On September 14, 2002, one of the most memorable clashes of the 2000s was when Oscar “The Golden Boy” De La Hoya faced off against Fernando “El Feroz” Vargas in a junior middleweight unification grudge match.
The highly anticipated match-up between the two Mexican-American stars was years in the making. In what now seems like a rare occasion, it delivered on the expectations of fight fans. The road to the clash was almost as compelling as the action inside the ring.
In 2002, De La Hoya and Vargas were both in transitional stages of their careers. After losing to “Sugar” Shane Mosley in the first major sporting event at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, the Golden Boy rebounded by switching trainers and moving up from the welterweight division to junior middleweight.
Under the tutelage of Floyd Mayweather Sr., De La Hoya scored two dominant victories over Arturo Gatti in a comeback fight following the loss to Mosley and defeated lineal and WBC junior middleweight titleholder Javier Castillejo. The victory over the Spaniard Castillejo gave De La Hoya the distinction of being just the third fighter in boxing history to hold titles in five separate weight classes.
De La Hoya had been a boxing star since winning a gold medal at the 1992 Barcelona Olympic games and amassed a massive assortment of accomplishments before stepping in the ring with the Ferocious one. Following in the footsteps of Sugar Ray Leonard and Thomas Hearns, winning titles in five divisions, De La Hoya was also a 7-time world champion, having faced elite fighters throughout the weight scale. His level of competition included Rafael Ruelas, Genaro Hernandez, Miguel Gonzalez, Julio Cesar Chavez Sr., Pernell Whitaker, Ike Quartey, Felix Trinidad, and Shane Mosley.
He was also named the Ring Magazine and Boxing Writer's Association of America's Fighter of the Year in 1995 at just 22 years of age after running through the lightweight division. Two years later, in 1997, Ring Magazine and other notable publications ranked the Golden Boy as the best fighter in the world pound-for-pound. This claim was contentious, with Roy Jones Jr. still in his prime, but for him to be in the discussion as one of the best in the world was impressive.
Heading into the fight with Vargas, De La Hoya was 29 years old and had already accumulated a resume to gain him entry into the Hall-of-Fame. In 2002, the number of opponents that could produce significant events seemed to be dwindling for De La Hoya. Two of his chief rivals, Mosley and Trinidad, lost their most recent bouts, with the Puerto Rican announcing his retirement in May 2002. Mosley would lose to Vernon Forrest, and despite some impressive performances in the following years, he would never quite be the same. This supposed lack of options set forth an opportunity for the Golden Boy to take on an opponent with genuine disdain for him.
In 1993, when Vargas and De La Hoya were training at Big Bear Lake, California, the younger Vargas claimed that after falling into a snowbank during a run, Oscar went by. Instead of helping the younger pugilist, he laughed at his expense. A small humiliation would be the catalyst for years of contempt towards De La Hoya by Vargas, and when the time arrived for the two to clash, Fernando didn't hold back.
“When Mayweather (Floyd Mayweather Sr.) said he didn't know the difference between one Mexican and the other one,” Vargas said at a press conference in January 2002. “Let me just tell you like this, how you could tell the difference, this one has fucking balls!”
The Oxnard, CA fighter chose to question De La Hoya being a “real” Mexican and his level of machismo. For the East Los Angeles native, this wasn't necessarily a new approach. Before facing off against the legendary Julio Cesar Chavez in 1996, the fight was seen as a battle of Mexicans, with De La Hoya representing those in America or Chicanos and Chavez as the Mexican idol holding the flag for those directly in the country. Despite De La Hoya's resume that included numerous first-class fighters and participating in several action-filled bouts showcasing his toughness, in 2002, he hadn't shed the notion of being seen as a “pretty boy.” One that sometimes came off as overly fake when the cameras were on.
“What is being Mexican?” De La Hoya stated at one of the press conferences to promote the bout. “I don't talk like him or dress like him; I'm not Mexican? I grew up on the same hard streets. But the fact is, I wanted to do something better in life. It's degrading to Mexicans, this image that they have to dress like a thug and talk hard to be a Mexican.”
Before facing De La Hoya, Vargas, much like Oscar, was a young prodigy. Like De La Hoya, Vargas also participated in the Olympics as part of the United States team in 1996. Less than two years as a professional, Vargas won the IBF junior middleweight title, stopping Yori Boy Campas after seven rounds. At the time, Vargas was the youngest junior middleweight champion in history at 21.
Notwithstanding his age, Vargas exemplified the characteristics of an experienced fighter. He made five defenses of his title that comprised of victories over Ike Quartey and Ronald “Winky” Wright. He would lose his unbeaten record to the same man De La Hoya did in Puerto Rico's Felix Trinidad in December 2000. In what would be one of the most unforgettable bouts of the decade, Vargas fell victim to a twelfth TKO to the Puerto Rican power puncher.
After the fight with Trinidad, Vargas would score two stoppage victories over Wilfredo Rivera and Jose Flores in 2001. The win over Flores garnered Vargas the WBA junior middleweight title. However, the bout with Rivera was cause for concern for some fans, with Vargas getting dropped in the second round. There were questions surrounding Vargas' ability to take a punch after the fight with Trinidad. Many wondered if he was still the same fighter.
“Look, if I didn't lose to Trinidad, I wouldn't have this fight,” said Vargas. “De La Hoya is only fighting me because I lost to Trinidad and got knocked down a lot. But maybe it took that loss for the fans to love me like they do now.”
De La Hoya would admonish his own set of insults towards Vargas, questioning his chin. “I know he has that glass jaw,” De La Hoya confidently stated at a press conference. “I know where to hit him. I know where to hit him, believe me.”
De La Hoya-Vargas was initially set to take place on May 04, 2002, but an injury to the left wrist of Oscar would delay the fight to September. Having previously fought in June 2001, when De La Hoya stepped inside the squared circle against Vargas, it was then the longest layoff of his career at 448 days.
Vargas, who hired a nutritionist for the first time in his career, looked in incredible shape. It gave the impression that the then 24-year-old would be at his best against De La Hoya. In front of a crowd of 11,425 fans at the Mandalay Bay Resort & Casino for the WBA, WBC, and Ring Magazine titles, De La Hoya and Vargas were finally set to settle their grievances.
Throughout the first half of the bout, both men traded rounds, with De La Hoya taking the even rounds and Vargas taking the odd. De La Hoya is a dominant left-handed fighter who fights out of the orthodox position; his right hand has never been as developed as his left. Under Mayweather Sr., De La Hoya's right hand became more prominent. Against Vargas, it gave him the advantage whenever the two were in the center of the ring.
While Vargas entered the fight with De La Hoya as someone who used his emotions to give him motivation, he didn't fight with uncontrolled anger. Instead, he was measured when applying pressure, timing his aggression to be effective. In the first round, Vargas nearly knocked De La Hoya out of the ring, putting him against the ropes and out of position to fire back.
Much like opponents often overlook De La Hoya's overall toughness, Vargas's ability to box is frequently forgotten. In his best round of the fight in the fifth, the 24-year-old two-time junior middleweight champion largely outboxed De La Hoya in the center ring. He then proceeded to beat him up along the ropes giving the Golden Boy a level of punishment unseen in his career.
Vargas, however, could not maintain a boxing advantage over De La Hoya. The three judges each scored the first five rounds the same, but in rounds six, seven, and eight, De La Hoya began to take over the fight using his jab to set up right hands. In the ninth round, Vargas halted the Golden Boy's momentum and heading into the championship rounds, victory was within the grasp of either fighter.
A back-and-forth tenth round on the cusp of being a draw would be the beginning of the end. With ten seconds left, De La Hoya threw a combination to the body that ended with a left hook-up top that put Vargas on wobbly legs. De La Hoya then finished Vargas in the eleventh, scoring another knockdown with a left hook. He then proceeded to pummel his foe with consecutive shots in a corner until referee Joe Cortez stopped the fight at the 1:48 mark.
Two of the three judges had De La Hoya ahead on the scorecards before the stoppage. Judges Doug Tucker and Paul Smith had identical scorecards scoring each round the same, both arriving at scores of 96-94. Judge Patricia Morse Jarman had Vargas ahead before the stoppage differentiating in scoring rounds six and seven for Fernando and having the tenth a draw.
In many respects, the victory over Vargas was De La Hoya's final great victory. De La Hoya would go on to have more blockbuster event fights against the likes of Bernard Hopkins, Floyd Mayweather Jr, and Manny Pacquiao, but he found himself on the losing end more often than not.
A controversial loss in a rematch to Mosley in 2003, followed by a failed trip to middleweight in 2004 where De La Hoya was stopped for the first time against Hopkins, were part of the ups and downs Oscar faced after his victory over Vargas. De La Hoya had one final grandiose moment against Ricardo Mayorga in 2006 in his last championship victory.
Vargas would find himself in much more dire situations following the loss to De La Hoya. In a post-fight drug test, Vargas tested positive for the banned substance stanozolol leading to a $100,000 fine and a nine-month suspension. The bout with De La Hoya was Vargas' last championship match. After back-to-back losses to Shane Mosley in 2006 and a loss to Ricardo Mayorga in 2007, the Oxnard warrior hung up the gloves before the age of 30.
De La Hoya-Vargas was a financial success selling 935,000 buys on PPV and $47.8 million in revenue. De La Hoya and Vargas' careers ended just before the social media age began. They would serve as the launching pad for the next generation of boxing stars in Mayweather and Pacquiao. De La Hoya's level of popularity was massive, and if he had been near or at his prime during the PPV market of the 2010s, he could have been an even bigger pay-per-view star.
“Pay-per-view was just taking off,” said Bob Arum, Top Rank President and De La Hoya's former promoter to Ring Magazine. “There weren't as many homes and so forth. Oscar, to my mind, was a bigger draw than either Pacquiao or Mayweather.”
Fortunately for fans of both fighters, the grudge, and bad blood hasn't been sustained over time. With both men being fathers and having kids involved in boxing, there is mutual respect between the two. Vargas has three sons, Fernando Jr, Amado, and Emiliano, who all box and are friends with De La Hoya's son Diego. “Me and Oscar are friends,” Vargas stated on the Sky Sports Toe 2 Toe Podcast in 2020. “We are absolutely at peace.”
De La Hoya now views the venom his opponent spewed at him as a means of motivation for Vargas. There may have been a time when their rivalry seemed personal, but 20 years later, any amount of hatred between the two was left inside the ring in 2002. “The whole ‘Bad Blood' thing, I strongly believe it was his way to get motivated to hate me,” De La Hoya said to Ring Magazine. “It was his way to pump himself up because I had no grudge whatsoever against him.”
Although “Bad Blood” didn't end up being a bloodbath, the fight was a PPV main event that gave those in attendance and watching at home their money's worth. It was a fight with animosity between the combatants, strategic competitiveness, and a thrilling finale without controversy.