NEW YORK – Liam Smith remains in the hunt for a second title run.
The fighting pride of Liverpool registered his best win post-title reign, earning a tenth-round stoppage of Las Vegas’ Jessie Vargas. No knockdown were scored in the battle of former titlists, but Vargas was rendered defenseless in forcing a stoppage at 0:41 of round then in their junior middleweight affair Saturday evening at Madison Square Garden in New York City.
Vargas opened the fight well-intended to fulfill a pre-fight campaign promise of violence. The former WBA junior welterweight and WBO welterweight titlist took the lead, driving his jab and right uppercut through Smith’s tight guard. Smith turned the tide in the closing stretch of the opening round, much to the delight of those in the crowd who made the trip across the Atlantic both for his fight and the more celebrated main event.
The same pattern held true in round two. Smith would enjoy spurts of success, while Vargas was the busier fighter and effective with his uppercut both upstairs and to the body. Smith was pushed to the canvas midway through the round, correctly waved off by referee Steve Willis who warned Vargas for the infraction.
As certain as day will always turn to night, Smith managed to suffer a cut. The former WBO junior middleweight titlist was bleeding over the right eye, though with the service of longtime top cutman Russ Anber in his corner to keep the wound in check. Smith managed to turn the tide in round four, landing a left hook and right hand while Vargas was along the ropes. Vargas shook off the blows and came back moments later with a combination that forced Smith to hold.
Smith rallied in round six, connecting with a left hook to the body as Vargas’ back touched the ropes. Vargas was warned for a low blow moments later, though Smith seemed greater affected by an ensuing shot below the belt that went undetected.
Vargas showed signs of slowing down as the fight entered the second half. Smith initiated several of exchanges that saw Vargast fighting in reactionary mode, making for entertaining two-way action. Smith continued to apply pressure in round eight. Vargas spent most of the round fighting off the ropes, as Smith did not show any signs of slowing down.
There was growing concern for Vargas’ well-being as he was cut over the left eye and not showing any signs of finding a second wind. Smith saw a stoppage in his sights, battering Vargas along the ropes. More of the same came in round ten, with Vargas unable to defend himself to the point of forcing a stoppage.
Smith (32-3-1, 18KOs) has now won two straight following a controversial loss to Magomed Kurbanov last May. The stoppage comes six months after stopping countryman Anthony Fowler in the eighth round of their crossroads bout last October in his Liverpool hometown.
Smith is 8-2 overall since a ninth-round stoppage loss to Saul ‘Canelo’ Alvarez in September 2016, endng his WBO junior middleweight title reign.
Vargas (29-4-2, 11KOs) is left with a hard choice to make. On the heels of suspending his congressional campaign in Nevada’s 4th District, Vargas is running out of in-ring options as he has now lost two straight. Saturday’s loss comes more than two years since his last fight, a twelve-round decision defeat to Mikey Garcia in February 2020. His last victory came in April 2019, beating on badly faded Humberto Soto in a fight above the welterweight limit.
The two-year delay was extended after Vargas tested positive for Covid, forcing a postponement of their previously scheduled February 5 main event in Phoenix.
Smith-Vargas served as the co-feature of the four-fight main show on DAZN. Headlining the evening, undisputed lightweight champion Katie Taylor (20-0, 6KOs) of Bray, Ireland attempts her thirteenth overall title defense versus Brooklyn’s own record-setting, seven-division titlist Amanda Serrano (42-1-1, 30KOs).
Jake Donovan is a senior writer for BoxingScene.com. Twitter: @JakeNDaBox