CHICAGO (AP) – It was supposed to be a fight for the WBC super welterweight title, but even with no belt at stake, Fernando Vargas sees Saturday’s bout with former champion Javier Castillejo as an chance to re-establish himself as the top junior welterweight.

It’s a chance to restore a reputation hurt in the last five years by losses to Felix Trinidad and Oscar De La Hoya and a positive test for steroid use.

It’s a chance to “show the world the new me,” Vargas said.

The “new” Vargas, he said, is a stronger, better boxer who bears little resemblance to the one who won IBF and WBA junior middleweight championships.

“It’s been awhile since I’ve been excited about boxing again,” said Vargas, who is 25-2 with 22 knockouts. “I’m not going to take a guy like Castillejo easy.”

The Vargas-Castillejo bout headlines a card at Allstate Arena that features top contender Rocky Juarez (23-0, 16 KOs) facing No. 2 contender Humberto Soto (36-5-2, 21 KOs) for the WBC interim featherweight championship.

The main event was scheduled to be a 12-round WBC super welterweight title bout, but the governing body stripped Castillejo (58-5, 40 KOs) of the belt on May 31 for refusing to fight Ricardo Mayorga, reducing this to a 10-round elimination matchup between top contenders. Mayorga won the vacant belt with a unanimous decision over Michele Piccirillo last Saturday at the United Center.

Vargas’ promoters, meanwhile, filed a lawsuit against the WBC last week in New York for financial damages.

“This was supposed to be a championship fight,” said Rolando Arellano, Vargas’ co-manager. “We were going to take it on pay-per-view; we don’t have that appeal of a championship. It affects us monetarily. We’ll determine how many seats we were able to sell like this, find out how much we could have made versus how much we are making, and that’s what (they’re) going to owe (us).

“Then, we go to punitive damages to punish and deter.”

Last week, Mayorga called Vargas a coward and challenged him. Vargas refused to respond this week, saying his focus is on Piccirillo, but Arellano made it clear his eyes are turned toward another fight with De La Hoya – even though Saturday’s winner becomes the first challenger to Mayorga.

“We’ve got bigger fish to fry,” Arellano said. “If you were in my position, would you be eyeing Mayorga or De La Hoya? No-brainer.”

First comes Castillejo.

“This week, all of you will see the champion of the people – not a political one,” Sampson Lewkowitz, Castillejo’s adviser, said, referring to the Mayorga-Piccirillo bout.

Vargas is coming off a 10-round unanimous decision over middleweight Raymond Joval in March, which followed a 15-month layoff.

Castillejo has won his last seven fights, six by knockout, after losing a 12-round decision to De La Hoya in June 2001. His last bout was a fifth-round TKO of Enrique Campos in June 2004.

Arellano said the Vargas-Castillejo fight has been “tainted and scorned” by the WBC’s decision.

It seems fitting, in a sense, that the bout features a fighter looking to restore his image.

The 27-year-old Vargas won his first championship just after turning 21, when he scored an eighth-round technical knockout of Yory Boy Campas for the IBF junior middleweight title. And he made five successful defenses before dropping the belt to Felix Trinidad in December 2000. After taking the WBA junior middle title from Jose Flores in September 2001, Vargas was stopped in the 11th round by De La Hoya a year later and tested positive for steroid use. That led to a nine-month suspension and $100,000 fine.

“All I know is if I knew that I was taking something, I would have never taken it,” Vargas said. “I wouldn’t have even gone to testing. Why would I have gone to testing? But it’s OK. God does everything for a reason and you learn from it. That’s what I did.”

He fired his strength coach and nutritionist, and he pays more attention to what goes in his body.

“I make sure … I get to look at the bottle,” Vargas said. And, he said, he’s stronger now “just by all the exercises I’ve done.”

AP-ES-08-19-05 1647EDT

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