By Eric Raskin
With the rounds melting away, and the flesh above Francisco Vargas’ left eye doing likewise, HBO broadcasters Jim Lampley, Max Kellerman, and Roy Jones began a lively discussion about the level of “miracle” that would be required for Vargas to defeat Miguel Berchelt. Was a come-from-behind knockout merely unlikely? Or was it outright unthinkable? For one iconic fighter, those distinctions had been forever blurred.
Coming into Saturday night’s rumble at Fantasy Springs Casino, Vargas had earned more than his share of comparisons to Arturo Gatti. (That’s what happens when you’re in two consecutive Fight of the Year winners.) But after eight, nine, 10 rounds against Berchelt, hopelessly behind on the scorecards, with his cutman having brought a Q-tip to a gun fight, the comparisons became more urgent. Either Vargas was going to do that thing Gatti did a few times and rally when hope seemed almost lost, or he was going to soon find his name added to the list of fighters who’d been called “the new Gatti” or “the next Gatti” and had found the label impossible to live up to.
Vargas is a warrior. He’s legitimately in the conversation for “most exciting fighter in the world today.” But boxers who fit that description almost always have a short shelf life. Lots of guys can be “the new Gatti” for a year or two. Gatti was a freakish outlier in that he bought one round-trip ticket to hell after another and had the longevity to keep doing it at a world-class level for a full decade. Gatti won his first title in 1995 and earned his last shot at one in 2006. When he lost three straight in 1998, it seemed he’d burned out at age 26, as a fighter of his ilk might be expected to. But he took some time off. He let his face heal. He was matched carefully. And then, after getting slaughtered by Oscar De La Hoya in what looked like a cash-out fight in 2001, he got a new trainer and rediscovered some of his old boxing skills. That, in combination with the freak genes that we learned he had when three wars with Micky Ward didn’t ruin him, allowed Gatti to enjoy an iconic second act into his mid-30s.
Francisco Vargas isn’t the first fighter to be saddled with the “next Gatti” label, to be burdened with the notion that humans can be expected to fight like Gatti did for more than a handful of bouts. In fact, he isn’t even the first “F. Vargas” to have to deal with those comparisons. Fernando Vargas, a Main Events stablemate of Gatti’s, was among the first fighters to go through it, just as Gatti’s late-career run was getting underway. The January 2004 issue of World Boxing (a magazine for which I was an editor at the time), put Vargas on the cover after a tougher-than-expected get-well win following his loss to De La Hoya with the headline, “The Latino Gatti.”
Word got back to us that Fernando was offended by the cover line, and he had a fair point — he’d fought on nearly even terms with De La Hoya and Felix Trinidad, whereas Gatti couldn’t win one minute of one round against Oscar (and would later suffer the same fate against Floyd Mayweather). Vargas, at his best, was a superior fighter to Gatti. However, he was inferior in the sense that his tough fights ruined him and made him a shell of himself by his mid-20s. Vargas was more talented than Gatti, but Gatti’s name resonates a decade after both of their careers ended in a way that Vargas’ does not.
Simultaneous to the precipitous decline of "El Feroz," Romanian-Canadian lightweight Leonard Dorin started hearing some “new Gatti” chatter, thanks to a pair of vicious Fight of the Year candidates (both of which were blocked from such honors by Gatti-Ward fights). Dorin won a narrow decision over Raul Balbi in a scorcher in 2002, then fought to a bloody draw with Paul Spadafora in 2003. So what stopped Dorin from achieving Gatti-dom? Gatti himself. “Thunder” struck Dorin down via second-round bodyshot knockout in 2004, and Dorin never fought again.
For a stretch between 2009 and 2011, it seemed Mexico’s Giovani Segura might be the flyweight Gatti, but the tiny slugger got dominated by Brian Viloria and, like so many other all-offense fighters, flamed out quickly. Victor Ortiz briefly took over as the most guaranteed-to-entertain boxer in the world, but once you develop a reputation as a frontrunner who will look to exit a fight when things aren’t going your way, you disqualify yourself from “next Gatti” consideration. Ruslan Provodnikov had Gatti’s toughness and inability to avoid punches, but the sum total of his run on “top,” starting with a Fight of the Year loss to Tim Bradley, was a 3-4 record over three short years. After their spectacular 2006 Fight of the Year, Somsak Sithchatchawal and Mahyar Monshipour both seemed like “next Gatti” candidates, but it turned out that single night of violence ruined them both, and neither ever won a significant fight again.
And there’s Diego “Chico” Corrales, an interesting case in that he had some longevity and, of all the fighters discussed here, has the best chance at following Gatti into the Hall of Fame. Like Gatti, he died young, and like Gatti, his career can be divided into two parts. In Corrales’ case, he was a pound-for-pound-worthy boxer-puncher in the front half — until losing to Mayweather and going to prison — and a blood-curdling action fighter in the second half. But that second run was brief. He lost a war with Joel Casamayor. He boxed his way to a close victory in the rematch. He rallied to knock out Acelino Freitas in the 10th round of a great fight. He did the same against Jose Luis Castillo in one of the greatest fights ever. Then he never won again. The moment Corrales seemed to be grabbing the mantle from Gatti was precisely the moment all the punches caught up with him.
Maybe Takashi Miura, who lost to Francisco Vargas in the 2015 Fight of the Year and, to a certain extent, stole the show from him on the undercard this past Saturday night with a dramatic 12th-round knockout win over Mickey Roman, will start hearing some “new Gatti” buzz next. The problem is, everyone who watched Miura-Roman came away thinking the same thing: He can’t fight this way too much longer.
In the past 20 years, other than Gatti, none of them could. There have been other thrilling fighters with long careers — such as Erik Morales, Manny Pacquiao, and Miguel Cotto — but rarely did they have to go full Gatti. It’s one thing to have defensive flaws; it’s another to have zero defense. It’s one thing to win close fights; it’s another to battle back from what looks like certain defeat. Vargas and Miura are fun action fighters, but there’s always another Vargas or Miura waiting in the wings. Much as fans would like to find another Gatti, a boxer who can do what he did for as long as he did is, well, a miracle.