Photos: Ed Mulholland
By Kieran Mulvaney
INDIO, Calif. - After back-to-back Fight of the Year performances against Takashi Miura and Orlando Salido, the incredible recent run of Francisco Vargas thudded to a halt on Saturday night at the fists of fellow Mexican Miguel Berchelt, who battered and bruised the veteran en route to an 11th-round stoppage.
Vargas, who rallied from a beating to knock out Miura in 2015 and battled Salido to a stalemate last year, had his moments against the younger Berchelt, but very few of the incredible 1,032 punches he threw had any discernible effect on his foe. All the while, Berchelt’s bludgeoning blows sliced open Vargas’ frequently damaged skin and rocked him repeatedly, ultimately leaving referee Raul Caiz Jr. with little choice but to step in and halt the action at 2:19 of the penultimate frame.
In front of an enthusiastic crowd at the Fantasy Springs Resort and Casino, Vargas began brightly, bouncing on his toes, firing combinations and seeking to remind Berchelt –- who had never previously fought past the sixth round or against as accomplished an opponent -– that he was navigating previously uncharted waters. But Berchelt (31-1, 27 KOs) was unfazed, stepping forward toward Vargas in the second and unleashing his powerful left hook to body and head. He soon learned, however, that he could not just attack with abandon, as Vargas landed a counter right hand off the ropes that sent Berchelt backward across the ring, clearly hurt.
Even so, Berchelt kept coming, and while Vargas threw the marginally higher number of punches (85 more in total than Berchelt, according to CompuBox), his mostly seemed to bounce off his opponent. In contrast, a Berchelt left/right combination knocked back the head of Vargas (23-1-2, 17 KOs) in the third, while a hook buckled his knees in the fourth. By that stage, the skin around Vargas’ eyes, which had been badly damaged in his previous outings, was already bleeding; Berchelt, as if sensing an opportunity, circled and took his time, not needing or wanting to rush forward impetuously, allowing Vargas to fire off combinations before moving in to launch another attack of his own.
By the ninth round, the blood was bad enough for Caiz to ask the ringside physician to check on the damage and rule whether Vargas was OK to continue; he did so again at the start of the 10th. Vargas was still firing punches, but they were of the sort that were being deployed to avoid defeat, whereas Berchelt’s were launched with the intention of bringing about victory.
That they did in the 11th round. Berchelt snapped back Vargas’ head with a left and chased him across the ring, seeking to press a permanent advantage. Another combination backed Vargas into a corner, and despite the veteran’s attempts to evade the assault, enough punches were landing, and with sufficient impact, to bring about the stoppage.
“Congratulations to Miguel Berchelt; he’s a great champion,” said Vargas afterward. “But the cuts, the blood—it was a problem. I’m a warrior. I fight to the end. But with the blood, I just couldn’t see.”
“Francisco Vargas is a great champion,” said Berchelt. “When he’s hurt, he throws more punches. But I’m young, I’m hungry, I wanted to be a world champion. Now I have the belt around my waist and it feels good.”
He seems likely to next face Miura, after the Japanese contender, in only his second outing since losing to Vargas, overcame a gutsy Miguel Roman to score a 12th-round knockout at the end of a brutal battle on the night's undercard.
At the beginning of the bout, Miura (31-3-2, 24 KOs) looked as if he might simply have too much class for Roman, as he spent the first round patiently looking for the distance to land southpaw straight lefts while Roman sought to crowd him out and threw only a few slow and wide shots of his own. The Mexican increased his output in the second, but even as his close-quarters stance muffled Miura’s punches, it also smothered his own. A flurry at the end of that frame suggested more was to come, however, and in rounds three and four, he stepped forward, head down, flinging rights and lefts with greater abandon. The flailing nature of the assault unsettled Miura, who wanted to keep the contest a more orthodox one and appeared flustered as his efforts to set up his more conventional, straighter punches were nullified by Roman’s swarming offense.
Miura was on his toes to begin the fifth, firing off brief combinations and then moving, seeking angles to blunt the Mexican’s straightforward aggression. It worked for a while, but Miura was able to keep Roman off him only for a short respite; by the end of the sixth, Roman was on the attack again, landing a big right and following up with a combination that rattled off Miura’s chin.
That seemed to mark a turning point for Miura, who had said earlier in the week that he had been working on a new, less static style. He now abandoned finesse and sought to fight fire with fire, swinging for the fences and landing crunching lefts and rights to Roman’s jaw. The back-to-basics approach began to yield effects, and Roman (56-12, 43 KOs) appeared to be tiring by the end of the ninth.
The 10th round, however, was when Miura’s efforts really bore fruit. He had been landing a southpaw right hook to the body since the opening bell, and after continuing to soften up his foe’s torso in subsequent rounds, he landed a crunching left hand to the solar plexus that dropped Roman to his knees. The Mexican rolled over, grimacing, yet was somehow able to beat the count, blood streaming from a cut above his right eye, and was saved by the bell. Salvation was temporary, however. Miura backed him to the ropes in the 11th, working him over with combinations and dropping him again; and when Roman exited his corner for the final round, it looked far from certain that he would be able to survive three more minutes.
He could not. Miura backed Roman to the ropes again, measured him up with a one-two, then unloaded a left hand that detonated on Roman's jaw, sending him crashing to the canvas. He lay on his back, his arm across his forehead, giving every impression of being spent. That was when referee Thomas Taylor, having begun the count, called it off.