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“I was 5 years old,” he says. “We were in school and someone broke a clipboard and nobody knew who it was. The teacher said if no one was going to come forward and accept responsibility for the damage, no one was going to recess. And no one came forward for like five minutes. And I’m saying to myself, ‘Why is everyone being punished for one person?’ So I said it was me.”
“It was the dumbest thing I could have done,” he says with a laugh. But he doesn’t really mean it.
Now 27, Vargas has become a championship boxer, but he hasn’t changed much since that first act of altruism. In a sport where no one wants to be labeled a “nice guy,” Vargas has compiled a 27-1 record with 10 knockouts (and two world titles) without sacrificing his reputation as a patron saint of the Las Vegas boxing community.
Long before he beat Sadam Ali to claim the vacant World Boxing Organization (WBO) welterweight belt in March, Vargas’ approval rating in local gyms was already at or approaching 100 percent. And whether or not he wins his next bout—a November 5 date with Manny Pacquiao in the living legend’s comeback fight—Vargas will continue to reign as a hero of the ordinary people who populate the city’s boxing clubs.
Armin Van Damme is one of those people. A German immigrant who has resided in Las Vegas since the early 1990s, Van Damme owns and operates City Athletic Boxing and has seen the way Vargas genuinely cares about and connects with people behind the scenes. Vargas works out regularly at City Athletic.
“Jessie does things that nobody ever knows about,” Van Damme says. “He’s sponsored by Real Water, so one day he says to me, ‘Would you mind getting sponsored by Real Water?’ You know, to have the water here in the gym. So I said sure. So Jessie goes out to Real Water with his own truck, with his dad, and picks up all the cases of water and brings it here. The next day he’s here unloading the cases himself. That’s what Jessie does.”
To lifelong devotees of the sweet science, who scratch and scrimp to make a living in the boxing industry, a simple gesture like that—the kind in which Vargas specializes—can go a long way.
To understand why Vargas feels such a compulsion to give, you’ve got to go all the way back to that kid in the kindergarten class, the one who took the blame and stayed inside while his friends got to run around the playground.
The son of Mexican immigrants, Vargas moved to Las Vegas as a toddler and grew up in a full house on the west side with a large extended family. Vargas says living in close quarters with his relatives taught him how to sacrifice and feel for others, and that his empathetic nature was already instilled in him when he took up boxing at age 8.
Over the next 15 years, Vargas became a fixture at a number of Las Vegas gyms as he worked to pursue his boxing dreams. As he spent day after day training, his modest upbringing remained the foundation of his approach to people.
“You never see a rich guy walking into the gym and saying, ‘Hey, I want to box,’” Van Damme says. “Usually it’s the guys who don’t have anything. Jessie grew up in the community and he’s been in all the gyms, and he knows what it’s like. I think that makes him aware and the effect he can have on people.
He understands it’s the relationships in your life that make the difference.”
Those personal relationships sustain Vargas.
More than a mile above Las Vegas, Vargas represents hope to people who need it.
The Spring Mountain Youth Camp is a juvenile detention facility located at the top of Mount Charleston, designed to help troubled kids assimilate after their sentences come to an end. The camp offers social counseling, vocational training and academic programs for about 240 youths per year, ranging in age from 12 to 18.
“It’s probably the first placement where the judge sends kids to help them get back on track,” says Sean Doak, a probation officer at Spring Mountain. “A lot of times when juveniles go home, the family hasn’t changed, the community hasn’t changed, their old friends haven’t changed. With the Spring Mountain program, we try to prepare them for that.”
Like other fighters from Las Vegas, Vargas occasionally likes to train at Mount Charleston because of its high altitude. During one such training session two years ago, he visited the Spring Mountain Youth Camp, and in getting to know the boys detained there, he started to recognize himself. As a teenager, Vargas was the one who was brushing off his schoolwork and running with a not-so-great crowd. He remembers times when he came close to stepping over the line and doing something that could have sent him to a place like Spring Mountain.
Luckily for Vargas, he had boxing. It was the only thing that mattered to him at that age, and he credits the ring as his savior. He would have done anything to keep fighting, so he walked the line, staying out of trouble just enough to continue his athletic pursuits.
After his visit to the youth camp, Vargas was moved to action. He figured boxing might motivate the kids at Spring Mountain the way it motivated him to keep clean when he was young, so he presented a plan to Clark County officials and the Spring Mountain administration: a boxing program for boys who were making progress and exhibiting good behavior.
The idea was given the green-light, and Vargas, with help from his sponsor, Title Boxing, provided the gear and the equipment to launch the camp’s athletic gym and boxing program. For Vargas, it was important to show the kids that their lives were not over and that they could still work to achieve something special.
“One mistake can change anyone’s life,” Vargas says. “Troubled youth, they go through tough situations, and I went through tough situations as well when I was young. Sometimes you need that voice that helps to keep you on the right track.”
Out of the 100 boys populating Spring Mountain at any given time, Doak says only about 20 or so are selected to participate in the boxing program. Kids who make real progress in getting their lives back on track are allowed to go on “outings,” as Spring Mountain buses its young boxers into the city to work out at local gyms. Sparring is not allowed at Spring Mountain, so outings are the only times when the boys are able to step in the ring and throw live punches. It’s a privilege they work hard to earn.
In addition to his frequent trips to Mount Charleston to work with the kids, Vargas is also active on many outings, serving as a trainer to the Spring Mountain novices.
“No one wants to have these kids,” says Van Damme, who hosts Spring Mountain outings at his gyms. “When the television cameras are up there at Spring Mountain, you see lots of boxers up there. Jessie shows up there when there are no cameras. Jessie doesn’t need the recognition. He works with them because he feels how others feel.”
Steven Carson was sent to Spring Mountain a little over a year ago, when he was 16. The Las Vegas native had been on and off probation since he was 13 and didn’t really know any way of life other than “running the streets.”
“Just a lot of stupid shit,” he says. “Drugs, money. Bad things.”
On his first day at Spring Mountain, Carson asked if he could join the boxing program. The answer was no.
“Only kids on good behavior can get on the program,” Carson says. “I was still doing stupid shit, acting out. Then my caseworker, she said she’d make me a deal. If I went two weeks on good behavior, with no incident reports, with good grades, she would put me on the list. That’s when it clicked with me. Within a week I was doing much better and I eventually got in.”
Carson had strapped on boxing gloves a few times as a kid, but had never seriously trained before he was admitted to the Spring Mountain program. Once he got started, he was hooked. He worked harder than anyone, inside and outside the ring. Boxing became his singular passion, driving him to discipline himself the way it had for Vargas a decade earlier.
The parallel wasn’t lost on Carson. He remembers Vargas as a regular visitor and a role model.
“The first time I saw Jessie up there, he was running and training in the gym they have up there. He was training for [Timothy] Bradley Jr., and I thought that was the coolest thing. He’s a world champion boxer. They brought the whole camp into the cafeteria, and he gave us like a motivational speech. And again, right after he beat Sadam Ali, he came up there the next week. As soon as he got back, and he had the belts with him. I felt like I could relate to him. A lot of us did. He grew up in Las Vegas, and he’s been in a lot of the situations we’ve been in. It was cool to think he would come all the way up there because he cared about us.”
Doak saw firsthand the impact Vargas had on Carson and the rest of the Spring Mountain kids.
“Jessie will get down to a basic level with them,” Doak says. “He’ll say, ‘Hey, guys, I’ve been on the streets, I know what you’re facing.’ So he’s able to have that empathy with them where they can connect. He’s very open with them. After he speaks to them, he stands at the door and he shakes hands with everyone and says, ‘This belt, this is for us.’ Kids are very keen on that. They can tell when it’s genuine. It’s the eye focus, it’s the body language. Kids will let you know. Jessie has that.”
After his release in June, Carson remained obsessed with boxing. He transitioned to one of Van Damme’s gyms, showing up at 10 a.m. and working out until 8 p.m. Eventually, Van Damme enlisted Carson to help around the club, working the desk, maintaining the equipment and leading classes for beginners.
Now Carson is at the gym six days a week. He’s taking online classes to earn his high school degree, and though he doesn’t know whether he wants to give college a try, he thinks he could have a future as a trainer. He’s had four amateur bouts and sports a clean 4-0 record. He’s invited his probation officers to his fights.
Carson has come a long way since his first day at Spring Mountain, when he realized he’d have to make major changes in his life if he wanted to pursue boxing. That realization is still helping him today.
“I love being in the gym,” Carson says. “I love the atmosphere. I love going to the fights. I love it all. It keeps me accountable, because I can’t do certain things that I used to and still box.”
He’s also developed personal relationships that have stuck with him.
“I’ve met some of the best people in my life so far through boxing. I met Jessie, and he’s always been real cool. Every time I see him at the gym, he gives me a look and says, ‘What’s up, Steven?’ I think that’s really cool of him. He’s fighting Pacquiao.”
Now, when the new crop of Spring Mountain kids come to the gym for an outing, it’s Carson who teaches them the basics of footwork and throwing a decent jab.
When Vargas steps in the ring at the Thomas & Mack Center on November 5, it will be the biggest fight of his life. He’ll be fighting for himself and fighting for his city, because they are one and the same.
To Vargas, that’s a big responsibility.
“It’s very important to me to be looked at as the guy to be representing Las Vegas,” Vargas says. “To be honest, I’m just another friend here in the city who’s doing something positive with the youth and doing anything he can to help anyone in the city. I want everyone to be proud of me.”
Beating Manny Pacquiao would undoubtedly alter the course of Vargas’ career, but the people closest to Vargas don’t believe it would change him one bit.
“Jessie is not changing,” Van Damme says. “He beat Sadam Ali and he is the current WBO champion, and he’s still the same person.”
Van Damme gestures to the other side of the gym, where Vargas is posing for pictures and autographing gloves for a family that has come to watch him train.
“I think he’s going to beat Pacquiao and it’s not going to change him.”
In other words, he’d still raise his hand if it meant the rest of the class could enjoy recess.
“Anywhere I go, I’m that type of guy they’ll look at and say, ‘Hey, that’s Jessie,’” he says. “But they leave out ‘That’s Jessie Vargas, the WBO world champion who’s going to beat Manny Pacquiao,’ just because I’m a friend more than anything.”
Vargas is the best of Las Vegas, and the city deserves a hero like him.
City Boxing Club/City Athletic Boxing is the official training camp of Jessie Vargas, offering adult classes, private training and youth instruction.
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