"There are many, many professional prizefighters who never want to be in a fight like this, even once in their career."
– HBO commentator Jim Lampley while watching Vargas-Salido
Saturday's ferocious war between Francisco Vargas and Orlando Salido exemplified the type of thrilling close combat that has become a lost art in boxing. Featuring a tremendous display of power punching and significant swings in action, the fight was breathtaking stuff. Both junior lightweights demonstrated impressive inside fighting skills, creative offense, heart, perseverance and unbreakable will. The match was ruled a majority draw (which was appropriate) and both boxers saw their statuses elevated in the sport. Vargas, who won my Fight of the Year last year against Takashi Miura, retained his title and Salido, at 35, continues to be one of the best action fighters in the sport. Both are must-see attractions in a wildly entertaining 130-lb. division.
Instead of recounting the oohs and aahs of Saturday's battle, which surely will be up for Fight and Round of the Year awards at the conclusion of 2016 (rounds 6, 10 and 12 are worthy candidates), I'd like to address a specific conception held by an obnoxious minority of fight fans. After the bout, the following belief was expressed by a few on social media: It was two cans just winging punches with no skill. Now, I'm not making a straw man argument here; there are real boxing fans who dismissed the skills and dimensions of Vargas and Salido, because they committed the sin of waging a battle of attrition. These critics actually exist and I'm sure you've
yelled at interacted with them. To the detractors, Saturday's match was somehow less pure, less aesthetically
pleasing than a fight between two boxers or boxer-punchers.
Let's get this out of the way quickly: of course there are prejudices in boxing. People have their favorite styles, ethnicities and nationalities in the sport. Some boxing fans like counterpunchers, others like one-shot knockout artists and another faction may prefer athletic marvels. I'm not here to rid people of their predilections or make all boxing fans get along; hopefully, the sport is a big enough tent to draw many types of enthusiasts. However, to dismiss the skills of inside fighters like Vargas and Salido is just rank silliness, and this bullshit needs to stop.
Yes, there are fights that resemble bar room brawls and become tedious to watch. Lacking quality punches, power, strategy, and any concept of range, these matches often fail to captivate. But Vargas-Salido was not that. Both fighters had an acute understanding of what they were trying to accomplish in the ring. They landed thunderous bombs throughout the fight. Both used angles and subtle defensive techniques to evade shots and connect with their own. Vargas and Salido displayed offensive creativity, throwing all sorts of hooks, uppercuts, overhand rights, straight punches and even a few jabs.
Let me highlight some specific sequences that demonstrate the skills of these two fighters. In the second round, Vargas pushes off Salido, who was trying to clinch. Vargas now creates the needed space to initiate offense (understanding range, a skill). He then throws a five-punch combination: right uppercut to the body/left hook to the body/straight right to the shoulder/left hook to the chin/left hook to the body. At least four of the punches land flush and the sequence demonstrates the offensive variety of the titleholder.
First, not many boxers are confident throwing uppercuts as the lead punch in a combination. It's a shot that can be easily countered if thrown from an improper range. But Vargas connects with it to the solar plexus. And again, this isn't just a case of landing one punch, scoring and getting out of the pocket; it's all part of a sequence to inflict significant damage. The uppercut is just the opening salvo.
Further analyzing the sequence, Vargas throws one punch to the head, one to the shoulder and three to the body. Working up and down is an important skill for a fighter. It makes opponents less confident about defending shots. There are a number of world-level fighters who don't know how to go to the body effectively at all, or refuse to do so out of caution (put Wlad and Khan in this category). Others work the body with single jabs or power punches, but they don't go downstairs as part of elongated sequences (Floyd is in this group). Certain left-hook artists are actually more effective to the body than the head. Some become too reliant on the hook to the body, neglecting the head and becoming predictable (Chavez Jr. is a perfect example of this). But Vargas doesn't just work upstairs and downstairs in Saturday's fight, he does it in this one fluid sequence, and repeats it many other times throughout the match!
Finally, Vargas doubles up the left hook to end the combination, going first to the chin and then the body. Again, the variety of the hooks makes it much harder for opponents to anticipate how to defend against incoming fire.
And remember, this sequence manifested at close range. Many fighters wouldn't even dream of throwing three punches in a row at this distance, let alone five. In addition to the technical mastery of this combination, Vargas also demonstrated fearlessness, confidence and a belief in his chin. Although these particular attributes might not be added to the "skills" bucket, they speak to the underlying intangibles of the fighter. Without possessing these "soft" skills, the hooks and uppercuts wouldn't be able flow as fluidly as they do for Vargas. And Vargas' shots in this sequence are all purposeful punches. They are practiced and thrown with excellent technique.
Later in the second round, Salido moves back to the ropes. He avoids a sweeping left hook and slips a right uppercut. He then counters with a big overhand right, misses with a straight left and then finished the combination with a straight right. His first shot lands hard and his third shot grazes Vargas. Again, this sequence exhibits a number of skills.
Even though Vargas and Salido got hit with a large number of power punches in the fight, they also evaded some huge blows; they weren't mere punching bags. With Salido's first counter, he picked the perfect punch and exhibited the precise execution needed to land the shot. "Make him miss and make him pay" is a cornerstone of boxing fundamentals and that's exactly what Salido did in this sequence.
But let's take it a step further. How many fighters are even passably adept at fighting off the ropes? How many can consistently get the best of an exchange at that geography? I'd submit that the majority of fighters, even including those at the top levels of the sport, are at a severe disadvantage once their back touches the ropes. Yet Salido prospered during this exchange, as he did during several other points in the fight.
Here's another skill of Salido's: Watch how he throws a left uppercut. He puts his chin on his opponent and keeps his right hand held high by his right ear to thwart the possibility of a counter left hook. In this position, he leaves such a small target area to be hit by an opponent. There's enough room for him to throw his left hand but hardly anything an opponent can do to him except for a lead right hook to the body (which very few conventional fighters throw). As Salido transitions from the left uppercut to the right uppercut, watch how he subtlety manipulates his body to reduce the target area on the other side. These moves are done seamlessly. And it's not as if Vargas is a willing participant who says, "Orlando, it's OK, you can rest your chin here." These techniques have been practiced over years and years to become significant skills of Salido's in the ring. So while the crowd delights at the back-and-forth power punching sequence at close range, it's not just Salido winging shots without any regard of defense; there's a method to his madness.
Do you know why Vargas didn't jab a lot during the fight? He had the physical advantages to jab. He was taller and had the better reach. It isn't that he lacks a good jab. The reason Vargas kept his jab holstered throughout much of the fight can be attributed to how well Salido slipped the punch (often to the inside) and then made Vargas pay for missing.
The sequence of Salido evading the jab, immediately closing the distance and landing a hard counter demonstrates a variety of skills. Physically, he has to have the reflexes to avoid the jab; that's an athletic skill. Next, he has to know how to slip the jab in a way where he can immediately launch his own offense. He's not taking steps back to avoid the punch or leaving the pocket. No, Salido stands right in front of his opponent to slip the shot. Then, he needs to move to the perfect space in order to close distance against the rangier fighter who is temporarily out of position. Again, this movement is a practiced skill. Finally, he has to execute on his counters. On Saturday, after he slipped the jab, he mostly countered with left hooks (to the head or body) or right hooks that sailed around the gloves and hit the target.
How many orthodox fighters throw lead right hooks? In many gyms, that punch is a no-no. A fighter opens himself up to an array of counters if he isn't successful with it (such as a straight right to the head or body or a counter left hook). Yet, Salido didn't just throw it; the punch was a major weapon in the fight.
Here are some other skills: Salido and Vargas took turns initiating and fighting off the back foot. Again, how many boxers are really adept at both styles? They had punches in their arsenals to land at six inches as well as those from long range. Vargas connected with two blistering overhand rights from range (one each in the 6th and 12th) that would've knocked out many fighters. In addition, both boxers know how to take shots. Again, this is a skill. Vargas wasn't spooked by the unconventional punches and combinations that Salido put together. He didn't cower at the sight of his own blood; no, he just went back to work. Vargas was able to stagger Salido at a few points in the fight yet Salido didn't collapse physically or psychologically. No, he clinched when needed (also a skill) and bought time by holding, defending or throwing shots aimed at reducing Vargas' effectiveness.
Skills were all over the ring on Saturday but many of them were subtle. It wasn't about hand or foot speed, working off the jab, feats of athletic marvel or brute knockout strength. Saturday was a fiercely contested battle of close combat. And to make the fight as good as it was, both boxers needed to have a mastery of assorted techniques, movements, angles and strategy.
Perhaps you might be one of the few who didn't think much of Saturday's match. As Lampley said on Saturday, many boxers don't want to fight like that. And certainly some fans prefer a different style of fighting. Maybe that type of combat isn't your cup of tea. And that's your right to feel that way. But the knowledgeable fight enthusiast should at least be able to appreciate the talents of these two boxers. I can't force you to like a fight but please, do me a favor, don't tell me that Vargas and Salido lack skills. That just screams ignorance.
There's a certain beauty to inside fighting and Vargas and Salido painted a Monet this weekend. Perhaps impressionism isn’t your thing. That’s cool. But denying its legitimacy isn’t an avenue to be taken seriously.
Adam Abramowitz is the head writer and founder of saturdaynightboxing.com.
Adam Abramowitz is the head writer and founder of saturdaynightboxing.com.
He is also a member of the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board.
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Contact Adam at firstname.lastname@example.org