Don Stradley

From the pages of THE RING: The return of the Aztec warrior

Fernando Vargas was approximately a year into his retirement from boxing when he made the shocking discovery that one of his bank accounts was empty. On June 14, 2010, Ventura County police arrested and booked Vargas’ business manager, Joseph Pecora, on suspicion of grand theft by embezzlement and forgery.

What made the story all the more troubling was that Pecora and Vargas had a relationship that went well beyond the norm for a business manager and a fighter. They had a friendship dating back to before Vargas turned pro.

“That’s how the devil works,” Vargas said in a recent phone conversation with The Ring. “The devil was God’s favorite angel.  The people closest to you always hurt you the most.”

Struggling with a spell of pneumonia that would ultimately cause the postponement of a proposed comeback bout with Henry Buchanan, Vargas gamely described his recent circumstances. At times he sounded optimistic, offering platitudes about “the next chapter” in his life, but at other times he sounded like a man nursing heartache.

Vargas doesn’t temper his feelings—think of the relentless hatred he had for Oscar De La Hoya prior to their 2002 bout—and in our talk he ran the gamut from helpless despair, to sentimentality, to gentle laughter. He loves life, even as it pummels him, and he treats the saga of the missing money as just another ripple in a career known for stormy interludes.

The relationship between Vargas and Pecora began when Vargas was a young amateur sensation out of Oxnard, and Pecora, a Camarillo businessman, arranged for him to make an appearance in his cell phone store. Pecora, a man in his 40s, became friends with the teenaged Vargas. They stayed in touch, and Pecora became part of the Vargas circus.

As Vargas’ star rose, there always seemed to be people around him—lawyers, advisors, various managers and financial gurus, plus an ever growing contingent of old Oxnard buddies who simply wanted to stand next to the fire of “El Feroz.” When Vargas matured and thinned out the ranks of his entourage, he kept Pecora close. “He seemed cool,” Vargas said. Vargas credited Pecora with showing him how promoters skimmed off the top of his hard-earned fortune. Vargas claimed Pecora was one of the few people he trusted, and posted Pecora’s picture on his official website in the section called “family.”

In interviews he referred to Pecora as “my man, Joe,” and bragged about how lucky he was to have a good friend looking after him.

Pecora also encouraged Vargas to make money outside of boxing. Suddenly, the rough kid from Oxnard was talking about buying property and creating portfolios. There was a clothing line, a communications store, a record label, and many other businesses, all under Vargas’ name. Vargas never pretended to be a brilliant businessman, he referred to himself as a simple guy trying to make a buck, but he seemed happy. He had money coming in every month from ventures that didn’t involve boxing.

By his late 20s, a bad back and a weight problem had made the sport increasingly difficult for him, so Vargas was grateful for Pecora’s business help. Pecora even introduced him to Hollywood agent Jack Gilardi, so Vargas could take small parts in movies. When Vargas created Vargas Entertainment Promotions, he bestowed his man Joe with the title of Vice President.

“And he was stealing the whole time,” alleged Vargas.

  

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