Boxing is a sport at perpetual cross-purposes with itself. We, as fans, watch intently, fascinated and occasionally breathless, but also with a palpable, underlying unease. These are impossibly courageous athletes, destroying one another and themselves for our entertainment. We intellectually want the best lives possible for them and their families, now and going forward. We also want war. Intellectually, we can train ourselves to appreciate the all-world tactics and superhuman reflexes of a quick-hitting escape artist like prime Floyd Mayweather, or the thrilling dominance of an overpowering dynamo like prime Manny Pacquiao. Neither man approaches his prime now, of course, and both, by certain accounts, are busy off enjoying their hard-won and well-deserved retirements. Thus scoured of its two biggest names, boxing, as it must, scrambles to manufacture new ones, but also, if it is smart – a fair and open question, if ever one was spoken – works overtime to provide the less starry-eyed among its fan base with the visceral, unadorned combat that is, was, and ever shall be the sport’s lifeblood. These weren’t stars we watched Saturday, locked in thrilling, relentless, back-and-forth battle under the gradually lessening California sun – not remotely. Stars all too often can’t quite or simply won’t live up to the unreasonable expectations we impress upon them, instead leaving the dirty work to overachieving underclassmen. These two men fought like we want our stars to fight, in a match so nip and tuck and closely contested that a draw, no matter how hard it might have been for them to stomach in the moment, seemed like cosmic justice. Francisco Vargas and Orlando Salido fought like they had everything to lose. We were the winners.
It’s entirely appropriate that on the same day we lost the great Muhammad Ali, these two Mexican gladiators – you’ll pardon the hyperbole, though I encourage you to watch them first* before presuming to correct me – seeking in some small way to honor his memory, stepped into the ring and produced the probable 2016 fight of the year. I’m not ascribing a higher purpose or extra motivation onto ascendant boxer-puncher Francisco Vargas or indefatigable war horse Orlando Salido where there was none. Ali was foremost on the minds of everyone Saturday, not to mention Salido’s ring attire, and the tributes from all fronts justifiably continue to pour in days later. The man became such a global icon, and a forceful, stirring advocate for peace, service, social justice, and religious tolerance, achieving in the process an unimaginable level of fame and sustained relevance, that we tend to gloss over or even take for granted his preternatural athletic gifts. “A man,” said no less an authority than Mahatma Gandhi, “is the sum of his actions – of what he has done, of what he can do, nothing else.” Watch Ali the boxer mercilessly swarm Bob Foster, or brutalize Jimmy Ellis, or perform devastating sleight of hand against Cleveland Williams to begin piecing together a fuller picture of the fighter than his brilliant, nervy triumph in Zaire against the terrifying George Foreman or even his Filipino war of attrition against blood rival Joe Frazier, widely considered the best fight in boxing history, can alone reveal. Though his refusal to be drafted into the Vietnam conflict was predicated on the religious conviction that he was not a killer, Ali was a fighter from his first breath to his last. What these two combatants might have lacked in his stunning ability, they more than made up for with single-minded determination and unbreakable will.
*I originally began considering this recap immediately after the fight ended in the wee hours of Sunday morning. I sat with my laptop and remote control, intent on doing spot research and jotting down pertinent notes, though only when I realized I’d accidentally just finished watching four complete rounds in a row did I grudgingly surrender in not just reality but principle to a complete second viewing. I was too exhausted to do much of any constructive writing in its aftermath, but I stand by my decision. This was a true barn-burner, too fun and engaging to watch once.
Despite the presence of one of boxing’s approximately 118 belts, this bout barely registered going in as anything more significant than two accomplished, evenly-matched, surpassingly tough brawlers squaring off, as I once heard Ali-Frazier III described, “for the Heavyweight championship of each other.” Those clear-eyed fans I mentioned earlier generally don’t recognize “alphabet” titles anyway, and couldn’t care less that, as Junior Lightweights, the two adversaries combined add up to the off-day bulk of current, hopefully temporary, Heavyweight champion of the world Tyson Fury. Their credentials, in certain circles at least, were beyond reproach. The young buck Vargas was fresh from a stirring comeback win, in the form of a shocking ninth round TKO, against Japanese bomber Takashi Miura in the BWAA 2015 Fight of the Year. That night, he gave two of the sport’s most popular action fighters, Saul “Canelo” Alvarez and Miguel Cotto, a serious run for their money, and pay-per-view customers the rare excellent return on theirs. The 35-year-old Salido, a hard-fouling and even harder-charging journeyman, has made a career of giving every gutty 130-pounder within earshot the unequivocal hardest night of their lives, win or lose. He famously and conclusively starched Puerto Rican folk hero Juan Manuel Lopez in consecutive fights and exists as the only blemish on the record of two-time Olympic gold medalist and current alphabet titlist Vasyl Lomachenko, a supreme technician whom Salido nonetheless comprehensively outmuscled in an early loss. This sort of live wire meeting unfortunately tends to fly under the radar, only to inspire a litany of amazed accounts the next day, but this time found an enthusiastic advocate in HBO, who once also elevated a similarly intriguing fight between overachieving pugs – Arturo Gatti and Mickey Ward, each at a career crossroads – to the main event of its Boxing After Dark series.
Ward-Gatti I, of course, was the 2002 Fight of the Year, indirect but implicit pressure on Vargas-Salido that HBO, in its lead-up, made absolutely no effort to temper or dispel. In addition to its rollicking, close quarters, back-and-forth warfare, Ward-Gatti I also contained discernable ebbs and flows, especially in its astonishing ninth round. An even truer comparison point to Vargas-Salido might have been the savage first meeting between Mexican countrymen and future IBHOF inductees Erik “El Terrible” Morales and Marco Antonio Barrera, who broke each other into tiny pieces over the course of a hotly-contested twelve-round split decision. That fight, which I saw on a long-ago HBO replay, set a standard for unalloyed in-ring violence that I carry with me to this day, and was also my introduction to the boxing concept of “Mexican Style”**, a loosely-defined code of extreme pugilistic valor – part Pancho Villa/part Sun Tzu – which, distilled to its essence, means, “take three to throw one”. To wit: In Morales-Barrera I, the punches just never stopped. Likewise, once Vargas and Salido were thus engaged in their new age incarnation, neither man seemed to pause for a rest or even a breath, which would, after all, only get in the way of leather in the act of being traded. So intent was my focus on the combat that I later realized I had completely missed the sky at Carson, California’s increasingly legendary StubHub Center as it darkened from midday into twilight. After a couple of “feeling out” rounds that nevertheless contained as many thrown punches as some entire down-market PBC main events, Vargas, a fully-wound cuckoo clock of combination punching fireworks, and Salido, a furious equal opportunity destroyer to both head and body, settled into a fairly breathtaking groove, with each pushing ever forward despite encountering entrenched resistance and absorbing a borderline absurd amount of punishment in order to deliver his own.
**”Mexican Style” is hardly the exclusive province of gritty nationals like Morales, Israel Vazquez, or the fabled Julio Cesar Chavez, whose fearsome left hook to the body plowed through scores of contenders and “Tijuana cab drivers” (a competition slight coined pre-fight by game but outmatched opponent Greg Haugen) alike. Mexican-Americans such as Brandon Rios and Abner Mares have embraced its mantle like a mantra, while perceived inadequacy in that respect has proved a lingering black mark on otherwise notable careers, both fairly (as with the, ahem, mercurial Victor Ortiz) and unfairly (as with IBHOF’er Oscar de la Hoya, who never dodged an in-ring challenge). Moreover, far-flung contenders, who might not even know the Spanish word for “no” otherwise, nevertheless clamor to be held in the esteem of Mexico’s most revered fighters. Kazakh monster du jour Gennady Golovkin built his reputation largely on his thudding KO power, but was more than happy to bask in the trans-continental comparison, while “Siberian Rocky” Ruslan Provodnikov’s unrefined, crowd-pleasing style made the connection explicit. High marks for chutzpah also go to talented but limited featherweight Evgeny Gradovich, whose nickname is, of course, “The Mexican Russian”.
Round after round, Vargas and Salido traded the advantage on practically a punch-by-punch basis, with the seasoned Salido favoring a balanced but punishing attack to Vargas’ two-handed headhunting. Vargas was staggered at the end of the fourth round, whereas Salido weathered his own temporary storm in the sixth. Neither man seemed to recognize the pressure he was under as anything other than a mandate to apply more of his own. Vargas, the more natural boxer in a match where the distinction was of vanishing importance, alone employed a jab of any kind, and only then selectively. Vargas threw over fifty jabs in the ninth, a round after he and his rival combined to land a paltry one. Power shots were the order of the day throughout, with Vargas landing 299 of 776 (per CompuBox, and 386 of a staggering 1184 overall) and Salido (316/817, 328/939 overall) basically answering him blow for blow. To put the action in context, winners of particularly tepid twelve-round fights have been known to somehow throw fewer punches than Salido landed here, and practically nobody still active can compare with Vargas’ thrown output, period. Salido continued banging away to the body, often venturing imprudently south, landing a great many shots to the hips of the sort that Ali endured in Manilla, in addition to a number of uncalled, traditional low blows. Because “Mexican Style” brooks neither whining nor complaining, Vargas didn’t even look in the referee’s direction, emboldening both himself and his opponent in the process. As if such was necessary. After enduring Vargas’ two strongest stanzas of the fight, Salido came on like a pocket hurricane to close it out.
DAE scored the probable FOTY 115-113 for Vargas, though I confess I can’t remember the last time I more anxiously awaited a judge’s ruling. The majority draw (an official score of 115-113 for Vargas overruled by two 114-114 draws) was a cruel but probably just outcome for a sport that seems to specialize in the former while paying the latter extremely short shrift. HBO hall of fame broadcaster Jim Lampley, with his characteristic flair, summed it up thusly: “Every once in a while, I sit in this chair and wonder to myself, ‘how do men do this?’” For the record, he said that at the end of the fifth round, not the twelfth. Amidst the flowing superlatives, ace analyst Max Kellerman interjected to remind that portion of the audience already agitating for Roman numerals to be added to this matchup – so basically all of us – that there were no off-days for the non-Mayweathers of the boxing world, and, for those practitioners of Mexican Style, no easy matches, ever. Lampley, Kellerman, and former pound-for-pound king Roy Jones, who first made the connection aloud between these fighters’ heritage and their harrowing in-ring performances, took turns briefly, lovingly eulogizing the magnificent Ali, who, from whatever prime seat he now occupies, be it in heaven or just forever in our hearts, surely beamed with shared pride at what we’d all just experienced…because, for all his comparative physical advantages, for all his challenges met and overcome, he too was a fighter from his first breath to his last. This was not an evening for trash talk or poetry, at least not the way in which Ali had once held forth. This was an evening for two proud men both staking out their own paths and, in the inspiring fury of their performances, celebrating what had preceded them.
There were no butterflies in the ring this night. The bees, which came in waves, were weaponized.
Grateful h/t, as always, to the invaluable BoxRec.com for helping me keep my numbers straight.