Francisco Vargas vs Takashi Miura lived in a long shadow. It certainly was the kind of fight you might circle on your calendar on Nov. 21 as one to watch, if you were the sort of diehard boxing fan who was serious enough about the sport to know the names of two men in one of boxing’s serially sorriest divisions, junior lightweight (and, also, if you were the kind of person who still circled dates on calendars circa 2015).
But the shadow in question was cast by Canelo Alvarez-Miguel Cotto, which had the triple distinction of being one of the most anticipated fights of the year for reasons of census, as it featured the most popular Puerto Rican vs. the most popular Mexican; of caliber, as it featured two world-class boxers; and of chemistry, as Cotto and Canelo figured to mesh into their own Fight of the Year candidate.
By the end of the Vargas-Miura — hell, probably even as soon as halfway through — the two 130-pound men had stolen everything: the show that night, harcore fans’ hearts, our collective gasps and shouts, and yes, Fight of the Year honors. You don’t see this many reversals or this much near-comical, over-the-top violence in a WWE bout, let alone a boxing match.
Early on, Miura cut the more sympathetic figure. Vargas had blasted out the walking corpse of action hero Juan Manuel Lopez, not something that lent itself to the affections of fans of Lopez’s, even though Vargas had since proven he was no fluke by stopping Will Tomlinson. Miura, meanwhile, was hurt in the very 1st round by one of the hundreds of punches he didn’t bother to dodge that night. If you didn’t know Miura but watched boxing on U.S. television very often, you might think you were witnessing the second coming of Yoshihiro Kamegai — a Japanese fighter with a cement block for a head and just as much mobility who came forward, took punishment for an American audience and was bound to lose despite such everyman heroics.
In fact, Miura came in as the higher-ranked fighter. And in the 4th round, Miura demonstrated why: His head might have been a concrete block, but his hands were sledgehammers, too. That’s the round Miura put Vargas on his ass, and busted up his cheekbone, beginning a cut and severe swelling of his right cheekbone that would eventual subsume his whole eye.
As that grotesque bruise developed, the worst was yet to come for Vargas, somehow. Miura apparently developed an immunity to the power Vargas had hurt him with earlier, which was bad news for the Mexican, because Vargas could hardly have hit him more times that night. In the 8th, it got especially ugly for Vargas, and not just in the vicinity of his face. With 16 seconds to go, his legs departed him, courtesy a flush left hand from Miura. Vargas stumbled backward, struggled to remain upright. Then he stumbled back to his corner. All signs said that this brutal war, increasingly one-sided, was coming to an end — if not because he could no longer see and the doctor could threaten to stop it anytime, then because he might not remain conscious with the next big punch Miura landed on him in the 9th.
And if the fight hadn’t yet given us enough, it then gave us a grand finale that you could hardly believe.
Moments into the 9th round, Vargas, out of nowhere, hit Miura with something that took away his invulnerability. Perhaps “something” isn’t the right word — it was a combination, the only way Vargas could apparently rattle Miura’s brain around in his head in any meaningful way. First came the left uppercut that froze Miura, set up by a long right that was pretty good by itself. Then came a jab, a hard left and a one-two. Miura was on his way down by then, and Vargas tossed in a nasty right uppercut for good measure. He dropped backward, then face-planted a second time when he tried to get up.
That Miura survived that at all was remarkable. That he then took another full minute of punishment after defiantly, unconvincingly holding his gloves up was more like astounding. He tried holding; he tried slugging back. Against every normal human impulse — and boxers aren’t normal humans — he stayed on his feet. And that’s where he stayed when referee Tony Weeks stepped in and saved Miura from himself.
Canelo-Cotto ended up being… all right. Maybe for the fans of those two men, the main event of the Nov. 21 HBO pay-per-view will be what they remember most. But for those of us who watch boxing to witness the unreal, it’s Vargas-Miura that now casts the shadow over that evening.
(Referee Tony Weeks stops the fight as Francisco Vargas defeats Takashi Miura by TKO during their fight at the Mandalay Bay Events Center on November 21, 2015 in Las Vegas, Nevada; Photo: Al Bello/Getty Images)