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Is Saturday too late to hang up the gloves for Vargas?

Some boxing observers and fans believe former junior middleweight champion Fernando Vargas should retire, that he has taken enough hard, damaging punches in his decade-long career.

And Vargas, 29, agrees: He swears his super middleweight bout against Ricardo Mayorga on Friday night in Los Angeles will be his last.

"When I decided to do this [fight], I wanted to talk to my two queens, my mother and my wife, and they didn't want me to fight," Vargas said on a recent conference call. "I said, 'I promise you that this will be my last fight. Even if you guys don't support me, I'm still going to do it.'

"They go, 'Do you promise this will be your last fight?' I go, 'I promise you that. This is it.' "

The question is this: When do a fighter and those close to him -- family, friends, managers, trainers, matchmakers and promoters -- say enough is enough?

Sometimes, he fails neurological tests and has no choice but to retire, although, even then, there are options. Sometimes, those closest to the fighter get through to him. And, perhaps most often, it takes one or more unnecessary beatings to drive the obvious point home.

Only one thing is certain: The fighter and his handlers inevitably agonize over the decision, weighing the benefits (both emotional and financial) of "fighting one more time" against the danger of permanent brain damage or other debilitating injuries.

And, sadly, the fighter too often makes the wrong decision. So many take those beatings at the end of their careers because they can't -- or won't -- say goodbye.

Take Sugar Ray Leonard, who said with a laugh, "I'm a pro when it comes to that question."

Leonard, one of the greatest fighters of his or any time, endured one-sided losses to Terry Norris and Hector Camacho in comeback fights in the 1990s before accepting the fact he finally was through.

"Ninety-nine percent of fighters don't hit the brakes in time," Leonard said. "It's what made us who we are … that's all we've trained for, all we've done our whole lives. When we leave the ring, it's because we have to. And until we accept the fact nothing else will give us that high, we will always feel lost."

At least three factors make the decision profoundly difficult. One, as Leonard said, is that boxing is all they know; some of them have been boxing since before adolescence.

Two, the allure of the ring is powerful; what else can they do in life to equal the rush of performing before cheering fans?

And three, it's their livelihood. How will they survive?

Elite fighters might fall into the first two categories if they have been reasonably smart with their money. Many more fighters fall into the third category; this is how they have made their living. Now what?

Bruce Trampler, the longtime matchmaker with Top Rank, has seen countless fighters try to come to terms with this dilemma.

"I remember [former featherweight contender] Kelcie Banks," he said. "Beautiful kid. In my judgment, he was getting hurt in his fights and he was really slurring his words. He still wanted to fight. He was flat broke and felt he needed to fight for the money. He didn't want to hear about retirement. Iran Barkely [now 47] still calls for fights. And when I won't give him a fight, he gets bitter and contentious.

"I remember when Jerry Quarry appeared before the Nevada Athletic Commission [in his late 40s]," Trampler said, referring to the former heavyweight contender who ultimately died of brain damage.

"He was brilliant in his presentation. He recited the dates and sites of all his fights to show his mental alacrity. Then, when it came time to vote, the commissioners turned to me, and I shook my head. They voted not to give him a license. He went to pieces and then became what he was: punchy. He was like a guy who memorized an eye test. He ended up fighting in Colorado, got beat and that was it.

"They don't want to quit; they don't want the truth. And in the end, who's to say what they should do? Who am I to say he shouldn't fight? It's his life, his career. It's not an easy thing."

Sometimes, a fighter is forced to retire, at least in theory. All of them must pass a neurological test to get a license. If they fail, they can't fight. And all state boxing commissions generally honor a failed test, meaning there is no place to go.

However, it's far from that simple. Obviously, the tests aren't flawless, only a glimpse at the state of the brain. Fighters sometimes go to a state -- or even foreign country -- where tests aren't so rigorous and manage to pass. And some even take legal action to get back into the ring. That's what heavyweight Joe Mesi did -- and he won.

Dr. Richard Gluckman, a neurologist with the California State Athletic Commission based in Los Angeles, believes in the tests but acknowledges they reveal only so much.

The implications of that are clear: The fighter and his handlers must not rely solely on neurological exams when deciding whether to fight on.

"I remember a guy who was 15-2," Gluckman said. "One of his handlers calls me and says, 'I'm concerned about my guy. In his last three fights, he doesn't look so good.' You do a neurological exam and might not see anything wrong. And, remember, he's 15-2.

"His jab might not be as crisp as it was, though, or he's not protecting himself like he used to. That handler sees the decline, which I might not see. We can pick up things in the exam, but the handlers are the ones who should be the first to see problems."

The handlers know what to look for.

Carl Moretti, the longtime matchmaker for Main Events (Vargas' promoter), who now is with DiBella Entertainment, laid out some of the criteria: When he moves about the ring, is he fluid or like he's in quicksand? Is he getting hit more than he used to? Is he slurring his words? Has he lost speed? Has he lost any punching power? And you look at his record: How has he done against what level of competition?

Is it a tough call? Moretti has had the same experiences as Trampler.

"Very tough," he said. "And you can only advise a fighter what to do and hope he listens. You like to think you have some influence, but sometimes, as the adage goes, a person needs to find out for themselves."

Leonard said emphatically that a fighter knows, even before anyone else does, in many instances.

"The fighters aren't the last to know," he said. "They're the last to accept it. We know, we know. When I made those comebacks, I'd go to the gym and begin sparring. Normally, I'd take a punch with no problem. Then, all of a sudden, I think, 'Man, that punch hurt.' You begin to question yourself, which you're not supposed to do. Still, you don't accept it, because it's what you've always done.

"I finally accepted it when I fought Hector Camacho [in 1997]," said Leonard, who, at 40, was stopped in five rounds. "My wife climbs into the ring afterward and says, 'Baby, it's OK to go home.' Just that sentence -- 'OK to go home' -- took a giant weight off my shoulders.

"I can be just as valuable outside the ring with myself and my family. I can't earn as much as I did in one night, but I can still be productive."

Vargas has more than one reason to retire.

He has nothing to prove at this stage of his career, having already built an impressive resume that includes victories over Ike Quartey and Winky Wright. He has battled serious back problems the past several years, among other health issues. The Mayorga fight was postponed because Vargas was iron deficient. And money is no factor; he apparently has invested his earnings well and has many thriving business interests.

Vargas said he is fighting one last time because of pride. He doesn't want to end his career on a sixth-round knockout loss to Shane Mosley, Vargas' fate in July of last year.

However, those in his camp won't acknowledge what many observers accept as reality: Vargas never was the same after his brutal 12th-round knockout loss to Felix Trinidad in 2000. Instead, they point to his difficulty making weight and too many trainers.

His original trainer, Roberto Garcia Sr., is back for this fight.

"I think that's baloney," Jose Pecora, Vargas' business manager said. "Trinidad has beaten a lot of guys, and it doesn't mean their careers weren't the same afterward. Why single out Fernando? A lot of guys take big shots … if I didn't think Fernando was the fighter he once was, I wouldn't allow him to keep fighting. And he'd listen to me.

"I say to anybody who believes Fernando isn't the fighter he used to be: Watch this fight."

And then, win or lose, he'll walk away. Or will he?

Michael Rosenthal is a staff writer for the San Diego Union-Tribune.