By Kieran Mulvaney
Jessie Vargas entered his junior welterweight bout with Anton Novikov with a reputation for always eking out close, often split, decisions in Las Vegas: witness, for example, his victories over Josesito Lopez and Khabib Allakhverdiev. He left it with a reputation of being harder to defeat in Sin City than the casinos, scoring a wide unanimous decision in a fight that ringside observers all saw as a close contest.
After an active first two rounds in which Vargas appeared to have the edge, Novikov started to walk down the American in three and four. Two right hands – a straight punch to the chin that caused Novikov to do the briefest of dances in the center of the ring in round five, and a booming roundhouse shot in the sixth – may have been enough to keep Vargas a nose in front at the halfway stage, but still Novikov kept coming. When Vargas let his hands go, he was in the ascendant; when Novikov was able to connect with his stiff southpaw jab, he assumed control, particularly when he landed crunching right hands to the body afterward. A Novikov left hand knocked Vargas back at the end of the tenth and a pair of straight lefts in the eleventh landed with crunching thuds. It felt as if the fight was up for grabs entering the final round, and although Novikov started the final frame with greater purpose, Vargas closed it stronger with fast combinations.
As it turned out, by then he had the fight already won, with the final scores of 118-111 (twice) and 117-111.
Vargas sounded disappointed with his outing. "I can be a better champion," he said. "I can do better than this. I'm still learning. I've got to learn how to finish people off."