Vargas has sights set on 154-pound foes

Fernando Vargas' body was breaking down.

Besides suffering severe knockout losses to Felix Trinidad in 2000 and Oscar De La Hoya in 2002, there was a chronic back injury that had bothered him for years. It had become so painful that Vargas could no longer work out, much less fight. There was also an underactive thyroid that caused problems and required treatment.

So Vargas, a two-time junior middleweight champ, took a much-needed break from boxing. He got his health in order. He spent time with his family. He looked after his investments. He even found time to shoot scenes in a movie called "Alpha Dog" featuring Bruce Willis and Sharon Stone.

"I was just having a good time, taking vacations with my family," Vargas said of his time off. "It helped me regenerate a lot."

Vargas (24-2, 22 KOs), still only 27, hasn't fought since a seventh-round knockout of journeyman Tony Marshall in a lethargic performance in December 2003.

Now, 15 months later, Vargas is ready to fight again and hoping to recapture the talent that made him one of the most feared boxers in the world. During his 1999-2000 peak, he defeated fighters such as Winky Wright, Ike Quartey and Raul Marquez.

Vargas faces Raymond Joval (33-3, 15 KOs) in a middleweight bout on Saturday night (HBO, 9:45 ET/PT) in Corpus Christi, Texas, where a sellout crowd of 9,000 is expected, proving Vargas is still a draw despite the long layoff.

Vargas says he can't wait to get back in the ring.

"I'm very excited," Vargas says.

"I have been working out and training hard. I put so much hard work into this. I definitely missed boxing. It's nice to be missed. My fans would always come up to me and say they can't wait to see me fight again. They say they want to watch me fight. That was great. They're loyal fans and crazy fans. They are very fanatical and I love them."

So what about Vargas' health?

"The back is stronger," he says of caring for his bulging disk.

"I've been strengthening the muscles in my lower back. It would be fine on and off and then flare up on me. So I still have to take care of it. But it will be OK as long as I keep up with the therapy and the strength training. Now, I have clean bill of health."

Says Carl Moretti of promoter Main Events: "Sometimes the layoff can help. He's taken some time off, gotten healthy and maybe he's rejuvenated. Fernando has done everything physically to prepare for this fight and he's excited about the fight. We'll have our answer on Saturday night."

Vargas says that after the Joval fight, he intends to go back to 154 pounds.

"I'll be at 160 for this fight and then it's back down. I can still make that weight," Vargas says. "I'm looking for one more title before it's all over. That's what keeps me going. There's a lot of good competition (at 154). You have Kassim Ouma, Javier Castillejo, Ricardo Mayorga. Mayorga would be the dream fight."

Around the ring
Big hit: Junior lightweight Erik Morales' stirring unanimous decision against Manny Pacquiao last Saturday in Las Vegas generated 350,000 buys, according to HBO PPV. That's 25,000 more buys than last fall's highly anticipated third fight between Morales and rival Marco Antonio Barrera.

"It reinforces our belief that when great fighters participate in great fights, the public will always support it," HBO's Mark Taffet said.

HBO replays the fight Saturday night (9:45 ET/PT) along with its live coverage of the Vargas-Joval bout.

Morales has become a bankable pay-per-view attraction, generating 825,000 buys in his last three fights – 350,000 for Pacquiao, 325,000 for Barrera III and 150,000 against Carlos Hernandez.

Cotto card: Top Rank is finalizing terms for emerging junior welterweight star Miguel Cotto to defend his title against Muhammad Abdullaev on June 11 at New York's Madison Square Garden. The story line for this defense is simple: Abdullaev (15-1, 12 KOs) is the last man to defeat Cotto (23-0, 19 KOs), doing so in the amateurs in the opening round of the 2000 Olympics. Abdullaev went on to win a gold medal in Sydney.

The HBO undercard will feature hot lightweight contender "Kid Diamond" Almazbek Raimkulov (20-0, 12 KOs), who reminds many of a slightly smaller version of Kostya Tszyu. Raimkulov most likely will face Joel Casamayor. Negotiations are ongoing. Acelino "Popo" Freitas, who would rather pursue a title eliminator with Ricky Quiles, turned down an offer to face Raimkulov.

Quick hits: Heavyweight Sergei Lyakhovich, a native of Belarus living in the U.S., has withdrawn from an April 23 HBO fight in Germany against Wladimir Klitschko because of visa problems. Klitschko's new opponent is not set yet but it probably will be Eliseo Castillo. … Antwun Echols (31-5-1, 27 KOs) faces Kingsley Ikeke (22-1, 12 KOs) in a middleweight eliminator April 15 on Friday Night Fights (ESPN2) at Airway Heights, Wash. Also on the card in six-round super middleweight bouts: 2004 U.S. Olympic bronze medalist Andre Dirrell (3-0, 3 KOs) and his similarly-talented younger brother Anthony Dirrell (3-0, 3 KOs). … Junior featherweight titlist Joan Guzman (22-0, 17 KOs) is slated to defend his title against Fernando Beltran Jr. (20-1, 13 KOs) on April 22 in Hidalgo, Texas. Junior welterweight Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. (17-0, 12 KOs), the son of ring legend Julio Cesar Chavez, is also on the card. … Promoter Dan Goossen has put together a fight between former light heavyweight titlists looking for another shot when Julio Gonzalez faces Montell Griffin on May 5 on a "Best Damn Sports Show Period" boxing special (8 p.m. ET, Fox Sports Net). … John Ruiz's April 30 (HBO) heavyweight title defense against James Toney will take place at Madison Square Garden. A news conference announcing the fight is expected on Tuesday. … Although it won't be part of HBO's telecast, Paul Briggs of Australia will face Tomasz Adamek of Poland for a vacant light heavyweight belt May 21 in Chicago on the undercard of the Lamon Brewster-Andrew Golota heavyweight title bout.

Dan Rafael is the boxing writer for ESPN.com.