Tim Bradley vs. Jessie Vargas: Good as Gold?

By Eric Raskin

If you want to make an amateur assessment as to whether a piece of jewelry is real gold, you can run the nitric acid test, the liquid foundation test, the heaviness test, or the magnetization test. But your surest move is to just bring it to a professional appraiser.

Timothy Bradley has been to the appraiser—numerous times. He stepped up against Junior Witter in 2008 when he was just an untested prospect, then he stepped up against the highly touted Devon Alexander in 2011 in his first major HBO headliner, and then he stepped all the way up against Manny Pacquiao in 2012. He even had his chin and heart appraised by Ruslan Provodnikov in 2013. By now, we know: Bradley is legit.

On June 27 at the StubHub Center in Carson, California on HBO World Championship Boxing, Bradley gets to be the appraiser. Jessie Vargas, five years younger than Bradley at 26, is where “Desert Storm” was around the time of his first title challenge against Witter: undefeated, showing promise … but untested at the next level. Is he the real thing? Or is he fool’s gold?

It’s the classic step-up fight, one guy working his way up but we don’t know whether he can climb any higher, and one guy already at the top and hoping not to begin his descent.

It’s HBO's 1,000th fight, and Bradley is predicting it will be a memorable one.

“I think this fight might be a candidate for Fight of the Year,” said the 31-year-old two-division former titleholder. “I’m already calling it right now. A lot of you out there see this fight on paper and you guys are like, ‘It’s an easy fight for you, Bradley.’ And I’m like ‘Y’all crazy. What do you mean easy fight for Bradley?’ This fight is not easy whatsoever … I call StubHub ‘The War Ground,’ because every time there’s a fight there, there’s always a war. And I think this fight’s gonna be a war.”

HBO expert analyst Roy Jones has a unique perspective on this contest: Until a few weeks ago, he was Vargas’ trainer. A busy man being pulled in several directions, however, Jones couldn’t give Vargas the attention he needed and they amicably parted ways. Vargas replaced Jones with another future Hall of Famer, Erik Morales, his fifth head trainer in under seven years as a pro. What impact “El Terrible” will have is anybody’s guess. But for a somewhat inconsistent fighter who, perhaps because of all the trainer changes, seems to be still finding his in-ring identity, Vargas can’t afford to be at anything less than his best, according to Jones.

“Timothy Bradley is one hell of a fighter—one of the worst guys in any division to fight,” Jones said. Every Bradley opponent has to be concerned about him using his head physically, but Jones is concerned with Bradley’s cranium in a different way: “He’s not the most powerful puncher, but he’s a very smart guy. It’s very difficult to deal with him because he is so smart. Vargas has to stay out from right in front of Tim. You can’t fight standing right in front of Tim; that’s the worst thing you can do. He’s also going to have to make adjustments because Tim makes adjustments as well as any fighter today.”

Jones went on to make an outside-the-box comparison, equating Bradley to a modern-day Freddie Pendleton. With a record of 31-1-1 with 12 KOs, Bradley’s ledger looks nothing like that of Pendleton, who had 17 losses by the time he won a piece of the lightweight title in 1993. But Jones believes he’s like Pendleton in that he’s been learning on the job and continuing to improve with each fight. “Tim is still not the final Tim Bradley right now,” Jones opined.

It’s an interesting way of viewing a fighter who some perceive as starting to show signs of slippage following the war with Provodnikov, a rematch loss to Pacquiao, and a controversial draw with Diego Chaves. Bradley seemed clearly to deserve the win in the Chaves fight, but he did end it grotesquely swollen and perhaps showing some of the wear of five straight 12-round distance fights against world-class opposition.

Does Vargas count as a sixth straight world-class foe? He holds one of boxing’s countless sanctioning organization titles at junior welterweight, and he’s beaten such solid fighters in the last 14 months as Khabib Allakhverdiev and Antonio DeMarco to run his record to 26-0 with 9 KOs. At times Vargas has been Twitter-targeted for capturing wide decisions in close fights, but  he's been looking better of late. The concern is that he’s beating opponents who are a full level below Bradley, a current resident of every pound-for-pound list.

Given the boxers’ combined 35 percent knockout rate, this has the feel of a distance fight. The question is whether it’s a fight that will be fought at a distance. If so, Vargas has a chance. He’s about four inches taller than Bradley and utilizes the jab consistently, usually throwing 20-25 of them a round. The awkward, indefatigable Bradley will want to get inside and rough Vargas up, with little concern for Vargas’ potential to hurt him.

“In the ring, I will tell Vargas, ‘This is my time, not yours,’” Bradley said at his prefight open workout.

It would seem, however, that this isn’t so much about timing. This is about whether Vargas can elevate to Bradley’s level. This is about whether he’s the real thing. The Bradley test will tell us definitively.

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In the opening bout of the broadcast, the very welcome trend of talented, unbeaten fighters making their HBO debuts continues with 24-year-old featherweight Oscar Valdez, a two-time Mexican Olympian fighting in his first scheduled 10-rounder against veteran southpaw Ruben Tamayo. With 14 stoppages among his 15 wins, you might think Valdez is a huge puncher, but in fact he tends to require a few rounds to earn the knockout (fun stat: his last six fights have lasted three, four, five, six, seven, and eight rounds). Valdez is less a KO artist than an action-oriented slugger, a young man willing to trade heavy shots until the knockout comes. Against Tamayo, whose record of 25-5-4 includes four stoppage losses, expect more of the same to delight the StubHub Center audience.