The undefeated former 122-pound world champ will carry a lifetime of boxing experience into the ring as he attempts to become a two-division world champion when he faces WBC World Featherweight Champion Mark Magsayo Saturday night in a Premier Boxing Champions event on SHOWTIME.
Most fighters remember when they first became interested in boxing. They might have followed an older brother to the gym. Some were inspired by a movie like Rocky. For others, like WBC World Featherweight Champion Mark Magsayo (24-0, 16 KOs,) it was a particular match that the family was watching in their living room that motivated them.
Rey Vargas (35-0, 22 KOs,) has no such moment. “I don’t remember a time in life where there was no boxing.”
This Saturday, July 9, Vargas, the WBC featherweight mandatory challenger and former WBC 122-pound world champion, will count on that lifetime of experience when he faces Magsayo for the newly minted champion’s title in a Premier Boxing Champions event from the Alamodome in San Antonio, Texas, live on SHOWTIME (9 p.m. ET/6 p.m. PT).
“I’m excited to be fighting in the same venue where my idol Manny Pacquiao fought Marco Antonio Barrera,” Magsayo said in a press release. “That was the first fight I ever saw and the reason I started boxing. We are preparing for a strong Mexican fighter in Rey Vargas. Everyone knows what the Philippines vs. Mexico boxing rivalry brings to the ring.”
Vargas smiled when I asked him via a Zoom call about a Philippines vs Mexico rivalry. Neatly dressed, wearing thin-framed glasses, and as well spoken as my new doctor, Vargas said, “I don’t know anything about any rivalry.”
Then he said something you don’t hear too many fighters say.
“I’m just focused on Magsayo. I look at a guy’s corner. I see Freddie Roach there, so I know I’m going up against not just a great fighter, but a great team.”
It’s a team his team is familiar with. “We went up against Roach once before. We know what we are going up against.”
In May 2012, Vargas outpointed the Roach-trained Azat Hovhannisyan over 12 rounds. However, in Vargas’ own corner he has the dean of Mexican boxing trainers in Nacho Beristain. And Nacho possibly knows Vargas better than he knew any of his other fighters. Vargas’s father was a boxer in the 1970s and sparred often with the fabulous featherweight champion Vicente Saldivar, who was managed and trained by Nacho.
From the time that Vargas could walk, he was in a boxing gym. Instead of a pre-school with colored chalk, Vargas was raised with leather gloves and instead of letters from the alphabet, speed bags hung from the walls. At an age when most children are learning their kindergarten classmates’ names, Vargas was learning which punches fighters like Juan Manuel Marquez liked to throw.
“My favorite fighters growing up were Juan Manuel Marquez, Jose “Mantequilla” Napoles, who my father knew. And a fighter I don’t hear too many people speak about – Nicolino Locche.”
“ You have to fight smart. ” Undefeated Former WBC World Super Bantamweight Champion - Rey Vargas
The Argentine, I told him, used to fight with his head down and still made you miss. Vargas was visibly pleased to hear that I knew of him. You like counterpunchers, I said. “You have to fight smart,” he replied.
Vargas will need those smarts to turn back the charges of the undefeated champion. Magsayo defeated Gary Russell Jr. to win the championship – that’s all you need to know about him. But Vargas’s crib probably had a canvas mattress and was surrounded with four ropes. Originally trained by his father, he was throwing jabs before he learned to tie his laces. But unlike many father-son relationships in boxing, they have avoided the strains that sometimes comes out of that arrangement. You see, his father is a boxing lifer too. Though still active in the gym with his son, when he saw that Vargas had reached a certain level in boxing, he turned to his old friend Nacho to help take his son to the next step. That humbleness along with one strict rule they have has kept their relationships as father/son and trainer/boxer working.
“Whenever we are home or away from the gym, we do not talk about boxing,” Vargas said.
So far, they have been successful. Vargas is not only a former champion, but a technically solid fighter who doesn’t make mistakes in the ring and throws lots of punches. Especially counterpunches, like all of Nacho’s fighters. Vargas does fight a bit like Marquez used to. Because of his slighter taller than average height for a featherweight at 5-foot-10, he reminds me a bit of 1980s Mexican champion, Raul “Jibaro” Perez. And because of his quick and voluminous counters, he is similar to Salvador Sanchez.
I didn’t mention that to Vargas though I think a fighter with his appreciation of the game’s history might have got a kick out of hearing that. I also wish I had more time to speak with him so that then I could have told him that one of his idols, Nicolino Locche, fought a distant cousin of mine in a title fight. But Vargas had a lot to do that day. He had more interviews to do, training, strategizing, and resting. As busy as he was, I doubt he would have called it work. It’s boxing. Something he has been doing all his life.
For a closer look at Rey Vargas, check out his fighter page.