Tag Archives: Pennsylvania

Boxing phenom, former NCO Sammy Vasquez Jr. sets sights even higher

NCO Journal

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.

Watch it

• What: Sammy Vasquez Jr. (21-0, 15 knockouts) vs. Felix Diaz (17-1, 8 KOs) in welterweight fight.

• When, where: 8 p.m. EDT, Legacy Arena, Birmingham, Alabama.

• On TV: FOX.

• 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 he fights PTSD, former NCO continues climb up boxing’s welterweight division

NCO Journal

Sammy Vasquez Jr. scored a convincing win over Aron Martinez on Saturday in a nationally televised welterweight boxing match. But another manner in which the former Army sergeant was a victor is just as momentous.

The bout at Staples Center in Los Angeles was the first time Vasquez had been in the ring since revealing that he is living with post-traumatic stress disorder. He told reporters last month when the fight with Martinez was announced about his condition and the difficulty it has posed. As it was during his days directing Soldiers as an NCO, Vasquez hopes he can help lead others grappling with PTSD toward help.

“I have PTSD,” Vasquez said in December. “That’s something I’ve been dealing with for a couple months. It’s hard to talk to somebody about what you’ve been through. You can explain it to them and they can tell you, ‘Oh, I know what you’re talking about.’ In my mind, I’m like, ‘You have no idea what I’m talking about. You can’t touch the surface of what I’m talking about.’ But to talk to somebody, like a counselor that’s been through it, that knows what I’ve been through, and that I can share my stories with, it helps me vent it out and get it off my chest. It’s 10 times easier and 10 times better talking to somebody than holding it in.”

Vasquez certainly held nothing back against Martinez. The fight, which was a Premier Boxing Champions co-feature, was a one-sided affair. Vasquez (21-0, 15 KOs) used his quick footwork and hand-speed to confound Vasquez (20-5-1), peppering him with jabs and straight lefts throughout the first few rounds. Martinez was on the defensive most of the fight, covering up and making very few attempts to attack the much quicker Vasquez. It was an uncharacteristic fight for Martinez who fought Robert Guerrero to a standstill last summer before losing by a controversial split decision. Guerrero fought Danny Garcia in Saturday’s main event for the WBC welterweight title. Nonetheless, Vasquez’s pressure wore his opponent down. Martinez quit on his stool after the sixth round complaining of an elbow injury to give Vasquez a technical knockout win.

“A victory feels good of course, but I wanted more,” Vasquez said after the fight. “I wanted to go 12 rounds, if it would have lasted that long. I wanted a very decisive win. Unfortunately, he got hurt, but every fight is a learning experience for me.”

What we’re learning about Vasquez, the current World Boxing Council Central American Boxing Federation, or WBC/FECARBOX, champion, is that he is a gritty contender. His win Saturday was a WBC welterweight semifinal eliminator, putting him in line to contend for a WBC Silver welterweight title against Amir Khan.

“My name is starting to get tossed around and that’s the main goal,” Vasquez said.

His quest for that lofty title is one Vasquez says he wants to share with his fellow service members.

“I’m just thankful for where I am at today,” Vasquez said in December “A lot of my brothers and sisters in arms who are amputees and can no longer live out their dreams, I’m trying to do the best that I can to help them live through me and still find hope and success to keep going and feel motivated. Regardless of their condition, there’s always something else that you can do. The impact that Iraq had on me, it just showed me how grateful I am to be in the position I’m in.”

Vasquez, a native of Monessen, Pennsylvania, deployed to Iraq in 2005-06 and in 2008-09. His first deployment took him to Camp Habbaniyah, Iraq, where gunfire was 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.

“When I was over there, boxing was the last thing I thought about,” Vasquez said. “If I didn’t think about my brothers in front of me that could be that chance that they get shot or killed. So, when I was overseas that was my main focus — being overseas.”

Upon returning home Vasquez returned to boxing, a sport he had engaged in since age 9. He won the 152-pound title at the 2010 All-Army Championships and was invited to join the U.S. Army World Class Athlete Program. While a member of WCAP, Vasquez earned a berth at the 2012 U.S. Olympic Trials. Though he missed being a part of Team USA — he lost the spot to Errol Spence Jr., himself a rising professional boxing star — Vasquez knew fighting would remain in his life. What he didn’t know was he would be engaged in another fight that didn’t involve gloves or ropes.

“When I came back home it was very difficult,” Vasquez said. “[In Iraq] you walk around with an M4 for a whole year or more, every day. You eat with it, you do everything with it. You’re used to that. You have mortars going off in the middle of the night so you don’t get a full night’s rest. When you go back home, you’re tossing and turning. You wake up startled all the time. You’re reaching for a gun you don’t have. I couldn’t go to Walmart because there’s too many people in there, I had to watch my back. Even still to this day, I go sit in restaurants and I can’t sit with my back to the door.

“Boxing is a huge outlet for me. There’s thousands and thousands of people there to watch me fight and it doesn’t bother me … until after the fight. After the fight, the high comes down, that’s when everything gets surreal for me and then it’s like, ‘OK, I’ve got to go.’ Now I’m getting edgy and a little antsy. It’s tough to deal with. I just get away from everybody except for maybe the people that are real close to me.”

While Vasquez said he’d rather not divulge specific details about his ordeal, he encourages fellow Soldiers and veterans who are going through similar struggles to seek help. He said it has been a cathartic experience for him, one that has now vaulted him to heights he couldn’t imagine.

“I can only thank God,” Vasquez said. “There were a lot of guys around me that aren’t here today. A lot of things happened and it just didn’t happen to me. It just wasn’t my day. I’m just blessed to be here. It’s an honor.”

Former NCO returns to the ring in showcase main event

• Read a previous NCO Journal feature on Sammy Vasquez Jr.
NCO Journal

The last time boxing star and former Army Sgt. Sammy Vasquez Jr. was inside a ring, he kept his undefeated record intact on national television. His next act will garner even more of the spotlight.

Vasquez announced Tuesday that his next professional fight is scheduled Jan. 23 against Aaron Martinez at Staples Center in Los Angeles. The welterweight bout is the co-main event of a fight card headlined by welterweights Danny Garcia and Robert Guerrero. Vasquez (20-0, 14 KOs) will look to stay unbeaten against Martinez (20-4, 4 KOs) in a 10-round match and retain his World Boxing Council Central American Boxing Federation, or WBC/FECARBOX, title. Both fights will be televised live beginning at 6 p.m. in the Premier Boxing Champions’ inaugural event on FOX.

“I’m exciting to be fighting Aaron Martinez and to be fighting on this big stage in a fight that I think the fans will really enjoy,” Vasquez said after the fight announcement. “This is just another stepping stone for me to move closer to my goal of fighting for a world title. This will be my first time fighting in California, and I’m sure the fans out there will enjoy my exciting style of fighting. I’ve always wanted to fight at Staples Center and now I have my chance. I’ll be a long way from home, but it’s a nice feeling that all of my fans who can’t make it will get to watch me on FOX.”

Vasquez’s contingent of supporters expands far beyond his native Monessen, Pennsylvania. He has developed a following among the Army ranks and he says he fights with them in mind. Vasquez served nine years with the Army National Guard and deployed to Iraq twice. He honed his boxing craft with the U.S. Army World Class Athlete Program, narrowly missing the Olympics in 2012. He says he carries the lessons and hardships of his fellow Soldiers with him every time he steps in the ring.

“There are Soldiers out there who can’t live their dream because they got blown up by an IED, and now they’re amputees,” Vasquez told the NCO Journal last summer. “I fight for those guys. They can’t do that stuff anymore. I try to show them and give everyone else a better light of the military, because there’s so much negativity against the military. But the military has been around me, obviously, for a long time. So for me to showcase it in a better picture while I’m doing my sport? That’s why I do it.”

Vasquez, 29, does it with an Army-laden background in his corner. His head coach is recently retired Staff Sgt. Charles Leverette, a former All-Army champion and the WCAP head boxing coach. Together, the two have reeled off a slew of exciting victories, most recently a fifth-round technical knockout over Jose Lopez on Sept. 15 in California, Pennsylvania. Their next test will be against a tough competitor who is coming off a convincing unanimous decision win against former welterweight champion Devon Alexander in October.

“This is a great opportunity that I am very thankful for,” Martinez said. “Sammy is a great fighter who I have a lot of respect for but Los Angeles is my home. I intend on defending my turf and coming out victorious.”

With a win, Vasquez can put himself in position for a potential title fight against the winner of the co-main event between Garcia and Guerrero. Garcia is the No. 2-ranked welterweight by the World Boxing Council and is a former title-holder in the light welterweight division. Vasquez’s coach knows the heights are endless for him.

“We’re hoping for bigger things,” Leverette said. “The buzz that’s in the air is, ‘OK, now this kid has proven himself.’ We just have to keep proving ourselves and what comes next will come next.”

Watch it

  • What: Sammy Vasquez Jr. (20-0, 14 knockouts) vs. Aaron Martinez (20-4, 4 KOs) in welterweight fight.
  • When, where: 8 p.m. EST Jan. 23, Staples Center, Los Angeles.
  • On TV: Fox.
  • Of note: Vasquez is a former sergeant with the Pennsylvania Army National Guard. He deployed to Iraq twice during a nine-year career. The fight is the co-main event of a card headlined by a welterweight championship clash between Danny Garcia and Robert Guerrero.

This Month in NCO History: Nov. 16, 1944 — Undaunted infantryman wins Würselen

Joyce Horner was going through old paperwork at her home in Columbus, Georgia, shortly after her marriage to Freeman V. Horner when she came upon something surprising. It was documentation that showed her husband was a recipient of the nation’s highest military honor. Shocked, she asked her husband why he had never disclosed that he was awarded the Medal of Honor for actions during World War II. His response was, “Nothin’ to tell.”

Far from the truth.

Freeman V. Horner was a staff sergeant with K Company, 119th Infantry Regiment, 30th Infantry Division, in November 1944. The “Old Hickory” division was fresh off a victory Oct. 16 at the Battle of Aachen in which it helped the 1st Infantry Division encircle and secure the heavily fortified German city in one of the largest urban battles fought by U.S. forces in World War II. Aachen was the first city on German soil captured by the Allies. After a brief respite, the unit pushed northeast toward the Inde River.

On Nov. 16, K Company encountered resistance upon approach to the town of Würselen. Machine-gun fire began raining down on the group from houses on the edge of town. The Americans were pinned down in flat, open terrain 100 yards from their objective. As they took cover in the field, enemy artillery observers trained their fire on them and inflicted serious casualties.

Horner knew the unit would eventually be eliminated if it remained in the precarious position. That’s when he pulled off a feat that — despite his recalcitrance decades later in Georgia — would be talked about for generations to come.

Horner secured his ammunition and grenades, then sprinted toward the homes as a hail of gunfire whizzed by him, according to his Medal of Honor citation. He reached what he thought was a safe vantage point halfway to the buildings and identified two positions from which enemy fire was originating. As he pondered his next step, fire from a third machine-gun nest opened up on him. Horner coolly wheeled and killed the two gunners with a single short burst from his rifle. He then resumed his run toward the homes as bullets kicked up dirt at his feet.

Whether through fear or strategic ploy, the Germans abandoned their guns as Horner reached the building. Horner was unscathed and could hear the enemy soldiers scramble into the cellar of the home. The intrepid infantryman burst into the building and hurled two grenades down the cellar stairs. Four men emerged from the lower floor with their hands up.

Horner single-handedly neutralized three enemy machine-gun positions, killed or captured seven German soldiers and cleared the path for his company’s eventual successful assault on Würselen. For his actions, Horner was awarded the Medal of Honor on Oct. 30, 1945.

After the war Horner, who was born June 7, 1922, in Mount Carmel, Pennsylvania, briefly separated from the Army but rejoined and earned a commission through Officer Candidate School. He reached the rank of major and served in the Korean War before retiring. He married Joyce Horner after the death of his first wife, Agnes, in 1982. He rarely spoke about his actions in Germany. Not even his longtime Columbus neighbor, Robert B. Nett, a retired colonel and fellow Medal of Honor recipient, was privy to tales of Horner’s heroism. Nett told the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer in 2005 that the two “never talked shop.”

Nonetheless, Horner’s extraordinary courage was a living embodiment of the 119th Regiment’s motto — “Undaunted” — and he remains one of the most celebrated Soldiers of the now-defunct 30th ID. Horner died Dec. 1, 2005, in Columbus at the age of 83 and was buried in Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia. A section of U.S. Route 27 in Cataula, Georgia, as well as Georgia Route 219 in Columbus was named for him.

— Compiled by Pablo Villa

Former NCO Sammy Vasquez Jr. earns gritty boxing win

NCO Journal

It was evident from Sammy Vasquez Jr.’s introduction Sunday at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas that there is a special driving force behind him.

Vasquez was introduced for his welterweight boxing bout against Wale Omotoso by ring announcer Michael C. Williams, who prefaced the fighter’s name with the nickname, “Sergeant.”

Vasquez is a former Soldier turned fighter. He served nine years with the Army National Guard and deployed to Iraq twice. He honed his boxing craft with the U.S. Army World Class Athlete Program, narrowly missing the Olympics in 2012. He says he carries the lessons and hardships of his fellow Soldiers with him every time he steps in the ring. On Sunday, those lessons lifted him to a lopsided unanimous decision victory against the hard-charging Omotoso.

“Army veterans out there, and all my brothers and sisters in arms, I did this for you guys,” Vasquez told CBS after the fight.

The bout was the featured undercard of a nationally televised main event featuring super lightweights Rances Barthelemy and Antonio DeMarco. With the win Vasquez keeps his undefeated record (19-0, 13 knockouts) intact along with his World Boxing Council Central American Boxing Federation, or WBC/FECARBOX title. Omotoso (25-2) suffered his second career loss.

“Wale was a tough competitor,” Vasquez said. “I haven’t been this beat up, yet. My objective was just to box him, move around, not let him hit me because of the power that his record showed.”

Vasquez opened the fight in dominant fashion. The southpaw landed punishing body shots and great counter-overhand shots early in the match while Omotoso had trouble connecting against Vasquez’s deft movement. Omotoso appeared headed for quick dismissal when his mouthpiece was knocked clean from his mouth in Round 5.

Then, Omotoso quickened the pace in Round 6, and turned the tide momentarily in Round 7 with a pair of overhand rights that stunned Vasquez and bloodied his face. In Round 8, both fighters staged a brutal showcase in the middle of the ring, trading powerful blows in a spirited rally that drew raucous cheers from the crowd on hand. But Vasquez settled down in Round 9, keeping a determined Omotoso at bay with his jab and picking his moments expertly for his combinations.

In the end, Vasquez received the same scores from all three judges — 98-93 — to improve his standing in the 147-pound division.

“I have an exciting fighting style. I like to bring it to my opponents, like I showcased tonight,” Vasquez said. “I hope that I created some more fans here that want to follow me and be a part of the success because I’m going to keep running like a train.”

Vasquez also thanked his father, Sammy Vasquez Sr.,  who is in his corner during his fights and has been a lynchpin for the younger Vasquez since his days growing up in Monessen, Pa.

“It’s awesome,” Vasquez said of earning a win on Father’s Day with his dad in his corner. “My father is my backbone. He’s the one that raised me from the very beginning. For him to be here, for us to have this ride through the struggles in this game, and everything I’ve been through like my tours in Iraq, he’s always been my backbone. It’s an honor for him to be here and I’m very blessed to have the father that I do.”

Vasquez’s next fight should come later this year.

— PREVIOUSLY: Former NCO continues combat tour in the ring.