It’s hard to be a man of faith in the boxing business. Just ask Antonio Vargas, who had more than a few tests to deal with as he tried to get his career moving in the right direction after a crushing defeat, a global pandemic and more than two years on the sidelines.
“Definitely, at one point I kind of questioned God,” said Vargas. “I'm like, ‘Lord, why do all these things seem to be happening to me when I'm living right?’ I'm married, I got a family, I'm not out in the streets. And I didn't understand it at the time. I would question God but you look throughout the Bible, and God tests us to make sure that you are who you say you are. Because it's easy when things are going good; it's easy to serve God and praise God. But when things are going hard and not your way, that’s where the test comes in.”
Vargas kept the faith. The 2016 United States Olympian rebounded from a first-round loss to Jose Maria Cardenas in 2019 to win two straight before the COVID-19 pandemic stalled his career. Once he returned last year, three knockout wins continued his forward progress, and on Saturday at the Caribe Royale in Orlando, he kicks off his 2023 campaign with a 10-rounder against Michell Banquez for the WBA Continental Americas bantamweight belt. He may not be where he thought he would be at this point, but he’s somewhere, and that’s a good thing.
“I know 2023 is going to be a good year for me,” said Vargas. “I see myself winning this belt on the 25th, getting my ranking and just fighting better competition. But yeah, I know it's going to be a good year. I look to do the same thing I did last year. Opportunity comes, take 'em out and I know they're going to come.”
It’s been a long road to this point for the 26-year-old, especially when you see where other members of the Class of 2016 – Shakur Stevenson, Claressa Shields, Mikaela Mayer, Charles Conwell – have gone in recent years. Vargas still keeps in touch with some of his teammates, and he’s cheering them on as he makes his move to join them among the elite.
“I talk to Claressa every once in a while, I talk to Shakur Stevenson, and those are mainly the two people on the Olympic team that I got along with,” said Vargas. “I know Nico Hernandez, he’s a good friend of mine, as well as Teofimo Lopez. He wasn't on the Olympic team, but we kind of grew up together. So I do stay in contact with these fighters from time to time. We follow each other on Instagram and we’re always texting and messaging each other on Instagram and stuff like that, just seeing how we're doing.”
It's funny to think about it now, but back in 2016, they were all kids, filled with talent and ambition and not really sure what to expect from pro boxing. Now a few of them have world titles, some are closing in, and a couple stumbled. As for Vargas, he is now a married man with a five-year-old daughter and another baby on the way, so priorities have changed since he wore a Team USA jersey, but the urgency to get to the top hasn’t wavered, because if he gets there, he changes the future for his wife and kids. He doesn’t need more motivation than that.
Boxing doesn’t care about any of that, though. It can be cruel to the good guys, testing their resolve in and out of the ring. When Vargas got shocked by Cardenas, hey, that was part of the game. But the two-year layoff, that hurt more than the lone defeat on his 15-1 record.
“It was really hard to get fights, so I just took a break from boxing because I had four fights canceled that year alone,” he said. “So I took some time off and started working and stuff like that. And once that was over, I started training again last year and I was able to get three fights and to be active.”
And while Vargas stayed in shape during his time away from the ring, there’s nothing like a real fight to find out where you’re at, and he got three in last year in his adopted home state of Florida, with three knockouts letting him know that he was back on track.
“I feel like it was making up for lost time, but three fights definitely got me back in the rhythm and got my confidence up,” said Vargas. “And this fight right here, my first 10-rounder, I’m fighting for the WBA Continental Americas bantamweight title. So, this is going to put me where I belong, where I should have been at a long time ago. I'm excited for that.”
Vargas has waited long enough for this moment. I tell him in an odd way it reminds me of the story of Job in the Bible, sweet science version. He doesn’t disagree.
“I definitely do feel it was something similar to that,” he said. “But just not to the extent of all his children and literally everything being taken from him. But yeah, it was kind of a similar situation and it was just one of those things where it's like I just had to be patient, keep enduring and keep pressing forward. And I like the end of the story because God gave him twice as much as he had in the first place because he was faithful and patient.”
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