De La Hoya, Vargas bring grudges into ring

Two rivals put their titles on line in 154-pound bout

September 14, 2002|By George Diaz | George Diaz,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

"Bad Blood" is good business.

Oscar De La Hoya and Fernando Vargas don't like each other. They share the same heritage but are viewed in striking extremes by their Mexican-American brothers and sisters.

De La Hoya is a man of worldly privilege. He is a pretty boy married to a beautiful singer, blessed with great crossover appeal among a professional boxing audience that includes swooning teenagers.

Vargas is a spunky street fighter who rose from the badlands of Oxnard, Calif., to become a champion, and has never forgotten his Hispanic roots.

"I've always wanted to fight him to show everyone who the true representative of the Mexican fighters is," Vargas said. "Say what you want, but I just never felt that he represented our people or our heritage proudly."

Counters De La Hoya: "I think the image he portrays is totally negative and puts the Hispanic population in a bad light. That thug mentality is just something that he hides behind."

The acrimonious crossfire intensifies in Las Vegas tonight, when De La Hoya defends his World Boxing Council super welterweight championship (154 pounds) against Vargas, who defends his World Boxing Association junior middleweight (also 154 pounds) belt, at Mandalay Bay Casino.

Both fighters weighed the class limit of 154 pounds yesterday.

In a sport desperate to find promotional juice beyond heavyweight Mike Tyson, De La Hoya (34-2, 27 knockouts) and Vargas (22-1, 20 KOs) represent good value for your pay-per-view dollars.

De La Hoya will earn $14 million tonight; Vargas, 24, gets $10 million.

De La Hoya, 29, has a splendid resume in the ring. He won an Olympic gold medal in 1992, making good on a promise to his dying mother. Despite being a five-time champion in four weight classes, De La Hoya grudgingly fights for respect in Mexico's proud inner-circle.

It didn't help De La Hoya that he hammered Mexican hero Julio Cesar Chavez in 1996. Chavez was badly cut in the first round, blood trickling from his mouth and nose. The referee stopped the fight at 2:37 of the fourth round. De La Hoya then beat Chavez again in 1998.

Vargas once idolized De La Hoya while he was an aspiring amateur, though his passion quickly soured after the media and public stuck "the next Oscar De La Hoya" label on him.

Vargas has established his own legacy. At 16, he was the youngest-ever competitor in the U.S. Junior Championships. After making the 1996 Olympic team but failing to win a medal, Vargas turned pro, winning 18 of his first 20 fights by knockout. He became the youngest champion ever - 21 years, five months - in the junior middleweight division with a seventh-round knockout of champion Yory Boy Campos in 1998.

This fight originally was scheduled for May 4 but was postponed after De La Hoya suffered a hand injury.

De La Hoya still intends to avenge losses to Shane Mosley and Felix Trinidad, though Trinidad recently retired. "These are my last fights," he says. "I already know in my mind these are the defining fights of my career. I'm going to go out with a bang."

George Diaz is a reporter for the Orlando Sentinel, a Tribune Publishing newspaper. The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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