Reuben Vargas: Knockout Power in Either Hand

By Clarence George on October 12, 2017
Reuben Vargas: Knockout Power in Either Hand
Vargas was included on the May 1959 cover of The Ring as one of six "Fast Rising Stars."

“There is philosophy in everything—including prizefighting. Life itself is a battle. It’s dog eat dog; the survival of the fittest; kill or be killed…”

“There is philosophy in everything—including prizefighting. Because, as you know, life itself is a battle. It’s dog eat dog; the survival of the fittest; kill or be killed—stuff like that.”—Reuben Vargas

Born in Orange City, California, on May 17, 1932, 5’10½” heavyweight Reuben Vargas, “a wavy-haired gent of Mexican descent,” fought out of Richmond, California, from 1955 to 1959, winding up with a record of 18 wins, 13 by knockout, and eight losses, three by knockout.

Featured on the cover of the May 3, 1958, issue of Referee, Vargas was described as “sensational,” of employing a “slam-bang, aggressive, hard-punching style,” and of being “rugged, strong, takes a good punch, and can certainly dish it out when he’s in his fighting mood.”

Managed by Bert Brodose throughout his short career, and co-managed by Frank Sinatra from 1957 to 1959 (Ol’ Blue Eyes also managed, with Ralph Gambina, 1950s lightweight contender Cisco Andrade), Vargas “was a courageous, durable and aggressive fighter who moved constantly forward from a crouch and possessed knockout power in either hand,” writes boxing historian Dan Cuoco. He proved it by taking on the names and toughies of the day. Murderous-punching Pat McMurtry, for instance, was the first to stop him, by third-round TKO at the Armory in Tacoma, Washington, on March 16, 1957 (the year McMurtry was ranked fifth by The Ring), while Alex Miteff won by unanimous decision at the Auditorium in Oakland, California, on July 14, 1958. His second loss by stoppage came by way of Monroe Ratliff, who won by sixth-round TKO at Hollywood’s Legion Stadium that August 30 (Ratliff was Roland LaStarza’s final opponent, winning by unanimous decision at San Francisco’s Kezar Pavilion on May 8, 1961, despite having lost his previous six, as well as his remaining five).

There were wins, of course, and impressive ones. Vargas was the first to stop Edgardo Romero, for instance, taking out the extra-large Argentine by fifth-round TKO at the Auditorium in Richmond on June 18, 1957.

Of even greater significance was his winning the vacant California heavyweight title by retiring Young Jack Johnson in the ninth at the Memorial Auditorium in Sacramento, California, on December 9, 1958 (in a bout that wasn’t “exactly a walk in the park” and one of only three times Johnson was stopped). Vargas had previously fought for the vacant title on August 1, 1957, losing by unanimous decision to Roger Rischer at the Auditorium in Richmond (it was Rischer who handed Vargas his first defeat, outpointing him at the same venue on May 31, 1955, “a hard-fought battle throughout with Rischer’s ring savvy proving the deciding point.” Vargas had won his first five, four by KO or TKO. He’d win his next six, three by KO or TKO, before losing again, this time to George Kennedy, who outpointed him at the Memorial Auditorium in Fresno, California, on February 12, 1957).

His last win came on January 30, 1959, beating Tony Anthony by split decision at Madison Square Garden (his only bout at the Mecca) in “a rousing 10-rounder.”

“Fighting out of a semi crouch,” writes Cuoco, “Reuben forced the action and tagged Anthony again and again with right hand leads to the face and head from the opening bell to the finish.” Even though he only won by split decision (all but two of Anthony’s nine losses came by way of KO or TKO), Cuoco writes, “most ringside reporters had Reuben in front by a 7-3 margin.”

It was perhaps the Anthony win that resulted in Vargas being included on the May 1959 cover of The Ring as one of six “Fast Rising Stars,” along with Sonny Liston, Denny Moyer, Paul Armstead, Len Matthews, and Mauro Vazquez (all but Vargas and Vazquez were Ring-ranked at the time).

Vargas’ last two fights resulted in losses, both at the hands of Eddie Machen, who first won by unanimous decision at the Cow Palace in Daly City, California, that May 20 (the year Machen was ranked fifth by The Ring). “Although he lost,” writes Cuoco, “the decision was so competitive that Reuben was still considered a fighter on the rise who might still earn a spot in the top ten.” The second loss came by sixth-round TKO at the Centennial Exposition Arena in Portland, Oregon, that July 22, and “Reuben’s days as a potential contender were over.”

“The Mexican Jack Dempsey” can perhaps take comfort in the knowledge that nobody beat Machen in 1959. Following his devastating first-round kayo loss to Ingemar Johansson at Nya Ullevi in Gothenburg, Sweden, on September 14, 1958 (the first loss of his career after winning 24, 16 by stoppage, with one draw), he beat Young Jack Johnson, Clarence Williams, Garvin Sawyer, Willi Besmanoff, and, for the vacant Pacific Northwest heavyweight title, Pat McMurtry (his final bout, and one of only two where he was stopped), in addition to his two victories over Vargas. In fact, Machen wouldn’t lose again until Zora Folley beat him by unanimous decision at the Cow Palace on January 18, 1960, and wouldn’t suffer another stoppage until November 21, 1966, when Joe Frazier took him out by 10th-round TKO at the Olympic Auditorium in Los Angeles (the third and final stoppage loss of his career came in his last fight, Boone Kirkman stopping him by third-round TKO at the Seattle Center Coliseum on May 26, 1967).

Comforted or not, Vargas is entitled to a smug arch of the eyebrow, knowing that “he was the most prominent Mexican-American Heavyweight in the mid- to late 1950s,” whose “exciting style and ferocious punching made him a fun fighter to watch and a box-office attraction.”

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  1. Clarence George 01:15pm, 10/14/2017

    Thank you, Mr. Helu.  (I wouldn’t say no to a donation, just so you know.)

    My own view is that the ideal height/poundage for a heavyweight (generally speaking, of course) is 6’, 6’1” and between 190 and 195.  I don’t approve of today’s 6’7”, 250-pound behemoths, as the emphasis is therefore on size, with skill very much taking a backseat.

    Don’t know about the size of the gloves.  By the way, that’s Vargas versus Machen in their first fight.  There’s also a good one of Vargas versus Anthony.

    What you say about Mickey Rooney reminds me of a line from “Who’s Minding the Store?”  Isobel Elsom tells Jerry Lewis about the thickness of her rugs.  “Three inches thick!” says Lewis.  “Huh.  You better not ever invite Mickey Rooney over.  You’ll never be able to find him.”  Not that I’m a fan of the movie (or of Lewis), but stunningly sexy (however little-remembered) Francesca Bellini is in it.  Still with us, she’s turning 81 next month.

  2. Anonymous 10:21am, 10/14/2017

    Most of this article is in quotes. WTF

  3. Carlos Slim Helu 09:53am, 10/14/2017

    For the life of me…. those look like six ounce gloves in the photo above!

  4. Carlos Slim Helu 09:38am, 10/14/2017

    Clarence George-Another hit! Keep’em coming! Some guy used Boxrec stats and came up with an average height for Heavyweights in 1949 to be 5’11”. You had a Nino Valdez here and there but in the Fifties I’m betting that Heavyweights averaged 6’ and 195 lbs i.e. the equivalent of modern day Cruiserweights. Rocky was 5’10” 185 lbs with a 68 ” reach! For that matter I say that Mickey Rooney’s claimed 5’2” was with lifts!

  5. Clarence George 03:01pm, 10/13/2017


    As far as I know, Vargas is still with us.

  6. David 02:57pm, 10/13/2017

    Wow, a Mexican heavyweight who beat one of the best heavyweights of all time, Jack Johnson, and who had knock out power in either hand. Just imagine what he would done to Muhammad Ali or anyone Ali ever fought? Very interesting article.

  7. Lucas McCain 01:58pm, 10/13/2017

    Love this site for giving nods to veterans who had their moments long ago. Was this a new or a reprint?  Is Vargas still around at 85?

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