In deep waters: Andy ‘The Shark’ Vences plots route to the top of the 130lbs division

The locker room is suffocated by the disappointment of an unexpected defeat. It’s not unexpected due to the calibre of opponent, as such, but because of the steely self-belief that has carried the fallen prospect this far and is crushed, at least temporarily. Only footsteps are heard, pacing in search of inspiration as bodies in tracksuits remain tight-lipped.

Suddenly, the beaten fighter’s father, Sifredo, addresses their deflated team. “I don’t want you to fall down on this, okay? This loss is a learning experience. I lost jobs and I’m a fucking engineer today. I bought two homes but I never had nothing,” he said. “I came to this country and I never spoke English. I left behind the dishwashers and all of the cleaners. He wants to be a world champion. He’s gonna get up on his feet and fix these mistakes.”

The group immediately applaud the rousing speech and prepare to face the climb back together.

It’s been 11 months now since San Jose’s Andy Vences (23-1-1, 12 KOs) lost to Albert Bell (L10) on the Tyson Fury-Tom Schwarz undercard and left the MGM Grand Arena draped in the arms of his supportive father. He told Boxing Social that the learning hasn’t stopped, despite returning with a routine win over Mark Bernaldez (W10) last October.

Vences (left) lost to fellow unbeaten Albert Bell in June 2019.
Photo: Mikey Williams, Top Rank.

“We’re always tested in life,” said California’s ‘El Tiburon’ (‘The Shark’). “Like my dad says, the people that fail the most are the ones that end up being successful. So he’s always told me it doesn’t matter what happens in these fights, you need to keep going because something’s waiting for you. It might not be now, but it’s coming.

“He was the only one that believed in me as an amateur and going pro he really thought I was gonna do something in boxing. As soon as I started headlining TV shows then everyone wants to be your friend again. That speech he gave after the fight was very inspirational and he just motivates me to continue moving forward.”

Now, as it’s always been, Vences continues down the road less travelled. We spoke midweek between a training session at his home-built boxing gym and a long shift at his day job, working as an armed security specialist. Pursuing a career between the ropes full-time just wasn’t possible, despite being on the fringe of world title fights under a year ago.

Super-featherweight contender Vences balances a day job in security with life as a boxer.

Living amongst the rolling hills of San Jose means that Andy and his wife Stephanie are reliant on consistent income, paying way above the odds to base themselves in the centre of Silicon Valley. Vences explained: “I live a different life. I’m married. I’ve always been boxing since I met my wife and she loves the sport, so everything works out. I have a full-time job, so I’m pretty much controlling shopping centres, apartments, controlling parking enforcements at different properties and at schools. You either work hard and feed your family or you get left behind.

“Here I am, just fighting for my life, fighting for my family and trying to make the most of my opportunities. There’s not much else you can do, just because you weren’t an amateur standout or you weren’t an Olympian. We can only make the best of it, but you have to fight for it and face your challenges. Even though I’ve fallen, I’m going to continue moving forward because this is my dream – to become a world champion.”

Fulfilling that ambition drives Vences forth after his sole defeat against Bell and a draw with Erick De Leon, but it also must rumble on without long-time manager and biggest fan, Herb Stone, who passed away almost three years ago.

Vences (right) punishes Bell with a right hand. Photo: Mikey Williams.

Stone plucked Vences fresh from a sparring session in San Francisco and orchestrated his promotional contract with Top Rank, supporting the Watsonville-native in establishing himself as a fighter capable of competing at the highest level. With his father and Herb on board, Vences had something so few professional boxers can count on – a loyal, reliable team. It was small in size, but it had to be. Sadly, in March 2017, his close-knit support unit was halved.

“I remember the first time I met him. Herb told me, ‘A lot of managers promise a lot of things, but nobody really does them when it comes down to it. I’ll talk to you next time and I’ll ask you how everything went [with your debut].’ The following week, I went sparring again and he asked me, ‘Are you scheduled to fight? I think I’m going to go down there to see it’.

Vences continued, emotionally, “It was at that moment, something inside of me told me to listen to this guy, although I didn’t know him, I just had a good feeling about him. A lot of times you got to listen to your gut feeling. So I said, ‘Hey, I’ll start my career with you’. I went until I was 18 and 0 with Herb. He was a big part of my life.

“Before he passed away, he said to me, ‘I don’t want me going to be the reason why you didn’t make something happen with your boxing career. So here’s this cheque for training expenses, equipment, anything you need, you grab it from this money’. I was upset and I cried next to him because I didn’t want the money, I wanted him. I made a promise to myself, but I made a promise to him as well. I don’t want to live my life with that guilt.”

Vences is now managed by boxing veteran Peter Kahn, who was instrumental in securing an extension to the San Jose boxer’s promotional contract with Top Rank. Kahn told Boxing Social, “Since stepping in to take over the reins after Herb Stone passed away, I promised Andy that I would carry the torch to finish what he and Herb started. We’re one win away from that becoming a reality.”

Plying his trade in the super-featherweight division, the 28-year-old knows that bouncing back from hardship almost guarantees tough fights early upon his return – he’s ready for them. Reigning champions Jamel Herring (WBO) and Miguel Berchelt (WBC) share a promotional stable with Vences, and fights with either could easily be made.

Vences is inspired by supportive father Sifredo and the memory of late manager Herb Stone.

Revenge over his undefeated conqueror, Toledo’s Albert Bell, was also on the agenda, but Vences is firmly focused on the 130lb division’s keepers. “The ideal situation for me is to take the [biggest] fights,” he said. “Any big name in the super-featherweight division, but obviously I want to be compensated fairly as well. Especially if I’m fighting a former world champion or any current world champion, however it works out. I feel like I’m worth a lot because I train so hard and I’ve never been in a boring fight. I’ve always been in those great, exciting fights.”

Vences isn’t fighting for clout on social media or for glamorous endorsements; he doesn’t need to be splashed on the billboards of San Jose to find comfort. His journey is one-dimensional and his toughest battle is with himself. Sure, bemoaning boxing’s political favouritism seems like a popular comfort blanket, but ‘El Tiburon’ quickly discards it.

“I would like people to remember me as a fighter who was so persistent and never gave up,” Vences told Boxing Social, considering his possible, lasting impact on aspiring young fighters or potential fans. “Just like all the other successful people in the world who fail hundreds and thousands of times, they keep moving forward. I want them to think, ‘Wow, that’s inspiring. Look what he did. He failed so many times, he didn’t have nothing on his side, but he made it happen. How did he make that happen?’”

With his ever-supportive wife, the team at Top Rank and his father Sifredo behind him, it’s easy to be swept away by Vences’ self-belief. He only talks with positive language, dismissing losses as opportunities. Many fighters stumble after being dragged into deep waters, but ‘The Shark’ feels right at home, now ready to return to the top of the division.

With an understanding of sacrifice, his senses are heightened. After all, it only takes one tiny droplet of blood to spark a feast.