All boxers know combat, but Sammy Vasquez Jr. is talking about that of a different kind, the kind waged on bitterly contested streets in place of canvas, the kind where bullets supplant fists.
Vasquez was there, as a soldier whose nine years in the National Guard included two tours of Iraq. He was in line for a third, a scenario that the sport in question both put him in and relieved him from.
From war zones to boxing rings, Sammy Vasquez Jr. is a fighter, with the latter enabling him to better cope with the aftermath of the former.
“Boxing definitely helped me out in my serenity,” he says, speaking candidly about the challenges of returning home after serving in a time of war. “It calmed me down because when you first get back, you’re always on point. You have anger built up in you, if somebody looks at you wrong. If you go in Wal-Mart and there’s a bunch of people in there, you’re always looking behind your back because you can’t trust anybody.
“It’s crazy, in a sense,” he continues. “Boxing was a place where I could just unwind, take myself out of the element, relax.”
Relaxation is a state of being seldom associated with the act of punching another man in the face, nor is a sense of calm all that palpable when watching Vasquez do his thing: He’s a kinetic, electric presence in the ring, the kind of guy who comes on like a swarm of bees, with jaw-snapping power in both hands.
As such, the unbeaten Vasquez (18-0, 13 KOs) has become one of boxing’s hottest 147-pound prospects, earning stoppages in eight of his last nine wins.
It all began when Vasquez was 9 years old.
He first picked up boxing in his native Monessen, Pennsylvania, near Pittsburgh, because he was being bullied.
He boxed through high school, but didn’t really view it as a career option at the time, seeking instead to go to college to become an anesthesiologist.
He enrolled in the National Guard to pay for school, but was soon headed to Iraq instead.
After fulfilling his military obligations, Vasquez caught the attention of the Army World Class Athlete Program while competing in an amateur tournament in Texas.
They invited him to try out for the team, and if he made it, he could train full time and make boxing his profession.
But in order to do so, he’d have to re-enlist and then earn his place on the All-Army Boxing Team.
If he didn’t make the cut, it was back to Iraq.
“I was like, ‘Damn, that’s a big step,” Vasquez remembers thinking. “My dad asked me, ‘What do you think?’ I said, ‘Let’s do it.’”
It was a gamble, but Vasquez bet on himself and won, earning gold in both the 2010 and 2011 Armed Forces Tournament, medaling in the CISM World Military Games and taking third in the 2012 Olympic trials.
For Vasquez, who now trains out of Colorado Springs, Colorado, where he lives with his wife and kids, his military service is technically completed but something that he’s not really finished with.
He says that he regularly visits VA hospitals to meet with fellow veterans, looking to help them readjust to life back home.
Serving in Iraq gave Vasquez perspective. Plenty of his peers speak of boxing as a life-or-death sport—which it has proven itself to be, from time to time—but it was no sport when Vasquez and his fellow soldiers risked it all on a daily basis.
It was just life or death.
“You wake up thinking, ‘Today might be the day I get blown up. I might get shot at,” Vasquez says, reflecting on his time in Iraq. “I’m blessed to be doing my dream because there’s other people out here who have blown-off legs who can’t even walk anymore or who can’t think right or react to anything because they have a traumatic brain injury.
“Win, lose or draw, I’m coming home, sleeping in my bed,” he says, letting the gravity of his words sink in. “Over there, it’s different.”