Sammy Vasquez: Pittsburgh-Tough

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FROM SHOWTIME BOXING ANALYST STEVE FARHOOD 

Pittsburgh’s not a blue-collar town, it’s the blue-collar town, so it’s no surprise that since the Immaculate Reception in 1972, the holiest of local heroes have worn black and gold.

But there was a time the heroes were colored black and blue.

Before Franco Harris, Terry Bradshaw, and Mean Joe Greene transformed Pittsburgh from the Steel City into Title Town, the sporting scene was largely defined by boxing. Charley Burley was so good, he couldn’t get as much as a sniff of a title fight. Fritzie Zivic had a flattened nose that suggested the heavy bag occasionally punched back. And Billy Conn broke his hand not on the head of Joe Louis, but rather on that of his father-in-law.

They were tough guys who were easy to root for.

Judging by the substantial crowds he’s beginning to draw in Pittsburgh, unbeaten welterweight contender Sammy Vasquez could be the city’s next Chosen One. In today’s boxing world, it’s unusual for a young American boxer to secure a serious hometown following. For a while, Fernando Guerrero did so in Salisbury, Md. Mike Alvarado draws well in Denver—but that may be over now. And within the last year or so, Terence Crawford, now a world titlist, has won over all of Omaha.

There are precious few other examples.

Vasquez seems to have what’s needed. His back-story is rich: Serving in the National Guard, he survived a pair of tours in Iraq. And his boxing story is deep: As an amateur, he came close to making the 2012 Olympic team, and having turned pro one week before his 26th birthday, he’s been perfect, impressively defeating opposition that has recently included a couple of legitimate tests.

The 28-year-old Vasquez, 17-0, will fight for the second time on ShoBox: The New Generation when he faces Ghana’s Emmanuel Lartey at the CONSOL Energy Center in Pittsburgh. Last April, Vasquez’s SHOWTIME debut was a brief one; he kayoed the previously unbeaten Juan Rodriguez Jr. in less than a round. This time, the southpaw, who can box with patience or attack with passion, will likely have to work a bit longer; fellow lefty Lartey’s never been stopped, having gone the distance with, among others, former Olympians Felix Diaz and Errol Spence.

What convinced me that Vasquez was made of the right stuff was an otherwise insignificant fight. In the first round of his February 2014 bout vs. Jamar Freeman, Vasquez stepped on the foot of the referee and twisted his ankle. No prob: He got taped up, resumed the fight, and scored a fifth-round stoppage as if nothing had happened.

The report card of a prospect cannot be fully filled out until he or she overcomes some type of adversity. Vasquez has already done so.

When you watch Vasquez, check out not only his technical skills and punching power, but also the buzz he creates. It’s too early to tell whether he’s championship-caliber. His star appeal, however, is already unmistakable.

On the televised portion of the card, Miami-based Cuban light heavyweight Humberto Savigne, who’s coming off consecutive second-round kayos of Jeff Lacy and Maxell Taylor, will meet unbeaten Texan Craig Baker.

It’s not really accurate to label Savigne a prospect because he’s 36 years old. But he’s had only 13 pro bouts. He’s worth a watch for a singular reason: He wields a destructive right hand.

Savigne has been calling out WBC 175-pound titlist Adonis Stevenson. To be considered for such a bout, he’ll need to look sensational against Baker.

Also televised will be a featherweight bout between a pair of southpaws, Dominican southpaw Claudio Marrero, 15-1, and Nicaraguan veteran Orlando Rizo, 18-5.

Marrero’s only loss came against top-10 contender Jesus Cuellar. Given his strong amateur pedigree and considerable talent, he’s a good bet to rebound strongly enough to eventually secure a shot at a world title.