I never got a chance to say a word to him; now I carry him with me wherever I go.
The first time I saw Ronney Vargas was in the ring at Madison Square Garden. The lights gave the Venezuelan-born fighter a glow, and the fierce determination and confidence with which he battled drew me to photograph him. His father, German Vargas, was in his corner, stepping through the ropes to wipe the sweat from his face between each round. The next time I saw Ronney in person he was dead, in a casket at Ortiz funeral home - his father in his corner for the last time, touching his face, pushing his hair behind his ear, and clutching a handful of white Rest In Peace t-shirts which family and friends wore as they said goodbye to their champ.

I recognized the face and leopard-print hoodie on the news on Sunday, August 17th, as I listened to the tragic story of an up-and-coming 20-year-old boxer who had been murdered in the South Bronx. The New York police precincts in that area have the highest violent crime rates in the city; drug trafficking and gang activity are common there. Although I had recognized the face from the television, I couldn't recall a place or time where I had met him, so I spent the night looking through old negatives. Then, I found Ronney at the end of a roll with his back towards me, his hand raised high by the referee - victorious in his sixth pro bout at Madison Square Garden.

Ronney once told a reporter, "I think about boxing 100% of the time. Seven days a week... I put my heart into it." The minute I saw that negative, along with other frames, I wanted to print them to share with his family and friends as reminders of Ronney doing what he loved.

On August 19th as the sun was slowly descending in the sky on the Mott Haven section of the South Bronx, I stepped off of the train at 152nd and Metropolis. Looking for Ronney's family home and the memorial established in his honor I became lost. Unsure of where to turn next, I saw a black truck with RIP Venezuela written on the back windshield, illuminated by the setting sun. I asked the driver if I could photograph his car with the message for Ronney, and he asked me to wait. Then, he stepped out of the car with four of his friends, all wearing t-shirts that read RIP above a picture of Ronney. I took their photograph and then gave them the prints of Ronney in the ring. In that exchange of images I had become part of the Ronney Vargas community. They invited me to go to the wake with them.

Ronney told the Daily News in January 2008, "I love my block, I love the people around here. Everyone knows each other, so it's hard for me to move out and start my life somewhere else. It's a tough neighborhood, but I'm good, I'm set, I'm comfortable." Just a few months later I found myself riding with Ronney's friends to the funeral home with the song "My Life" booming on repeat, giving voice to his friends' emotions. I saw that they had placed my photos of Ronney, the triumphant boxer, in tribute along the satin-lined edge of the casket. Mixed into the sadness of the day was the fact that Ronney would, indeed, leave his neighborhood, this time with his father who was taking him home to Venezuela to be buried where he was born. The place Ronney loved as his home, the place he would never turn his back on, was the same place that took his life and took him away from those who loved him. As it said on a hastily erected neighborhood street memorial, "...You are the pride and joy of the hood, Ronney. You gave us hope and inspiration. The courage and determination you gave us was a display from the heavens." .

-- Michael M. Koehler

All photographs and text copyright © 2008 Michael M. Koehler