Most boxers might be nervous about their first fight on a nationally televised cable program — a bout promoted by former heavyweight champion Mike Tyson, no less. But Monessen native Sammy Vasquez Jr. is not most fighters. Sure, he's slated to appear April 18 on Showtime's ShoBox, a showcase for up-and-coming fighters. But as far as stressful situations go, this isn't even at the top of the list.
"It will be great to fight on Showtime, but I don't feel any extra pressure," says the 27-year-old southpaw, who spent eight years in the U.S. Army National Guard and served two tours in Iraq. That, he says, is where he really learned what pressure was: "It was a life-changing experience. You're in a war zone, wondering if today's the day I'm going to die."
In Iraq, Vasquez served as a member of a Quick Response Force on his first tour, and as a Cavalry Scout — a reconnaissance specialist — on his second. "If there was a bombing or some kind of attack, we were sent out into the field," he says. "We had a strong team, I had my buddies' backs and they had mine. It was the only way to survive."
"Some [fighters] might get nervous; this stage might be too big for them," Vasquez adds. "But I've already fought on the biggest stage anybody can be on. Here, maybe we get a black eye or a busted nose, but at the end of the night we're both going home."
"Sammy served our country doing some real fighting," Tyson said during an April 7 conference call with reporters. "You don't get a rematch in that kind of fighting."
Vasquez (13-0, 9 KOs) is scheduled for the opening fight against fellow undefeated welterweight Juan "The Beast" Rodriguez. The fight, scheduled for 10:45 p.m., takes place at the Monroeville Convention Center.
Tyson is fairly new to the promotion game; Vasquez's previous fights have all been promoted by his family, led by his father, Sam Vasquez Sr. But as Vasquez's profile and professional record has grown, he knew it was time to hook up one of the "big dog" promoters.
Tyson wasn't the only suitor. Vasquez was also recruited by Oscar De La Hoya's Golden Boy promotion. But at the end of the day, Vasquez says, Tyson was the best fit.
"Mike Tyson's promotion is new and they didn't have a lot of fighters in my weight class, so I know that with him, I can get six fights a year rather than maybe three with Golden Boy," Vasquez says. "That's a big difference when the goal is to get to that magic number of 20-0, get ranked and get a major title shot.
"I'm starting to build a following, and in this game, that's important."
Vasquez's boxing career began in childhood; his father got him lessons after he'd been bullied on the school bus. The younger Vasquez put his boxing career on hold for the military, where he served from 2003 to 2012. He was a stellar amateur, during which time he fought in the Army's World Class Athlete Program, and was a two-time gold medalist at the national Armed Forces tournament. He was selected as an alternate to the 2012 U.S. Olympic team, but passed it up to go pro.
Since then, Vasquez has fought tough opponents. In a fight last year in Las Vegas, for example, the promoter switched Vasquez's younger opponent at the last minute to a fighter who was 16-2. Despite not preparing for that particular fighter, Vasquez entered the ring.
"What am I going to do, say no?" Vasquez asks. "I TKO'd him in the second round."
Asked what drew him to Vasquez, Tyson said that a friend told him he needed to see Vasquez fight: "My friend kept talking and talking about Sammy and he said, ‘You got to check him out — he's a white guy with a Spanish last name.'"
Tyson booked Vasquez to fight Berlin Abreu at the Sands Resort near Philadelphia. In the second round, Vasquez hit the canvas for the first time in his career. But what happened next impressed Iron Mike.
"Sammy went down hard, and then got back up and continued to fight through the adversity," Tyson explained. "He knocked the guy out in the fourth round, and I said, ‘I gotta have him on the team.' That sold me right away. Plus he's a real crowd-pleaser."
One of the main reasons that Monroeville was selected for the fight, in fact, was because of Vasquez's ability to draw and electrify crowds. A lot of that has to do with his family: The extended Vasquez family will travel far and wide to see Sammy fight, tailgating outside the arenas. Vasquez's Uncle Arthur even sells "Sammy Margaritas" and "Knockout Salsa." Now that Vasquez lives in Colorado with his fiancée and three children, fighting has become the best way to get his family together.
"Every time I fight, it's like a family reunion. It always has been" says Vasquez. "They have always been out hustling and supporting me by selling tickets and bringing buses to the fights.
"That's why I do this: for my family."