would have a bit more glory, but his career wound down starting with a 2004 loss to Bernard Hopkins. On his way out, he passed the big money torch to Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao, losing to those fighters in 2007 and 2008, respectively, before officially retiring in early 2009.