Monday, November 26, 2007

Tragedy And Triumph

Fernando Vargas fell into the same category for me as Erik Morales. Both boxers fought with tremendous bravery. Both had massive fan bases that stuck with them through thick and thin, both literally and figuratively, since both had gluttonous impulses that frequently forced them to shed ample pounds before going into battle. Both, for reasons that are fairly arbitrary, rubbed me the wrong way. Both, however, won my respect.

Vargas, after losing Friday night to Ricardo Mayorga, will join Morales in retirement now. Vargas was never as good as Morales, even if they ended their career on similar notes: Losing streaks, and one last losing hurrah. When 2007 is said and done, there are a lot of labels we might be able to slap on it. "The year of British fighters," perhaps, especially if Ricky Hatton beats Floyd Mayweather. My vote is going to be for "the year boxing definitively proved it's back," even if it never really went away. But another contender is going to be "the year a generation of warriors departed." Arturo Gatti, Morales and Marco Antonio Barrera all retired in 2007, leaving behind them a wake of some of the most thrilling battles of all time. Diego Corrales, who won what I consider the greatest fight of all time in 2005, died this year. Vargas may be a notch lower than those four, but he fought in the same "never say die" style, and his pyrrhic 2000 loss to Felix Trinidad was truly great; one scribe called it today the greatest junior middleweight (154 lbs.) title fight ever.

It's tragic that Vargas' bravery in that fight probably left him in that dreaded boxing state: "Never the same." Against one of the hardest punchers ever, Vargas just kept getting up over and over again. Nobody can do that and not pay in the long-term. I'm not saying Vargas would have beaten Oscar De La Hoya or Shane Mosley later in his career if his corner had thrown in the towel sooner against Trinidad. But he probably would have had a better chance. That Trinidad battle, combined with Vargas' ongoing war with the scale -- he lost 100 pounds and gained some anemia along the way to his 164-pound matchup with Mayorga -- put wear and tear on his body that leaves him old, physically, at 29 years. It's wise that he's leaving now, when his body has absolutely nothing left to give him and he apparently has an acting career ahead of him. Quitting here should leave him the wits he'll need for the movies, and may they serve him with fans the way his bravery pleased them in the ring.

As for Mayorga:

He lives to fight another day. Beating a plump-looking Vargas is going to give him just enough cache, undeserved or no, to serve at least once more as the sport's premier "opponent" -- a fighter who is not good enough to beat the elite but dangerous enough, credible enough, and entertaining enough to up the pay-per-view numbers. If that's the path he plans to ply, then the start-studded welterweight (147 lbs.) division is the one for him, and he's already called out Mayweather and Miguel Cotto. If, however, he wants to make a case for respectability (it's hard to remember he ever had it once, after twice defeating the significantly higher-regarded Vernon Forrest) he could try to make something of himself at junior middleweight, where he could fight Forrest again or avenge his loss to Cory Spinks. Maybe win a title or something. But something about the demeanor of the beer-swilling, incorporating-his-opponent's-dead-mother-into-his-trash-talk Mayorga suggests to me he'll skip the respectability business. Even after his apology to Vargas for all that talking he did about his wife and child.

Too soon, a young Vargas (left) fought Trinidad (right). Too late, the fight was stopped. It will be the first fight people think of when they remember Vargas, but it was the beginning of his end.

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