Jessie Vargas (right) digs a right hand into Ernesto Zavala's side en route to stopping the veteran in the sixth round of his last fight. His willingness to fight seasoned fighters such as Zavala has quickened his pro development. Photo / Craig Bennett-Fightwireimages.com
Those who have seen Jessie Vargas fight consider the 21-year-old junior welterweight to be one of the best prospects in the sport.
Those who haven’t seen the talented Las Vegan fight — which accounts for most fans, since Vargas has had limited television exposure — will get an opportunity on Thursday when he faces Argentine veteran Pablo Daniel Sarmiento on a Fight Night Club card at Club Nokia in Los Angeles.
The eight-round main event is Vargas’ third Fight Night Club bout (his second televised) but don’t expect many more appearances on the club-show series geared toward developing up-and-comers. His handlers expect him to advance to fighting Top-15 contenders in 10- and 12-round bouts within his next three to four fights.
In fact, Vargas’ trainers believe he is something very special. They claim that he’s the sport’s next Mexican-American attraction and have gone so far as to compare him to Julio Cesar Chavez Sr. and the late, great Alexis Arguello.
Normally, such talk is dismissed as delusional hyperbole, but Vargas’ trainers — former champs Roger Mayweather and Cornelius Boza Edwards — have never been prone to exaggerating the talents of young fighters, even the ones they train.
And it should be noted that they actually fought the Latin legends to whom they compare Vargas. Mayweather fought Chavez twice in failed bids for junior lightweight and junior welterweight titles in 1985 and 1989 when the Mexican icon was 46-0 and 62-0. Boza Edwards fought and lost to Arguello in 1980 when the Nicaraguan hero held a 68-5 record.
“When I first saw Jessie, back when he was just a skinny little kid, he reminded me of Arguello,” said Mayweather, who held world titles at 130 and 140 pounds. “He was tall for his age, and he threw straight powerful punches like Arguello. He didn’t have Arguello’s defense, obviously, and he still don’t, but the stand-up style and power in both hands.”
Boza Edwards concurs with his co-trainer.
“Just so people won’t expect to see a near-perfect fighter Thursday night I should clarify that Jessie looked like the young Alexis, not the version that I fought,” said the former 130-pound champ. “He reminds us of the up-and-coming Arguello, not the finished product.”
As precocious as Vargas is — the rangy boxer-puncher stopped both former title challenger Arturo Morua and former contender Ernesto Zavala in the sixth round in his last two bouts — there’s room for improvement.
He can be too eager to mix it up and in his zeal to take out his opponent he sometimes squares up and forgets to move his head. At times, he’s too content to catch punches on the gloves of his high-held guard, which invites unnecessary head shots.
This is the part of Vargas’ style that reminds the veteran fighter/trainers of a young Chavez. They know trying to emulate the incredibly durable three-division champ can ruin a young fighter rather quickly, but they aren’t concerned for Vargas. They know he’s tougher than he looks and claim that he possesses the intelligence to learn the finer points of the sweet science.
“Jessie doesn’t look it but he’s physically strong,” said Mayweather, who has trained Vargas since the young man first laced on a pair of gloves at age 8. “He’s strong enough to back grown men up, and he’s got power to hurt ‘em, which is one of the reasons we can match him up as tough as we do. But he’s also smart. He’s an educated fighter. He’s not just fighting on balls like most of these young guys, he’s got skills. He’s young, but he understands boxing.”
Who better to learn from than Mayweather and Boza Edwards, the latter of whom has known Vargas since he was 10 and became his co-trainer when he turned pro at age 18.
“I like to learn,” Vargas said. “It’s privilege to have been taught by men who love boxing as much as Roger and Boza, two former champions who fought great fighters. We talk about boxing all the time, even outside of the gym. I love hearing their stories because I want to know what the sport was like when they were fighters.”
One of the main differences between their era and this one, Mayweather and Boza Edwards often tell Vargas, is that promising young fighters were not “babied” on their way up the rankings the way many of today’s top prospects are.
Vargas (11-0, 6 knockouts) took their words to heart and has been willing to challenge himself more than his fellow amateur standouts from the 2008 class, including most Olympians.
His fearlessness has made the job of his matchmakers easier, and it’s also sparked rapid development in his professional skills and ring maturity.
“I look at Jessie as one of the top guys in the junior welterweight division as far as the younger fighters are concerned,” said Robert Diaz, a matchmaker for Golden Boy Promotions, which has made most of Vargas’ recent bouts. “He’s fighting anybody who’s willing to fight him, including undefeated prospects and veterans who can still fight. He hasn’t fought the old journeymen with bad records or the kids who can’t fight. Look at Ernesto Zavala. He had a 21-4 record when he fought Jessie and he had been training at the Wild Card gym; he was in shape and ready to shock a young fighter, but not Jessie.
“You can’t think of Jessie as a normal 21-year-old fighter with only 10 or 11 bouts. Jessie fights like a pro with 18 to 20 bouts under his belt.”
Diaz finds Vargas’ old-school mentality refreshing, especially when he has a hard time finding an opponent.
“We went through a bunch of opponents for Vargas before we found Sarmiento,” Diaz said. “Originally it was supposed to be Hector Alatorre, who went 10 rounds with Victor Ortiz in February, but he pulled out. We tried Cleotis Pendarivs, a super-fast southpaw who has upset a few prospects recently, but he couldn’t because he’s going to be one of [Antonio] Margarito’s sparring partners. We thought we had Jose Izquierdo, but he dropped out for some reason. Finally, we got Sarmiento, who’s getting old and hasn’t fought in awhile, but he’s a seasoned pro. He used to be world ranked, and he’s been in camp with middleweight champ Sergio Martinez, so I know he’s in shape, because those guys are serious about their conditioning.
“Most undefeated prospects wouldn’t face a guy like Sarmiento, a guy with 49 pro bouts, with less than a week’s notice. But Vargas doesn’t care. He was willing to fight all of those guys and he didn’t need to ask around or see tape of them first. He just wants to fight.”
Vargas says he only asks one question about his potential opponents:
“Just tell me if he’s right handed or left handed,” he said. “I don’t care about his record or who he’s fought. My thinking is that he hasn’t fought me yet. I’ll find out how tough he is or how talented he is after I hit him. That’s always been my mindset, even when I was an amateur.”
That attitude helped him compile a 135-20 amateur record that included two junior national titles and an invitation to be on the 2008 Mexican Olympic team, but his professional future seems brighter.
“He’s on the same road that I was on when I was a young pro,” said Mayweather, who won his first world title in his 15th pro bout. He’s fighting dudes with more fights and more experience than he has. Everyone I fought coming up had more fights than me, and I learned from those fights. That’s why I moved up the ladder so fast.
“I fought my first eight rounder in my second pro bout. I was going 10 rounds before I had 10 fights. I fought Carlton Sparrow in my 10th pro bout. That was my first scheduled 12-rounder. I stopped him in four rounds for the Nevada state title. I fought Ruben Munoz for the USBA title in my 13th bout and two fights later I fought Sammy Serrano in Puerto Rico for my first world title.”
Mayweather admits that Vargas isn’t quite as advanced as he was at the same point in their pro careers but he says the young man isn’t far behind.
“This is his 12th pro bout coming up, so maybe in his 14th or 15th fight he’ll be ready for a USBA-type title and the Top-10 or Top-15 contenders,” Mayweather said. “This fight will tell us if he’s ready. I know this guy he’s fighting will probably adapt to what Jessie does to him, and I expect Jessie to adapt to him. That’s the key to learning and so far he’s done that in every fight. He’s also been knocking guys out lately. I want him to knock this guy out.”
That’s a high expectation considering that Sarmiento (34-13-2, 16 KOs) has only been knocked out twice in 49 bouts (the last time 11 years ago), and Vargas is fighting in his first eight-round bout, but Mayweather has high hopes for his prize pupil.
“This fight is another step for him because he’s in the main event,” Mayweather said. “So I’m not only looking to see if he can stop this man but I’m looking to see if he can move the crowd. See, that’s what makes a star. It’s not just about winning, it’s about being exciting and making people want to see you again and again.
“I truly believe Jessie Vargas is going to be one of the great Spanish fighters on the scene if he stays focused.”