Sammy Vasquez Jr. walked out of the ring dejected.
The 30-year-old former sergeant in the Pennsylvania Army National Guard had just finished battling Felix Diaz to a standstill in a welterweight boxing match Saturday night at Legacy Arena in Birmingham, Alabama. For Vasquez, it was the first time he didn’t emerge from a fight victorious. Instead, he heard a judges’ verdict of a majority draw.
Then, Vasquez was called back to the ring.
In an uncommon move, the state boxing commission representatives at ringside recalculated the judges’ scores and deemed the fight a unanimous decision for Diaz, handing Vasquez his first professional loss.
“I’ve never been in a situation where I had to wait for them to add up the scores again,” said Vasquez, whose record now stands at 21-1 with 15 knockouts.
For the former NCO, it was the second time this bout provided the need to adapt quickly to change. Merely two weeks before Vasquez was scheduled to enter the ring, Diaz was installed as his opponent after his previous foe, Luis Collazo, was scratched due to injury. Several boxing writers deemed Diaz a much harsher test for Vasquez — despite being five inches shorter — given his background as an Olympic gold medalist in 2008 for the Dominican Republic who was coming off a hotly contested majority decision loss to former champion Lamont Peterson last December. That notion came to fruition Saturday night. Vasquez knew it even before he had to march back to the ring after the first decision was announced.
“I knew in my heart I lost that fight,” he told reporters after the contest, which was the co-main event of a card that saw WBC heavyweight champion Deontay Wilder successfully defend his title against Chris Arreola. “I tried my hardest, but there were things I should have done that I didn’t do.”
Vasquez accepted the new result with grace and dignity, clapping for Diaz after his win was announced.
“He’s a hell of a fighter,” Vasquez said. “He’s an Olympic gold medalist for a reason. He had a tough decision loss to Lamont Peterson. To me, he was an undefeated Olympic gold medalist. I take nothing away from the man.”
The fight seemed to begin according to Vasquez’s plan. He slowly backed the shorter Diaz down, keeping him at bay with his longer jab. But near the end of Round 2, Diaz unleashed a barrage of counter punches that momentarily stunned Vasquez. That theme replayed throughout the fight, as Diaz timed his counter-overhand shots well. Vasquez struggled to avoid the punches anytime Diaz came forward. The longer the fight went, the more galvanized Diaz became as he partook in some mild showboating by waving his hand like a mitt trying to goad Vasquez into a trade inside.
In Round 7, Vasquez lost his mouthpiece from a glancing blow. He lost it again in Round 8 after Diaz backed him into a corner. The fighters traded a rousing flurry of punches in Round 9 that brought the crowd to its feet, with Vasquez appearing to find his form again after struggling for most of the middle rounds. In Round 10, Diaz was content moving about the ring figuring his decision victory was sealed. Vasquez landed a slew of jabs while Diaz backed up. Diaz landed a counter shot in the round’s waning seconds that once again dislodged Vasquez’s mouthpiece. The referee stopped action and took a point from Vasquez for the delay before the fight ended less than a minute later.
That point proved to be the difference on two of the judges’ modified scorecards as Ron Moon and Irwin Deutsch both scored it 95-94. Karen Holderfield scored the bout 96-93 for Diaz after the modification.
Despite suffering his first loss, Vasquez vowed to regroup and continue his quest to become a world champion.
“We’ll huddle up and start back at the drawing board,” he said. “I’ve got to start knocking those names down again. … This is my first loss. Losses you learn from. Losses just mean you have room to grow. We’ll take it and come back strong the next time.”
While disappointed with the result, Vasquez also approaches the setback with a different perspective. Vasquez deployed twice to Iraq with the Pennsylvania Army National Guard in 2005-06 and in 2008-09. He still carries the hidden scars of war. Earlier this year before his fight against Aaron Martinez, Vasquez revealed he had been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. He still attends weekly sessions with a counselor and sees a psychiatrist regularly. Vasquez said his progress is bolstered by the physical outlet boxing provides.
“I’ve already been in the biggest fight of my life,” Vasquez said in the lead-up to his tilt with Diaz. “The difference when fighting other people in the ring and fighting in a war is you get to walk away. Win, lose or draw, I don’t really care. I mean, I want to win of course, but at the same time for someone that has been through the stuff that I have, that us Soldiers have, it’s just great to be ranked in the top 10 in the world. If it was all gone tomorrow, I wouldn’t be upset. I’ve accomplished a lot in my life and I’m very proud of how far I’ve come.”
Fast-rising boxing star Sammy Vasquez Jr. wants to reach the top. Literally.
The 30-year-old former sergeant in the Pennsylvania Army National Guard says he wants to climb to the summit of Mount Everest, the world’s tallest peak, once his days in the ring are done.
“I’ve always wanted to do it,” said Vasquez, a native of Monessen, Pennsylvania, during a recent phone interview. “I just think it would be pretty cool to take a picture on top of the highest mountain on Earth.”
But before he reaches that daunting Himalayan pinnacle, the undefeated Vasquez wants to continue his ascent of the welterweight division and become a world champion. The path to that objective continues this weekend against an opponent with not quite the stature of Everest, but dangerous nonetheless. The 5-foot-10 Vasquez will face 5-foot-5 Felix Diaz in a welterweight bout Saturday billed as the co-main event of a Premier Boxing Champions card in Birmingham, Alabama, that will be broadcast live on Fox. The other headline fight pits WBC heavyweight champion Deontay Wilder against Chris Arreola.
For Vasquez, who boasts a 21-0 record with 15 knockouts, Diaz (17-1, 8 KOs) is a short-notice opponent. The Dominican fighter, who won a gold medal at the 2008 Olympics, was added to the card July 1 after an injury sidelined Vasquez’s original opponent, the 5-foot-9 Luis Collazo. But just as he has so many times during his eight-year Army career, which included two deployments to Iraq, Vasquez adjusted.
“Just like being an NCO, you have to adapt and overcome,” Vasquez said. “You have to expect change like that; that’s just how it works sometimes. It wasn’t a big change for me because of the fact that they’re both southpaws. One is just taller than the other. Now I’m fighting a guy who is shorter. So the only difference is the accuracy of my punches needs to be lower now rather than high. So it really wasn’t that big of a change to adapt to.”
Despite being shorter, Diaz still presents formidable opposition. His Olympic pedigree helped him charge up the super lightweight and welterweight ranks with highlight wins during the past two years over Emmanuel Lartey and Adrian Granados. Diaz suffered his first loss in October in a split decision against Lamont Peterson. One judge scored the fight, in which Diaz gave the former champion fits, a draw.
Vasquez expects Diaz to try to apply the same formula during their clash, with the smaller fighter looking to keep the action inside to nullify Vasquez’s reach advantage and limit his movement around the ring. But Vasquez, often rated among the top 10 welterweights in the world, says he is looking to dictate the pace of the fight and is ready for whatever Diaz throws at him.
“I’m not Lamont Peterson,” Vasquez said. “I hit harder than Lamont Peterson and I intend to stick to the game plan as usual. I’ve got a decent inside game as well as outside game and I move a lot. He’s an Olympic gold medalist. He’s going to be aggressive. But I can slug, too, so I think it’s going to be a hell of a fight because we’re both very big competitors.”
Though a win would be a boon for Vasquez and his surging career, he says he is happy simply stepping in the ring. Vasquez has long enjoyed boxing. He was introduced to the sport at age 9 by his father, who wanted to give his son an outlet and a method to defend himself from the bullies who hounded the younger Vasquez at school. But fighting means so much more to Vasquez now, as it provides relief for the hidden scars of his time in combat.
In the lead-up to his fight against Aaron Martinez earlier this year, Vasquez revealed he had been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. Vasquez deployed with the National Guard in 2005-06 and in 2008-09. His first deployment took him to Camp Habbaniyah, Iraq, where firefights were a typical part of the day during missions that took Soldiers from the base near Fallujah to the outskirts of Ramadi. Vasquez’s second deployment saw him split time between Fallujah and Taji.
Upon his return, even as he parlayed his boxing skills into a gold medal at the 2010 All-Army Championships in the 152-pound division and an invitation to join the U.S. Army World Class Athlete Program at Fort Carson, Colorado, Vasquez knew something was different about him. Those feelings lingered and manifested themselves in the dark confines of the bedroom in the house Vasquez shared with his wife, DelRae, in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
“A lot of traffic came by my house,” Vasquez said. “At night, I really couldn’t get a lot of sleep. I would count the cars that would pass my house. The lights would reflect off my blinds and hit my ceiling. It was hard for me to fall asleep. I was always thinking because I would hear brakes, cars slowing down and stopping. On Halloween, I looked outside and there was a kid out late at night. A truck stopped right by my house and the kid was jumping in the back of a truck and they rolled off and I would hear the brakes, then again down the next street. I would get very paranoid. It was just tough.”
Vasquez credits his wife with helping him carry the burdens and urging him to get help.
“A lot of people know the cover of my story but my wife is the only one who knows my book,” he said. “She’s the one who helps me deal with everything. If it wasn’t for her, I’d be hurting. I mean not even my father, nobody really, knows about everything because people just don’t understand unless they’ve been through it.”
Vasquez goes to weekly sessions with a counselor and sees a psychiatrist regularly, which has calmed his anxiety. He said he has receieved a big lift by recently moving his family to a home on five acres of property in Colorado Springs.
“I sleep 10 times better than I ever have,” Vasquez said. “It’s been really good now.”
All of his progress is bolstered by the physical outlet that boxing provides.
“Boxing’s very therapeutic for me,” Vasquez said. “I get a lot of anxiety, I’ll get angry or frustrated. If I ever get into that moment, I’ll just go to the gym and hit the bag, think about things and get it all out. When I get tired physically, I’m able to think a lot clearer about the whole situation and then explain to my kids or my wife why I acted out the way I did. We’re able to talk about it, discuss it. It’s just a way for me to wear my body out to where I can really think.
“There’s a lot of things that we all deal with. With this, it’s never going to go away. But it takes dealing with it every day. Eventually you’ll be able to help yourself.”
Another facet of his training that helps is being coached by a former NCO. Retired Staff Sgt. Charles Leverette, a former All-Army champion and the World Class Athlete Program head boxing coach, has helped Vasquez reel off a slew of victories. The fighter says his coach has also served as a father figure and is an advocate during his journey through PTSD.
“Sammy’s right there,” Leverette said in a previous interview with the NCO Journal. “He is close to big things. … We just have to keep proving ourselves and what comes next will come next.”
But Vasquez acknowledges far more of the Army is in his corner. Throngs of Soldiers have expressed their support. While he hopes to make them proud, he also wants to use his platform to help remove the stigma for those who may be experiencing some of the psychological challenges he faces.
“I appreciate all the NCO support, the support from all the Army,” Vasquez said. “But also, I’m rooting for all the guys who are cheering for me. If you’re ever in a struggle or any situation where you don’t know what to do anymore, you definitely need to go talk to the VA, a therapist or a counselor. There’s help out there. You need to be the one to take that step to go see somebody. If you can’t see somebody or you’re afraid to, you can always message me. I’ll reply back, I’ll help you find a source to go get help.
“We’re born and bred in the military to deal with things and just work it out on our own. But everybody needs help. From my standpoint, I’m ranked top 10 in the world in boxing but yet I still go see a therapist. I have a psychiatrist that I talk to. I sought help. It doesn’t matter who you are, how big you are or how little you are. Just because I box and I’m on TV, it doesn’t dictate who I am as a person. So it’s not demeaning or belittling to go see somebody to talk about your situation. It actually really, really does help you. I did eight years. After you’re done you can always follow your dreams. Me? I’m just going to keep pushing forward like always, keep adapting to anything that changes, just like this fight.”
The fight in question is just another obstacle Vasquez must navigate to position himself for a title shot. He said he wants to fight WBC champion Danny Garcia before the end of 2017. A win against the undefeated Philadelphia fighter would bring one of Vasquez’s dreams to fruition. He said he’d defend that title several times before moving on from boxing and on to the next lofty ambition.
“I want to add that to my story,” Vasquez said of his goal to climb Everest. “I just think of my kids being able to say, ‘My dad’s been to Iraq twice, he was a welterweight champion and he climbed Mount Everest. What did your dad do?’ So I want to get to the top.”
The climb begins this Saturday inside Legacy Arena.
• What: Sammy Vasquez Jr. (21-0, 15 knockouts) vs. Felix Diaz (17-1, 8 KOs) in welterweight fight.
• Of note: Vasquez is a former sergeant with the Pennsylvania Army National Guard. He deployed to Iraq twice during an eight-year career. The fight is the co-main event, with the headline fight featuring WBC champion Deontay Wilder defending his title against Chris Arreola.
As a troubled youth, Staff Sgt. Joe Guzman says leaders and mentors changed his life. And now, after 16 years in the Army, he is changing the lives of others.
That’s clearly evident in his current role as assistant coach for the U.S. Army World Class Athlete Program boxing team at Fort Carson, Colo., where since 2008 he has helped mold elite Soldier-athletes vying for a berth on the U.S. Olympic team. The task comes after his own five-year stint as a Soldier-athlete in which his work ethic and prowess inside the ring earned him a spot as one of the WCAP boxing team’s captains.
But it wasn’t always easy for Guzman.
“I’m that story of the young Mexican kid who was doing all the wrong things,” Guzman said after a recent morning workout at the WCAP boxing facility. “It’s not how all Mexican or Hispanic kids who join the Army get here. But that was my way out. Sixteen years later, here I am.”
Guzman is a shining example of how Hispanics and other minorities can live out their dreams in the Army. As the nation celebrates National Hispanic Heritage Month — from Sept. 15 to Oct. 15 — he hopes his story can inspire youngsters of all races and backgrounds to forge ahead in the chase of their aspirations even when the obstacles in front of them seem insurmountable. The biggest factor in overcoming those hardships, Guzman says, is heeding the knowledge and advice of leaders be they in the Army, in schools, in churches or at home.
“We work with recruiters throughout the United States,” Guzman said. “I go to different high schools to give talks. I might be talking to a school of 3,000 people and I guarantee you there’s a handful of Hispanics, boys and girls, in there. I tell them the same story. I tell them, ‘Listen, I’m a perfect example that if you toe the line, you stay disciplined, you stay consistent, you finish school, do all the right things, you can get to your dream.’”
The annals of U.S. Army history are laden with significant contributions by Hispanics dating back to the Revolutionary War. Today, about 20 percent of the force — both enlisted and officer ranks — are Soldiers with a Hispanic background, according to U.S. Census Bureau data for fiscal year 2013.
Nationally, the Hispanic population in the decade before 2010 grew 43 percent, compared with 10 percent overall population growth. That makes for roughly 54 million people in the country who identify as Hispanic. About one in four of those — 23.5 percent, according to Pew Research Center data — live in poverty. Guzman grew up as part of that statistic.
The Eloy, Ariz., native was one of six children living with a single mother. It was easy for him to run afoul of stated rules and, with limited supervision, he took advantage of it.
“I was one of those juveniles out there getting in trouble,” Guzman said. “I was doing all the wrong things, hanging out with the bad crowd. I was doing whatever I wanted, and that was the wrong answer.”
His mischievous ways were curtailed at age 12 after a chance meeting with a neighborhood kid.
“I remember being at my friend’s house,” Guzman said. “It was a hot summer day. We were just sitting there and a little kid came by. He said, ‘Hey my dad’s starting a boxing club. You guys want to try it?’ I said, ‘I’ll try it, I’ll do it. I’m not doing anything else.’ From that day I started working out at the trailer park on the front porch, punching his dad’s hands, learning the combinations, jump-roping, shadow boxing. I moved from there to the city when it opened up its own gym. Then from that to a bigger gym where we were able to put in a boxing ring. From there to the fire station.”
Guzman took part in the practice of pugilism off and on until he was 18. Although at the time he didn’t think it would define his life, he did credit it with keeping him from veering too far off course.
“I boxed off and on from 12 to 18,” Guzman said. “It kept me from getting too out of hand.”
A fighter turned warfighter
Eventually Guzman had an epiphany. He watched as friends and acquaintances succumbed to the perils of drugs and violence. Some of them were strung out. Others were starting to serve prison sentences. Guzman didn’t want any part of it.
“I said to myself, ‘You know what? That’s not what I want,’” Guzman said. “I didn’t want to follow in the footsteps of some of my friends.”
Guzman said stories from a friend who joined the Navy and advice from his mentors persuaded him to join the Army upon graduating from high school. He says it was this guidance that shaped his outlook on the importance of good leadership, a notion he would eventually adopt and exemplify.
“I was fortunate enough to always have good mentors,” Guzman said. “I had teachers, some of my mother’s friends, police officers, guidance counselors — they saw something good in me. They always talked to me and always gave me good advice.”
Guzman didn’t have a phone number for the Army but knew the toll-free number for the Navy.
“I remember the commercial — 1-800-GO-NAVY,” he said. “So I’m talking to a Navy recruiter and he says, ‘Man, why you calling the Navy?’ But he had a good friend who was an Army recruiter. So he gave me his number and next thing I know he’s knocking on my door.”
Guzman completed basic training at Fort Knox, Ky., and was a 19D — cavalry scout —stationed at Fort Polk, La., before earning his sergeant stripes and deploying to Iraq in 2004.
While in Iraq, Guzman rekindled an interest in the sport of his boyhood and was amazed that there was a place in the Army where he could continue to partake in it.
“I read about the WCAP program in a Soldiers magazine while I was in Iraq,” Guzman said. “I was like, ‘Wow!’ When I saw that, I familiarized myself with the program and I kept following it. There’s articles in there like every other month.”
Then, fortuitously, Guzman received orders to Fort Carson. While signing in at the welcome center, he asked a fellow Soldier on duty if he had heard of WCAP.
“He chuckled,” Guzman said. “And he said, ‘Man, I just left the program.’ So he gave me a coach’s phone number and I called.”
The coach in question was Staff Sgt. Charles Leverette. Leverette is the current WCAP head boxing coach and was then an assistant coach under Staff Sgt. Basheer Abdullah, a four-time U.S. Olympic Boxing coach.
“He told me a little about his background so we invited him in to spar,” Leverette said. “He showed us something.”
After dispatching the team’s super heavyweight in sparring, WCAP coaches drafted a memorandum to have Guzman released from his unit and attached to the post boxing team where, if he found success, he could earn a spot with the WCAP team. Guzman didn’t disappoint. In his first year as an Army boxer, he won the All-Army competition and made it to the quarterfinals of the U.S. Nationals in the heavyweight division. An invitation to WCAP soon followed, and Guzman spent the next four years finding success in the ring. Despite being undersized for the weight class at 5-foot-10 and 218 pounds, Guzman gave taller fighters — including 6-foot-7 Deontay Wilder, the current WBC world heavyweight champion — problems with his aggressive, come-forward style.
Guzman became a three-time All Armed Forces champion and won a silver medal at the 2007 World Military Championships. He qualified for the Olympic Trials in 2008, but his career was cut short by a knee injury.
“I remember we were running and I felt something pop,” Guzman said. “I had a torn ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) and MCL (medial collateral ligament). I’ve had a couple shoulder surgeries, too. I’m one of those athletes that’s smart and knew when to walk away.”
By 2008, Guzman was a two-year staff sergeant and at a crossroads. But Abdullah gave him a chance at something that would allow him to become the figure he had once relied on for advice and guidance.
“Coach Abdullah saw something in me,” Guzman said. “He gave me a chance. He allowed me to come in and coach.”
A rewarding transition
Though Guzman was overjoyed to still have a hand in his beloved sport, he struggled with his leadership role over the fighters he was only recently flinging fists with.
“It was easy transitioning to coaching, but it took me about a year to make that transition,” Guzman said. “I remember the day I was selected to coach. Then, about two weeks later, the athletes were still calling me, ‘Guz,’ or, ‘Hey, G.’ Coach Abdullah called me in, and I already knew where he was going. I stopped him and I said, ‘Coach, I got it.’ So I got the whole team together, formed them up and I broke it down to them. I said, ‘It’s a struggle for me, too. I’m still trying to get myself together, too. It’s no longer G, it’s no longer Guz — it’s coach.’ That was hard for me. I was stuttering, I was nervous.”
But since then, Guzman has been unshakable. He has proven his mettle as a molder of fighters and remained on the staff when Leverette took the helm as head coach after Abdullah’s departure.
“Everybody’s got to have their offensive coordinator,” Leverette said. “You, alone, can’t do it all. He’s my offensive coordinator. This program might be good but it wouldn’t be great like it is now without him. He’s definitely been that right-hand man. I don’t mind giving him the opportunities that he’s been getting because he’s right there, he’s got that Olympic caliber. He’s on the Olympic level with the coaches.”
That was no more evident than in 2012 when Guzman was named to the staff of the 2012 U.S. Olympic team.
“It was big. I was proud of myself,” Guzman said. “I started coaching in November 2008. I had only been coaching four years, and I got selected to the biggest stage in amateur boxing. I wasn’t a credentialed coach, but I was a trainer. I was still part of the staff. I was definitely proud of myself.”
Now, as the 2016 Olympics inch closer and as Leverette nears retirement, Guzman is poised to take over the program that has helped him live out his dream.
“Coach Lev and I have talked. He’s told me I’m next,” Guzman said. “I’m ready. I feel confident. If they say, ‘Hey, it’s your time.’ Then I’ll go.”
But whether or not his name is called, Guzman is happy to serve the program in any facet. He said he doesn’t crave the limelight. He merely wants to guide his fighters toward success the same way his mentors did when he was younger.
One of those is Spc. Alex Love. Love just missed making the 2012 U.S. Olympic team. Since then, she has been racking up wins as she prepares for a run at the 2016 team. Guzman traveled with her to the 2014 World Boxing Championships in Jeju City, South Korea.
“Coach Guz is great,” Love said. “He knows what he’s doing. He knows how to get the best out of us.”
That effort being put on display is plenty satisfying for Guzman.
“I’ve got the athletes up front, and I’m way behind,” Guzman said. “I’m just doing my job. My reward is their success. When I see them on a medal podium and I hear my national anthem being played, that’s my success.
“But it’s a struggle. When you’re making weight you’ve got to cut out a lot of stuff. You’ve got to live right, eat right, stay disciplined. That goes into being a Soldier. All of these athletes are mentally and physically strong. If this is what you want to do, then you have to make sacrifices. Our main mission in the World Class Athlete Program is to make the Olympics. Everything is said to them at the beginning; they know what’s coming. It’s different for different athletes, but we make the atmosphere here to help them succeed.”
Though Guzman delights in the chance to be a leader in the gym, he concedes it’s important to be a leader in other capacities, particularly as an NCO.
“I remember when I first came in the Army, I was cutting a lot of grass and doing police calls. That’s not what I signed up for,” Guzman said. “Then I made my stripes and everything changed. I want to be a good sharp leader because your Soldiers under you, they look at you. If you’re doing the wrong thing, then obviously you’re setting them up for failure because they’re going to do it, too.”
He said his time in a combat MOS showed him the importance of reading manuals and taking drills seriously. It’s just as important to follow that notion in WCAP despite the perception that the program merely entails heightened physical training.
“Sometimes we have athletes that come out of basic training so it’s very important to have NCOs here who create that type of good leadership,” Guzman said. “Everyone’s different. Everyone has their own style. But we all put our heads together and lead us in the same direction. It’s important for these young Soldiers to read their manuals, stay up on their soldiering. We put that together for them because boxing won’t last forever. You might get hurt, you might have to leave. So we don’t want to set you up for failure when you leave here, go to another unit and you don’t know anything. They’ll say, ‘Where did you come from? Oh, WCAP?’ We don’t want that. So it’s not just boxing, it’s all the sports. When I say that, I’m speaking for all the sports. That’s how we work.”
That constant work at leadership is Guzman’s way of giving back and showing his appreciation for the leadership figures that prodded him to not give up on himself at a time when he needed it most. That is why he has embraced it and always has it on his mind in the ring, on post and in the schools he visits. He knows there might be a handful of people listening to him who might be looking for that snippet of advice to heed.
‘The big thing to me is telling them that no matter how bad it seems, you just follow your dream,” Guzman said. “Sometimes it might be challenging. Sometimes it might take saying, ‘Hey, you know what, I can’t hang out with you guys anymore.’ It might take you moving on and joining the military. That was my way out. I was fortunate to have the mentors that never gave up even though I was in trouble, doing all the bad things and known as this negative kid. These mentors I had, they saw something in me and they never gave up on me. So I tell these kids to follow their dreams. Obstacles get thrown at you. That’s life. But what are you going to do? Are you just going to stop, give up, turn around, go back and keep doing the same thing? Or are you just going to bum rush that thing and continue on toward your goals?”
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