Carlos Vargas has one minute to stop the bleeding before the bleeding stops everything.
To get the cut under control.
To reduce the swelling.
To soothe the jittery nerves of the wounded athlete before him.
To keep the ringside doctor at bay.
To appease the ref.
To keep the fighter fighting.
And so the past 25 years have gone for Carlos Vargas, a man whose life as a professional cutman—and Los Angeles fireman—has been measured in ticks of the clock.
On fight night, all Vargas has is the time between rounds to get his job done. If he doesn’t, the bout could be stopped.
Much worse, a bad cut that Vargas can’t get under control could impair his fighter to the extent that he gets injured further still.
Vargas’ position, then, is low profile but high maintenance: The cutman is the most unheralded guy in a boxer’s corner—it’s best for all involved when you don’t see him—but he quickly becomes the most important when wounds are opened and eyes threaten to become swollen shut.
How important is a good cutman? Ask Mike Tyson, for starters.
Perhaps his mammoth upset loss to Buster Douglas in 1990 would have gone differently if he had someone capable of tending to his battered left eye, which began to swell shut midway through the fight because his corner was ill-prepared to deal with the damage, resorting to filling a latex glove with ice at one point to try to reduce the swelling.
Eventually, the eye closed. Tyson was knocked out in the 10th round.
“I tell fighters that it’s like an insurance policy,” says Vargas, a sturdily built, fire-hydrant-of-a-man with a salt-and-pepper-colored goatee and forearms brightened by tattoos. “You’d rather have me and not need me than not have me and need me.”
Vargas has tended to hundreds of boxers over the last three decades, including PBC fighters Keith Thurman, Robert Guerrero, Andre Berto, Sergio Mora and Anthony Dirrell, to name but a few.
His tools of the trade are limited: some Q-tips, Vaseline, ice, an enswell, epinephrine (adrenaline) to slow the blood flow, and coagulants Avitene and Thrombin.
His tasks are numerous: Before the fight, he often wraps his guy’s hands and then heads to the opposing locker room to make sure the opponent’s hands are wrapped properly. Once the bout begins, he watches his fighter closely, eagle-eyeing every blow he gets hit with.
“What I’m watching is the face,” says Vargas, sitting in an empty lounge at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas one morning, in town to work a fight. “Just a little redness can lead to major swelling and close an eye. Redness can turn into swelling. Swelling can turn into a cut.”
If there’s no pressing issues to deal with when a fighter returns to the corner between rounds, Vargas gives him water, maybe applies some Vaseline.
If damage has been done, he gets to work. Either way, he doesn’t talk.
“I’m not the coach,” he says. “I have a job to do: the face.”
A STOMACH FOR BLOODSHED
The color of the blood tells Carlos Vargas all he needs to know.
If it’s bright red, for instance, that’s a bad sign, as it means the bleeding originates from a damaged artery.
“It could be a small cut, but if the bleeding is arterial, that makes a big difference,” he explains. “That’s more serious, because you’re going to bleed out faster.”
The gore never makes him squeamish. He got over that years ago—it was the dismembered limbs that did it.
As a longtime fireman, retired in January after more than three decades on the job, Vargas saw all manner of human carnage on a daily basis.
“When I first became a fireman and I was seeing people dying of heart attacks, people dying in bad car accidents with body parts thrown all over, those were awakening moments,” he says. “It’s hard to get used to it at first, but eventually you develop a callous to that. That’s your job.”
That job helped Vargas develop the strong stomach and ability to stay cool under pressure that are prerequisites for cutmen.
A former Marine aircraft mechanic, Vargas was an amateur boxer himself in Los Angeles in the late ’70s.
He hung up his gloves to focus on his family and firefighting career, but he never lost his love for the sport and still enjoyed hanging out at the gym, where he’d land his first significant cutman gig with former heavyweight contender Jeremy Williams in the early ’90s.
His phone hasn’t stopped ringing since: In addition to the aforementioned fighters that he’s worked with, Vargas was the cutman on The Contender boxing reality series as well as MTV’s Bully Beatdown and has also done some UFC cards.
Outside the ring, Vargas speaks with passion, delivering his words with earnest enthusiasm and occasional bursts of good-natured gusto. Come fight night, though, his demeanor shifts.
“A lot of times in the corner, I’m the calming factor,” he says.
It’s Vargas’ job to be a bulwark between the fighter and his injury, both mentally and physically.
If his man does get cut, not only does he have to reassure the fighter that everything’s going to be OK and that he’s got the situation under control—if indeed, that’s the case—he also has to do the same with the referee and the ringside physician.
“Some doctors, they panic,” Vargas says. “They think that if they let the fight go on they could be in jeopardy.”
And then there’s the opposite dilemma, when a fighter is truly hurt but he and/or his corner wants to press on even though it could lead to lasting damage.
“Most coaches are not going to say, ‘Let’s just go ahead and stop this,’” Vargas says. “No, most coaches are going to say, ‘Keep working on it, Carlos. We need this fight.’ And I can see their point. It’s a tough decision—a tough decision that I don’t want to be the one making because the kid could blame me forever. But I can suggest it.”
It’s a serious moral dilemma for Vargas, who sometimes has to take matters into his own hands.
“I’ve had that situation where the fight needed to be stopped and I chose not to use any adrenaline or medication in the cut so that the doctor can stop it, because I saw, ‘This could cause permanent damage,’” he acknowledges.
Vargas has seen some gruesome things in the ring: He was in Victor Ortiz’s corner during his June 2012 fight against Josesito Lopez when Lopez shattered Ortiz’s jaw in the fifth round yet Ortiz lasted to the ninth (“By the ninth round, he was in so much pain”).
He also worked Pablo Caesar Cano’s fight with Paulie Malignaggi in October 2012 when Malignaggi opened a long, nasty gash above Cano’s left eye in Round 2. It looked so bad that both the ring doctor and ref wanted to stop the fight shortly thereafter, but Vargas was able to see Cano through to the end of the fight.
“We went 12 rounds with a second-round cut,” he says with palpable pride.
Now that he’s retired from the Los Angeles Fire Department, Vargas is able to work even more fights.
Soon, he’ll be in Tampa, Florida, for Keith Thurman’s clash with Luis Collazo on July 11.
If all goes well, you won’t even know he’s there.
“Sometimes I’m not even needed,” he says. “Those are good nights.”