By Francisco Salazar
The last time boxing fans have seen Jessie Vargas in a boxing ring was when he dropped a unanimous decision to Manny Pacquiao in November of last year.
That was over 13 months ago, maybe too long for a prizefighter, especially if he is in the prime of his career.
Vargas did use the time to sign with a new promoter, mentally recharge, and reassess his career. One constant is Vargas believes he is still an elite fighter and wants to prove it again to his detractors.
Vargas begins what he calls the second phase of his career tonight when he squares off against Aaron Herrera at the Pioneer Event Center in Lancaster, California. The 10 round bout will headline a four-bout FS1 telecast (10 p.m. ET/ 7 p.m. PT).
Despite having lost two of his last three bouts, the 28-year-old Vargas is still a legitimate contender. How successful he will be remains to be seen, but he considers himself to be an elite fighter.
Over the last year or so, Vargas (27-2, 10 knockouts) has witnessed the emergence of Errol Spence and Keith Thurman winning two world title belts. The hunger to return to the ring was greater with each passing day.
"I missed it very much," Vargas told Boxingscene.com. "I love what I do. I love to entertain the fans. I've been out for over a year, so I've been anxious to be inside the ring and give my fans excitement. To hear the crowd cheering for me. I've missed it and I'm very happy to be back.
"It was a long break but I was able to take some time off to recover physically and spend time with my family. I'm fighting for them and I want to take care of them for the rest of their lives. My parents raised me the best way they could and this is me giving thanks to them."
Vargas' promotional contract with Top Rank ran out over the summer. Negotiations reportedly broke down and there were discussions with other promoters, but Vargas felt signing with Al Haymon and Premier Boxing Champions was the right move for him.
He also signed with manager Guadalupe Valencia.
"There were several offers, but I chose to go with the route of Al Haymon, PBC, and (manager) Guadalupe Valencia. I have a lot of respect for them and I was looking forward to signing, advised, taken care of and guided by them."
Vargas will face Aaron Herrera, who recently faced and lost to former world titleholder Brandon Rios. Vargas is not overlooking Herrera, but does want to make a statement to the other welterweights in the division.
"I definitely want to make a statement Friday night at the Pioneer Event Center in Lancaster, California. That's part of the plan. We know and acknowledge Aaron Herrera is a tough fighter. He always comes to fight. I'm not expecting an easy fight. If you don't prepare properly, he can be an extremely tough fight. For that reason, I've prepared to the best of my ability. My team has done a great job in this camp."
"I feel phenomenal. Better than ever. This is the God-honest truth: I've gained a lot of experience and I've adjusted through things in my career, but I believe you're going to see a better Jessie Vargas, compared to previous years. I'm expecting Aaron Herrera to come in and give it his all. But I believe my experience will be the difference and he doesn't know what's coming. We're going to surprise him because the power we have now is different than from my previous fights."
It will be interesting to see how Vargas will perform tonight. Or if he can secure the big fights he wants in 2018.
There may be some who think Vargas may need more fights to prepare to face the elite in the division, but Vargas believe he is already there and wants to immediately face Errol Spence or Keith Thurman.
Vargas does believe he may not get the credit he deserves because he is perceived to be too soft, in and out of the ring.
"I'm there now. I'm not that far away from there. My last fight was against Manny Pacquiao and it was an entertaining, close match-up. It was competitive. I was a world champion in my last fight. I'm there. I don't see how anyone can put me away from being an elite welterweight. I'm amongst the best in the welterweight division. I'm going to prove it again, just like I always do. People need to stop writing me off, but I'm just going to continue to prove them wrong."
"I'm a friendly dude. I like to say hello to everyone. People must think that I'm vulnerable because of how I act outside the ring. I'm a mean, bad dude inside the ring. People have to respect that I'm a nice guy, but I'm not soft. Every fighter has thought twice how to attack me during a fight and there's a reason behind it. It's hard to keep everyone happy. Inside that ring, I'm going to (expletive) up anyone. I don't know what I haven't done to gain the respect of everyone in the boxing world. Every time I'm inside the ring, I give it my all."
As far as who he would like to target after the Herrera fight, Vargas is open to anybody.
"I'm open to any options. If the fans want to see a rematch against Sadam Ali, then I'll gladly take that fight. That's not a problem on my end. The division is loaded and there are a lot of options. If we take a fight with Thurman, I would love that fight. I want the WBC and WBA titles. I became a WBA champion when I was a lightweight and I've always wanted the WBC title. Errol Spence is there. Any of those fighters. Danny Garcia is a fight fans have talked about recently."
Some may question Vargas and his year-long hiatus from the ring, but the Las Vegas resident believes the time off benefited him mentally and physically.
Vargas cannot wait to see what his career unfolds, starting tonight.
"This is the second part of my career. The first part was where I gained a lot of experience. I made a lot of mistakes during training camps and in several parts (of my career), but that's how you learn. You only live and learn. With all the experience I've been through, I've found ways to better myself. I feel like a better fighter now that has been through it all and has gained experience. I've seen it all. The second part of a career is always better because you gain all that experience."
"We're going to finish the year with a bang. We're going to finish the year making a statement."
Francisco A. Salazar has written for Boxingscene.com since September of 2012 and has covered boxing in Southern California and abroad since 2000. Francisco also covers boxing for the Ventura County (Calif.) Star newspaper, RingTV.com, and FightNights.com. He can be reached by email at [email protected] or on Twitter at FSalazarBoxing