Ronin’s Angel

By Josh Gross Dec 6, 2007
Thirteen months had passed since Sam Vasquez stepped into a cage. He couldn't contain himself.

Sweat from a pre-fight warm-up provided sheen to the featherweight's face. The music of Ritchie Valens brought a bounce to his step.

Never mind that Oct. 20, 2007, gave the 35-year-old mixed martial artist a special reason to smile -- he would have regardless; it's what he did.

Vasquez was a fight fanatic, so immersed in MMA that he adorned his son with the middle name "Rickson." Like others who stepped between the ropes or ducked while passing through a cage doorway, Vasquez lived for this.

That is, until he no longer could.

In death the MMA community, of which Vasquez considered himself a proud member, met a dedicated father who out of necessity -- and love -- got roadwork in during his lunch break and spent odd hours in quiet, empty gyms.

Thursday in Houston, when the tragic victim of the first regulated MMA death is laid to rest, family and friends will choose to remember Vasquez as he was before that cage door shut behind him for the final time.

"He's a person that lived and loved life," said Sam's wife, Sandra. "He didn't fight for money. He didn't do it for that. He loved it. It was his passion. And how many people get to do what they love and have a wonderful life doing that?"

Sam's passion took hold early. After earning a black belt in karate he opened his own school, but it wasn't enough and he knew it. That's how he befriended Saul Soliz, a Houston-area trainer that would work with some of the biggest names in MMA.

Over the next decade Vasquez often found the smell of a gym would wake his senses.

"I think he had a passion for martial arts that's not rivaled by many," said Soliz, who promoted each of Vasquez's three professional MMA bouts, including the one that began the diminutive fighter's terrible five-week duel with death. "He always strived for greatness. He always wanted to improve. He wasn't one of those guys that waited for life to happen."

Almost dancing as "La Bamba" played inside Houston's Toyota Center, Vasquez met San Antonio's Vince Libardi, who had seven fights to his opponent's two, in the third bout of a Renegades Extreme Fighting card.

The contest was close, though it was clear to anyone with a discerning eye for MMA that Libardi was getting the better of the exchanges and had racked up a lead heading into the third.

Jeff Sessions watched from the corner as Vasquez, who managed a restaurant when he wasn't training or spending time with family, walked out for his last round.

"Was there a point in the fight that I noticed he was really getting hurt?" said Sessions, Vasquez's chief second and Brazilian jiu-jitsu coach.

"No."

Those closest to Vasquez say they never saw any signs of a pre-existing medical condition. Unlike the well-documented case of Douglas Dedge, who died following an unregulated bout in the Ukraine in 1998, Vasquez did not black out in training and he was not a "wannabe," said Sessions, who awarded his friend the rank of purple belt.

"We trained with him for over 10 years," Soliz said. "Everyone thought he was well equipped physically and mentally. You can't fathom that this is going to happen."

According to those who trained with him in the gym, Vasquez worked himself into terrific shape while preparing for Libardi.

"If I had thought that there was any kind of major problem with him I would have voiced that to him," said Sessions. "A lot of times you rely on a fighter to communicate with you. You rely on a fighter to tell you how they're feeling if you don't notice certain things. You rely on the doctors and the medical exams to dictate those things. I can teach him armbars, I can't give him tests. But as a friend if I had seen anything that concerned me that he had a problem, I would have definitely voiced my opinion."

Sandra Vasquez indicated there was "nothing" that triggered concern from her as Sam trained and fought.

Around the time he began working with Soliz, Vasquez met his wife. She soon learned about his passion for MMA, and it became her own. When Vasquez finally decided to fight after years spent making friends in the gym, Sandra decided she'd watch from cage-side.

Vasquez and Libardi fought what was tantamount to hundreds of competitive MMA bouts across the globe each month. Down on the cards, Vasquez tried to match Libardi, who eventually finished the fight with a late combination that put the Houston fighter on the canvas.

At the behest of Libardi, who backed away, Vasquez rose on uncertain legs. Noticing something was wrong, the referee moved in and the fighter went down, again.

Afterwards, Vasquez sat on a stool and told Texas officials that he wanted to continue.

He would not.

"His heart was in the fight," Sandra said. "Vince did what he was supposed to do and have a great bout. That's what happened. Unfortunately Sammy got hurt."

"I feel for the Libardi family and Vince," she continued. "And I love them. I don't have any ill will and I'm not upset in any way about anything. … I don't have any hurt or anything negative against anyone."

Sam battled for his life, enduring two brain clots and a massive stroke. Weeks after being injured, Vasquez was discharged from Saint Joseph Medical Center and moved to a hospice, where he held on until Nov. 30, one day after his tenth wedding anniversary.

"He gave me my 10," Sandra said. "I know in my heart that I loved him and he loved me and he did what he loved."

Mrs. Vasquez and her 7-year-old son Ronin Rickson now face life without a loving husband and a father. But they've got each other, along with a close-knit support network of family, friends and people within the fight community.

Asked if Ronin knew his dad, who would have turned 36 on Monday, was gone, Sandra replied, "I told him that daddy's an angel. And he knows that and I hope he believes me."
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