A night in the wilderness: On Francisco Vargas-Orlando Salido

Photo credit: German Villasenor

Photo credit: German Villasenor


Today, we welcome writer Jimmy Tobin of The Cruelest Sport as he shares his thoughts on last weekend’s junior lightweight clash between WBC titlist Francisco Vargas and his seemingly unstoppable foil, Orlando Salido.


Orlando Salido and WBC junior lightweight titlist Francisco Vargas fought to a draw at StubHub Center in Carson, California on Saturday night in a performance not only rare for a sport that has spent the better part of two years in the doldrums but rare for sport in general. On a day when boxing celebrated perhaps its greatest competitor, two fierce competitors in their own right provided a spectacle celebrating all that is great about their sport.


But unlike the time of “The Greatest”, a time when African-American men the size of linebackers – though not to be confused with them – carried boxing’s mantle, two smaller Mexican men reminded even the most cynical, discouraged and drifting of boxing’s diminishing devotees that prizefighting will forever lay claim to a drama denied other sports. As it should, because no sport makes greater demands of its competitors – a point that should not be lost in the regularity with which fighters normalize those demands.


Has any active fighter embraced those demands as often and as successfully as Orlando Salido? How refreshing it was to see boxer of proven merit, Salido, he of the 43-13-4 (30) record, in an HBO main event, and not as cannon fodder for the latest prematurely-pedestaled network darling but, once again, as a man remaking the futures of others to preserve his own. Salido is a throwback, not only in his craft but in the harrowing path he took to learn it. There will, of course, never be another Muhammad Ali; there may never be another Manny Pacquiao but it would be folly to assume another Salido is promised to boxing. Should he appear, rest assured he will have to enter the US to make his fortune.


Salido is a night in the wilderness: Some try it once and realize it is more than they care to endure again, while, for others, suffering the first attempt is proof enough they can improve in a second. Few who have fought Salido, however, have elected to do so again. Juan Manuel Lopez, stopped in eight rounds by Salido in 2011, ventured a second night in the wilderness a year later. He improved on his performance, lasting two rounds longer before being knocked silly. WBO junior featherweight titleholder Roman Martinez, an underappreciated fighter in his own right, fought Salido twice in a span of five months. He won the first fight but was lucky to escape with a draw in the second. WBO featherweight beltholder Vasyl Lomachenko, who Salido initiated into the professional ranks via his entire arsenal of unsportsmanlike conduct, has expressed interest in avenging his loss to “Siri.” It would be a welcome improvement in Lomachenko’s matchmaking but one that may have to wait.


Because if anyone has earned a rematch with Salido, it’s Francisco Vargas. And please, no talk of Vargas failing a pre-fight drug test. Salido knows firsthand what that is like and if he should select Vargas next, he will do so without need of or concern for your blessing.


In the coming days, praise for Vargas will lag behind that of Salido, and that is as it should be. Vargas has not nearly the career of Salido, nor nearly the penchant for resurrection. Praise for Vargas will lag behind that of the fight they made as well because a spectacle like Salido and Vargas staged is always remembered as greater than the sum of its parts. But ring carnage requires a co-conspirator. Vargas was just that. And, like Lomachenko before him, Vargas, Mexico City, Mexico, will be better for the rounds he shared with Salido.


There were stretches of the fight, however, in which Vargas seemed to doubt whether such an education was worth its outlay.


Throughout the fight Salido wore but one expression, one fixed firmer and firmer by the swelling and scar tissue on his face. It is not intensity that Salido’s face portrays, not even passion; his is an expression of comfort and familiarity, of complete acceptance of that which would reduce most men to pieces. His only emoting throughout the 12 rounds was a quick clap of his gloves in the midst of the four-alarm blaze that was the sixth round.


“El Bandido” meanwhile, crested and fell in response to Salido’s aggression, betraying his moments of pain and doubt before finding some pattern in the chaos. Those moments were numerous, especially once Salido, Ciudad Obregon, Sonora, Mexico, added a concert of shoulders, low blows and headbutts to the mix. You never know where Salido will hit you; you never know whether that blow will be legal or not. Anticipations either way are often painfully off the mark.


The fight quickly became what Vargas had expected but it did so earlier than he anticipated and, for him, soon became something worse. But Vargas, 23-0-2 (17), would not yield.


It was a night of genuine violence between two men absent of – and therefore not limited by – considerations beyond those elicited by the opponent and the crowd. That too sets it apart. Neither man may be the same, of course. Salido seems always one hard night from immolation, entering so many fights as the bull, bled and broken, awaiting the matador. And Vargas, whose face was butterflied in his last two fights, is unlikely to recover what he has given to the ring of late. Whether either man can muster another herculean performance then, seems a question best posed by the last man to ask it. They should finish what they have begun.


So let Salido once more perform on the platform he has occasionally been denied but always deserved. Let Vargas apply what he has learned with one more night in the wilderness. Let both men try again to earn the applause silenced only by the crowd’s exhaustion. And let their remuneration reflect their sacrifice.






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