The time was March 1998. Frank Espinoza Sr. of Espinoza Boxing had found himself a raw prospect from Mexico City and was bringing him to the U.S. to audition for Top Rank Promotions. The kid was tough, possessed a nice left hook, but his boxing skills weren’t the greatest. What made things a little tougher, from a promotional standpoint, was he was a smaller weight class fighter who didn’t speak a lick of English. What the kid needed to show against Antonio Ramirez (at the time, 2-15) was that he was the kind of fighter who could dispatch unworthy challenges with TV-friendly ease. Instead, the kid won a six-round distance fight. At the time, Top Rank officials were unimpressed and told Espinoza to send him back from whence he came, as the kid just didn’t have the goods.
But Espinoza Sr. simply said, “I just had a feeling about him, you know? And so we moved him into our home and he trained here in L.A.”
Almost three months and one fight later, Israel Vazquez showed off his left hook and power to stop his foe, Oscar Javier Garcia, in four rounds. Espinoza, Sr. was impressed enough that he kept the kid on and for the next decade and more, the kid- whose career almost didn’t happen- would thrill boxing fans with war-filled trilogies against Oscar Larios and Rafael Marquez, taking and losing titles in the super featherweight division with big wins over Jhonny Gonzalez in another classic. Vazquez suffered a loss to Oscar Larios in their second fight (he subsequently avenged that loss in the third fight), and then ultimately burned his memory into fight fans’ hearts and minds with his classic, epic, unbelievably brutal trilogy with Rafael Marquez.
The two would fight back to back to back from 2007 to 2008 with the Savage Dial getting turned higher and higher every time out.
The first fight was in March of 2007 for Vazquez’ bantamweight title and lasted six rounds with Marquez winning on points early, but Vazquez coming on late until his nose, broken early on in the battle, made it impossible to continue past the sixth.
The second fight, in July of that same year, lasted six rounds as well. Only this time, turnaround was fair play as Vazquez started early and hurt Marquez throughout. Marquez would finish on his feet but referee Jose Garcia would stop the contest to save him from further punishment at the hands of the rejuvenated Vazquez. It was unanimously seen as one of the best fights of the year.
The third bout felt like a brutal replay of the first two, only it extended the distance. This time, the two battled in March, almost a year to the day of the first bout. It was as seesaw an affair as can be. Vazquez stayed low, closing the gap against his taller foe and ripping uppercuts and hooks to Marquez’ ribs early and often. Marquez, the power punching boxer to Vazquez’ brawler, tried to keep it a long range fight and had success throughout, but not enough to totally take control.
The final round, with the fight on the table, was a classic. Both men came out loaded for bear and beat each other from pillar to post. But it was Vazquez, that kid from Mexico City, thought to not have the stuff of legends, who had just a little more left in the tank.
“Magnifico” hurt Marquez late in the round and sent him reeling to the ropes from a punch. The referee, Pat Russell, seeing that the ropes were all that held Marquez up, called a knockdown and Vazquez, by the closest of margins, took a split decision in a fight that not only he won, but fans all over the world did, too. The fight was voted 2008’s Fight of the Year and those fights are now up there with the classic trilogies of all time.
So where do Vazquez go from there? Fight number four, of course.
After a long break from the ring to heal and correct a torn retina he suffered in the trilogy, Vazquez returned in October of 2010. The skills were a little rusty, but the heart and power were still there as Vazquez stopped his opponent, Angel Priolo, in the ninth round of a harder than expected fight.
Now, Vazquez prepares for his fourth bout with Marquez on May 22, 2010 at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, CA. With his trainer, Rudy Perez and the re-addition of Justin Fortune, Vazquez trains out of Fortune Gym in Hollywood, CA, a beautiful gym with exposed brick and framed pictures of old-time fighters along the walls. It looks like a hip downtown gallery of violence.
It’s here that the ever humble Vazquez trains day in and day out for one of the final bouts of his hard-fought and illustrious career. He enters the gym carrying his own equipment with no entourage, save for Espinoza Sr., his son, Frank Jr. and his trainer, smiles at everyone and greets a few in shy, but solid English, and goes about his business like a pro. Even at 32, he seems to be still learning.
What’s most impressive in the gym is the relaxed and friendly atmosphere. This is a dangerous fight. Both men have miles on them and both men possess the power to knock the other out. After 24 rounds of pure mayhem, there are no secrets between Vazquez and Marquez beyond what strategies they will employ. And yet, in the gym, there are smiles everywhere. Perez and Fortune are not jockeying for position, but rather they watch Vazquez spar and talk quietly amongst themselves; two pros getting the best out of each other and their pupil. No egos allowed nor sighted.
I had the pleasure of watching him work last week and, from the looks of him, you wouldn’t think Vazquez was out of the gym very long at all. He sparred Miguel Garcia, out of Oxnard, over four fast-paced rounds. Vazquez boxed more than I expected. He darted in and out, flashing flurries, and sticking to the jab to get in and get out. Light on his feet (unusual for a fighter with miles on him and above 30), Vazquez made himself a hard target as much as possible, hiding behind a shell defense when he could, popping in and out of range and resetting when he couldn’t. If there was rust in this, his second sparring session of camp, you wouldn’t know it.
“A little bit,” Vazquez told me of the rust, “but by next week, I will a lot better.”
In their first fight, Vazquez was the bull to Marquez’ matador, but as the trilogy progressed, Vazquez began to box more and more and move, when he could. On this day in sparring, I saw evidence of that as well. Sure, there were moments of toe-to-toe action. But everyone, including Vazquez, agrees that boxing more to set up the big shots is the way to go here. As I watched the session progress, I found evidence of that. With each passing round, Vazquez began to implement more and more boxing into his game. Head movement, jab, jab, step around, jab-hook, jab-right, jab-left. Rinse. Repeat. This is not your 2007 Vazquez, but rather a vet who has become a little more wily and crafty.
Justin Fortune is known from his days, not only as a former heavyweight contender, but also as a “strength and conditioning coach” at the Wild Card gym, a title he was given in his days training fighters at the Wild Card Gym. It is a label he can’t stand as he feels a trainer should be all things, including one who conditions his fighters. But label be damned, Fortune is on point when it comes to what he calls “shocking the body” and keeping it active and engaged.
On this day, Vazquez would work all manners of conditioning. Shadowboxing at a high tempo. Pad work with both Perez and Fortune. Perez jumped in with two foam sticks (“A Mexican technique”, Espinoza Jr. would tell me) that he attacked Vazquez with to get his punches faster and sharper, while improving his defensive guard. Jump rope was followed by some medicine ball action. While some of the techniques seemed standard boxing stuff, the way they are implemented, and how Fortune changes things up day to day is the key to keeping Vazquez engaged and refreshed throughout camp.
“It’s great to be back here working with Justin, who I worked with in the past,” said Vazquez. “There have been a little bit of changes. Rudy Perez is the head coach, but we are working with things that are different. But like I said before, we are going to be in good condition and well-prepared for this next fight.”
Throughout history, fighters have come together to create something special over a series of fights. LaMotta-Robinson. Ali-Frazier. And now, Vazquez-Marquez. So what is it that makes these men special when they get in the squared ring together?
“[Marquez] is a strong fighter,” Vazquez explained. “He has a lot of heart. He’s a good fighter. I am too. We both have the same intentions. I have a lot of heart. I think that is what makes the fight when you have two warriors like this coming at each other. But at the end of the day, I believe I will be victorious.”
With two of three of the fights going his way, the thought might be that Vazquez would take victory in this fourth fight for granted. But he’s a veteran who knows that all it takes is one punch from Marquez and his night could end early. There are no shortcuts to be taken here and nothing is taken as a “gimme,” as far as he is concerned.
“I’m prepared real well,” Vazquez told me. “I am not taking this lightly. I know I won two out of the three, but this is like the first fight. I am going to come out with everything. It’s no different. I am going to come out like it’s the first fight. No question.”