By Keith Idec
Many fighters express appreciation of opportunities to fight on national television.
Sammy Vasquez appreciates these chances more than most.
In 2009, when the Monessen, Pennsylvania, native was finishing his second tour in Iraq, he didn’t envision boxing before television audiences as large as three or four million people. Vasquez just wanted to get home to his family.
There were days the 30-year-old welterweight wasn’t so sure that would happen.
“To be honest, I didn’t think about any of this,” Vasquez told BoxingScene.com. “I was more focused on that I had to pay attention to what I was doing. We were going on a lot of missions. I had to think about that day. I couldn’t even think about tomorrow. Because what we were doing, we could just be driving down the road and get blown up. One time I got blown up and got knocked out, knocked unconscious. So you don’t know if today’s gonna be your day or if tomorrow’s gonna be your day.”
A professional boxing career was far from Vasquez’s mind back then.
He took up boxing as a child because he was bullied and fought as an amateur. But Vasquez joined the Army as a way to help pay for college, which eventually led to two tours in Iraq, and he didn’t turn pro until a week before his 26th birthday in April 2012.
“I never thought about boxing as a career when I was over there,” said Vasquez (21-0, 15 KOs), who’ll box the Dominican Republic’s Felix Diaz (17-1, 8 KOs) in the opener of FOX’s doubleheader Saturday night from Legacy Arena in Birmingham, Alabama (8 p.m. ET/5 p.m. PT). “I did have a little boxing gym, a makeshift gym that I made for aggression, if people just wanted to take some steam off or something like that. I had a boxing bag and stuff like that out there.
“But I never thought about boxing as my future until we came back from Iraq, when you could actually start planning stuff. Because before you go overseas, you’re doing wills, power of attorneys, all this shit just in case you die. So you’re living day-by-day, hoping that none of that stuff comes into effect.”
Vasquez, who helped train members of the Iraqi military and police, was among the fortunate American soldiers who survived the atrocities of an actual war. He returned home in the summer of 2009 and moved with his family from the Pittsburgh area to Colorado Springs in 2010.
Six years later, the unbeaten southpaw is in position to land a world title shot if he defeats Diaz, a fellow left-hander who won a gold medal at the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing. Ranked No. 9 among the WBC’s 147-pound contenders, Vasquez would “love” to challenge Philadelphia’s Danny Garcia (32-0, 18 KOs) for the WBC welterweight title.
Vasquez admits, however, he is proud to have reached this point and could walk away from this sport content with what he has accomplished thus far in the ring.
“I’ve been through the nitty-gritty,” Vasquez said. “I’ve been through the dogsh*t. I’ve been through all that stuff. Now look at me. For a guy who’s spent two tours in Iraq, who has turned professional and is now in the top 10 welterweights in the world, it’s amazing in itself. I’m just very proud of myself, my family and my team, that we’ve all stuck together and got this far.
“Even if boxing would end tomorrow for me, I would be grateful for as far as I have made it, especially because of the things I’ve been through. It just speaks volumes about me and my team and my family. I’m just very appreciative and grateful that I was able to make it out of Iraq, when many others haven’t, with all my limbs. I’m very proud to be an American. I don’t regret anything I’ve done. I’m just happy I’m still here.”
Vasquez beat Aron Martinez by technical knockout in his last fight. An arm injury prevented East Los Angeles’ Martinez (20-5-1, 4 KOs) from coming out of his corner for the seventh round January 23 at Staples Center in Los Angeles.
That impressive victory propelled the proud Mexican-American toward a fight against former WBA welterweight title-holder Luis Collazo on the Deontay Wilder-Chris Arreola undercard Saturday night. Collazo (36-7, 19 KOs) sustained a calf injury while training two weeks ago, though, and Diaz replaced him on short notice for this high-stakes 10-rounder.
The 32-year-old Diaz dropped a majority decision to Lamont Peterson (34-3-1, 17 KOs) in his last fight, a closely contested 12-rounder October 17 in Fairfax, Virginia. He was already training to face Georgia’s Levan Ghvamichava (17-2-1, 13 KOs) in a 10-rounder July 12 in Nice, California, so he jumped at the chance to withdraw from that fight to fill in for Collazo.
“He’s a good fighter, a good boxer,” Vasquez said. “He moves around a lot. He likes to play that peek-a-boo defense and then he likes to counter with big, looping shots, things like that. For the most part, he’s been successful.
“Against Lamont Peterson, I think it was a very close fight and I could’ve even given it to Felix. Or it could’ve come down to a draw. I mean, Lamont Peterson played into his game and it worked for him. At the same time, I know what I’m gonna do. I’m not gonna be playing into his game and I’m sure he’s gonna run into some shots.”
The television-friendly Vasquez hopes Diaz runs into enough shots to become the first professional fighter to knock Diaz out. However their fight unfolds, Vasquez is thankful for fighting on free national television for the third time in the past 13 months.
He hopes his ascent from the admirable anonymity of the battlefield to the bright spotlight of a boxing ring has inspired people who’ve had to overcome obstacles in their own lives.
“It helps being on big networks like FOX and the other ones I’ve been on [CBS, NBC],” Vasquez said. “For people to get to know who I am as a fighter and as a person, you know, I’m an exciting fighter, and my history and background in the military and things like that, and things I’ve been doing since I was a kid, I’ve really put together a nice story about myself.
“For people to know who I am, and to know the trials and tribulations I’ve gone through in my life, hopefully it’ll impact other people, so they know the sky’s the limit and that they can take whatever negative stuff they have in their lives and turn it into a positive, like I have.”
Keith Idec covers boxing for The Record and Herald News, of Woodland Park, N.J., and BoxingScene.com. He can be reached on Twitter @Idecboxing.