The Main Event

Boxing’s Middle Weights Save the Sport Again

With all due respect to what turned out to be a damned good slugfest Saturday night, one sobering thought: Where would the fight world be right now if Felix Trinidad's whipcrack left hook—a mere 23 seconds after the opening bell—had caught Fernando Vargas, say, a few inches flusher? As it was, the punch, delivered earside with murderous aplomb, dropped the Mex-Am flash like a sack of spuds. He rose, goofily, only to topple again moments later from another unscripted left. At that point, the event, like Vargas, was in serious trouble.

This 154-pound title bout, after all, was supposed to be a "throwback"—one to make fight fans forget the heavyweight doldrums, the Tyson mismatches and ear-bitings, the tedious Lennox Lewis affairs. One to awaken the lay public to the middle weight (not middleweight) divisions so currently loaded with talent, if shrouded in relative obscurity. Trinidad, the quiet (read: unmarketable) Puerto Rican with 17 title defenses (including three over a trio of former Olympic gold medalists: Pernell Whitaker, Oscar De La Hoya, and David Reid), who after secret workouts, offers up quotes along the lines of "I will win because I am better." Vargas, a Californian former street fighter (and recent de-titler of the rugged Ike Quartey), who hit Vegas in a lime green stretch Lexus SUV (replete with bar, bed, and faux fireplace), a brash arriviste who says things like "It's about two lions fighting over a steak," and "I want to make this guy hurt." Two total-package, undefeated champs, each with power, speed, and ring smarts—a can't miss, right?

But however much a staple, hype is too often a loaded land mine, especially in this already checkered sport. The day before the weigh-in, boxing historian Bert Randolph Sugar was on a press-room phone, struggling to be heard over the background Spanglish rantings of promoter Don King—"Excitamenté! Excitamenté!" King's Latino drumroll prompted Sugar to recall a PR-Mex matchup years back when the "salsa and mariachi bands from the two camps got into it in the aisles before the principals ever reached the ring." Back in the present, Sugar suggested that the time was ripe in the mid-divisions for a "peacemaker along the lines of Sugar Ray Leonard," and that the winner here might "be the sun around whom the planets will spin." He added that Trinidad-Vargas could be a "Leonard-Hearns type thing," and that it "might well be the fight of this year, next year, and the one thereafter." All this as King was screaming, "Fight of the decade!"

But then there was Vargas the toughie (and he is) a couple of nights later, nearly out on his feet and in a very dark place, 45 seconds into the superfight. Gulp. A few minutes earlier, the 22-year-old man-child had battered through a bogus Mayan temple wall—only in Las Vegas—for his ring entrance. Now he was all stick figure, staggering before Trinidad, a cold assassin taking dead aim in close quarters. Forget Leonard-Hearns, could we just get through this round, people? In a pre-fight posting on HouseOfBoxing.com, former Daily Newsscribe Mike Katz had guessed at what kind of bad voodoo might lay in wait: "The way things go in boxing these days, they'll bump heads in the opening round, and it'll be a technical draw. Doesn't boxing deserve that kind of fate, something going wrong where it's by accident?"

This time boxing got mad lucky, almost as if by accident. With the heart of a whale, Vargas somehow—huge somehow—managed (a) to pick his groggy self off the canvas, and (b) to desperately fend off his opponent's frightening, relentless, and surely lethal double-pistoned attack for the better part of two critical minutes. So rather than early closure, the fight game enjoyed a dramatic opening-scene table-setter—a prelude to nearly 12 full rounds of steady punch-up, in turn capped by a train wreck of a finale. For sheer artistry, it wasn't quite Leonard-Hearns (I or II), though at times it came close; but for Vargas's early survival, it might have maddeningly been shades of Hearns-Duran, with Vargas playing the role of the Panamanian bully, who 17 years ago was face-first-flattened by a hammering, second-round right courtesy of the Hitman.

Excitamenté indeed, as Trinidad, the finisher (and King serf) now easily leads a stellar field that, besides De La Hoya in the rearview mirror, includes undefeated welters Shane Mosley and Vernon Forrest, along with veteran middles, William Joppy and Bernard Hopkins, and at slightly higher poundage, the formidable Roy Jones Jr. Trinidad is a scary thinker/puncher, and Vargas has some set of cojónes(both figuratively and literally, considering the low blows he suffered), but it's a bit of a stretch to invoke Hagler-Hearns-Leonard-Duran comparisons, even after such a good fight. Hey, the Fab Four filled, hell, dominated an entire decade (the '80s) with a succession of memorable round-robin adventures.

Fact is, value's a rare commodity in the current hype world of pay per view, and that clouds perspective. In a friendlier, less grab-the-money-and-run economic climate, the general public actually became familiar with the players way back when. Leonard's first seven fights were on free TV; Marvin Hagler and Roberto Duran spent the better part of a decade building solid reputations before ever squaring off. To know today's boxing elite, you've got to be a fight nut who ponies up in multiples of $49.95 that hardly ever pay off. You take your chances, and usually you get stiffed—as with last year's De La Hoya-Trinidad or recent busts Lewis-Tua and Tyson-Golota.

It's hardly surprising, then, that last week's festive buildup was lost on one local fight maven. "It's [Trinidad-Vargas] nothing more than a good Friday-nighter in the old days," snorted longtime trainer Al Certo. This before the bout. "How can you call it a superfight? But that's what's left in boxing. They just happen to be undefeated, which makes it look attractive." As to recent stink-outs among heavies, including his own charge, Polish misfit Andrew Golota, Certo was equally harsh: "They're all overpaid, and you know who gets fucked? The public."

So Vargas (and of course Trinidad) in the end saved fightdom from another embarrassing night. Foul as always, the overall pay-per-view experience couldn't suck enough—a tiresome pastiche of undercard mismatches, endless analyses, stock profiles, and ever-grating announcers. And would someone please disappear that ubiquitous holy terror of all women boxers, Christy Martin? Xena, Glenn Close, anyone.

Vargas's second-round escape proved as stupefying as the first. Still fogged, he resembled one of those '80s robot dancers, as he swiveled head and torso without letup, just enough to elude the slashing haymakers that whizzed by. By the third, his legs returned, along with the toe-to-toe power and aggression that would ultimately serve his undoing. Throughout training, Vargas had burned through a number of sparring partners ("Don't worry about paying me," said the last, "just get me out of here"). This was different.

After simultaneous hooks in the fourth, Trinidad too hit the canvas. But as in the past, his momentary lapse seemed little more than a wake-up call. And while the exchanges grew in fury by the middle rounds, the kinetic balance tilted notably in favor of the Puerto Rican's jab and strength. Seeking an unlikely KO in the 12th, Vargas instead walked into a poleaxing left that put him down like a rag doll. Then up, and down again, and, dangerously, yet a third time for lights out—where the hell was the ref? Vargas, who'd said earlier he'd have to be carried out on a stretcher, nearly was.

With a frozen smile solidly in place, Don King crowed afterward about how "Steven Spielberg couldn't have written a better script for the final round." How fitting—hype and Hollywood. "We needed this," oozed TVKO ring announcer Jim Lampley, speaking proprietarily for boxing, as well as PPV futures. Meanwhile, Vargas was on the way to the hospital for a CAT scan. How he recovers careerwise from five floorings (he'd never been down once before) is anybody's guess. Lampley and King shouldn't forget him. Thanks in large part to his huge ticker and good whiskers, the hype held up. It doesn't always.

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