The International Boxing Research Organization (IBRO) looks back
at the career of Reuben Vargas
By Dan Cuoco
Reuben Garcia Vargas was born May 17, 1932, in Orange City, CA. Managed by Bert Brodose (and later co-managed by Frank Sinatra), he was the most prominent Mexican-American Heavyweight in the mid to late 1950’s.
He was a courageous, durable and aggressive fighter who moved constantly forward from a crouch and possessed knockout power in either hand. Fred Eisenstadt, a writer for “The Ring” magazine, described him as an intellectual engaging in fisti-cuffs for a livelihood because of his love of philosophy. Reuben’s quote to Fred after he was asked about the strange difference between his ring career and philosophy was: “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 turned professional on January 11, 1955, after winning the 1954 National AAU Heavyweight Title, winning a six round decision over John Carroll in Richmond, California.
He went undefeated in his first five fights, including 4 kayos, and became “The Ring’s” Prospect of the Month in April 1955. On May 31, 1955 he lost his first professional fight to the much more experienced Roger Rischer in his first main event. It was a hard fought battle throughout with Rischer’s ring savvy proving the deciding point. Reuben remained out of action until June 7, 1956 when he took on heavyweight prospect Joe Louis III and defeated him by six round decision. To prove the victory wasn’t a fluke they were rematched three weeks later and again Reuben was victorious, this time over eight rounds. He followed these victories with two kayos over Bob Scrivens and again was matched with Joe Louis III in his first ten rounder. Reuben proved he was Louis’ master by outpointing him decisively. Reuben finished off the year in fine fashion by knocking out John Carroll in the fourth round. John had previously lost a six round decision to Reuben in his pro debut.
The promoters in Northern California were very high on Reuben. They thought that a good Mexican heavyweight would be a top box-office attraction. But Reuben’s progress ran into a roadblock in his next fight when Fresno’s George Kennedy won a ten round decision over him in Fresno on February 12, 1957.
Hoping to make up for the loss to Kennedy, Reuben took a huge gamble in his next fight and went to Tacoma to fight highly touted heavyweight prospect Pat McMurtry. McMurtry had engaged in 24 professional fights, winning 22, losing 1 (by decision to future light-heavyweght champion and hall-of-famer Willie Pastrano), and being held to a draw. 19 of his 22 professional wins were by knockout. Among his victims were former heavyweight champion Ezzard Charles, Bob Dunlap and Joey Rowan. Pat was just too experienced for Reuben who was only engaging in his 14th professional fight. McMurtry dropped Reuben for the first time in his career in scoring a third round knockout.
Reuben did not let the devastating loss to McMurtry get him down. He returned to action two months later to take on Argentina’s Edgardo Romero who had just dropped a decision to the same McMurtry a month earlier. Edgardo entered the ring with an impressive record of 24-5-2, with 13 wins by kayo. All 5 of his losses were by decision. Outweighed by 64 pounds, Reuben stopped Edgardo in the 5th round to become the first man to stop the Argentine strongman.
The victory earned Reuben a match with his old adversary Roger Rischer for the California Heavyweight Championship on August 30, 1957. Rischer took an early lead in the fight, before a near capacity crowd at the Richmond Auditorium, and then held off a late charging Reuben to win a very close decision.
Reuben took the next four months off to regroup. Not one to discourage easily, Reuben returned to the ring on December 3rd and reeled off four consecutive knockout victories over Art Wright, Eddie Cato, Johhny Mayes and Jackie Torme (all in Richmond).
The promoters decided to gamble and matched Reuben with Alex Miteff, the seventh ranking heavyweight in the world rankings. Alex was from Argentina but fighting out of New York. As an amateur Alex had a record of 126 wins (90 by kayo), 3 losses and 11 draws. In 1954 he won the Pan American Games’ heavyweight championship in Mexico City. As a professional he was 15-1-1, (with 9 knockout victories). His list of professional victories was quite impressive: Archie McBride (W 10), Willie Besmanoff (W 10), Julio Mederos (KO 7), John Holman (KO 9), Tony Gagliardo (KO 3), Nino Vadez (W 10), and in his last fight he held Canadian champion George Chuvalo to a draw in Canada. Victim, Nino Valdez had just come off a one round knockout victory over Pat McMurtry.
Reuben put tremendous pressure on Miteff from the opening bell and gave as well as he got. In the end Miteff was awarded a hotly disputed split decision. Despite the loss, Rueben and his handlers were encouraged by his showing. It was obvious that he was improving with each fight and although he lost he was competitive with the world’s seventh ranking heavyweight.
Six weeks later Reuben was matched with Monroe Ratliff in Hollywood and lost a heart-breaking technical knockout due to a bad cut in a fight he was winning. Even though he lost he was now being touted as the answer to a Southern California promoter’s prayer, a Mexican heavyweight who could really fight.
On December 9, 1958, Reuben won the biggest fight of his professional career when he stopped Young Jack Johnson in the seventh round to win the California Heavyweight Championship. Johnson entered the contest with an impressive resume of victims including Willie Bean (W 12), Frankie Buford (KO 4), Marty Marshall (W 10, the only fighter to defeat Sonny Liston before Muhammad Ali), Zora Folley (KO 5, perennial heavyweight contender and title challenger), Ezzard Charles (KO 6, former heavyweight champion of the world) and Duke Sabedong.
Reuben, who spotted Johnson 28 pounds, won the state title with a TKO after nine rounds, Johnson having suffered a long cut next to his right eye. Reuben concentrated on Johnson’s body in the early rounds, then successfully switched to his head. Although Reuben landed frequently, the fight wasn’t exactly a walk in the park. Johnson hit Ruben often, both with solid single shots and rattling combinations. But Reuben took all of these, and came back even stronger. Reuben was all smiles when Promoter Harry Fine presented him the championship belt.
Reuben’s next fight was scheduled for January 30, 1959 against Tony Anthony, the number one ranked light-heavyweight contender at Madison Square Garden in New York. The fight was also Reuben’s national television debut. Before the match could be finalized Julius Helfand head of the NY State Athletic Commission tried to block the fight. He stated to matchmaker Jack Barrett that “Anthony was too good” and “It would be too one-sided.” But Barrett stuck to his guns and suggested that Reuben might even beat the highly ranked Anthony.
Barrett succeeded in putting the fight on. And Reuben upset the odds makers that instilled him a 5-1 underdog by soundly drubbing Anthony over ten rounds.
Fighting out of a semi crouch, 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. Anthony was unable to keep Reuben off with his vaunted left jab. It lacked snap and when the shorter Reuben got inside he forced Anthony up against the ropes where he battered away with both hands. Anthony held his own in the fourth as Reuben slowed up temporarily. The fast pace continued in the sixth and seventh rounds with Reuben swarming in and connecting solidly to the head and body. The best Anthony could do was to keep backing up while attempting to counter punch his aggressive opponent. While Anthony did manage to land some sharp blows he was unable to slow Reuben down. The eighth round was only seconds old, when Reuben nailed Anthony flush on the chin with a left hook that put him flat on his back. As the timekeeper reached nine referee Davey Feld appeared to give Anthony an assist in getting up as he grabbed his gloves to wipe them off while he was still kneeling on the canvas. For the next two minutes Reuben punched Anthony from one side of the ring to the other. Anthony lasted out the assault and was trying to fight his way out of the fog as the round ended. Anthony rallied in the ninth and had a slight edge as Reuben was too arm weary to do much. They both threw everything they had at each other in the final three minutes with Reuben having Anthony again in trouble with solid right hand leads to the head that almost closed his left eye. Reuben himself fought the last few rounds with his right eye slowly closing. Although the decision in Reuben’s favor was split, most ringside reporters had Reuben in front by a 7-3 margin.
The victory over Anthony thrust Reuben into the national spotlight He was featured in two full-length articles by “The Ring” magazine and “Boxing Illustrated”. Reuben’s face also graced the “May 1959” cover of “The Ring” magazine alongside Sonny Liston, Denny Moyer, Mauro Vazquez, Paul Armstead, and Lenny Matthews, entitled “Fast Rising Stars”.
Don Elbaum in his article in “Boxing Illustrated” likened Reuben to “Rocky Marciano” because he exhibited the same bull-dozing tactics as Marciano, as well as the ability to take and deliver a hard punch.
Don also liked his colorful personality. He stated in the article ” Think of him as a personality. In show business terms, he’s got ‘it’. ‘It’ is a combination of high intelligence, self-education, flair for the dramatic and the ability to take care of himself in the conversational clinches; in other words, he’s got color.”
Four months later Reuben lost a close decision to top ranking heavyweight contender Eddie Machen on national TV at the Cow Palace in San Francisco. Although he lost, 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
But when Machen stopped Reuben in six rounds in their return match two months later, Reuben’s days as a potential contender were over. Retirement followed soon after the second loss to Machen.
Although Reuben’s career was relatively short, his exciting style and ferocious punching made him a fun fighter to watch and a box-office attraction.
Overall, Reuben had 26 professional bouts, winning 18, losing 8, and scoring 13 knockouts.
Following his ring career, Reuben returned to his home in San Francisco, CA, where he worked as a Draftsman. Now 68, Reuben is retired and in good health. He and his wife Mary reside in San Francisco, CA. Reuben is the proud grandfather of 10 year-old Giana Vargas whose curiosity about her grandfather’s career as a professional boxer inspired this article.
Published in the IBRO Journal 2001