In a battle of two recently-robbed 135 pound contenders, longtime Pacquiao sparring partner Raymundo Beltran (29-6-1, 17 KO) faced off against late replacement, but undoubtedly game Arash Usmanee (20-2-1, 10 KO) in a de facto eliminator for Terence Crawford’s lightweight belt. Beltran had originally been scheduled to face Rocky Martinez, but Usmanee isn’t the type of guy to turn down a fight, and was game from the outset as he offered up a unique variety of offence.
Beltran’s superior power was evident early on, but Usmanee, who had not fought in 8 months, was energetic and lively, using the full area of the ring and largely avoiding his opponent’s well-timed left hands. At times, the Mexican resembled an alfresco diner impatiently attempting to swat away a gathering of flies. Usmanee buzzed around him, irritating more than afflicting, until Beltran eventually caught him in the fourth round with a solid bodyshot that momentarily seemed to derail the freneticism.
As the rounds ticked by, in a match-up that was comparatively dull within the context of a pretty exciting undercard, the unorthodoxy of Usmanee kept Beltran guessing. He would get caught by shots that seemed to puzzle him on the way inside, although you never got the sense that the Mexican was troubled and appeared content to be out-thrown for large stretches, safe in the knowledge that the fight was a mismatch in the power stakes.
As the liver shots began to mount in the 7th and 8th rounds, the story shifted to the toughness of Usmanee, who grinned maniacally as Beltran pounded his stand-in midsection again and again. “Pesky” was a word used by Harold Lederman during the broadcast, and it summed up both Usmanee’s performance and fighting style perfectly. Beltran pounded away whenever he got within range, but was often left chasing shadows as his opponent threw punches from near-unthinkable angles, before skipping away to reposition his feet in an altogether arbitrary fashion.
Engaging in something of a firefight throughout the final round, the fighters embraced at the final bell and wished each other all the best. Although it lacked the overall drama of the preceding fights, the outcome was just and Ray Beltran can take stock from a solid unanimous decision win and the prospect of another shot at a world title in the near future.
TQBR had it 116-112 for Beltran.
In a battle of unbeatens, Jessie Vargas started strongly against “regular” WBA titleholder Khabib Allakhverdiev, dictating the tempo of the contest with his jab throughout the opening round, as his opponent appeared content to study and measure his foe. Vargas was coming down in weight from 147 to 140, and looked sharper than in recent contests from the outset.
Allakhverdiev displayed all the sound fundamentals you’d expect, cutting off the ring with a classic Eurasian efficiency and seeking to time his opponent with mechanical counter shots. He was clearly aware of the natural size difference between the two, but a marginal advantage in hand speed leveled the playing field to the point where the fighters were almost totally inseparable through the opening half of the fight. Vargas landed some nice uppercuts, but remained somewhat guarded against a fighter who had been in with opponents of an entirely different class to his own, in contrast to his usual proclivity for going to war.
Moving into the middle rounds, Allakhverdiev’s pressure began to increase while his opponent’s output sagged. The Russian’s amateur pedigree emerged as a factor here, and he simply refused to let up. His right hand landing seemingly at will, the HBO commentary team implored Allakhverdiev to throw the left with greater regularity, but it was not until the 8th when he first appeared to hurt his opponent with it, or at least make him pause momentarily and take stock after it landed, which felt almost like a knockdown in the context of such a closely-contested encounter.
With the fight increasingly becoming a chess match, a deep cut emerged above the left eye of Allakhverdiev near the end of the 8th and appeared to spur both fighters on somewhat. With just over a minute left in the 9th, the doctor took a look at the cut once more, and again a fiery exchange followed in which both fighters landed significantly. Despite his relative lack of punching power, Vargas had reduced his opponent’s face to a bloody mask by the end, while his own remained almost entirely unmarked throughout. Yet although the blood appeared to rally Allakhverdiev, who swept the closing third of the fight to seemingly bring a sliver of daylight to a contest that had at times been unspeakably close, the judges favoured the man without the crimson mask. The scorecard of 117-111 for Vargas was way off, but he showed an undoubted improvement at the new weight and a rematch would be welcome.
TQBR had it 115 – 113 Allakhverdiev.
In a showcase for two junior lightweights with records that looked hugely impressive at first glance, Jose Felix (26-1-1) entered the contest with a growing reputation as a puncher, albeit without an overly convincing resume to back it up. By contrast, despite being only 26, Bryan Vasquez (33-1, 17 KO) was the veteran of the two, a fighter whose only loss was to the de facto lineal champion at 130, Takashi Uchiyama. Within the first minute, Vasquez had already switched stances numerous times, and while Felix seemed able to catch him on the way in early, he did little to discourage the Costa Rican’s relentless oncoming pressure. Both fighters bounced around the ring with an exuberance befitting their youth, especially Vasquez, who was positively impish as he scampered back and forth with a grin perpetually etched on his face.
Vasquez went to the body early on, and it began to pay dividends as early as round 2, while his opponent was content to snipe infrequently, seemingly confident in his ability to hurt his opponent whenever he landed his thudding right hand. Large stretches of the fight consisted of Vasquez methodically walking Felix backwards, until he became pinned against the ropes and was unable to generate significant leverage on his punches. It was oh so simple in its execution, yet the unbeaten Mexican had no real answer, but was rather content to use his significant height and reach advantage to potshot his exuberant opponent.
Felix began to vary his offence more towards the middle rounds, but Vasquez remained busier and generally more energetic, even going as far as jogging to and from his stool between rounds. The Mexican fighter landed some thudding blows, but nothing seemed to truly bother the Costa Rican, who continued to set up his body shots and hunt his opponent down. With neither fighter in any real danger of knocking out their opponent, work rate became the crucial factor, and Vasquez’s energy began to tell from around the 7th round onwards. An ugly clash of heads in the 7th immediately caused a swelling above the right eye of Felix, although it was high enough to ensure his vision remained unimpaired.
Felix was deducted one point for low blows in the 9th round, or at least that’s how it first appeared until replays showed the he had actually raised his knee into Vasquez’s crotch during a clinch. Another low blow followed in the 10th, as Felix grew increasingly ragged and seemingly frustrated by the trajectory of the contest. Another accidental head butt followed in round 11, which seemed to seriously discourage Felix, who began to look disheartened amidst frequent glances back at his corner as his opponent continued to bound after him and cut off the ring.
In the end, the point deduction made the difference on two of the three official scorecards, which was absurd given the rather one-sided nature of the later half of the fight. But the right man won, and Vasquez will doubtless bound on to another title shot in the near future.
TQBR had it 117-110 for Vasquez.
(Photo credit: Chris Farina, Top Rank)