Sammy Vasquez Jr. entered the ring Thursday night for a nationally televised welterweight boxing match, believing it was a bout he couldn’t afford to lose.
The only problem? His opponent felt the same way.
Vasquez, a former sergeant with the Pennsylvania Army National Guard, suffered the second loss of his career when he was knocked out in the sixth round by Luis Collazo. The fight was the main event of a Premier Boxing Champions card at the Horseshoe Tunica Hotel and Casino in Tunica, Mississippi.
Vasquez (21-2) entered the fight coming off the first setback of his career, a unanimous decision loss to Felix Diaz in July. Collazo was Vasquez’s original opponent in that summer tilt before an injury in training camp made way for Diaz. Vasquez remained eager to eventually face the battle-tested Collazo in order to salvage his top-15 ranking in boxing’s premier division.
But Collazo (37-7) had plans of his own. The veteran southpaw hadn’t fought since a July 2015 loss to WBA welterweight champion Keith Thurman. The long layoff gave many experts reason to write off the 35-year-old. He knew he had a weapon in his repertoire that could prove otherwise.
“I knew his big punch was the right hook,” Vasquez told reporters after the fight. “I was working on keeping my hand up to block it. I dropped it at the wrong time, and he got me.”
Collazo first connected with the punch in Round 3, sending Vasquez to the canvas. He then deftly lured the Iraq War veteran into the knockout blow in the sixth round.
“In the locker room, my team was telling me that he’s going to be waiting for it,” Collazo said. “We wanted to touch him soft down low and then go up top. We opened him up. We both tried to line up the hook, and mine landed first.”
Vasquez controlled the action early, using his movement and jab to nullify Collazo’s aggressive approach. But Collazo found his target in Round 3, resulting in the knockdown. Vasquez regained his legs in the fourth round, peppering Collazo with a flurry of punches that opened a cut above his right eye. Action slowed down in Round 5 as Vasquez resumed keeping Collazo at bay with his movement, seemingly clawing his way back into the fight.
But it all came to a violent end in Round 6.
Though disappointed with the result, Vasquez also approached the setback with a different perspective. He previously stated that he has been in the biggest fight of his life. Vasquez deployed twice to Iraq with the Pennsylvania Army National Guard in 2005-’06 and in 2008-’09. He carries the hidden scars of war. Last year, Vasquez revealed he was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. He attends weekly sessions with a counselor and sees a psychiatrist regularly. Vasquez said his progress is bolstered by the physical outlet boxing provides.
After his second consecutive loss, Vasquez knows he will have an arduous task ahead of him to climb up the welterweight rankings again. But — as he did last summer — he is willing to make the trek back.
“Obviously this is going to set me back,” he said. “I need to come back stronger. I hope that I can come back and fight someone that can help me move up the ranks.”
It would have been easy for Sammy Vasquez Jr. to take a step back.
After suffering his first professional loss and a health scare last summer, the budding welterweight boxing star could have set his sights on an opponent of a lesser caliber in order to get back into the win column. But Vasquez, a former sergeant in the Pennsylvania Army National Guard, knows only one direction to move — forward.
“Boxers now, if they lose a fight, they take a step back,” Vasquez said during a recent telephone interview. “They fight mediocre guys just to get back on a win streak. I don’t have time for that. I want to fight the best guy out there. I don’t care who. Just throw me in against someone.”
That someone will be veteran Luis Collazo. Vasquez (21-1-0, 15 knockouts) faces the former WBA welterweight champion Thursday in the main event of a Premier Boxing Champions card at the Horseshoe Tunica Hotel and Casino in Tunica, Mississippi. The fight will be broadcast live on Fox Sports 1.
Collazo (36-7, 2 KOs) will arrive in Mississippi with a solid résumé. Most of the losses on his record have come at the hands of world champions, including his most recent fight in July 2015 against Keith Thurman, the current WBA title holder. The veteran southpaw presents a formidable challenge in Vasquez’s quest to bounce back. But the former sergeant’s preparation, which he says has been bolstered by the removal of a tumor and a trio of parathyroid glands in his throat, is also aided by a bit of familiarity.
Vasquez was scheduled to fight Collazo in July before an injury forced the New York-based fighter to bow out. Vasquez was forced to adjust to a new opponent in Felix Diaz, an Olympic gold medalist for the Dominican Republic who gave Vasquez fits when the pair squared off at Legacy Arena in Birmingham, Alabama. Diaz’s fast hands and sprightly footwork nullified Vasquez’s game plan. Though Vasquez offers no excuses for his unanimous-decision loss, he does concede his health was a factor in the fight. The tumor gave him elevated levels of calcium and caused his Vitamin D levels to dip. He developed kidney stones. The surgery to have the tumor removed was scheduled two days after the fight. Despite that, he pushed forward.
“I didn’t tell anybody on my team about the tumor,” Vasquez said. “I kept that to myself because I didn’t want anybody to take the fight away from me. Diaz is a very tough fighter, a competitive fighter. The things that I wanted to do, I couldn’t do. My feet felt like they were in quicksand.”
Like a good NCO, Vasquez said he adjusted. He led Diaz around the ring, hoping the smaller fighter would tire from the number of punches he was throwing. Vasquez bided his time until the ninth round when he unleashed a flurry of punches that momentarily stunned Diaz. But it wasn’t enough.
“I just couldn’t close the deal,” Vasquez said. “I was just too physically exhausted.”
Vasquez didn’t have much time to dwell on the loss before his surgery 48 hours later. He says being surrounded by a solid support team including his coach, retired Staff Sgt. Charles Leverette, a former All-Army champion and the U.S. Army World Class Athlete Program head boxing coach, made the healing process easier.
“They were there through the whole process,” Vasquez said. “Everything, through the fight, after the fight, they were there giving me positive vibes. The people that you really know are there for you when you’re at your worst or your best. It touched me. But at the same time, I don’t dwell on the past. I just get ready for the future.”
The immediate future brings an opponent who will be no pushover. Collazo is historically an aggressive fighter who tries to back fighters down, willing to eat shots to deliver some of his own. But Vasquez says he is prepared for any contingency the crafty veteran will bring.
“I have to stay on my toes, box him,” Vasquez said. “He’s always a come-forward guy. He takes a good shot and keeps coming and coming. We worked on a lot of game plans. I’m very excited about this fight. It will definitely test where I’m at in this game.”
A win against the battle-tested Collazo puts Vasquez back in the conversation among the upper echelon of the stacked welterweight division, his manager said.
“Sammy Vasquez Jr. is a warrior. He has the character to go forward,” said Garry Jonas, CEO of Probox Management, in an interview with BoxRec.com. “This opportunity against Collazo will be Sammy’s return to the big fights. He is at the best level and will soon be challenging boxers like Danny Garcia, Keith Thurman, Errol Spence Jr. and the best out there at welterweight.
“We do not want to make any excuses about his defeat in the last fight. I just want to say that we are convinced that this year Sammy Vasquez Jr. will return to the big fights. Sammy is a pro. He prepares for each fight with determination and that is what will stamp his name again with the big fights.”
The label of pro is one Vasquez has previously said he honed during his time with the Pennsylvania Army National Guard. The Monessen, Pennsylvania, native 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, Vasquez turned to the sport he had been a part of since he was 9 years old. 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. After his time in the Army, Vasquez quickly ascended the welterweight ranks, collecting the World Boxing Council Central American Boxing Federation, or WBC/FECARBOX, title along the way.
During his rise, Vasquez quietly dealt with the hidden scars of war. Before his fight against Aaron Martinez in January 2016, Vasquez revealed he had been living with post-traumatic stress disorder. Vasquez credits his wife, DelRae, with helping him carry the burdens and urging him to get help. He still goes to weekly sessions with a counselor and sees a psychiatrist regularly, which has calmed his anxiety. He continues to urge fellow veterans and Soldiers to seek help if life is proving difficult.
“The things that I’ve been through in my life are tough,” Vasquez said. “But everybody goes through problems. My message is there’s always help out there no matter what situation you’re going through. There are always people to talk to, there’s always someone to confide in. I would definitely take advantage of that. I think that’s the biggest problem for a lot of veterans. A lot of us are so thick-headed, we don’t feel that we ever have a problem or we ever need to talk to somebody. I really hope that people can start reaching out and start talking about their issues or problems with someone who can help them find a better avenue to get through tough situations.”
For Vasquez, the next tough situation arrives in one day, and he intends to show that he is ready to fight his way forward.
“It was a good thing I lost that fight (against Diaz) because I think that a lot of people were ducking me,” he said. “I was undefeated, an up-and-comer and had a lot of hype around me. So a lot of guys were afraid to fight me. Now that I lost, it’s ‘Oh this kid’s beatable.’ So hopefully now I’ll get an opportunity to fight names. Fighting somebody and beating somebody like Collazo I think is a great reputable name for me, especially after taking my first loss.”
What: Sammy Vasquez Jr. (21-1, 15 knockouts) vs. Luis Collazo (36-7, 19 KOs) in welterweight fight.
When, where: 8 p.m. EST Thursday, Horseshoe Tunica Hotel and Casino, Tunica, Mississippi.
On TV: Fox Sports 1.
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 main event of a Premier Boxing Champions card. The undercard includes a welterweight fight between Yordenis Ugas (17-3, 8 KOs) and Levan Ghvamichava (17-2-1, 13 KOs); and a junior welterweight bout between Ryan Karl (13-0, 9 KOs) and Eddie Ramirez (15-0, 10 KOs).
If you think you are suffering from the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder, there are ways to get help:
Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255.
Contact the Veterans Crisis Line: 1-800-273-8255, press 1 (text 838255
All Veterans Affairs Medical Centers provide PTSD care, as well as many VA clinics. Some VA’s have programs specializing in PTSD treatment. The VA PTSD Program Locator can help you find a PTSD program: www.va.gov/directory/guide/PTSD.asp.
If it hadn’t been for some great noncommissioned officers who provided a steadying influence early in his career, Master Sgt. Corey M. Ingram might not have made it to Program Executive Office Soldier and the job he loves.
Ingram is a senior enlisted advisor to Project Manager Soldier Protection and Individual Equipment, or PM SPIE, which is part of PEO Soldier at Fort Belvoir, Virginia. PM SPIE oversees development of helmets, body armor, uniforms, parachutes, and other clothing and protective equipment.
“I have had some really good NCO mentors,” Ingram said. “When I was a younger Soldier, I wasn’t the best Soldier. An NCO snatched me by the scruff of my neck and said, ‘You’re not doing it right. I see lots of potential in you, and I’m going to be your mentor for the rest of your career,’ and he honestly was my mentor for the rest of my career because I ended up being stationed with now retired Command Sgt. Maj. George R. Manning about three times. Then, I had three other really great mentors at Fort Sill [Oklahoma] which I really learned a lot from ─ Sgt. Maj. Thomas Miller, Sgt. Maj. Taylor Poindexter and Sgt. Maj. David Carr.”
He credits the four NCOs with shaping his career and putting him on the path to PEO Soldier.
“Where else can you go and touch the Soldier every day?” Ingram said. “Not just one or two Soldiers, but the whole Army at the same time. It’s incredible.”
It’s Ingram’s job to offer the voice of the Soldier to Col. Dean Hoffman IV, who is Program Manager Soldier Protection and Individual Equipment. Everything at PM SPIE is designed for Soldiers, and feedback is important. Ingram regularly solicits feedback from Soldiers during equipment fieldings, where units test the latest in what the Soldier touches, wears or carries. The results are taken to officers, then sent to scientists, who work to improve equipment for Soldiers.
“The stuff that I do here really makes a difference in a Soldier’s life because the equipment we give them is going to keep them warm in the Arctic and it’s going to keep them alive in combat,” Ingram said. “I didn’t know what this place was when I got here. Soldiers need to know that there’s an organization here that is specifically designed for them and their protection.”
Ingram is on a mission to make Soldiers aware of his organization.
When a Soldier is injured in combat, the Soldier’s equipment is collected and sent to a lab for analysis, all in an effort to determine whether the Soldier’s equipment was instrumental in defeating the threat it was designed to thwart. If the Soldier requests the equipment’s return, PEO Soldier reunites Soldiers with the equipment credited in saving their lives.
“Every time I go and give back a piece of equipment to a Soldier, I let them know where it came from and how it was tested,” he said. “I’m not specific, but I let them know it was tested extensively. ‘If you wear this, it will save your life.’”
Ingram and Hoffman traveled in October 2015 to Schofield Barracks, Hawaii, to reunite Staff Sgt. Joseph McKenzie with the battle-scarred helmet that saved his life four years ago in Afghanistan.
“I am glad to get this back,” McKenzie said at the ceremony. “It is a piece of history; my history, anyway. It was a piece of my life that was pretty intense.
“For some of you guys who have not been downrange yet, this is kind of a wakeup call,” McKenzie told Soldiers at the ceremony. “Make sure you take this stuff serious because you never know what is going to happen.”
In March 2011, McKenzie of the 2nd Battalion, 327th Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division, was hit by a bullet “right where the night vision goggles mount on the helmet,” he said.
Hoffman explained to the Soldiers at the Schoffield Barracks ceremony that the Army does all it can to provide them with the best possible protective equipment so they can come home to family and friends. Inspectors randomly select helmets and hard armor plates from each production lot and shoot them to ensure the equipment meets Army standards, Hoffman said.
A week and a half after he was shot in the head, McKenzie said he “was back in the gym, thanks to my helmet.”
“If McKenzie hadn’t been wearing his helmet, he wouldn’t be here,” Ingram said. “That was four years ago. Now, he has a 17-month-old son and a wife.”
His stint at PEO Soldier has impressed upon Ingram many times the importance of wearing combat equipment, he said.
“I had a guy shot in the chest, and my former boss, Col. Glenn Waters of Fort Sill, Oklahoma, his side Small Arms Protective Insert was returned to him. He was shot in the side during combat, and you could see where the bullet went into his side plate. I had no clue that I would be the one giving those things back. Col. Waters had a side SAPI that had been damaged in combat, and now I’m here. Now I know where it came from. It came from this office.”
As Ingram winds down his 27-year career in the Army, he plans on finishing his Ph.D. in multidisciplinary human services with an emphasis on public policy. He said he will take with him a great sense of satisfaction, knowing that he was able to have an impact on Soldiers’ lives in combat. Someday, he even hopes to throw his hat in the ring and run for political office. Ingram is confident in his leadership abilities, having learned them as an NCO.
“Learning leadership as an NCO has really prepared me for life after the Army because as an NCO you deal with Soldiers and people every day, you counsel every day, so it was natural for me to fall into the human services path,” he said.
Education is also very important to Ingram, and he urges other NCOs as well as his successor at PEO Soldier to further their studies. Ingram credits his drive to solid NCO mentorship and rejects any excuse to not get an education.
“The excuses of ‘I don’t have time; I’m in the field,’ no. I got probably 60 credit hours on deployment,” Ingram said. “There are always computers. … ‘Don’t tell me what you can’t do, [I tell Soldiers.] Tell me how you’re going to do it because there is always a way.’
“My mother, aunts and uncle grew up in Grenada, Mississippi, and they were amongst the first 277, as they called them back then, ‘colored children’ integrated into the white school system in the 1960s,” he said. “They were harassed, they were beaten and they had bricks thrown at them. My grandmother said to me, ‘I only wanted my kids to have the same thing that the other kids had.’ That’s why I want to get all the education I can so that their sacrifices were not in vain.”
Contact PEO Soldier
PEO Soldier encourages Soldiers to communicate their questions and ideas, said Debi Dawson, PEO Soldier Strategic Communications. “Ask the PEO NCOs” is a website that Soldiers may use to email questions about uniforms and equipment. Soldiers may find it at www.peosoldier.army.mil/feedback/contactForm.asp?type=csm. Soldiers are also urged to reach out through the Soldier Enhancement Program at www.peosoldier.army.mil/sep/index.asp where Soldiers may propose a technology or equipment item.
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