By Kieran Mulvaney
By rights, Jessie Vargas should be a star. He’s well-spoken, bilingual and outgoing. The camera loves him, as he has shown in a stint as an interviewer for Univision here in Macau during fight week. Plus he’s an undefeated boxer who is the holder of a world title belt.
But Vargas’ career has yet to truly take off, despite his personal charms and his 25-0 record. Part of that is because that quarter-century of wins includes just nine knockouts; part of it, also, is that his performances have far too often underwhelmed.
The frustration for many critics has been that Vargas gives every impression of having the talent to shine, but hasn’t demonstrated the ability to get over the hump and move on to the next level. He might be considered the proverbial rough diamond – although one prominent observer disagreed with that assessment this week.
“You see him today, he’s polished already,” insists Roy Jones, Jr., who will be the chief second when Vargas does battle with Antonio DeMarco in the opening bout of Saturday’s pay-per-view and who will assume his regular ringside duties as HBO’s expert analyst. But, he concedes, “he was rough when I met him.”
That was just two months ago, and both Vargas and Jones believe that the work the two have done in that time – since Vargas first met the future first-ballot Hall-of-Famer and asked him to be his trainer – has brought about just the sort of changes that many have wanted to see in the young boxer. The veracity of that assertion will be tested on Saturday night, but both fighter and trainer feel that some form of destiny must have been at hand to bring them together.
Vargas had already begun training for his encounter with DeMarco, he says, when Ismael Salas, his trainer for his last two fights, secured a job training fighters in England. Salas suggested that Vargas decamp to Britain with him, but the Sin City resident said that “I couldn’t go to England: my home is Las Vegas, my home base is Las Vegas, my family’s here.“
Ten days or so later, as he contemplated his options, Vargas was at a fundraiser at the recently-opened Roy Jones Jr. Fight Academy, and he and Jones found themselves talking.
“He comes out and tells me, ‘Hey man, I’ve seen your last fight; you’re good, but why don’t you do this differently? For some reason, I’ve always seen you fight and I always want to tell you, throw your hands like this. Come into the gym Monday and I’ll show you some tricks that I think will help you.’ And I’m thinking, ‘Wow, there has to be a reason behind this, there’s a reason I’m here, there’s a reason that he opened up. Could he be my new trainer?’”
Jones remembers it in much the same way.
“God blessed me to see this dude fight like three times,” he says. “Each time I watched him, I would get stuck watching him by mistake. I wasn’t trying to watch him fight. I was like, “Damn, why I keep seeing Jessie?” After the third time, I thought, ‘Damn, I need to teach Jessie how to throw a hook, because he needs to be knocking these dudes out. He keeps squeaking by every time I see him.’ So when I saw him, I said, ‘I love what you’re doing, you’ve got to have a hell of a heart because you’ve already got your way to a world championship. But I want to help you do better. I want to see some improvement. I wasn’t going to sugarcoat it, because that’s not what I do. I would have just shown him my hook, and you guys wouldn’t have known about it, unless he decided to tell you.”
Vargas took Jones up on his offer and, he says, “in the first half-an-hour he was teaching me things. I was amazed. I thought, ‘Wow, this man has a lot to show me, a lot of knowledge that he can share with me.’”
Adds Jones: “I guess he liked it because he came back a second day and he said, ‘I don’t have a trainer no more.’ I didn’t know that, and I know that I’m so busy, it’s hard for me to do it, but if you're gonna work with me, we can do it. It all depends how hungry you are and what you want.”
Jones offered to train Vargas for the DeMarco fight, a suggestion Vargas enthusiastically accepted, and as the two prepare to work together in a fight for the first time, it is clear that the affection and admiration is mutual.
“Roy Jones Jr. is a very intelligent individual,” Vargas enthuses. “He knows how to explain things in detail, and being a fighter himself, he won’t just tell you, he’ll show you. Not only that, but the way he looks at the game is very different. He’s two steps ahead of his opponent, and that’s where I am now. He’s setting everything up, so his opponent moves to the right if he wants him to. So that’s what we’re working on. We’ll continue to get better, but you’re going to see a difference on Saturday night.”
“I couldn’t ask for a better student,” responds Jones. “I’m so happy with the way that he received everything I taught him. The things I told him the beginning, he sees now. And that’s just in an eight-week period. That’s good enough for me. I can’t ask for more from a guy, because he trusted me to do what I asked him to do, and he saw the outcome of it. Win, lose or draw, I’m very proud of Jessie Vargas.”