Photo: Ed Mulholland
By Diego Morilla
Following up on a Fight of the Year performance is a tough assignment -- let alone two in a row.
But that's the challenge that awaits Francisco Vargas, who will take on Miguel Berchelt in a 12-rounder with pride and country on the line on Jan. 28 from the Fantasy Springs Resort Casino in Indio, Calif., on HBO's Boxing After Dark (10 p.m. ET/PT).
The enormity of the task is not lost on the Mexico City native.
"Yes, I come from two tough, emotional fights that were among the best of the year," said the unbeaten Vargas (23-0-2, 17 KOs). "A lot of people are expecting something similar. I am very happy because they acknowledged our efforts in those fights, they were memorable bouts."
Specifically, the 32-year-old Vargas is referring to his November 2015 stoppage win against Takashi Miura in a brutal, bruising slugfest, and his June 2016 dramatic draw against fellow brawler Orlando Salido.
On the other side, Berchelt (30-1, 27 KOs), known as "Alacrán" (Scorpion), said he has found inspiration in Vargas' performances as well, but from a different perspective.
"I got emotional as a Mexican fighter watching Vargas defeat a great champion like Takashi [Miura]," said Berchelt, 25. "And then his defense against Salido was awesome. But I'm ready to give my best and Vargas will do his best to hold on to his crown. And every time there are two Mexicans in a ring, there is a guarantee of a terrific show."
Vargas will be defending his title belt, not to mention neighborhood bragging rights as the elder champ goes against a young gun.
"We've seen that he is a young guy with a record that says he's a hard puncher," Vargas said about his taller and rangier but noticeably slower foe. "But we know that he can box and he can brawl too, so we worked on trying to get ready for both scenarios."
Berchelt claims to have a hidden card up his sleeve, one that Vargas has worn out through his many grueling fights.
"I believe that my hunger will make a difference," said Berchelt. "'El Bandido' is a great champion, but aside from being a knockout specialist I am a good fighter, and I know how to keep my distance."
The stats indicate that Berchelt does have a puncher's chance, but the smart money is on Berchelt being figured out and outfoxed out by Vargas, a battle-tested warrior with deeper resources. A war of attrition is the most likely scenario for the fight, and Berchelt should not be misled into thinking that he'll be able to hand Vargas his first stoppage loss.
"I will try to win one round at a time," said Berchelt. "I am taller and I believe I am stronger than him, so I hope to clash head-on with him a little bit if we see that we don't feel each other's punches at the beginning. Vargas throws punches from the beginning of the fight until the end, but I am confident in my preparation, my boxing skills, my punching power and in that hunger that I have inside me to carry me ahead."
The longer the fight goes on, the better the chances for Vargas to find an opening that he can exploit. Berchelt has been caught off-balance before, and Vargas will find him if the fight goes on long enough.
"We work to fight 12 rounds," said Vargas. "We don't know what will happen but we are ready for anything. Whether he comes straight forward or starts moving around, we will work on whatever he brings."
With everything to gain and very little to lose, Berchelt knows that the burden of proof is on him in this fight.
"I see a difficult fight for both of us," said the challenger. "But I always see myself as a winner in every fight, and this one is not different. I know I am not the favorite, but I am aiming at scoring a surprise, to let the audience know that they should never underestimate a courageous fighter like me."
The co-main event will feature the other combatant in the 2015 Fight of the Year, when Japan's Takashi Miura (30-3-2, 23 KOs) will try to make his case for a bout against the main event's winner in a dangerous 10-rounder against another tough Mexican customer in Miguel "Mickey" Roman (56-11, 43 KOs).
Miura, an aggressive fighter who never spends time feeling out his opponents, will have his work cut out for him against the heavy-handed Roman, who is coming off an 18-fight winning streak. The fight will be a WBC title eliminator, with the winner heading into a mandatory bout against the Vargas-Berchelt victor.