Tonight in Atlantic City, New Jersey, one of boxing's brightest stars may have burnt out for good just as a new one was born. Fernando Vargas staked his claim as one of boxing's newest icons, while Arturo Gatti suffered his third consecutive loss in 1998. What a night!
With only 14 pro fights under his belt, 1996 Olympian Fernando Vargas was understandably considered a yeoman in the game of boxing. Especially when compared with the 74 fight career of rugged Mexican puncher Ramon "Yory Boy" Campas, the now-ex IBF junior middleweight champion. Boxing journalists, pundits, and fans questioned the logic in rushing Vargas into a title fight so soon, and with good reason. Although only recently a titlist, Campas had marked his career with tough bruising battles, with losses coming only from Tito Trinidad and Jose Luis Lopez. His granite chin, fierce body attack, and willingness to absorb punishment were all attributes absent from Vargas' previous competition. Many felt the brash Vargas had bitten off more than he could chew. They were wrong.
In the first round, Vargas showed Campas respect for about 30 seconds. Keeping his distance and flicking a rarely seen jab, Vargas circled the champion. After getting a good look at Campas, Vargas cracked with a sharp one-two followed by a lead right. Campas was unfazed, but did not return fire. Vargas continued to use his footwork, slipping out of corners and turning Campas at will, all while firing quick sneak right hands that Yory Boy took on the chin. Easily winning the first frame, Vargas' confidence grew.
Continuing his assault in the second, Vargas exploited his speed with lead right hands, throwing in the one-two often enough to keep Campas from timing him. Brimming with self assurance after six minutes of easy domination, Vargas pointed to his head as if to tell Campas he had him all figured out.
Ferocious Fernando showed Campas another card in his hand when he debuted his left hook for the first time in round three. Following up his one-two with the logical next punch only further hurt Campas, who was staggered briefly, and later sliced over the right eye by the punch. The beating continued through the fourth and Campas' face began to distort. His right eye, which bled badly at times, swelled first, followed by his cheek. But he fought on.
Vargas had doled out consistent punishment for the duration of the fight, and so when he tired in the fifth, it was not the biggest surprise. In fact, Vargas had never even been past six rounds in any of his fights, and Campas had been banking on Vargas wearing out sooner or later. Campas seized the chance he was given, and let his left hand go. Tagging Vargas to the body repeatedly, Campas began to tire the upstart from Oxnard even further. Bothered by the body assault, Vargas allowed Campas to get closer, and as a result he allowed Campas to dish out some shots of his own, including a big right hand in the sixth that elicited a roar from the crowd.
Just when he was doing his best, Campas had the tables turned on him. Countering the champion's hooks, Vargas returned fire in the last minute of the sixth and further disfigured the right side of Campas' head. As Campas sat in his corner, he repeatedly said the word "No" and seemed to be indicating his desire to quit on his stool. His trainer, Miguel Diaz, held off the doctor and referee long enough to convince his man to go back out for round seven. Mistake.
Vargas ripped into Campas with controlled fury in the seventh, knocking out Campas' mouthpiece several times, as he had a few rounds before. The blood from Campas' eye was joined by blood from his mouth, and he might have been stopped had referee Eddie Cotton not twice halted the action to replace Campas' gumshield. Neither time-out seemed to be in a lull, as the rules dictate, but it did not dissuade Vargas. He pummeled Campas up until the bell, and that was it. Campas returned to his corner intent on quitting, and walked away from his trainer when it appeared as though he might try and persuade him again to continue. Vargas TKO7.
There have been a number of fighters quitting on their stools in the last several months, and much discussion as to whether or not each was the right choice. Campas' resignation should not be so questioned. Blood was pouring from his mouth and his nose looked shattered beneath a grotesque swelling that had closed his eye and inflated his jaw. This was not a resignation of cowardice. Campas, had he wanted to continue, likely would have been stopped by the physician.
As Vargas had his championship belt put around his waist, he cried tears of joy. Like Olympic teammate Floyd Mayweather, he had beaten a more experienced and highly regarded pro, and made it look easy. While his defense lapsed briefly, he showed more than just power and precision. His footwork and ring generalship were excellent, his patience in the ring surprised, and his ability to execute a game plan must have pleased trainer Lou Duva. Now a recognized titlist, we should be hearing a lot more from exciting Fernando Vargas in 1999.
Next up was "The Sequel". Gatti-Robinson II promised to be every bit as action packed as it's predecessor....a fight that is unanimously considered Fight of the Year for 1998. In that fight, speedy but powerless Ivan Robinson outpunched the defenseless Thunder Gatti, who served up his customary dramatics by staggering Robinson throughout the bout with come from behind hail-mary punches. Like most sequels, this one stayed close to the original script.
After one round of Gatti-Robinson II, I thought I was experiencing Deja Vu. Both men fired lightning fast punches, and each landed repeatedly. Gatti, who came through the ropes at 150, was the stronger puncher, but Robinson's speedy combinations thudded on Gatti melon. Like so many rounds of the first fight, Robinson took the round 10-9 based on his miraculously high output, although Gatti did plenty of work himself.
The best way for Gatti to avoid Robinson's high volume was defense. Absent in the first match, new trainer Ronnie Shields had promised to reinstall Gatti's head movement and slipping ability. To his credit, Gatti did get low much more often, and made Robinson miss. But that all ended in the second round. At some point in that round blood appeared over Gatti's left eye. As it began to bother him, he began to drop more bombs. Many landed, but clearly the war had begun. Again blinded in one eye, Gatti knew only war. And so he reverted to his typical style.
It was a bad cut, too. Not particularly deep, but located inside the fold of his eyelid, the blood dripped directly into his eye, which would gradually swell throughout the fight until it was closed a few rounds later. As he has been in most of his last half a dozen fights, Gatti was betrayed by his face. With only one eye, he simply had to try for the knockout, especially as Robinson's 100ish punches per stanza were tallying him round after round on the scorecards.
Gatti was successful in the third and fourth in getting Robinson to fight inside, and in those moments Robinson was hurt by big Gatti body shots. But Ivan Robinson played some of the best possum seen in years. Several times in these rounds, and then again towards the end of the fight, Robinson would let Gatti fire, feign to be on wilted legs, and then when Gatti smelled knockout, Robinson would absolutely explode with six and seven punch flurries that would bounce Gatti's head like a speedbag.
The struggle continued with Gatti getting the worst of it. He was able to avoid some punches, and even land significant shots of his own, but Robinson was beating him as consistently as he had the first time. By mid bout, Gatti's chances seemed to fade even more as he tired noticeably. Nearly punched out, and probably exhausted from dehydrating to make weight, Gatti's weary punches had little steam. He continued to work the body, but all while Robinson tattooed his face with accurate punching.
When Gatti returned to his corner after the seventh round, Duva threatened to stop the bout. And with good reason: In the seventh round, Ivan Robinson threw a hearty 117 punches and landed a deadly 77 of them. As Gatti's corner contemplated resignation, Robinson's own corner was telling him that he was way behind in the fight. Although he seemed like he had a comfortable lead, his corner didn't want him to take a moments rest.
Fearful of defeat, Gatti stormed out in the eighth and ninth and made what amounted to a final attempt to end the matter at hand. He punished Robinson exclusively to the body, thudding lefts and rights through Robinson's guard and hurting him. More than a few shots strayed below the belt, and having being warned earlier in the fight for going south, Gatti was deducted a point in the eighth for straying low. Since points meant little to Gatti's plan, he continued to fire downstairs, and twice in the ninth Robinson looked as though he might fold from the crippling work Arturo was doing on his midsection.
But he didn't fold. Ending the ninth with a flurry of his own, Robinson survived Gatti's attack and would again see the tenth and final round. By then, Gatti was completely spent, and it was clear that he was not conditioned to launch the final seconds barrage that had closed the first meeting of these two warriors. Robinson outboxed Gatti in the tenth and seemed to have an easy and decisive unanimous decision awaiting him. He got it...sort of.
Although Robinson won the unanimous decision, the scores were a surprisingly close 95-94 (twice) and a more realistic 97-92. (Boxing Chronicle.com scored the bout 96-93 Robinson) Had Gatti not lost a point for low blows, he would have survived with a majority draw. It would have been a robbery. Exhausted, battered, bloody and, well, looking just like Gatti usually looks after a fight, Arturo dropped his third consecutive loss. Robinson improved to 27-2 (10).
Robinson was thrilled to have proved himself again. So emboldened was he in victory, that he called out pound for pound entrant Shane Mosley. Although Mosley would be heavily favored in that match, Robinson's handspeed, conditioning and output are difficult obstacles, and if not with Mosley, Robinson deserves to be in with the top names at 135.
Gatti said that he would fight again, but it is going to be a long hard road back. The first problem Gatti has is weight. He hinted at moving up in weight while talking with Larry Merchant, but that seems to be a foolish move. The power he had at 130 hasn't moved up with him to 135, and it's hard to think of Gatti being hit so often by someone like Kostya Tszyu. Walking around at 160 between fights doesn't help, either. Next on the list of problems is his face, which has been swollen and cut in nearly every fight. Finally, HBO boxing chief Lou DiBella was quoted as saying before this bout that Gatti would not be allowed back on HBO if he lost, especially if he took a severe beating. Gatti did both.
He should retire. He has taken too many beatings and made plenty of money. The road back is filled with low paying tune-ups and a lot of work in the gym losing weight correctly and relearning the skills that brought Gatti to the top in the first place. It can be done, but why? So that he can thrill us again? It's asking too much. Gatti-Patterson I and II. Gatti-Rodriguez. Gatti-Ruelas. Gatti-Manfredy. Gatti-Robinson I and II. It's been more than enough. Thank you for the thrills Arturo. You've done more than your share already.
© 2001 Chris Bushnell. All rights reserved.