Mission: Possible

James Oddy
08/07/2016 12:11pm

It is an often repeated maxim that boxing isn’t a game. It’s true. No other sport can inflict such physical and, occasionally, emotional damage on its competitors. Yet for nine-year United States army veteran, and welterweight contender, Sammy Vasquez (21-0, 15 KOs), boxing is a refuge from the effects of a two-tour stint during the Iraq war.

“I’ve been diagnosed with PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder], and I use boxing as my therapy,” Vasquez told Boxing Monthly.

PTSD is an extremely serious and at times debilitating issue, caused by traumatic and violent events such as road accidents, terrorist attacks and, indeed, warfare. It afflicts one in three people who find themselves in such circumstances.

“My wife actually told me I should talk to a counsellor,” Vasquez said.

“I didn’t think I had a problem because it was normal to me. I really thought about it. [I was] counting cars at night out of my window. I can’t sit with my back turned to the door and other things. If I’m angry… I turn to boxing to release stress. Having a family and kids, and going through these things, as have many others, boxing has been a huge help. It’s a great outlet.”

Boxing has however always been a constant for 30-year-old Vasquez, who was a decorated amateur before the events of 9/11 inspired him to serve his country. The Pennsylvanian continued to box in the army, becoming a two-time armed forces champion.

“It’s very strict [Armed forces boxing], our main goal is to try and make the Olympic team and win the armed forces championship. It’s much respected. That’s what we take into the [Armed forces] fights, and it pushes us to be even better.”

I asked if, all things considered, Vasquez regretted heading into the military rather than continuing life as a civilian. Instead of being a contender at the age of 30, perhaps Sammy could have entered into the pro game at a much younger age. His answer provided an interesting insight into the mind of a fighter, both in and out of the ring.

“I think it definitely made me into the fighter I am today,” he answered.

“I’ve got a lot of discipline now. Everything I do is 110%. If you don’t have that discipline behind you, you can always lose your way. People can drag you down with you. It’s hard to stand alone, when everyone is pulling at you. But if you have a certain type of structure, certain type of discipline the military instils in you, then you’re able to stand alone and strip all that stuff off, and do what you need to do to accomplish your mission.”

His mission at welterweight continues as he fights on the 16 July undercard of Deontay Wilder’s WBC heavyweight title defence against Chris Arreola. Moments before our interview was due to take place, it was announced that original opponent Luis Collazo had pulled out injured. Olympic gold medallist Félix Diaz is instead steeping into the breech. Diaz is arguably a tougher opponent, although perhaps not quite as big a name. The late change doesn’t appear to have affected Vasquez however.

“Preparation wise, either way, I’m ready. We prepared for a southpaw, Diaz is a southpaw. So it doesn’t change anything aside from Félix Diaz is 5ft 5ins rather than being 5ft 9ins like Collazo.

“Collazo had a better resume; I wanted to put him on my record. Félix Diaz is an Olympic gold medallist, and his only loss is to Lamont Peterson, so I still think it will be a fan favourite type of fight.

“I don’t really care [that Collazo pulled out]. I’m a fighter, regardless of who’s in front of me; we are going to get the job done. And I haven’t fought since January against [Aaron] Martinez, so I’ve been chomping at the bit, man. Felix Diaz is still a game fighter.”

The welterweight division is still arguably the world’s marquee division in terms of talent depth despite the loss of Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao. As Keith Thurman and Shawn Porter highlighted with a fight of the year contender in late June, being the ‘man’ in the division propels you into the pound-for-pound discussion. Vasquez, around the top 10 at welterweight, is confident moving forward.

“Everyone in front of me [I’d fight]. I want to get a world title shot, but you have to get bigger names on your resume; someone like Félix Diaz would definitely bump me up.

Those guys sit up there and keep floating around each other [not fighting each other]. Sooner or later you’re going to have someone like me, or Errol Spence, or whoever else is coming up, bust through and be up there. And they’ll have to fight us.”

Vasquez has an enjoyable boxer puncher style, throwing quick hooks out of a southpaw stance. The man clearly relishes a fight, having good evasive footwork, but often happy to sit in the pocket and go to work.

“I can mix it up. But at the same time, I’m versatile… I like to keep my hands down low a little bit, make it entertaining. But I know what I’m doing, I can use my distance, I can poke my head out, get it back, counter shot. I think overall I’m exciting.”

Those skills have been honed by an established team in the gym and in the corner.

“I train with Ryan Rimseck, who was my very first coach when I was nine-years-old. And then Charles Leverette, he was the guy I was in the armed forces with. I also have Bob Healy, who was my amateur coach as well. Mike McSorley is my cut man.

“Me and Charles, we’ve been through a lot in our lives together. Being in the military, we have respect for each other; we know what we’ve been through. We can communicate on different levels than most boxers can with their trainers. He’s like a father figure to me. I’m just grateful to be working with someone like him. I keep my circle tight, I keep my people close to me, and I think that’s what separates me from everyone else. We established ourselves a long time ago, we all know the goals and what we want to achieve.”