A Fighting Chance at an Olympic Dream : Vargas Won't Stop to Rest Until He's a Champion

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Boxer Fernando Vargas wraps his hands tightly with tape before slipping into the ring at the tiny gym tucked into a back corner of the Boys and Girls Club of Oxnard.

He shadowboxes just long enough to work up a sweat, which in the cement-wall gym teeming with young boys banging out Olympic dreams on the big bags takes about 10 seconds.

Vargas then hits the big bag for a few minutes, breaking after every few punches to talk with friends and youthful admirers. A few more punches and that's the end of the workout.

Vargas, a light-welterweight who became the youngest national amateur champion ever when he won the title last year as a 16-year-old, is revered in the La Colonia Boxing Club in Oxnard, in part for his prodigious work ethic. As a 10-year-old, the legend goes, Vargas begged to box. If his coach, Eduardo Garcia, didn't allow him to keep sparring, Vargas would cry for more ring time.

But not this week. Vargas is tired. The familiar sparkle seems drained from his face. And mixed with fatigue is disappointment.

He returned over the weekend from Argentina, where he competed at 139 pounds in the Pan American Games. The youngest member of the U.S. team, Vargas has been riding the fast track toward a berth in the 1996 Atlanta Summer Games, winning an Olympic Festival gold medal last summer before starting his junior year at Channel Islands High.

But Vargas left Argentina early, flying home before the medal ceremony. He lost in the semifinals on Friday to Luis Perez of Puerto Rico.

Vargas was trailing, 6-4, when the computer scoring system failed. Judges then awarded the fight to Perez, 3-0. Vargas is still trying to figure out that ruling.

"I know I won my fight," he said. "I'm mad because I was robbed of my chance to win the gold medal. After the fight I raised my hands because I was sure I won. My opponent had his head down. But when it took a long time for the decision, I got worried. I'm still disappointed."

Tom Mustin, the U.S. coach, said he was just as surprised as Vargas when Perez was awarded the decision.

"I thought Fernando was ahead in the bout," he said. "I thought he was breaking the guy down by going to the body. Maybe Fernando needed to put more pressure on him. Keep attacking, keep attacking. I thought if he really kept the pressure on, they couldn't help but give him the bout.

"I know he's probably down now. It was a bummer for him."

The pain was eased when Vargas arrived home. Friends and fans around town had viewed a tape of the third round of the fight, televised by a local Spanish-language station, and agreed with the broadcasters: Vargas had won the fight.

"An old guy came up to me at the mall and said, 'Are you Fernando Vargas? You were robbed,' " Vargas said. "Everywhere people were telling me that. That makes me feel better. As long as people around here know I won."

Still, Vargas has worries. It's been a hectic year since he burst onto the national scene after beating a group of older, more-experienced boxers last March to win the 132-pound U.S. Amateur Boxing championship. Because he was under 17, he was prohibited by USA Boxing rules from competing in the Goodwill Games in Russia. Instead, three boxers he defeated made the trip.

Last summer, Vargas won the gold medal at the Olympic Festival and followed that with another gold in the U.S. Junior Championships, held the same time as the Goodwill Games.

Still disappointed about missing the Goodwill Games, he fought abroad for the first time, in September in the World Junior Championships for fighters 19 and under. During a dismal trip to Istanbul, Turkey, in which he complained about the food, he lost on points in the quarterfinals to a fighter from Kazakhstan.

But after a brief layoff, he started 1995 in championship style, winning the Pan Am trials in Portland, Ore., and winning his bout last month in a USA-Russia meet in Jacksonville, Fla.

Before both events and leading up to the Pan Am Games, Vargas traveled to the Olympic training center in Colorado Springs for rugged two-week training sessions. And his visit home this time will be a short one. He leaves this weekend for Colorado to compete in the U.S. Amateur Boxing tournament that runs from Monday to April 8.

"I feel sorry for the kids," Mustin said. "After the long, grueling trip to Argentina, they have to come back and fight a grueling championship. It's a lot of work for everyone."

The pace seems to have affected Vargas. He wants badly to repeat as U.S. amateur champion and retain his No. 1 ranking at 139 pounds.

"But I'm worried about my performance," he said. "After this, I want to take a break."

But breaks are rare for those who harbor Olympic dreams. The U.S. amateur winners then must train for the World Championships that run from May 4-16 in Berlin.

Meanwhile, Vargas wonders how he can maintain his studies. In January, he stopped attending class in favor of an independent study program. But with all the travel and training, he admits he has fallen behind.

He wants to re-enroll at Channel Islands and work toward fulfilling another goal: become the first member of his family to walk down the aisle and collect a high school diploma.

The thought of winning Olympic Gold without first having earned his degree is unacceptable, he said.

"If I win the gold medal, I don't want to tell the world I'm a dropout," he said.

To make time for schoolwork, he plans to ask U.S. boxing officials if he can skip the Berlin trip. That might be a hard sell.

"We're all tired now," Mustin said. "Two grueling tournaments in a row and then the World Championships in a month. The true champions are going to come out now."

Those close to Vargas will be surprised if he doesn't rise to the next challenge. Fergie Ferguson, who oversees Vargas' physical-conditioning program at La Colonia, agrees that Vargas needs a rest. But his schedule won't permit it.

"I don't want him to work out at all," Ferguson said. "I'd like to see him go to the park, just kick it and do nothing more than stretch. But there isn't time for that.

"Fernando won't be down for long. He's tougher than that. He won't act tired or discouraged in the gym. He won't snivel. He's always ready to work."

Vargas' stepfather, Moises Romo, thinks history will repeat itself. During his quick rise through the boxing ranks, Vargas has pushed himself while frequently saying he needs a rest.

"He says that all the time," Romo said. "He says he wants to take a week off. But I'll believe that when I see it. By the second or third day, he's back in the gym, working hard again."

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