by David P. Greisman
It’s not always easy. And even for those who make it look easy, it still isn’t.
The performances we see on fight night are the result of days dedicated to training, to preparation and pain, to self-discipline and sacrifice. The performances we see on fight night are the result of years full of those days and a life full of those years.
Those with the most skills, gifts and dedication can go the farthest with surprisingly little difficulty before the talent gets too tough. Those with the best matchmaking, meanwhile, can merely postpone the inevitable.
All are tested along the way.
Promoters and managers want to see how their fighters handle certain challenges — someone who punches, someone who moves, someone who can take a shot, someone who will take him a distance he’s never been before. They still want these bouts to be winnable. You learn so that you can pass the test. You learn from passing the test and get better before the next one.
It’s not always easy.
Francisco Vargas’ last two fights definitely haven’t been.
Vargas fought in the 2008 Olympics and turned pro a year and a half later, in early 2010. He signed with Golden Boy Promotions two years later; his development continued. They tested him with capable but lower-level opponents in Jerry Belmontes and Abner Cotto; Vargas won decisions. They matched him with faded former titleholder Juan Manuel Lopez; Vargas needed just three rounds to put him away.
By the end of 2014, Vargas was ready for his toughest test yet — challenging Takashi Miura for a world title in the 130-pound division on the televised undercard of the year’s second-biggest pay-per-view, Miguel Cotto vs. Canelo Alvarez.
Vargas hurt Miura early. But Miura showed his class by battling back and knocking Vargas down. Miura was winning after eight rounds. And then Vargas ended the fight in the ninth, sending Miura down to the canvas, hurting him badly and continuing to throw punches until the referee stopped the bout.
Some fighters win a world title and then take a step back in the quality of opposition for their first title defense. Some fighters go through a hard battle and then are given an easier outing.
That’s not what happened this past Saturday. That’s almost never what happens when a boxer steps in the ring with Orlando Salido.
Salido, at 35, is only four years older than the 31-year-old Vargas. There’s a slight difference in age but a large gap in experience. Vargas has been a professional prizefighter for six years, ever since he was 25. Salido has been in the paid ranks for two decades, ever since he was 15.
There are 13 losses on Salido’s record. Most of those losses reflect what he once was rather than what he now is. His first defeat came in his first fight. He was 4-3 after seven fights, 6-5-1 after 12 fights, 8-6-1 after 15 fights and 11-7-2 after 20. Nothing about the first five years of Salido’s career suggested that he would someday fight for world titles.
But he became the fighter who challenged and lost to Juan Manuel Marquez in 2004 and then beat Robert Guerrero for a world title in 2006, only to test positive for a banned steroid and have his win overturned and title taken away. He fought for a world title again in 2008, losing a split decision to Cristobal Cruz, then bested Cruz in their rematch in 2010. He lost his title belt to Yuriorkis Gamboa less than four months later.
And then he became the fighter who upset Juan Manuel Lopez, stopping him twice in the span of 11 months. Salido lost the title to Mikey Garcia in 2013, though he appeared to be starting to come on on when the bout was sent to the scorecards early due to Garcia suffering a broken nose from a clash of heads.
He won a vacant belt, taking out Orlando Cruz, then vacated that same belt on the scales, coming in overweight before defending against Vasyl Lomachenko. He won that fight, aided by his weight advantage and a referee who allowed an overabundance of fouls. So Salido moved from 126 to 130, where an aging warrior found himself at home in battle after battle: a Fight of the Year candidate against Terdsak Kokietgym in 2014, a loss and a draw in a pair of Fight of the Year candidates with Roman Martinez in 2015, and now a Fight of the Year candidate against Vargas.
For while the rising 23-0-1 Vargas and the aging 43-13-3 Salido seemed as if they should be professionally far apart, they were also similar. They were two fighters willing to go through hell in order to try to put their opponent through the same.
It was a trial by fire. For Salido, this test would be a measuring stick, showing just how much he had left against this level of opponent. For Vargas, this would be a lie detector, showing if he truly belonged or if reality was soon to be exposed.
Salido had been going to the canvas with increasingly regularity and surprising frequency. He wasn’t just being knocked down by the top-tier. There also were multiple trips to the mat against Weng Haya in 2011, Kokietgym in 2014 and Martinez last year. Salido had at least done well in his rematch with Martinez, even if the judges had it much closer in their split draw than many observers believed it to be.
Yet Vargas couldn’t put him down. He hurt Salido on a few occasions, but never had him in as bad shape as Miura had been. Salido pressured Vargas, poured forth with volume and punished him to the body.
CompuBox’s ringside crew counted more than 2,100 punches thrown over the course of 12 rounds — 2,123 in all, an average of 59 punches thrown per minute, a punch essentially every second.
Vargas was 386 of 1,184 in all, throwing about 99 punches per round, nearly 33 per minute. He landed about 32 per round, nearly 11 per minute. He was 87 of 408 with jabs and 299 of 776 with power shots. There were six rounds in which Vargas was credited with sending out at least 100 punches.
And yet Salido kept coming. He went 328 of 939 overall, throwing about 78 punches per round, 26 per minute. He landed about 27 per round, nine per minute. He essentially disposed of the jab, going 12 of 122 on the night, an average of 1 of 10 per round. Instead, he emphasized power shots, going 316 of 817. He was credited with landing 183 shots to the head and 148 to the body.
He also used the final rounds in particular for low blows to further slow Vargas down.
Excepting the dirty, their battle was beautiful to behold. They gave and they took, aided by all of their skills, gifts and dedication and all of their training, preparation and self-discipline, even if it only delivered them to a night where they would need to sacrifice more by enduring more pain.
Salido has now been in four straight bruising battles. Vargas has participated in two in a row. This kind of fight is far from easy on the fighter. Not everyone has the ability to have it easy.
The hard moments Salido had early in his career helped harden him for what has come and what he has done in the years since. The hard moments Vargas has endured in his past two fights have yet to break him. Fighters with this kind of style tend not to last long in this sport, with Salido an obvious exception. Vargas will either be similarly forged in the fire, or else he’ll go down in flames and up in smoke.
“Fighting Words” appears every Monday on BoxingScene.com. Pick up a copy of David’s book, “Fighting Words: The Heart and Heartbreak of Boxing,” at http://bit.ly/fightingwordsamazon or internationally at http://bit.ly/fightingwordsworldwide. Send questions/comments via email at [email protected]