By Eric Raskin
Some stereotypes exist for a reason. The idea of the Mexican warrior in boxing, for one, carries on because the nation directly south of the United States has historically produced more than its fair share of hefty-hearted hurlers, bad-asses who won’t back down and would rather land one torqueing left hook to the liver than a hundred back-foot jabs. It's a well-worn boxing cliché. And Francisco Vargas and Orlando Salido are here to perpetuate it.
In fact, the venue where they’ll square off on June 4, the StubHub Center in Carson, California, has its own well-earned reputation. Taken all together, Mexico City’s Vargas vs. Sonora’s Salido at StubHub is one of those fights that forces everyone to throw around the words “Fight of the Year” before the opening bell even rings.
“Everyone knows when two great Mexican warriors get in the ring, not one of them will take a step back,” Vargas said at the kick-off press conference. “I’m very motivated to be fighting a great warrior like Orlando Salido.”
“I am preparing myself for a war,” Salido concurred. “We know it’s going to be a great fight. I need to prepare myself for the Fight of the Year.”
The last time Vargas stepped into the ring, he came out on the winning end of just such an encounter. Last November 21 against Takashi Miura, Vargas willed himself up from a fourth-round knockdown, battled through a severely swollen right eye and assorted other lumps and lacerations, and Gatti’d his way to a ninth-round knockout win to claim a junior lightweight belt. Salido, meanwhile, is no stranger to rip-roaring violence inside the ropes himself; there were the two knockouts of Juan Manuel Lopez, the dramatic upset over Vasyl Lomachenko, a pair of pitched battles last year with Rocky Martinez, and a ridiculous seven-knockdown slugfest against Terdsak Kokietgym that some considered the best fight of 2014.
Unfortunately for both of these gladiators, an exciting fighter is rarely a long-lasting fighter, and that seems especially relevant to Salido’s status entering this bout. If you ask the boxer known as “Siri” when he turned pro, he’ll tell you that it was when he was just 15 years old, around the midpoint of the Clinton administration. Now he’s 35, with 60 fights on the odometer. He’s undoubtedly had a better career than his record of 43-13-3 with 30 KOs and 1 no-decision would indicate; since an 11-7-2 start, mostly compiled as a teenager, he’s gone a respectable 32-6-1, largely against world-class opposition.
“I’ve never been a protected fighter,” Salido said recently. “I’ve had to take the fights that are offered to me.” But in the last few offered and accepted, there have been mildly troubling signs for the pressure-fighting body banger. He wasn’t supposed to need so much heart to get by Terdsak. He wasn’t supposed to lose to Martinez in their first scrap. Though Salido bounced back well with what should have been a win over Martinez in his most recent fight last September (the judges scored it a draw), you just never know when all the birthday candles are going to add up to a useless pile of wax. Especially when you consider that Salido has suffered nine knockdowns in his last six fights.
Then again, it's possible Vargas had as many years stripped off his career in a single fight against Miura as Salido has in the past decade. The 2008 Mexican Olympian is a relatively young 31, and at 23-0-1 with 17 KOs, he’s had fewer than half as many pro fights as his StubHub opponent. But this is his first time stepping between the ropes since Miura put a funky Snapchat filter on his face, and we can’t know what effect those nine rounds of savagery will have on him.
Even assuming said effects aren’t terribly deleterious, there remain questions about Vargas because he’s far less proven than Salido. While Siri has boxed 405 professional rounds, Vargas has heard the opening ding just 96 times. We know he has a potent jab and we know he possesses punching power—the Miura miracle and a nine-fight knockout streak in 2011-'12 speak to that—but aside from Miura, his next-best victims have been Jerry Belmontes, Abner Cotto, Will Tomlinson, and a used-up JuanMa Lopez. Lomachenko, Robert Guerrero, and Mikey Garcia, they are not.
“I always said I want to fight the best,” Vargas said, “and I consider Salido one of the best.”
Whoever wins will get to claim he’s the best at 130 pounds (a position Vargas currently holds according to the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board), but the claim might prove short-lived. Featherweight forces Lomachenko and Nicholas Walters are coming to junior lightweight, and will immediately suck up much of the oxygen in the weight class. But that makes Vargas-Salido that much more meaningful, as the winner is positioned to be the obstacle Lomachenko and/or Walters need to go through.
And speaking of obstacles, there’s one that threatened to scuttle Saturday’s fight, one that has nothing to do with Xs and Os but that can’t be ignored when discussing Vargas-Salido. On April 21, Vargas tested positive for a performance-enhancing drug called clenbuterol. It’s a drug that has been found frequently in Mexican meat, and that’s the claim Team Vargas offered after the test results came back. “El Bandido” took additional tests, and they were all negative. So the alibi seems believable. But still, he tested positive for a PED and the fight is happening anyway. That’s the kind of controversy that can overshadow whatever happens in the ring.
Unless what happens in the ring is what we expect to happen based on Vargas’ style and heritage, Salido’s style and heritage, and the brief history of the venue. In that case, no controversy will be dark enough to overshadow it.
“I just want to let everyone know to cancel everything—no weddings, no business, no Quinceanera, no nothing. Just go watch this fight,” Salido said. “We’re going to give you a great, great fight, something you’re going to remember for a long, long time.”
For the opening bout of the broadcast, the predictions and promises are far less bold. But the showdown between Julian Ramirez and Abraham Lopez is still plenty intriguing in its own right. They have much in common, as both are undefeated featherweights from California who will be making their HBO debuts. At age 23 with a 16-0 record, Ramirez is the more highly touted prospect, but the 28-year-old Lopez, boasting a record of 20-0-1, is now making moves after losing three years of his career to contractual issues. In a weight class that may be waving goodbye to Lomachenko and Walters but has recently said hello to the likes of Joseph Diaz and Oscar Valdez, Ramirez vs. Lopez has real stakes—for the present, and especially for the future.