There's a running joke in boxing that if you want to get a review or a recommendation on a trainer, Jessie Vargas is the guy to ask. Chances are that the former two-division titlist has probably worked with them at some point in his career.
Since he began punching for pay in 2008, he has had the likes of Roger Mayweather, Robert Alcazar, Roy Jones Jr., Dewey Cooper and Freddie Roach in his corner. Now, as Vargas prepares to face Mikey Garcia at the Star in Frisco, Texas, on Saturday, he will be led into the ring by Ernie Zavala.
Zavala was a professional fighter with a record of 21-5 (9 KOs), in a career spent mostly as a junior welterweight. Few trainers have the kind of firsthand knowledge of what their fighter is capable of at full speed than Zavala. In 2010, when Vargas was a fledgling young prospect, he faced Zavala in his 11th pro fight and scored a sixth-round TKO. It would ultimately be the last fight of Zavala's career.
"I thought I would beat him," Zavala recalled. "I was like, 'He's 10-0, just a kid, I can handle him.'' Though Vargas has evolved as a fighter in 22 subsequent bouts, limiting the value of Zavala's in-ring experience against him, there's one memory of the fight that has stuck with Zavala and informed his approach. "He did have this one punch that he's thrown well throughout his career -- the left uppercut. I really like the way he uses it."
There's no denying that Vargas has had a successful career since that point. He won the WBA 140-pound title by outpointing Khabib Allakhverdiev in 2014, and then, two years later, he captured the vacant WBO welterweight belt as he knocked out Sadam Ali in nine rounds. Only Timothy Bradley Jr. and Manny Pacquiao have been able to best Vargas in his 33 career fights, with Adrien Broner and Thomas Dulorme holding him to draws.
Regardless of who has prepared him for fights, Vargas has generally performed at a very high level. So the question has to be asked, then: Does he feel that trainers matter?
"They definitely matter," Vargas said, "because for you to have a great fight, a great performance, you need to have a great training camp. You need to know your mistakes, as well as your opponent's mistakes. So you need to make sure the trainer is paying significant importance to you and your fighter, and every detail of it."
Vargas admits to being a bit envious of Canelo Alvarez, who found a perfect fit in the father-and-son team of Chepo and Eddy Reynoso,the pair that has guided him from a young raw amateur to superstardom. The continuity Alvarez has found with his trainers has been the one constant in his career. Vargas is well aware that such lasting unions are rare in this business, but even among those who've switched camps a few times, he's an outlier.
"I would have preferred to have had just one trainer and stick with him," Vargas said, "[But] I don't make the path, I just continue to walk it through and hope that it shapes up in the best way for all us."
So why all the change? Logistically, it's been tough for trainers to come to Las Vegas, where he resides. While he has conducted training camps in Southern California, eventually Vargas, 30, always yearns to be closer to home. Most established coaches who have their own gyms simply aren't going to leave their home base often enough.
"I understand how it is to be away from your family for so long, to leave your comfort zone, it's not easy,'' Vargas said. "That's why I've never fallen apart with anyone because I understand their perspective, as well."
Still, while there are plenty of drawbacks to his frequent trainer changes, being in camps with so many of boxing's brightest minds has offered Vargas a wide variety of perspectives that can aid him inside of the ring. As he thought back to all of the trainers he has had in his corner, Vargas recalled a few items in particular that each trainer has given him over the years.
Roger Mayweather. "Roger was with me for a very long time, since I was a kid. Then, unfortunately, he started falling sick and he wasn't able to train me at a certain point.
"I just loved everything about him. I have nothing bad to say about him -- the speed, the technique, the mindset. He's the best trainer that I've ever had. He's very, very good. I was always very happy with him. Keep in mind, I've known him since I was a kid. It's unfortunate to know what's happening to him now, because he's going through some hard times. But I hope that he can recover, get well, and that everything's going well for him. It's tough for him. He's a good guy, overall. He was like family."
Robert Alcazar. "We had a good couple of fights together. But it was becoming difficult for him to come out to Vegas. He's a great trainer."
Roy Jones Jr. "Oh man, that was special, because I was able to get inside his mind a little bit, get to understand how he approached a fight, where his mentality was, and that was something special, for sure. He's unique.
"We defended the WBA world title together versus Antonio Demarco -- did well."
Dewey Cooper. "I had great success with him, but something fell out along the line. We started having trouble in the Pacquiao training camp, when he started arguing with my godfather -- God rest his soul -- Horacio Garcia. They started to argue a lot, and that just wasn't part of the agreement.
"I liked that he knew me well as a fighter, he knew all my strengths, he knew me as a fighter since I was a kid. He knew what I was capable of and he was able to bring some of that out in me. Not only that, [but] we were able to have good communication in the beginning, tremendous communication to where I became a two-division champion, beating Sadam Ali in Washington, D.C. It was a special night for us. I wish we could've had another special night with the Pacquiao fight, but unfortunately things didn't go our way. He's a good trainer."
Freddie Roach. "We won a fight together, did well, [and] I was very comfortable. I liked his experience, he understands the game very, very well. He has a certain style that he likes to portray inside the ring and I never had any disagreements with him."
And that brings us to present day. Vargas' relationship with Zavala began during Vargas' stint at the Wild Card Boxing Club under the guidance of Roach. During his camp for Humberto Soto, Roach instructed Zavala to keep tabs on Vargas as he went out of town to work another fight. It was at that point that Zavala, a mainstay at Wild Card for more than a decade, began forming a bond with Vargas.
After Vargas stopped Soto in April 2019 in six rounds at the Forum in Inglewood, California, the focus turned to a September bout with then-WBO 154-pound titleholder Jaime Munguia -- a fight that never materialized.
Vargas preferred to be in Las Vegas as he readied himself for that assignment, but Roach, who has a vast stable of boxers, stayed in Los Angeles. In stepped Zavala, supported by a team that included Boxing Hall of Famer Mike McCallum.
"We clicked," Vargas said of their natural chemistry. "It was just his understanding of the game, [and] his mentality towards the game, as well. He's sharp mentally, knowing when a punch is wrongly executed, knowing to keep the snap on every punch, knowing to keep the speed on every punch, bringing out the best in me. [Saying] 'Jessie, I need it faster.' Never settling, always wanting more out of me."
Zavala spent many years under Roach's learning tree, first as a fighter and then joining Roach in the corner, working side by side. Generally, he takes a soft-spoken approach to his work, and does just what is asked of him. It's one of the central reasons why he has been a trusted aid to Roach for all these years.
This fight is Zavala's biggest assignment to date as a trainer. Though it's not for a world title, a bout against a fighter as accomplished as Garcia carries massive stakes. Garcia hasn't fought since getting blanked by Errol Spence Jr. last March, and the winner of this contest will be in prime position for a significant bout at 147 in the near future.
For his part, Vargas appears to be in high spirits on the eve of this crucial fight.
"This training camp has been one of the best ones so far, I'd say the best training camp I've had because of the team, the coaches that I have -- everyone's doing their job and also the experience that I'm carrying," Vargas said.
Zavala, a boxing lifer, says he understands that he might not get to keep this job in perpetuity, especially if Vargas' history is any indication. But if all goes according to plan, he feels good about his chances.
"I don't really pay attention to that," Zavala said. "If they decide to change trainers, that's kind of on them. I take the job, I prepare them for [the] fight we're getting ready for, and I just think about the fight itself. I figure with what I teach them and what they learn from my coaching, they'll stick around."