Junior Fa scored his 19th victory on Saturday night over Devin Vargas, but it certainly didn’t come easily.
Fa won via unanimous decision, and dropped Vargas twice in the process, but the boxscore, so to speak, doesn’t nearly tell the tale of the fight. Vargas gave Fa fits throughout the night, using a variety of different looks and tempos to land big uppercuts and sweeping overhand rights that could have been knockout blows with a little more luck.
The fight illustrated the difficulties in becoming a top heavyweight contender, let alone a heavyweight champion. On paper, the formula to maneuvering a heavyweight to a shot at the title seems simple enough. Match him up with soft opposition until he enters double digits in wins, then throw him in with some faded veterans and gatekeepers until the call comes to take a step up in a title eliminator, or better yet, a title shot.
If you just read the results on the scorecards, you’d see that Fa won almost every round against Dominick Guinn and Vargas in back to back bouts. The reality is that Vargas hit Fa harder and more often than he’s ever been hit before, and Guinn dropped him in the fourth round. By his own admission, Vargas is a “dangerous gatekeeper” and Guinn is perhaps this generation’s most notorious fighter of that distinction. But gatekeepers aren’t there to just hold the door open. They earn that label because they make it difficult to get through, and sometimes, they slam that gate shut, as Vargas did against Niall Kennedy earlier this year, and as Guinn did to title hopefuls Johnnie White and Jean Francois Bergeron in the late 2000s.
These results shouldn’t be a knock on Fa. He remains in the Top 10 of the WBO rankings and is a phone call away from a crack at the winner of Andy Ruiz-Anthony Joshua, or perhaps a domestic showdown with former titleholder Joseph Parker. Getting to the stage he’s at, let alone beyond it, is extremely difficult. The top of the heavyweight division has had a shakeup of younger talent atop it, with Ruiz, Joshua and Tyson Fury ruling the roost. However, the Top 15 of all the major sanctioning bodies are scattered with names that have been around forever, guys that have fallen short in their big opportunities sometimes more than once, and are still hanging around.
The heavyweight division has had 44 lineal champions in the history of the sport. Compare that with welterweight, which has had at least 86, and you can understand how difficult breaking into the upper echelon of the sport’s biggest division can be.
Fa managed to pull out a gutsy win while grieving the loss of his father just six weeks ago. In the process, he took part in a fun heavyweight brawl that from a pure marketing perspective can only be seen as a plus, and from a negotiation perspective with potential opponents and broadcasters, will likely be helpful as well. And purely as a raw product, a 30-year old who only started boxing professionally in 2016, who stands 6’5”, has an 80-inch reach and can carry a 270-pound frame comfortably is a potentially scary proposition with some more development.
Developing a heavyweight contender can be a slow burn, and the flame can also take a while to extinguish. This Saturday, Deontay Wilder will battle 40-year old Luis Ortiz f a second time. Last year, at 39 years of age and visually looking every day of it, Ortiz nearly dethroned Wilder before getting stopped in the 10th round. In a few weeks in Saudi Arabia, Michael Hunter will take on 40-year old Alexander Povetkin, and Filip Hrgovic will challenge 37-year old Eric Molina, both ostensibly for the chance at a big heavyweight payday at least, and a title opportunity at best.
The size and power required of heavyweights allows for fighters to hang around much longer. The kinetic pace and the wear and tear on one’s body required in lower weight classes doesn’t exist above 200 pounds, so the turnover rate at the top of the division remains quite slow. Muhammad Ali, Larry Holmes, George Foreman, Lennox Lewis, Evander Holyfield and the Klitschkos all held heavyweight titles at the age of 37 or older. Both Jersey Joe Walcott and Oleg Maskaev won heavyweight titles for the first time at the age of 37.
Proper perspective on the ages of successful heavyweights over the years should temper criticism of fighters like Fa when they encounter adversity against veterans early in their careers. It also calls into question how far away “the next generation,” so to speak, is from unseating the current regime. Names like Fa, Hunter, Hrgovic, Joe Joyce, Daniel Dubois and Efe Ajagba are considered the next crop of top heavyweight fighters. But no division eats its young quite like the heavies—there’s no “growing out” of the division and relinquishing the throne for the next generation the way there is below 201 pounds. If you can win fights and make money, you keep doing it, and physiologically, you can do those things much longer without the rigors of making weight.
Fa could have a sudden breakthrough like Andy Ruiz, who similarly had early struggles and critical doubts before conquering the world, or he could take a while to harness the powers his impressive frame and athleticism afford him. Either way, turbulence is to be expected in the long-haul flight that is the heavyweight division, and turbulence doesn’t always mean you’re going to crash.