Lee Groves

10: Best St. Patrick’s Day fights

3. 1991 – Michael Carbajal W 12 Javier Varguez, Bally’s Las Vegas, Las Vegas, Nevada – IBF junior flyweight title

On paper, this fight appeared to be routine for Carbajal. After all, he was the 1988 Olympic silver medalist and an undefeated (19-0, 13 KOs) champion being groomed for the first million-dollar payday at junior flyweight. Meanwhile, the 27-year-old Varguez was four years older, five inches shorter than the 5-5 champion and a loser of two of his last three, including a 12-rounder to Melchor Cob Castro in his last outing six months earlier.

In the ring, Carbajal-Varguez provided the most sustained action of all the fights on this list and was far closer than the judges’ scorecards indicated. The fight plans were obvious: Carbajal utilizing his height and reach advantages and the southpaw Varguez relentlessly boring in. The challenger began the fireworks late in round one with a pair of overhand lefts that made the champ’s legs shudder. Carbajal – whose love for Roberto Duran was such that he called himself “Manitas de Piedra” – emulated the Panamanian’s lust for combat by going toe-to-toe at every opportunity. It might not have been smart strategy, but it made for a humongously entertaining scrap.

The fight was also foul-filled. Low blows cost Varguez one point in rounds six and 10 while Carbajal was docked in the seventh. That didn’t stop either man from whacking the body time and again, and the pace demanded every resource from both men.

Carbajal appeared to wilt under the pressure in round eight as he hunched his upper body to avoid Varguez’s meat hooks to the ribs. For the first time in his professional career Carbajal was forced to dig into his deepest reservoirs to pull himself through, especially when two big lefts stunned Carbajal near the end of the 10th.

Luckily for Carbajal, those resources were there. He won the 11th by turning Vargas and peppering his face with short, crisp punches and in the 12th he ignored his trainer/brother’s advice to “play it safe” by going into the teeth of the buzzsaw and coming out the other side a tougher, more resilient champion.

The scorecards hardly reflected the titanic struggle that unfolded inside the ring. Al Devito saw Carbajal a 116-110 winner while Paul Gibbs and Bill Graham turned in identical 116-109 cards. ESPN’s Al Bernstein saw it far closer at 104-103 after 11 rounds. Nevertheless, Carbajal’s struggles weren’t a result of any shortcomings on his part, but rather the prodigious strengths Varguez exhibited.

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