Photos: Ed Mulholland
By Kieran Mulvaney
VERONA, N.Y. -- Five months ago, Sadam Ali was on top of the world, scoring the biggest victory of his career when he ruined future Hall-of-Famer Miguel Cotto’s retirement party with a decision win. On Saturday night, he was a beaten man, bludgeoned to the canvas four times and stopped by a younger, stronger and much, much bigger Jaime Munguia, who made the most of an unexpected opportunity to announce his arrival in devastating fashion on his HBO debut.
Ali (26-2, 14 KOs) had been scheduled to face Britain’s Liam Smith, until the man from Liverpool was forced to withdraw with a skin infection. In his place stepped Munguia (29-0, 25 KOs); and although Ali claimed he was unconcerned by the change and was prepared to fight anyone, he conceded that the late change “kinda sucked.” Munguia entered the ring unbeaten and as a highly-touted prospect, but with limited opposition on his record. For that reason, the Nevada State Athletic Commission had earlier refused to allow him to fight Gennady Golovkin last week. Munguia proved that he was not only a worthy foe but that he is a potential star, as he swatted Ali aside.
If the true level of skill was uncertain at the beginning of the evening, the size differential was not. Ali, a natural welterweight fighting one division higher, was facing a man who, on the night, was a light-heavyweight, and it showed. Munguia hurt Ali with just about the first combination he landed: a right hand a left hook in the opening seconds that bowled Ali over. Ali beat the count but was hurt by another left, and then dropped a second time by another hook and a sweeping right.
“He’s very strong,” acknowledged Ali afterward. “He caught me early and that kind of messed things up. No excuses. He was the better man.”
Whatever the size difference, Ali showed a heavyweight heart as he tried to fight off Munguia’s charge in the second; but as well as the extra heft, Munguia displayed talent and showed impressive timing, moving in and out and landing at will. A big right hand hurt Ali in the second, and another dropped him to his knees.
Ali survived that round, and the third, too – even landing some flush hooks as he fought a desperate rearguard action. Yet another hook hurt him again and appeared to put him down; but although referee Gary Rosato judged it to be a slip, he argued vociferously for either the corner or the doctor to halt the contest between rounds. Neither did so, but once Munguia sent Ali down for a fourth time in the next round, Rosato had no hesitation in waving off the fight without a count. Time was 1:02 of the fourth.
“This is huge for me. It’s a dream come true,” said Munguia. “I want to thank the Nevada Commission for giving me a path to this fight. And now I’m a champion.”
Azat Hovhannisyan hurled his hooks at Rey Vargas, and he let rip with right hands. He bloodied Vargas (and, largely unintentionally, butted him on more than one occasion). But he couldn’t beat him. Mexico’s Vargas retaliated with ferocious body shots, straight counter punches to the head, and superior boxing skills and ring generalship; at the end of 12 grueling rounds, he scored a unanimous decision win to retain his super bantamweight strap and maintain his unbeaten record.
It was clear from the beginning that Vargas (32-0, 22 KOs) was not going to have his own way against the Los Angeles-based Armenian, who swarmed after him with lead left hooks and landed a thumping right hand that buckled Vargas’ knee in the first. He kept after his foe in the second, but the Mexican began to time him, using his superior reach to spear the shorter man as he lunged forward. By the third, Vargas was teeing off with ferocious counter combinations, turning his attention to Hovhannisyan’s body with brutalizing punches.
Hovhannisyan (14-3, 11 KOs) continued to have his moments. However, he caught Vargas with another hook at the end of the fifth, and a trilogy of them at the beginning of the sixth. He landed a body shot of his own to send Vargas backward in the eighth. And he never stopped coming forward, never stopped applying pressure, relentless swarming and arguably shading at least one and perhaps both of the final two rounds. At the final bell, Vargas had blood streaming from cuts above both eyes. But the higher quality of his punching, the greater variety to his offense, and in particular those body shots, carried the day, as Vargas swept the judges’ cards by scores of 116-112, 117-111 and a too-wide 118-110.