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Vazquez stops Priolo but is he still world class?

10
Oct

Israel Vazquez stands over Angel Priolo as referee Pat Russell counts the gutsy Colombian out. Vazquez, who suffered a bad cut over his left eye, struggled with Priolo before dropping the journeyman three times in the ninth round of their scheduled 10-round featherweight bout at Nokia Theater in L.A. Photo / Tom Hogan-Golden Boy Promotions

LOS ANGELES — Israel Vazquez made his return to the ring a successful one by stopping Angel Priolo in the ninth round of a scheduled 10-round bout at Nokia Theater on Saturday, but the former 122-pound champ had to work hard for his victory.

Vazquez (44-4, 33 knockouts) survived a spirited effort from Priolo (30-8, 20 KOs), fighting through a badly cut and swollen left eye to floor the gutsy Colombian three times in the ninth to force referee Pat Russell to stop the competitive fight in typical dramatic fashion at 2:10 of the round.

Vazquez had not fought in 19 months, since his sensational split decision over Rafael Marquez in the rubber match of their brutal trilogy last March, and the inactivity and toll of those three classic fights were evident in the 31-year-old veteran’s performance.

In a nutshell, Vazquez was rusty.

His reflexes were off. There wasn’t much spring in his legs. He even looked a little unsure of himself after the first three rounds.

Vazquez, who ate far too many jabs and right hands from Priolo, admitted as much.

“I was a little tired at the beginning of the fight and it took me a some time to get my rhythm back,” he said.

Vazquez got it back, fighting himself into shape, as the old-timers would say. By the fourth round, Vazquez began stepping back just enough to create the proper distance to land hard overhand rights. By the end of the fifth round, Vazquez was punching and moving with more confidence but he still caught flush shots from Priolo, which marked his right cheekbone and caused his left eye to swell.

“(Priolo) was a very tough fighter,” Vazquez said. “He used good distance at the beginning when I was rusty, but I was really hungry for the win.”

Nobody can question Vazquez’s heart and desire.

However, after struggling with Priolo, many will question whether he can compete with world-class featherweights or should continue fighting at all.

Vazquez led on one official scorecard (78-74) after eight rounds, but it was even (76-76) on the other two.

It’s one thing to go life-and-death with the likes of Marquez, Oscar Larios and Jhonny Gonzalez; it’s quite another to do it with Priolo, a former flyweight fringe contender who has now lost his last seven bouts.

Priolo is not very fast and certainly isn’t strong for a featherweight, yet he was often able to beat Vazquez to the punch and stand his ground with the Mexico City native, once one of the most fearsome in-fighters in the sport, and hold his own the middle rounds.

With his left eye almost shut and sliced open with a bleeding inch-long gash after the seventh round, fans and the ringside press began to wonder whether Vazquez would last the distance much less get the victory.

“The eye didn’t bother me at all,” Vazquez said.

That’s probably true but it was to the bone and Russell did the right thing by calling in ringside physician Dr. Pearlman Hicks to examine the cut before the start of the eighth round.

Hicks let the fight continue, probably in part because of Vazquez’s history of fighting through adversity.

Sensing that a victory was within his grasp, Priolo charged out of his corner at the start of the eight round, fully awaking the fighting spirit in Vazquez, who finally fought back with the intensity that he’s known for.

Priolo won the eighth on two of the judges’ scorecards, but Vazquez hurt him to the body with hard left hooks before the end of the round.

At the start of ninth it was Vazquez who charged out of his corner. A minute into the round he caught Priolo with a right cross that set up another right that put the Colombian down, igniting the crowd into chants of “Vaz-quez! Vaz-quez!”

Priolo got up at Russell’s count of eight but was bulled to the ropes on the opposite end of the ring, where Vazquez measured him for a cross-hook combination that sent him to the canvas again. This time Priolo got up at the count of nine, and on very wobbly legs. A left to the body sent Priolo down for a third and final time.

Priolo was emotionally crushed by the defeat but was also in awe of Vazquez’s spirit.

“I came with my best but he is a true warrior,” he said.

Russell, who refereed Vazquez-Marquez III, was also in awe.

“Is that how all his fights are going to be?” he asked members of the ringside press.

The answer is yes, which is fortunate for the fans but unfortunate for the fighter.

Vazquez will always deliver action and drama when he fights. He had done so time and time again prior to Saturday’s bout, but the fight with Priolo proved that those past ring wars have taken something out of his body.

Vazquez chalked his struggle up to his time away from the ring.

“Inactivity was a big factor (in my performance),” he told reporters after the fight. “I felt good in camp. I did well in the gym, but fighters always pay a price for inactivity.”

He has a point, but it should be noted that Priolo, who looked sharp against Vazquez, hadn’t fought since May of last year prior to Saturday’s bout.

Vazquez gave his unheralded opponent his due credit but wouldn’t downgrade his own performance.

“Priolo came with everything,” he said through a translator. “He had everything to gain and nothing to lose, but I would not be denied. I wanted the knockout and I got it.

“I’m a warrior and I’ve been showing that throughout my entire career. Now I want the big fights again.”

The biggest fight for Vazquez, according to his promoter Golden Boy Promotions, is a fourth bout with Marquez, which the L.A.-based company will pursue next year.

Fans and media will be split over whether that fight should happen.

However, at least with Marquez, Vazquez would be facing a fellow veteran whose body has endured equal wear and tear.

As Vazquez struggled with Priolo, many ringside observers wondered out loud what would happen if Vazquez were fighting a skilled young puncher like Juan Manuel Lopez. The unanimous answer was that the Puerto Rican 122-pound titleholder would have massacred Vazquez.

Then came the news, shortly after Vazquez’s bout ended, that Lopez barely survived fringe contender Rogers Mtagwa in a title defense in New York City on the same night.

Suddenly, the perspective changed.

If Mtagwa had Lopez out on his feet in the 12th round of their bout, what would Vazquez, assuming he could make it into the final stanza, have done?

Maybe Vazquez isn’t finished on the world-class level. Only time will tell.

Doug Fischer can be reached at [email protected]

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