This Saturday night on HBO, Francisco "Bandido" Vargas returns to the ring following his 2015 Fight of the Year win over Takashi Miura, making his first defense of the WBC super featherweight title against the gritty, ultra-tough Orlando "Siri" Salido.
On paper, this is almost a guaranteed Fight of the Year candidate, and is a true must-watch live event. This is not one that should be skipped. If you're looking for action, it's coming your way on HBO this Saturday at 10:30 p.m. ET.
Here's a look at both of the fights set to air on the show.
Francisco Vargas vs Orlando Salido
Record: 23-0-1 (17 KO) ... Streak: W20 ... Last 5: 5-0 ... Last 10: 10-0 ... Stance: Orthodox ... Height/Reach: 5'8" / 70" ... Age: 31
Thoughts: Vargas' war last year with Takashi Miura was unbelievable. It was a true instant classic, not just a Fight of the Year, but a fight that will be talked about in the Fight of the Decade race in a few years' time. For fans looking to see that kind of great, two-way, back-and-forth action, it really had everything.
But how much did it take out of Vargas? At 31, he's a bit older than I think some people realize, owing to the fact that he didn't turn pro until early 2010, when he was 25 years of age, having fought in the 2008 Olympics for Mexico, where he was blown out in the second round by Romania's Georgian Popescu (who also routed Sadam Ali in the opening round).
Vargas didn't then and doesn't now have a stereotypical "amateur style." He can box, but he's just as happy to get into a proper tear-up. And since he started with really relevant fights in 2013, we've seen a lot of both. He's boxed his way to some decisions, and he's gotten into some brawls, none greater than the Miura fight. He demolished Juan Manuel Lopez in three rounds in 2014, which is the other bigger name on his record, though it's debatable if that version of Lopez was really a better win than Vargas' victories over Abner Cotto, Jerry Belmontes, or Will Tomlinson.
Salido isn't necessarily a new level for Vargas, but I'm not sure anything really prepares a fighter for someone like Salido, who simply does not quit. Vargas has been able to either outbox or stop everyone he's faced so far, and a lot of the times he's outboxed opponents, he's been able to sort of sap their will as the fight goes along, something that isn't uncommon. You can't sap Salido's will. Mikey Garcia thrashed Salido for several rounds, but Salido would not go away, and before the fight was stopped on a broken nose (something I still am rather curious about), he was making one of his Salido-like charges. I'm not saying he would have come back to win that fight, but he was making a fight that looked easy early for Garcia suddenly uncomfortable. That's the sort of thing he does.
Can Vargas deal with that? This is where we find out. Vargas has a great will himself. We saw that in the Miura fight. But Salido has shown that will over and over and over again. He's proven it repeatedly. For Vargas, there's a chance he might not be able to do it again.
Vargas would probably be smart to try and outbox Salido here. It won't be easy, as Salido is extremely crafty, but another bloody slugfest six months after a career-altering war with Miura may be too much to ask, and may be exactly what Salido wants and tries to force.
Record: 43-13-3 (30 KO) ... Streak: D1 ... Last 5: 3-1-1 ... Last 10: 7-2-1 ... Stance: Orthodox ... Height/Reach: 5'6" / 67" ... Age: 35
Thoughts: Continuing the thought from above about Salido's will, in the portion of his career that matters, he has never been stopped. (He was stopped five times between 1996 and 1998, when he was a pup.) Nobody's been able to get this guy out inside the distance since February 13, 1998, a month after the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal first went wide. That's how long ago that was. If you were born the same day that someone stopped Salido, you are now a legal adult in the United States.
And it's not like he hasn't been in with fighters who can stop people. In that time span, he's fought Juan Manuel Marquez, Robert Guerrero, Cristobal Cruz (twice), Yuriorkis Gamboa, Juan Manuel Lopez (twice), Mikey Garcia, Vasyl Lomachenko, and Rocky Martinez (twice), among others. And it's also not that he's some defensive master. He gets hit -- a lot. He gets dropped -- quite a lot for a guy at this level. Weng Haya knocked him down twice. Terdsak Kokietgym put him down three times. But he cannot truly be deterred. He doesn't go away. You can't beat the fight out of Orlando Salido.
That's the main thing that Salido brings to any fight. He's scrappy, he's rough, he'll get dirty if that's what he has to do. He can be outboxed, he can be dropped. He's got true veteran savvy. What he may lack in some of the more obvious "ring IQ" things that we think of when we think of "smart" fighters, he makes up for in knowing and exploiting the tricks of the trade. That's how he beat Vasyl Lomachenko. Lomachenko just didn't have a program installed for how to deal with a guy like Salido, who will make an entire mess of a fight if he wants and can get away with it.
Salido has a handful of FotY candidates from recent years: 2011 vs Lopez, 2014 vs Terdsak, and two last year with Rocky Martinez. This one should be another. Sometimes you can't predict when a war is gonna break out -- Bradley-Provodnikov, for instance, was a fight that was largely panned when it was made -- but sometimes you can, and this is one of those matchups.
I expect that Salido will do what he can to force Vargas to "out-will" him, confident that Vargas cannot. And he could be right. Either way, we're going to see some action.
Matchup Grade: A. Look, I could go A+ here. It's that promising of a fight on paper. But I want to save the A+ grade for the truly momentous, the fights that pit two of the best, promising action, on a big stage, big buzz for the fight -- in other words, I don't anticipate handing out an A+ any time soon. Canelo-Golovkin would get one if that fight gets made. I would've given Mayweather-Pacquiao an A because it had everything but the promise of action. I also would've taken a moral stand about how long it took. You get an A+ in 2011, fellas, not in 2015. Anyway, I don't need to tell you any more about what makes this fight great. It speaks for itself.
Abraham Lopez vs Julian Ramirez
Record: 20-0-1 (15 KO) ... Streak: W3 ... Last 5: 4-0-1 ... Last 10: 9-0-1 ... Stance: Orthodox ... Height/Reach: 5'8" / 69" ... Age: 28
Thoughts: Lopez is a little old for a prospect at 28, but the same was thought a couple of years ago about Francisco Vargas. The biggest setback for Lopez has obviously been the promotional and managerial problems that kept him out of the ring from March 2012 until March 2015.
In March 2012, he beat Gabriel Tolmajyan, his best win to date, and at 24, he was starting to look like a real prospect. But then he had the long layoff. And when he returned in 2015, he fought to an eight-round draw with Juan Carlos Martinez, a tough Mexican club fighter just good enough to expose the rustiness of Lopez's game.
To the credit of Lopez and Golden Boy, they did push him forward to shake the rust off. He was matched with Alfred Tetteh two months later, and knocked him out in the fifth round. He faced Jorge Diaz last August, and stopped him after nine rounds. In January, his last fight, he put away Carlos Valcarcel after seven.
If Lopez hadn't been forced to the sidelines for three years, who knows where he'd be right now? It's likely he'd have either been in a world title fight or been "exposed" in those three years. He's a little older than he'd like to be for where he's at in his career, but he's here, and he's in what should be his prime. It's up to Lopez now to make the moves forward.
Record: 16-0 (8 KO) ... Streak: W16 ... Last 5: 5-0 ... Last 10: 10-0 ... Stance: Southpaw ... Height/Reach: 5'7" / 69" ... Age: 23
Thoughts: The nephew of the late Genaro Hernandez, Ramirez has youth on his side, and has looked good since stepping up his competition a bit in his last three fights, barely losing a round against Christopher Martin, Hugo Partida, and Raul Hidalgo, all fights that went the full 10.
Ramirez's power may be a bit of a concern going up to a higher level. He's not a big puncher -- of these two, Lopez is definitely the harder hitter -- but he's got some skills, and has shown some nice body work in past fights, too, which is something I always like to see. He was a good amateur, with a reported record of 73-5, and fought a lot of guys who are now pro prospects, including Joseph Diaz Jr, Saul Rodriguez, Erick De Leon, and Gary Russell's brother, Antonio.
It's worth noting that Ramirez missed weight in January when he beat Christopher Martin, that fight going on as scheduled anyway. Ramirez was a full pound-and-a-half over the 126-pound limit, and there was some consideration given to moving up to super featherweight after that. But for now, he's staying at 126, or is going to try to, anyway.
Matchup Grade: B. Nothing wrong with the matchup, which is sort of a high-level ShoBox style main event, or an old school HBO Boxing After Dark co-feature type of fight. Two prospects making their debuts on the big stage. Will it be a great action fight? I'm not sure, but the StubHub Magic won't hurt our chances.