Francisco Vargas may be in for another ring war against Miguel Berchelt
LOS ANGELES – If, late last year, Francisco Vargas had asked hardcore fans if it was OK for his first fight of 2017 to come against an easy opponent, most would have given the WBC 130-pound titleholder a pass.
Vargas (23-0-2, 17 knockouts) earned the proverbial “gimme” fight with the inhuman effort he gave in his last two bouts – thrilling slugfests against Takashi Miura and Orlando Salido that garnered back-to-back Fight of the Year honors in 2015 and 2016. And most observers believe that the 32-year-old Mexico City native got a “soft” opponent in once-beaten Miguel Berchelt, who Vargas will face on Saturday at Fantasy Springs Casino in Indio, California.
Berchelt (30-1, 27 KOs), a 25-year-old boxer-puncher from Cancun, sports a glossy record but has yet to notch a victory over a legit contender. And his sole loss was a first-round TKO to Luis Flores (then 15-1, now 22-5) in March 2014. Easy work for Vargas, right?
Not so, says Eric Gomez. The president of Golden Boy Promotions, which represents Vargas, told members of the boxing media that Berchelt has the ability to spring the ole “upset special” at Wednesday’s press conference for the HBO Boxing After Dark doubleheader (that includes a WBC title-elimination bout between Miura and Mexican veteran Micky Roman) at El Paseo Restaurant.
“We were worried about making this fight,” Gomez said. “Berchelt is not an easy fight for anyone. I told Vargas’ manager (Ralph Heredia) that I was nervous about it but Ralph told us that he spoke to Francisco about it and that he was good with it. ‘You know Francisco,’ he said. ‘He’ll fight anybody.’
“We made the fight even though I was still uneasy about it, but we’re glad that we did because Vargas is a real champion and these are the kind of fights that should be on HBO. Vargas deserves to defend his title on HBO and Berchelt deserves to challenge for it on HBO. But don’t sleep on (Berchelt). He can pull off the upset.”
It sounds like Gomez is just doing his job as a promoter by talking up what many perceive as a mismatch, but boxing insiders familiar with Berchelt view “El Alacran” as a very live underdog. One of these insiders is Richard Mota, a boxing manager and owner of the Azteca Boxing Club in Bell, California. Mota’s family has been involved in the Mexican boxing scene since the early days of Julio Cesar Chavez’s reign, and as manager of former junior flyweight champ Giovani Segura, he got the chance to watch a young, up-and-coming Berchelt under the cards that his fighter headlined in Mexico.
“I was surprised when I heard this fight was made,” said Mota, who currently manages unbeaten lightweight prospects Christian Gonzalez and Pedro Duran.
“Berchelt is a banger. He’s the kind of fighter that walks his opponent down and breaks them down. The power is real. One good punch can change this fight.
“Vargas is more seasoned but we don’t know what he’s got left after Miura and Salido. Prior to his last two fights I would have heavily favored Vargas to beat Berchelt. Now? I really don’t know.”
Vargas had to get up from a fourth-round knockdown and survive savage punishment from Miura before he dramatically stopped the Japanese slugger in Round 9 of their co-feature to the Miguel Cotto-Canelo Alvarez fight.
He retained the title he won from Miura with an unbelievable 12-round battle with Salido that ended in a satisfying split draw last June. It’s not an exaggeration to say that Salido and Vargas took each other to hell and back.
Vargas’ face looked like it had been ravaged by an ice pick after both fights. The damage his body, face and brain took in those two fights begs the question:
How much more can he take?
At some point even the toughest blood-and-guts warriors hit a wall and are no longer able to absorb the gross amount of punishment that made them famous. The decline can be rapid or seemingly abrupt as it was with Matthew Saad Muhammad, Arturo Gatti and Israel Vaquez.
Gomez compared Vargas to Gatti during Wednesday’s presser.
“In many ways Vargas reminds me of Gatti because Arturo was a very good boxer when he wanted to be, he could get on his toes and box well,” Gomez said. “But there was something inside him made him fight whenever he got hurt or tired. Vargas is the same way. He can box. He had a good amateur career. He was an Olympian. But there’s something inside him that makes him fight.”
Vargas won’t deny that, but he says his fans should not worry too much about his physical condition going into Saturday’s fight because he’s given his body enough time to heal and recuperate.
“I’m coming off a long layoff (six months) but it was necessary because of how difficult my last two fights were,” said Vargas, THE RING’s No. 2-rated junior lightweight. “I’m rested and ready. I did everything I was supposed to do in training camp. I know that Berchelt has worked just as hard, but I want to defend this title.
“I sacrificed a lot to win this title and to keep it. It cost me a lot. I’m not going to let it go.”
Vargas then declared to the media (and a vocal group of onlookers that entered the restaurant from the historic Olvera Street marketplace) that he would “give the fans what they want to see.”
If he does that, he might give Berchelt – who’s on a nine-bout KO streak, including a third-round stoppage of a faded Antonio Escalante and a four-round KO of Thai fringe contender Chonlatarn Pirayapinyo – the opportunity he’s looking for.
“People who think this is an easy fight for Vargas don’t know Berchelt,” said Mota. “This is not a walk in the park for Francisco.”
Mirua and Roman, who fight for the right to face the Vargas-Berchelt winner in the B.A.D co-feature, were also at Wednesday’s presser.
Mirura (30-3-2, 23 KOs), a 32-year-old southpaw from Akita, Japan, has only fought once (a first-round blowout of overmatched Jimmy Bourbon last May in Tokyo) since his barnburner with Vargas.
Roman, a 31-year-old Chihuahua native who has been in more than 65 bouts since turning pro in 2003, is on an 18-bout win streak (17 according to Fight Fax), since suffering his last loss, a 12-round decision to Dante Jardon in October 2012.
Jardon is one of the Mexican tough guys – along with Gamaliel Diaz and Sergio “Yeyo” Thompson – that Miura got the better of during his WBC title reign. Miura’s narrow decision over Thompson in Cancun in 2013 was almost as brutal and grueling as his Fight of the Year with Vargas.
Roman (56-11, 43 KOs) is no stranger to slugfests having engaged Antonio Escalante in an ESPN-televised Fight of the Year candidate in 2010.
“This is a very, very tough fight,” said the WBC’s No. 2-rated contender. “I know what’s in front of me and this is the kind of fight that will end in a knockout. I’m going to try for the knockout and I know he’s going to do the same thing.”
Miura pretty much confirmed Roman’s hunch during his turn at the podium.
“Roman is a very tough and powerful fighter,” said the WBC’s No. 1 contender and THE RING’s No. 6-rated junior lightweight. “I hope to be more powerful and to out-tough him on Saturday.”
Email Fischer at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter at @dougiefischer