As Opponents Fall, Vargas Rises High

Little more than a year ago, Fernando Vargas made his much-publicized professional debut before hometown fans at the Oxnard Performing Arts Center.

Vargas sent journeyman Jorge Morales to the canvas in 56 seconds. Since then, he has left a trail of knockout victims while positioning himself to challenge for a world title sooner than expected.

Vargas, with 11 knockouts in as many fights, will fight lightly regarded Ron Johnson of San Antonio in a 10-round junior-middleweight bout tonight at Arco Arena in Sacramento.

Vargas, 20, a member of the 1996 U.S. Olympic team, is ranked No. 9 by the International Boxing Federation and No. 12 by the World Boxing Assn.

Johnson (13-5 with eight knockouts) is an 11th-hour replacement for Eddie Hall, who suffered a cut lip during sparring.

Johnson, 30, should be little more than a steppingstone for the 20-year-old Vargas, whose prizefighting moniker, "Ferocious Fernando," complements his punching power and ring demeanor.

Vargas was impressive and overpowering his last two fights. In March, Vargas dispatched of Dan Connolly in 40 seconds. Last month, he knocked out Romallis Ellis, a 1988 U.S. Olympian with a 23-3 record, in the second round.

Hyperbole flows freely from the lips of boxing promoters. Trainer Lou Duva, seconds after Vargas' first victory, said the fighter was mature for his age and boldly predicted a world title in rapid order.

Dino Duva, Lou's son and Main Events promoter, continues to gush with each measure of Vargas' progress.

"I really believe Fernando Vargas is the next Latin American superstar in boxing," Dino Duva said. "I'm not just saying this. With his punching power and defense and combinations . . . my father has that much confidence in him and I am so excited about this guy.

"The last two or three fights, he has really moved up a couple of notches. This guy Connolly, we thought he'd be tough. But Fernando blew him away. And he blew away Ellis."

Duva said he hopes to have Vargas in a title match "as soon as possible." Preparation is the sticking point. Matching Vargas against challenging fighters is a challenge itself.

Duva speculated about a fight between Vargas and David Reid, a member of the 1996 U.S. Olympic team. Or aging veteran Hector "Macho" Camacho.

Vargas is scheduled for fights against an opponent to be determined June 23 in Philadelphia. After taking July off, Vargas might return to Southern California for a fight in August.

"We're close to putting that together," Duva said. "We've been waiting for the right show, the right night to bring him back to L.A. After that, like my father says, it's bring on anybody."


Robert Garcia, Vargas' former stablemate at La Colonia Youth Boxing Club in Oxnard, is required to make a mandatory defense of his IBF junior-lightweight title by August or September, Duva said.

Garcia, 30-0 with 24 knockouts, won his first title in March with a 12-round unanimous decision over Harold Warren. The fight was Garcia's first since severing ties with promoter Don King and signing a contract with Main Events.


Garcia isn't the only local fighter to leave King.

Mia St. John of Woodland Hills, undefeated in five professional women's bouts, will fight for the first time under Top Rank and promoter Bob Arum on May 30 at the Olympic Auditorium.

St. John, a former taekwondo black belt, began boxing professionally in February 1997 and soon signed a promotional contract with King.

St. John made the change early this year. She is trained and managed by Pat Goossen of Van Nuys.


Usually, Lance Whitaker draws first blood. Not this time.

Whitaker, a 6-foot-8, 245-pound heavyweight from Granada Hills, has encountered little difficulty in building a 16-0 record that includes 14 knockouts.

Whitaker, however, emerged with a deep gash over his left eye after recording a sixth-round knockout against Earl Butler last weekend in San Antonio. The cut, the result of an unintentional early round head butt, required 20 stitches and will keep Whitaker sidelined for several weeks.

"He was coming at me with his head down, you know," Whitaker said. "It happens. I got head-butted about three times. But I went to a plastic surgeon. He did a good job."

Whitaker said he probably will be ready to fight again in mid-June.

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