Most professional boxers will never encounter any greater danger in life than when they stare across the ring at an opponent whose sole desire is to inflict great bodily harm. One exception is Sammy Vasquez Jr.
Long before he became a 147-pound title contender, Vasquez represented the United States as a specialist in the National Guard, serving two tours of duty in Iraq during which time he was witness to the worst of wartime combat.
Following his second stint in Iraq—and after winning gold medals in a variety of armed forces tournaments—Vasquez attempted to represent his country in the 2012 Olympic Games, but fell just short when he lost in the semifinals of the U.S. Olympic Trials.
Soon after, the lifelong resident of Monessen, Pennsylvania, turned professional and proceeded to reel off 21 consecutive victories, 15 by knockout, in less than four years. Vasquez’s unbeaten streak would end there, though, as the 30-year-old southpaw dropped a narrow unanimous decision to Felix Diaz—a 2008 Olympic gold medalist for the Dominican Republic—on July 16.
Now Sammy Vasquez Jr. finds himself in unfamiliar territory: On Thursday night, he’ll attempt to rebound from his first professional defeat when he battles former 147-pound world champion Luis Collazo at Horseshoe Tunica Hotel & Casino in Tunica, Mississippi (Fox Sports 1, 8 p.m. ET/5 p.m. PT).
As he wrapped up preparations for Collazo, the man nicknamed “Sergeant” sat down and discussed a wide range of topics, including why he wasn’t exactly 100 percent against Diaz, why he admires former pound-for-pound champ Bernard Hopkins, and how his family and boxing help him deal with the ever-present effects of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
You were supposed to face Luis Collazo in your last fight, but he had to pull out because of injury, and Felix Diaz became the replacement opponent. How much did the late change affect your strategy?
The change from Collazo (5-foot-9) to Diaz (5-foot-5) was basically in the height. The game plan was to box and move for Diaz, but I didn’t have it in me. My legs weren’t with me; I felt like they were in quicksand.
If you watched that fight, you saw that I was on the ropes a lot. I’m someone who is never on the ropes. I couldn’t get off, and I had some medical issues going on that I didn’t really tell anyone about.
I’m not going to make excuses, because I lost that fight either way. But I wasn’t 100 percent. Still, it was a close fight. I’ve had surgery, and now I’m 100 percent and ready to go. I want a rematch, but I’m not sure [Diaz] will take it.
Can you talk about the injury that left you at less than full strength?
I had a benign tumor in my neck, and I had three of four calcium deposits surgically removed.
I had high calcium and low vitamin D, and I kept getting calcium kidney stones that would make my body fatigue really badly. I was sleeping a lot and couldn’t push myself like I normally do during camp. It really affected my stamina, the way I fought, my thought process and things like that.
I had surgery to take the kidney stones out before the fight, and I had surgery on my throat two days after the fight to remove the tumor.
“ Dealing with PTSD, that’s something that just doesn’t go away, so you try to concentrate on things that you enjoy and that take you out of it. For me, that’s boxing. ” Sammy Vasquez Jr.
How did the fatigue manifest during the Diaz fight?
In the first couple of rounds, I was on my toes, moving, boxing and things like that, and then all of a sudden, my body just shut down. Once that happened, I felt Diaz’s power [and] I couldn’t move.
I had to change my game plan. I wanted to try to wear him out and try to knock him out in the later rounds. I caught him in the 11th round, but I didn’t have it in me to take him out. I was just depleted.
Now you’re finally going to get in the ring against Collazo, a fellow southpaw. Who did you work with to help you prep you for this fight?
Samuel Figueroa (10-1, 4 KOs). He pushed me hard, he’s savvy and we learned a lot from him, because he’s a good southpaw fighter. We wanted someone who would be able to replicate Luis Collazo in a sense. He he helped me out a ton.
You’ve been very open about dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder from your experiences as a soldier in Iraq. Some people might think choosing a violent sport like boxing would exacerbate PTSD, but that’s not the case for you, right?
Dealing with PTSD, that’s something that just doesn’t go away, so you try to concentrate on things that you enjoy and that take you out of it. For me, that’s boxing.
When I’m anxious or stressed out or depressed, I go to the gym. That’s healing for me. Even after I retire from boxing, I’ll still go to the gym because it’s therapeutic.
There are a lot of medications that I’m supposed to take, but, obviously, there is a conflict of interest when it comes to boxing. PTSD is a day-by-day trial, but my wife helps me a lot. She knows a lot of my demons because she’s with me every day.
A lot of people see the cover of the book, but they don’t know the inside. I talk to a counselor every other week and there are therapists whom I talk to for the things that I go through, because I denied a lot of it.
It’s like admitting you have a problem with drugs. You have to go and seek help, because in my mind, I didn’t have a problem until it was pointed out to me [how I behaved] in certain situations. There are situations where I overact, and someone points it out and helps me to recognize that it’s not normal.
Shifting topics, if you could spend 20 minutes picking the brain of any fighter in history, who would that be and what would you ask?
Just yesterday we watched a documentary called Champs, with Mike Tyson, Bernard Hopkins and Evander Holyfield. There was a lot about Bernard Hopkins that I didn’t know he went through, like going to jail when he was 17, and fighting through prison and winning a title in there.
That’s what actually gave him the inspiration to fight professionally once he got out of jail, and to eventually become a world champion.
My favorite fighter, though, is Prince Naseem Hamed. I would love to pick his brain about why he quit [one fight] after he fought Marco Antonio Barrera. But I think I have more respect and more questions for Bernard, because he’s very intellectual and he’s smart, has dealt with a lot of adversity throughout his life and he knows a lot about the boxing game.
I really respect the things he’s done and how he’s come through what he’s gone through. He’s succeeded and conquered it all, and I’m really intrigued by that.
Who is the one boxer in history you would’ve liked to fight, and how would the battle go?
Prince Naseem Hameed. He was an exciting fighter, savvy and his movement was superb. In reality, I’m a cocky fighter in the ring. If he puts his hands down and wants to showboat and shit like that, I could be the same way. With his style and my style, it would be a great, fun, entertaining fight.
That’s a fight that I’ve always dreamed about since I started watching him when I was little. I was always like, “Man, I would love to fight him. I think it would be so fun.”
A lot of people went after his head, man, but he’s too savvy. I would target him from the shoulders down, and if you beat a man from the shoulders down, he can’t do all that savvy stuff. … It would be a knockout.
How old were you when you first put on a pair of gloves, and do you remember your emotions from that moment?
I started boxing when I was 9, and I had my first fight when I was 10. My mitt man today, Ryan Rimsek, is the same guy who actually trained me when I was 9.
I won my first fight—I ended up stopping the kid. I remember coming out of the ring, and my dad grabbed me and threw me so high in the air that I got scared.
It’s weird that I started fighting, because as a kid, I got bullied. So to go from being bullied to actually fighting in the novice Golden Gloves of Western Pennsylvania was huge. And the excitement and the preparation and the looks on everyone’s face, that was just an amazing feeling.
Would you say boxing was love at first punch, or was there some early trepidation?
In the beginning, to be honest, I was a little bored of going through the routine of learning the basics. There isn’t much to it, but there’s a lot to learn. I was bored until I actually got in the ring and sparred. Fighting somebody is when I fell in love with the sport.
Excluding yourself, who is the best fighter in your division right now?
I would say Keith Thurman, because he’s undefeated and he keeps knocking them down. Shawn Porter, because he’s a helluva fighter and a hard worker who always brings it, no matter who he’s fighting. And Errol Spence Jr. is up there as the next big dog, chomping at the bit waiting to take out either of those guys.
[British champion] Kell Brook is a great boxer, but the only person in the division he’s really fought from America is Shawn Porter, so he needs to [face] some of the better names in the upper echelon. But I think I’m up there with all of them.
Finish this sentence: If not for boxing, I would …
… be in Special Forces. I’ve always had a passion for that. One of my best friends and I were going to go in together. We deployed together in Iraq, and he’s actually in Special Forces now.
I was always intrigued by the operations, covert missions, trying to gain more knowledge in intel and the military aspect of things. I would actually go mercenary, but I’ve done so well in boxing.
If you had the ability to change your body type, what’s the one weight class you would participate in?
I would probably say heavyweight, because I like to eat. Heavyweight, you don’t really have to watch what you eat too much. I would be a good [heavyweight fighter at] 6-foot-5, 230 pounds.
Describe the most memorable time you threw the perfect punch.
It was when I was 5-0 and fought George Sosa, who was 6-1 with six knockouts. I remember he threw a jab, and I threw a lead right hook, timing it perfectly, and it caught him right on the chin and knocked him out cold. Literally, he landed face-first and his face smacked the ground.
He was so out that they had to go and get the smelling salts to wake him up. He was out for a minute. Everything was lined up and set up perfectly, and it was a first-round knockout and an amazing feeling. It happened so fast, but it felt like it was in slow motion.
Favorite punch to throw?
Probably my left hook. I do a tap-hook to the head to make them put their hands up, and then [throw] a hook to the body. I’ve landed that a couple of times.
What fighter has hit you the hardest, and what do you recall about that moment?
The only fighter I recall hurting or damaging me was Berlin Abreu (February 2014). He hit me with a straight right hand that caught me right on the button in the third round and dropped me for a flash knockdown.
As soon as I hit the ground, I sprung back up and knocked him out in the fourth round. At the time, he was 7-0 with five knockouts, and today he’s 14-1. I’m still his only loss.
You said you love to eat, so what’s the toughest thing for you to give up when training for a fight?
Buffalo Wild Wings. I could throw down about 30 wings. My mouth is marinating right now just thinking about it. I can’t wait to get this fight over with just so I can go to Buffalo Wild Wings.
What’s the one thing about the life of a professional boxer that most fans don’t understand?
They don’t understand the sacrifices of a fighter in general, [namely] missing your family. While I’m away at camp, I’m missing my wife, Delrae, and my three daughters, Natalee, 9, Bailee, 8, and Savena, 3.
I don’t really go away for training camps like most fighters do, because I feel more comfortable coming home to my family. I like being there as much as I can for my kids, making their school assemblies and things like that, which means that I bring my team with me. I have three extra guys staying at my house with my three daughters and my wife, plus our puppies, three dogs and a cat.
Then you’re cutting weight, so not only does my wife have to cook for me, but she has to cook for everybody else, too, and everybody eats what I eat. If I’m eating fish, they do, too. They all help out, cleaning the dishes and the house.
But this is part of the game if you want to win a world title. At the end of the day, we all need each other.
If Hollywood were to make a movie about your life, what actor would best portray you?
Mark Wahlberg. He’s played in the movie The Shooter, so he [would have] the military aspect of my life as well as the boxing aspect of my life from being in The Fighter. He’s really into boxing, obviously. He’s a good actor, and if anybody was going to portray me, he’s the guy to do it.
If you could have dinner with five people in the history of the world, who would be on your guest list?
God, Muhammad Ali, Chris Kyle [the inspiration for the movie The Sniper], my grandmother, Catherine Vasquez, and my wife’s grandfather, Andrew Grutel.
Obviously, God outshines everybody—I would have a lot of questions for him. He’s somebody I turn to a lot now. I have a lot of spirituality now. My wife has brought me back to church. She helped me find God again.
If you had the power to change one thing about the world, what would it be?
I would say racism. Obviously one guy can’t change that, but if I could snap my fingers and change it, I would. It’s dominating this world right now.
If you really think about it, everybody is a mix of something. There’s nobody who is just one color anymore.
There is far too much hatred in this world. … Everybody needs to stop pointing a gun at everybody. It’s exhausting. It’s tough to even walk down the street or into a Wal-Mart.
I don’t want my kids growing up fearing this world.
What is on your bucket list?
I’m an extreme guy, so skydiving. And I want to jetboard, which is like a wakeboard that hooks to a jet ski and shoots water out of the board that you’re on.
I also want to squirrel dive (aka wingsuit flying). I want to jump of a cliff or scale a cliff. I want to climb Mount Everest. Actually, I want to win a world title, climb Mount Everest and be the first boxer to get to the top and get a picture of me wearing my belt.
“12 Rounds With …” is published Wednesdays at PremierBoxingChampions.com. Next week: Three-time U.S. Olympian and 118-pound world champion Rau’shee Warren.