By Cliff Rold
Rematches happen for a lot of reasons in boxing.
The best reason is a first fight so good it created instant demand for a sequel. Just two weeks ago, Jr. bantamweight Juan Francisco Estrada and Srisaket Sor Rungvisai met for the second time after putting on one of 2018’s best fights. It wasn’t quite as good the second time around but they delivered more than their share again. Surely few would be surprised, or upset, by a rubber match down the road.
Zale-Graziano, Ali-Frazier, Morales-Barrera, Pacquiao-Marquez…all those pairings, those lasting rivalries, started with a first epic contest.
They are the best kind of rematches.
This Saturday on ESPN (10 PM EST), we have something else. It’s a pair of rematches from fights that had clear, decisive winners the first time around, no notable clamor for more, and yet a hint of their own intrigue. The best fight of the night, on paper, might well be Fox’s Jr. middleweight main event between unified titlist Jarrett Hurd and dangerous challenger Julian Williams.
That show begins before the ESPN broadcast and the amount of overlap between the two remains to be determined. It’s at least easy to say ESPN has a show worth flipping to afterwards.
In the main event, WBC 130 lb. titlist Miguel Berchelt (35-1, 31 KO) will attempt his fifth defense against the man he stopped for the strap in January 2018, Francisco Vargas (25-1-2, 18 KO). In the co-feature, newly minted WBO 122 lb. titlist Emmanuel Navarrete (26-1, 22 KO) faces an immediate return from the man he bested for the belt last December, Isaac Dogboe (20-1, 14 KO).
A wise betting man, after viewing the first encounters from both these pairs, would follow the chalk.
Saturday, that may well be the right course of action.
The first Berchelt-Vargas fight was an exciting piece of business. On paper, one could think it was closer than it ultimately was. Vargas was even on one card and down only six rounds to four on two others when he was stopped in the eleventh round.
The flow of the fight in real time, the mounting punishment, and the escalating takeover of the victor speak to the heavy advantage the younger Berchelt will carry into the return. Vargas, at 35, picked up a lot of wear in Fight of the Year winning wars against Takashi Miura and Orlando Salido. The wear was showing in the later rounds with Berchelt.
If there is a glimmer of hope for Vargas, it is in his preservation. He’s fought only twice since the loss to Berchelt and managed not to take the sort of heavy punishment he had in the three fights before that. Berchelt has been stopped before, if in a way that suggests years later it was more a hiccup than indicator of perpetual vulnerability.
It feels like a long shot but that’s not the same as none.
And, really, does it matter whether Vargas can or does win for most fans this weekend? Vargas typically puts on a hell of a show. This might not be a rematch masses of viewers demanded, but it’s also not one anyone is likely to want to miss if they are familiar with either guy.
Navarrete-Dogboe II might be the bigger wild card.
Dogboe was riding some real momentum into the first fight. Not only was he winning in the ring, the Ghanaian was winning a fan base outside it. Some were even suggesting he might be a pound-for-pound player in the making.
Navarrete pounded that idea aside, at least for now. The magnitude of the upset for viewers varied; some had seen Navarrete on the way up and knew he was a threat, but most were still surprised at the nature of the outcome. He was too big, too strong, and too good the first time around. In the return, Navarrete will still be bigger and stronger. They might hit the scale at the same weight on Friday but the eyes didn’t lie when they were in the ring.
Navarrete is listed at the same height (5’7) and with an inch more reach (72”) than Berchelt who will be defending two divisions higher. Dogboe is still 5’2, still has an eight-inch disadvantage in reach, and still has to prove he can solve a foe that might ultimately be part of Top Rank’s answer to the question of who they can find for featherweight titlist Oscar Valdez.
Still, both men are only 24 and young fighters can prove adaptable. Navarrete and Berchelt look like they should win, but what it they don’t? After all, the past can be prologue only until it isn’t.
It was just in February of this year that light heavyweight Sergey Kovalev pulled together one of the best performances of his career to avenge a knockout loss to Eleider Alvarez. It was a special performance from a fighter who was a single round on the scorecards away from perhaps universal acclaim as the best light heavyweight of his generation in his first Andre Ward fight.
Special performances don’t happen all the time and often the reasons a fighter won the first time are the reasons they win again the next. But what if an aging warrior has one more trick up his sleeve?
What if a young Dogboe can find dimensions no one knew he had, that he himself had never had to find, before this weekend?
It doesn’t always have to be the next chapter in one of the great sagas. Sometimes it’s enough for there to just be enough of a question about what might unfold to keep it interesting.
Cliff Rod is the Managing Editor of BoxingScene, a founding member of the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board, and a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America. He can be reached at [email protected]