Vargas reaches the crossroads at 27

It's strange to talk about comebacks and "must-win situations" for people who haven't even hit 30. But in boxing, a sport that can age you overnight, it seems to be the normal course of business these days to build up and tear down the young, to place a lifetime of toil into one 40-minute episode on a Saturday night.

"Win, my friend," we seem to say, "or go home."

At 27, this is where Fernando Vargas stands, days away from his first fight in more than 15 months, a fight that will dictate his future negotiating power in a lot of ways. It should be the position people in their 60s are preparing for when faced with younger, cheaper talent at their place of business.

But if Vargas loses to Raymond Joval on Saturday, the young man who many felt was slipping in small ways since losing to Felix Trinidad in 2000, and in bigger doses since a 2002 loss to Oscar De La Hoya, will be looking at a wall of disdain and apathy from the boxing industry. That wall could force Vargas to walk away from a career less than 10 years old.

That's what happens in this game. It already happened to Vargas' 1996 U.S. Olympic teammate David Reid, a shooting star who won a title, had a big fight against Trinidad and burned out of the sport in five years. Another Olympic teammate, Eric Morel, has a cloudy future after a lopsided loss to Martin Castillo this past Saturday, while others on the team (Zahir Raheem, Terrance Cauthen, David Diaz, Rhoshii Wells, Lawrence Clay-Bey) haven't even
reached the world championship level.

Of the '96 team, only Vargas, Reid, Morel, Antonio Tarver and Floyd Mayweather Jr. have won world titles, and as far as mainstream stardom goes, Vargas and perhaps Tarver are the only ones to have reached that plateau, with Mayweather possibly (finally) getting there this summer if he beats Arturo Gatti in his first pay-per-view excursion.

That's how tough this business can be, and that's why to some it seems that Vargas has had a full career already, complete with beginning, prime and end. Forget the fact that Vargas sold out the American Bank Center in Corpus Christi, Texas, for the Joval fight in a week, or that his legion of hardcore fans would probably pay to watch him shadowbox. The sad fact is that a loss Saturday means that all the critics were right, that all the talk of Vargas being rushed in his career was true, and that the legacy of "El Feroz" will be one of "too much, too soon."

Fortunately, though, the fighter from Oxnard, Calif., doesn't care.

Oh, he reads practically everything printed about him – from magazine articles, to Web site blurbs, to message board rants – and isn't shy about addressing the authors of such statements. But Fernando Vargas is very much his own man, and in his career thus far, in and out of the ring, he has done his best to break the stereotype of the prizefighter.

He owns a number of successful businesses, has launched a clothing line and has a bond with his fan base untouched by few other successful pro athletes.

He also has used his money well, and if he walks away from the game tomorrow, he won't be relegated to the scrap heap occupied by so many athletes who spent every dime, with the expectation that there would always be one more big paycheck. That's not bad for a guy many believe was at his best pre-Trinidad, about 1999-2000, when he walked through Yory Boy Campas and Raul Marquez, gutted out a win over Winky Wright and won a stirring decision over Ike Quartey.

That string of excellence was more than five years ago. But he won't walk away, at least not yet. True fighters don't just leave, no matter how much money is in the bank, how luxurious those silk pajamas are or how big the risk.

"People don't know what I was doing over the holidays. I was working," said Vargas during a recent media day at his training camp at Catalina Island. "People don't think that. They think, 'He's made his money, he's won his belts, he's lazy.'"

Doubt from outsiders provides all the motivation he needs.

While Ray Joval is a good fighter, Vargas is a guy some had pegged for greatness a few years back. Having said that, Vargas should beat Joval on Saturday night, and if new trainer Danny Smith is able to impart some of his new techniques into the already-established repertoire of Vargas, "El Feroz" could win in spectacular fashion.

But this is not an easy fight for Vargas, and not because of the man standing across the ring.

When you're 27 and your body has betrayed you, as Vargas' back has done in recent years, every fight is a war, and each time that bell rings, it could be the last time. If your back isn't right, you could sit down on that stool between rounds and not be able to get up; you could throw a punch and have the back follow right behind it, leaving everything exposed for a crafty opponent to exploit. So give Vargas credit for his courage or call him stupid for risking permanent damage to his body, but at the very least, respect him for putting it all on the line once again for the roar of the crowd – and the glory that comes along with it.

He says he feels good, though, thanks to the time off and his work with new strength and wellness coach Robert Ferguson, and after the thrills Vargas has given us over the years, the least we can do is take him at his word.

And if he wins Saturday, then the fun begins as the table truly opens. That might be the key reason Vargas is coming back, to settle old scores and leave a legacy remembered for victories, not courageous losses. He talks of moving back to 154 pounds from middleweight, and there are intriguing fights across the board for Vargas – from rematches with Wright and Trinidad to battles against the likes of Ricardo Mayorga and Kassim Ouma.

"I'm excited again about boxing," said Vargas, and with that aforementioned Murderer's Row on the horizon, who could blame him?

But what might be exciting Vargas more is that his back is against the wall and he's attempting to do something many feel he can't do anymore. It's not easy to get up for the Ray Jovals, Tony Marshalls, and Fitz Vanderpools of the world when you've sold out arenas and brought in big pay-per-view numbers for events against the likes of Trinidad and De La Hoya.

Now there's something to shoot for, though – to win another world championship, possibly to reverse one or both of the losses on his record, and to do what so few fighters have done in this game: resurrect and reinvent himself. The mind-set to do it is there – that never goes. We'll find out Saturday night if the body is willing to go where the mind tells it to go.

The first time I spoke to Vargas, he was 20 years old and on his way to his first title shot. I asked him about pressure. He responded without hesitation.

"I think there's pressure in every fight you fight and you've got to thrive off it. Just like Michael Jordan thrives off being in
the championship and making that last shot. You've got to thrive off the pressure and make it. That's what great fighters do, and hopefully I'll be able to do that."

Michael Jordan, perhaps the greatest basketball player of all time, got old.

Of course, it wasn't until he was about 38 that we saw the effects of age setting in. So, at 27, Fernando Vargas might still have enough in the tank for one more stab at making that last shot.

Just give him the ball.