By Cliff Rold
Most of the all action guys burn a little faster than their other boxing brethren. The physical toll of their style, their fighting mentality, is exacting.
The price is their bodies failing them sooner.
Mexico’s 33-year old Francisco Vargas knows about that first hand. The former WBC 130 lb. titlist crossed paths with Puerto Rico’s Juan Manuel Lopez on his way to the title. Lopez had been positioned to be a star on his way up the ranks and he managed major titles in two weight classes. The cost of wars with Rogers Mtagwa and a pair of losses to Orlando Salido made him an old fighter before he was thirty.
Vargas destroyed Lopez in three rounds in 2014 and three fights later won his title against Takashi Miura in the BWAA and Ring Fight of the Year for 2015.
When Vargas followed it up with a savage brawl against the same Salido, an action fighter who managed to stay a threat far longer than most, their draw in 2016 was again the BWAA and Ring choice for Fight of the Year.
Very few fighters outside the heavyweight division have been in consecutive fights of the year. Action sensation beau Jack did it. Tony Zale and Rocky Graziano each were in three straight, overlapping each other from 1945-48 with two fights against each other.
Carmen Basilio remains ever the action king appearing in five straight from 1955-59. Bobby Chacon did it in the 1980s and Arturo Gatti did it in the 1990s and 00s. So did the pairing of the Israel Vazquez and Rafael Marquez with their second and third fights in 2008-09.
In this decade, only Vargas can make that claim. The rounds waged against Miura and Salido took their toll and Vargas was beaten up, though competitive for a while, against a younger man last year in Miguel Berchelt.
That doesn’t mean he’s done.
Vargas makes his second start since the Berchelt loss on Thursday night in Indio, California. It will be the main event on ESPN2 (10 PM EST/7 PM PST).
Vargas will face Rod Salka (24-4, 4 KO). Salka hasn’t lost since being stopped in a widely derided sojurn to welterweight to face Danny Garcia in 2014. This bout will be at Jr. lightweight, the more natural part of the scale for Salka. At any weight, Salka has never been a big puncher and that’s probably a good thing for Vargas.
If he’s going to get back in title contention with a chance to make the most of it, not running up the odometer more than need be is just good management. Vargas is rated in the top five by both the WBC and WBO. With Vasyl Lomachenko on his way up to lightweight, this could be a chance to move closer to fighting for any WBO belt left vacant.
Because he’s Francisco Vargas, one can only assume it’s a matter of time until he finds himself in another barnburner. His first fight back wasn’t that, though it did have a memorable end. Vargas won a workmanlike technical decision over Stephen Smith in his lone return fight to date when a nasty tear in the ear of Smith sent them to the cards early.
It was the ugliest injury of it’s kind since Antonio Margarito almost beat an ear off Sebastian Lujan.
Vargas got some rounds in and left mostly unmarked, a positive as he progresses. Salka will give him some more and is a competent guy at Jr. lightweight. Who knows? This one might have some excitement.
The real excitement is likely to come after if Vargas wins. Vargas, if he doesn’t pursue a rematch with Berchelt or a vacant WBO belt, could still mix nicely with the likes of Miguel Roman or even WBA titlist Alberto Machado. Machado hasn’t fought since stopping Jezreel Corrales for that belt last year.
HBO could do worse than a Machado-Vargas fight. That would be a logical place for it to show up.
Vargas’s fights with Miura, Salido, Berchelt, and Smith were all on their air. So was Machado-Corrales. The current WBO #1 contender is Christopher Diaz (23-0, 15 KO) would be a dangerous proposition but a potentially fun one. Diaz is just 23 and has fast hands. Vargas has never been much for speed but has the sort of experience and power to test any younger fighter in his class still.
All of those are just food for thought. For now, it’s enough that Vargas is attempting to work his way back. There are never enough fighters like him. Even given only a short stretch near the top of the division, even if he never gets back, his name is recorded in some rare air for what he did against Miura and Salido.
If he plays his cards right, he can have a second act.
Arturo Gatti found a way to come back from three straight losses to Ivan Robinson and Angel Manfredy and, well after he was assumed done, engaged in the trilogy with Mickey Ward, knocked out a very tough Leo Dorin with a single body shot, and got himself a big money fight with Floyd Mayweather. The last of those didn’t work out well in the ring for Gatti but he’d never have been there without a second act and his star helped Mayweather’s ascend.
There isn’t a pay-per-view fight on the horizon for Vargas but the better paydays come in the title picture and a win Thursday keeps him in the title picture. Who knows, there might be one more Fight of the Year in him before he’s done.
Just don’t count on two.
Cliff Rold 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]