In a fight game filled with prospects fresh off storied amateur careers that fight in front of empty seats on premium cable timeslots, Samuel Vargas is an outlier.
With a brief amateur stint, the young welterweight is a laborious pro fighter, one who goes to work in front of crowds of 5,000 fans at the Hershey Centre in Mississauga, Ontario, cards that are on local television.
The 22 year old moved to Canada as a Colombian refugee in 2004 having never been in a fight, let alone in a boxing ring, in his life. Shortly after landing in The Great White North, Vargas found his way through the open doors of Chris Johnson’s boxing gym, and started to push a few jabs toward a heavy bag. As difficult as he found it, he knew it was something he wanted to do anyway.
“I never really fought, but I always wanted to fight,” Vargas told RingTV.com. “Down there, you just don’t fight, because you might get killed. You don’t just fight because you want to pick a fight (the way people do) up here.”
Vargas found that luxury as an amateur boxer, and although he wasn’t getting killed, he wasn’t turning many heads either. Still new to the sport, his movements were deliberate and he was very hittable, but his willingness to move forward despite his shortcomings did catch the eye of one person, and it just happened to be the right one.
“I saw a no-quit attitude. That’s something I look for, and it’s very rare in a fighter,” said Adam Harris, head the Canadian contingent of Hennessy Sports, which backs Vargas. “The rest of the things, you can be taught. You can teach someone how to throw a jab, but you can never teach mental toughness, or let’s face it, balls.”
According to Harris, other Canadian promoters wondered why he would sign Vargas, instead of plucking from the National Team, as is the custom. He had his reasons, but his argument wasn’t exactly strengthened after Vargas’ debut on U.S. national television.
Another one of Harris’ charges, Omri Lowther, was headlining the 2010 ESPN2 Friday Night Fights season finale against Hank Lundy, which meant Vargas would get the opportunity to open the show in a four-rounder against journeyman Michael Springer. While the main event was expected to me a tactical affair, and it was, the curtain-jerker was counted on to provide some fireworks.
Unfortunately, nobody lit the fuse under his opponent, and Vargas followed Springer around throughout four dreary rounds to the chagrin of the commentary team.
“It bothered me because he didn’t want to fight, he kept running,” said Vargas. “I was also really nervous in the change room, knowing I was the first fight on Friday Night Fights and seeing Teddy Atlas ringside. Looking at all the cameras, it made me feel very intimidated, very nervous. I couldn’t believe I was there. It was like a dream, almost. Come fight time that kind of took over me a little bit, and then this guy didn’t want to fight me.”
With plenty of energy to spare, Vargas got back in the ring twice more in less than two months to conclude 2010, engaging in exciting bouts against Jhonny Navarrete and Ryan Wagner, which was back at home in Mississauga. Even following a knee injury a month later when the Ontario Athletic Commission would not sanction him to fight, he took part in an exhibition bout with 20 oz. gloves and headgear on a November Hershey Centre event anyway.
After MCL surgery, he kicked off 2011 with a 10-round war with Tebor Brosch, and a fifth-round stoppage of Ahmad Cheikho that Hall of Fame broadcaster Al Bernstein called a “fight of the year candidate.”
Suddenly, a forgettable swing bout ESPN fighter had become a legitimate draw.
“People are tired of going to casinos in California in front of 300 people. We’re getting 6,000 people out to our events. People who want to see good fights,” declared Harris. “I just thought with the right fights, (Vargas) could become one of my character fighters. I didn’t expect him to be headlining shows this early in his career. But that’s what everyone wants to see.”
For the first time in his career, Vargas will indeed top the bill on Saturday, taking on Manolis Plaitis (17-1-1, 8 KOs) in Mississauga. For all intents and purposes, it’s a club show featuring youngsters and local prospects. But with local promoting, even matchmaking, and a main event guaranteeing action, Hennessy Sports and United Promotions have already been forced to release (not hand to blackjack players) 500 extra seats in the hockey arena.
Harris spent time with a young Arturo Gatti while starting out in the boxing business, and sees parallels between the fallen hero and Vargas in terms of the way they carry themselves, and their inherent desire to please the fans. But as Gatti did against Micky Ward in their second encounter, Harris does wish that his fighter would use his boxing ability and have an easier night occasionally.
Kind of a good problem to have, a fighter that’s too courageous.
“I could make it easier on myself. But y’know, everybody wants to see exciting fights,” said Vargas, who idolizes Julio Cesar Chavez Sr. “I want to see exciting fights when I’m watching HBO, so I expect to give one myself.”
Vargas may not always make it easy on himself in the ring, but he sure makes life easy for his promoter.
Corey Erdman is also the host of RingTV Radio. Follow him on Twitter @corey_erdman