Photos: Will Hart
By Kieran Mulvaney
A terrific fight reached a dramatic and confusing conclusion as Jessie Vargas, hopelessly down on the scorecards, landed a huge right hand with 15 seconds remaining, briefly thought he had defeated Timothy Bradley with a last-moment referee stoppage, and wound up a unanimous loser on the scorecards. It was the correct result, and the scores were just about right, but the fact that a referee error denied Vargas seven seconds to complete what would have been a massively improbable comeback both took some of the gloss off Bradley’s otherwise largely dominant performance and set the stage for a rematch that, until that one big punch, would not have been on anybody’s mind.
For Bradley, the bizarre ending marked yet another chapter in what has been a strange couple of years, beginning with his hugely controversial win over Manny Pacquiao in 2012, through a barely-survived war with Ruslan Provodnikov on this same StubHub stage in 2013, and his draw last year against Diego Chaves in a foul-filled contest that almost everyone ringside thought he had won.
Such was the noise that surrounded the bout’s final 15 seconds, it was almost possible in the immediate aftermath to forget that 11.9 rounds had preceded them. But they did, and they were largely dominated by Bradley.
During fight week, Bradley was tightly coiled, looking for chips to carry on his shoulder, nurturing grievances that might motivate him against a clear underdog opponent. And once the opening bell rang, he fought like a man possessed, unleashing the tension he had been allowing to build inside him. The shorter man barreled forward, jabbing to Vargas’ body and hooking upstairs, concluding the round with a right hand that caught his opponent’s attention.
A Bradley flurry to open the second had the crowd cheering, and while Vargas was landing with hard shots of his own as his foe came forward, Bradley’s ripping combinations were by far the more effective. Vargas was seeking to land jabs to keep Bradley at bay, but part of the reason that many of his wins to this point have been closer than they should have been is that too often he is a reactive fighter, responding to his foe and seeking to do that bit better rather than grabbing a contest by the scruff of the neck. Until tonight that approach had been enough to keep him undefeated, but while such a strategy might work against the likes of Anton Novikov, Bradley is of an entirely different caliber; and by the time the fourth round had been completed, the veteran was in complete control. By that stage, Vargas (26-1, 9 KOs) was looking ragged, Bradley right hands brutalizing his head, while other monstrous rights whistled past with such force that they caused Bradley to stumble across the ring.
Bradley was controlling the pace and the distance; Vargas was effective enough when he could keep his foe at range, but too often he couldn’t, and once Bradley (32-1-1, 12 KOs) stepped inside Vargas’ reach, he unleashed furious combinations that had Vargas backpedaling.
The sight of Bradley’s left eye swelling and threatening to close was a sign that Vargas’ right hands were not entirely without success, but Bradley’s bombs were the ones that continued to land to greater effect. It felt as if Desert Storm were the one most determined to inflict damage, while Vargas was mostly looking to resist the onrushing offense.
The pace slowed in the final third of the fight as Bradley both tired and, recognizing he was ahead, dialed back his attack. Vargas began to have some more success with his long jab, but there was never the sense that he knew he needed to take risks to have a chance of climbing out of the deep hole in which he found himself by this stage, or that he had the will or wherewithal to do so.
Even in the final round, even as Bradley mostly bounced and boxed, he was the one who launched the harder punchers, who looked like the man more interested in inflicting damage and closing the show.
And then came the punch, a final Hail Mary of a Vargas right hand that detonated on Bradley’s jaw and sent him lurching backward. He was hurt, but clearly had at least some of his senses about him as he steadied his legs beneath him and circled as far away from Vargas as possible. But then the clapper sounded to signal ten seconds remaining, and referee Pat Russell, confused by the roar of the crowd, thought it was the bell to end the round. He stepped between the two combatants and waved his hands to signal that the contest was over.
Vargas interpreted that to mean that it had been ended prematurely and in his favor and leapt on to the turnbuckles in delight as his team flooded the ring and confusion seized the StubHub. Several minutes passed before ring announcer Lupe Contreras explained to the 4,711 in the crowd that Russell had signaled what he thought was the timely end of the round and not a dramatic denouement of the fight, announced that the fight would go to the scorecards, and read the tallies of 116-112, 117-111 and 115-112 in favor of Bradley.
“I thought it was over,” said Vargas. “I hit him with a shot, I let my hands go. All I needed was one shot and that was what I was looking for. It was still going on. It was an honest mistake on [the referee’s] part, but it cost me the fight. Those seven seconds cost me the fight.”
“He caught me with a good right at the end,” acknowledged Bradley. But, he insisted, he wasn’t in danger of being knocked down, let alone out. “Hey, come on. I survived Provodnikov. I didn’t go anywhere. I was still in there, I was still alive. Boom, I didn’t go down. I thought, ‘Dammit, I didn't listen to my trainer again and I got hurt.’”
Suddenly, Bradley, who days earlier was expressing a willingness to step up to middleweight to ace Gennady Golovkin, instead had a ready-made opponent for his next contest. “Hey, we can do it again. Why not? We can go rematch. I don’t have a problem with that. I’ll give him a rematch, no problem.”
Asked what he would do differently should such a rematch come to fruition, how he would avoid the controversy and prevent himself from falling so far behind, Vargas was perfectly clear:
“In the rematch, we start where we left off.”