Even when Israel Vazquez was at his lowest point after suffering a third detached retina in a year at the end of 2008, he never gave up on his hope that one day he would be fit to return to boxing.
"I never really lost focus or hope. I was always confident," Vazquez said. "But I am human, too, and there were times I got down. So it wasn't easy. But now I am just waiting to come back into the ring and do my boxing business in a few months."
After three surgeries to correct the retina problem in his right eye, Vazquez was medically cleared to resume training and granted a new license by the California State Athletic Commission late last month. He intends to resume his career in the fall.
"I'm very happy," he said. "I'm so happy to be back to this beautiful sport that I love so much. I am very motivated, and I am very thankful to my family, my friends and my manager, Frank Espinoza, for being there every step of the way."
Vazquez is shooting for a ring return in September.
"I believe September is a good month," he said. "I never let myself get out of shape, but I did relax a lot during my time off. But I have maintained my weight, so I will be fine to fight in September."
Vazquez, who turns 32 on Christmas Day, has vacated the junior featherweight title and plans to move up four pounds to try his luck in the 126-pound featherweight division, where he could run into rival Rafael Marquez for the fourth time.
Vazquez and Marquez, of course, etched themselves into history at junior featherweight, where the Mexican countrymen waged an unforgettable championship trilogy.
In the first encounter, Vazquez (43-4, 31 KOs) lost the title to Marquez via seventh-round TKO on March 3, 2007, a fight in which Vazquez suffered a severely broken nose that forced him to retire on his stool. But Vazquez scored a sixth-round knockout to regain the title on Aug. 4, 2007. In the rubber match on March 1, 2008, Vazquez claimed a split-decision win in the best fight of the three, which is saying something considering how breathtaking the first two were.
Their second and third classics were tabbed fights of the year by numerous media outlets, including ESPN.com and Ring magazine. The first fight surely would have been the fight of the year had it not taken place in the same year as the rematch.
Both fighters, however, paid a heavy price for the unrelenting violence of their 25 rounds together.
Marquez, 34, took tremendous punishment and didn't fight for 14 months until returning at featherweight to score a third-round knockout of Jose Francisco Mendoza on May 23 in Monterrey, Mexico.
Vazquez also took a severe pounding, but nothing was as bad as what happened in the third round of the third fight. That's when a punch from Marquez detached Vazquez's retina.
"He thought it was just the Vaseline in his eye, because it was blurry," Espinoza said. "So he fought nine more rounds with a detached retina. It shows you the kind of warrior he is."
About a week after the fight, Vazquez had the first surgery on his eye. But it didn't work. About a month later, his retina detached again, and Vazquez had to have a second procedure. Vazquez was healing well and enjoying his time off, as well as a stint working as a broadcaster for Telemundo's Spanish-language coverage of the Beijing Olympics boxing tournament.
However, in late November, the retina detached again and Vazquez needed yet another surgery to reattach it. During the operation, the doctor also removed scar tissue that had built up in the eye.
"It's been a long journey to this point," Espinoza said. "Three surgeries. It was a long road."
Now that Vazquez is preparing to fight again, the big question is who will he face? Marquez, of course, is at the top of the list, but Espinoza also mentioned a possible fight with junior featherweight titlist Juan Manuel Lopez. That match, however, seems unlikely because Vazquez wants to fight at featherweight and Lopez has given no indication that he is ready to move up yet.
"Lopez is a nice up-and-coming fighter," Espinoza said. "There's always been a rivalry between the Puerto Rican fighters and the Mexican fighters. If it makes business sense, we'd be interested in it, but not at 122. If that fight happens, he would have to come up to 126 pounds."
There is also the critical issue of money. A fourth fight with Marquez obviously would be the most lucrative match for Vazquez (as well as Marquez). Showtime, which televised the first three bouts, has interest in a fourth fight.
I never really lost focus or hope. I was always confident. But I am human, too, and there were times I got down.
”-- Israel Vazquez on his long injury layoff from boxing
"Right now, nothing is set, but the possibility is there," Espinoza said of the fourth Marquez showdown. "I would like the Marquez fight because I think that is the fight the fans would like to see. That's also the fight Israel wants, and I think the fight that Rafael Marquez wants. I think it's the fight everyone would like to see. The first three fights were so good and so competitive, why not do it again?"
Vazquez is game for a fourth fight, even though he could pass on it and know for all time that he got the better of Marquez in a trilogy.
"I'll leave the decision on who I fight to my team to decide, but if we feel that's the right fight, absolutely, I will fight him again," Vazquez said. "After the third fight, I was ready to do it again then. If the fans want it, I want it. Where do I sign?"
Espinoza said he doesn't buy the talk from some critics that a fourth Vazquez-Marquez fight would be too much for them after the punishment they dished out to each other in the first three bouts. The way he sees it, they both are going to fight and take punches, so they might as well do it for the most money in the biggest fight.
"I understand the view, but how do we tell two fighters who are passionate about their work not to fight each other if that's what they want to do?" Espinoza said. "Israel is my friend as well as a fighter, and this is the business he has chosen to pursue. These are the kinds of fights they work so hard for. He is up to fighting Marquez again. These guys fighting each other will sell, and I know the networks would buy it. I know that the fans will show up."
Vazquez saw Marquez's comeback fight last month and was glad to see his rival make a successful return.
"I didn't think the opponent was extremely good, but it was his comeback after two defeats," Vazquez said. "He had been inactive, so I don't think it was very easy for him, but he got his rhythm and landed an unexpected punch on his opponent. I think he did a good job."
Whereas rivals Arturo Gatti and Micky Ward developed a close friendship during their brutal trilogy, and Erik Morales and Marco Antonio Barrera went to the opposite extreme, Vazquez said he and Marquez are neither friends nor foes.
"I saw him at the Oscar De La Hoya-Manny Pacquiao fight, and he acted fine with me. We got along," Vazquez said. "We're not really great friends, but we are not enemies. We respect each other. But when we get in the ring, it's different story."
Vazquez appreciates that he can talk about a possible fourth fight with Marquez -- or any fight for that matter -- given the injury he suffered and the setbacks. Even though he kept the faith, he knew it was possible he would never fight again.
"Now that the doctor has given me the green light, I feel good," Vazquez said. "I am really looking forward to fighting again."
"He was always confident," Espinoza said. "There were setbacks, but he never lost confidence that he would come back. He's a true warrior, and like every true warrior, he is eager to get back in the ring against the world's best talent."
Dan Rafael is the boxing writer for ESPN.com.