The Road to Canelo – Cotto: Felix Trinidad vs Fernando Vargas

TrinidadVargasHeadThere are some fights that just work.  Some fights that live up to expectations.  You realize that on paper it’ll be a great fight and it’s even better when it’s manifested in the ring. There are fights that have great back and forth action, but has little meaning, as the stakes aren’t as high. What happens when all eyes are on both fighters? When both men are representing more than just themselves?  What happens when you are on the biggest stage in the sport?  Will you be able to perform and put it all on the line for the victory? There are levels to boxing and being able and willing to perform when the lights are at their brightest separates good from great.  December 2, 2000 two fighters had the boxing world’s eyes on them full of expectations and they delivered emphatically.

FelixFernandoPosterAt the time both Felix Trinidad & Fernando Vargas were undefeated and had just defeated their rivals in their respective weight class.  Trinidad was coming off a 1999 that saw him give a past his prime Pernell Whitaker the first clear loss of his career and then head into the biggest fight of his career against Oscar De La Hoya.  The De La Hoya bout was largely forgettable and many felt that Trinidad lost the bout on points. Trinidad decided to move on from that night and move up to the 154-pound division where he could put that night behind him and show his skill at a new weight.  Trinidad faced young Olympic gold medalist David Reid for his WBA 154 pound title.  At the time Reid took Trinidad lightly as he figured he had already gained enough pro experience with just 14 fights to handle Trinidad.  This was an example of why the man makes the title and not the title making the man.

Through the first half of the bout Reid had the advantage in hand speed and was able to go through rounds with relative low volume and explode with combinations that landed him the best punches of the bout.  Through those first six rounds Reid was ahead, scored a quick knockdown with a straight right hand through the guard in the third round and Trinidad lost a point for low blows at the end of the sixth round.  The seventh round was close until a left hook by Trinidad landed with one minute left in the found. This left hook changed the bout completely. It landed right on the point of the chin and was hard to see without instant replay.  After Trinidad scored this knockdown in the seventh the bout became a one-sided beat down on David Reid.  Trinidad kept putting the pressure on Reid and land combinations throughout the entire three minutes. Reid was deducted a point for low blows in the ninth round after taking some combinations.  The eleventh round saw Reid go down three times and Trinidad get a point deducted for low blows once again.  The fight arguably should have been stopped after this round as Reid took a beating the entire round and the 12th round wasn’t much better. Trinidad went on to win a unanimous decision and win the WBA 154 pound title.  This was Reid’s last time on the big stage as he was relegated to comeback’s on ESPN’s Friday Night Fights where he failed to regain the form he once had.  Reid always had what looked like a lazy eye (lid) and while this didn’t prevent him in winning a world title with just 14 fights, over time it become more of an issue as he began to take more punches in later fights.  Trinidad went on to face Mamadou Thiam in Miami and win by a third round knockout after giving Thiam the Hasim Rahman treatment and left him grotesque.  Trinidad was ready for another big fight and another young star was waiting on him in Fernando Vargas.

Fernando Vargas was a star from the very beginning.  He was young, brash, and athletic. He seemed to have the skill set of a veteran at such an early age.  Vargas became a world champion in less than two years of when he turned pro when he defeated Yory Boy Campas for the IBF junior middleweight championship. At the time he became the youngest 154-pound champion in boxing history at just 21 years of age.  The way Vargas defeated Campas  along with his young age  brought more attention to Vargas.  Vargas like many Mexican fighters loved to exchange with his opponents, but being a former Olympian on the 1996 U.S. team Vargas could also box off the back foot.  Vargas out-boxed and beat up Campas that night.  Within the next year Vargas stepped up the competition facing the likes of Raul Marquez, Winky Wright and Ike Quartey. The Wright fight was very close and could have been scored for either fighter depending on what was preferred. What’s important to note however from this bout is the struggle that Vargas had making weight, which in later years became an even bigger problem for Vargas.  The coming out party for Fernando Vargas took place against Ike Quartey who had not fought since his match up with Oscar De La Hoya the year before.  Regardless, Quartey was the favorite heading into the bout based mostly on his experience.  In what was one of the forgotten and underrated fight of the year candidate of the 2000’s.   Vargas and Quartey provided a great night of back and forth action.  Vargas proved himself to be the superior fighter on that night by outworking Quartey.  Vargas had now proven himself at such a young age against elite and veteran competition.  Quartey had never been that soundly defeated and Vargas was now confident that he could step in the ring with any fighter.  When the opportunity in late 2000 came to Vargas to face Felix Trinidad, the idea of waiting seemed unnecessary.

The bout for many was one picked out of a catalog as it had all the ingredients of a great fight.  There wasn’t much animosity between the two fighters however Vargas told many publications that when he was done with Trinidad, Tito would be forgotten.  The bout took place at the Mandalay Bay in Las, Vegas Nevada on December 2, 2000.  Both men had grand entrances with Trinidad coming out to loud salsa music and Vargas breaking through a makeshift brick wall.  The fighter introductions were just as grandiose.  Both men received huge ovations and both exuded confidence.  There has been some criticism made of late of HBO’s announce team and style.  While this criticism is valid for the Trinidad – Vargas bout they enhanced the greatness of the bout with some amazing quotes.  The face off was one of the most intense in boxing history added with Trinidad doing some trash talk in Spanish.  Both men headed back to the corner to await the opening bell for the first round.  “Those picking Trinidad are going with the logic of a sensational performer with an impeccable record, those picking Vargas are going with a gut feeling about his toughness, a young man who has the look of a champion” – stated HBO’s Larry Merchant before the opening bell of the first round.

Trinidad came out and Vargas immediately caught him with a jab that sent Trinidad off balance. Both men circled one another. Vargas throughout another jab, but this it was slipped and Trinidad threw a perfect left hook that landed right on Vargas’ chin. Vargas was immediately visibly hurt and Trinidad went in for the finish and managed to knock Vargas down off of another left hook as Vargas attempted to dodge the barrage of punches. Vargas got up at the count of two only to be sent right back to the canvass off of another Trinidad left hook. “Second knockdown from Trinidad! He’s the one who said it would be a quick dominant knockout performance. This is not what any expert expected, but this is what Felix said he’d do”, HBO’s Jim Lampley proclaimed loudly after the second knockdown.

Vargas was now in survival mode and made it out of the first round by staying on the back foot and showing exceptional defense while being hurt. The second was also another round of survival for Vargas who was visibly hurt by almost any punch Trinidad landed. The third however would be the start of a huge momentum shift in the fight.  Trinidad was becoming a bit too reliant on his power and front foot heavy allowing Vargas for opportunities to counter Trinidad.  Before the end of the round Trinidad was visibly hurt in the right eye and began pawing at his eye.  Vargas immediately took notice and went on the attack.  Trinidad attempted to hold Vargas, but with one hand free Vargas whacked Trinidad on the right eye over and over.  After almost every round in the fight both men would look at each other either as a sign of respect or competition.

At the start of the fourth round as Harold Lederman was about read his scorecard after three rounds, the fight officially changed.  As Lederman was explaining his scorecard Vargas and Trinidad traded left hooks and this time Vargas got the better of the exchange and knocked Trinidad down.  “Well Harold whatever the score of the fight was before, it just changed!”  Larry Merchant stated after the knockdown.  Vargas went in to try and hurt Trinidad again, but was thwarted by a Trinidad low blow that landed right on the groin area.  Referee Jay Nady took a point away from Trinidad, giving Vargas a 10-7 round to match Trinidad’s 10-7 round in the first.  Vargas almost took his full five-minute break. He didn’t allow his momentum to be slowed down as he brought it with him into the fifth round.

The fifth, not withstanding the knockdown in the fourth, was Vargas’ best round.  He showed his skill level by dodging Trinidad’s attacks and countering him with a full arsenal of punches.  Vargas fought using angles and stepped to the side to avoid Trinidad’s comeback punches.  He landed right hands, uppercuts, left hooks and seemed to be in control of the fight now. Vargas as a talent cannot be understated. He faced great adversity in the first round and to have come back to take over the bout and score a knockdown himself by the fifth shows how good he really was in his prime.

The second half of the bout saw both men trade rounds and within each round there were momentum shifts as to who had the advantage. Trinidad never stopped coming forward putting the pressure on Vargas who would then get away from his game plan and start trading with Trinidad. “ This was Vargas’ promise, I’m not gonna back away, I’m not the kind of fighter who runs, I’ll stand with him, I’ll trade with him, that’s what Vargas does as he comes down the stretch!” said Jim Lampley in the Jim Lampley over emotional style. While both men were trading rounds and each of the rounds were close heading into the last few rounds, Vargas seemed to be getting the worse of the action as he looked slower and slower in his reactions and getting back to the corner after each round. Both men lost points for low blows coming down the stretch. The ninth round in particular was especially brutal for Vargas who seemed to be losing steam. Trinidad’s non-stop pressure and punching technique has the opponent on edge all round to stay focused and defensively on point.

Lampley once again had another Lampley moment in the latter rounds when describing Trinidad, “The relentlessness of Felix Trinidad, coming and coming, firing with both hands. Power shot. Power shot. Power shot. Try to stay away from me, I’m coming forward. That’s Felix Trinidad. The one thing he does, he does with passion, commitment, pride and absolute determination all the time. Try to match my will that what Felix Trinidad says to his opponents and he’s been saying it to Vargas down the stretch of this fight.”

In the 12th round the fight came to an end with Trinidad first landing a beautiful left hook that knocked Vargas down and almost out.  Looking at the knock down again it’s hard to imagine that Vargas actually got back up from it.  Trinidad knocked Vargas down two more times with the last knockdown being particularly brutal as Vargas looked like he had no idea where he was and was blasted with a right hand with his hands down.

After this match up both men were never the same.  It has been said that Fernando Vargas was never the same after he fought Trinidad. Trinidad never reached the same heights after this bout. Trinidad would go on to fight in the middleweight tournament in 2001 to finally face defeat at the hands of Bernard Hopkins *editor’s note – Hopkins defeated Trinidad easily, winning almost every round and stopping Trinidad in the last round. * Trinidad then retired.  He came back to fight Ricardo Mayorga for one last night of glory, but then decided to face Winky Wright.  After losing to Wright, he retired again.  He came back three years later to face the man he always wanted to face in Roy Jones. Trinidad looked better than he did against Wright. Trinidad once again lost and went into retirement for the final time.  Vargas was 22 when he faced Trinidad and would be plagued with knockdowns, ballooning up in weight, and failed drug tests after his fight with Trinidad.   He had one last super fight against Oscar De La Hoya in 2002 that he lost by 11th round TKO.

The only reason the fight didn’t win fight of the year honors is that it took place in the same year as the first Marco Antonio Barrera – Erik Morales bout.  For years fans have bought Pay-Per-Views to mostly experience one-sided showcase bouts. The Trinidad-Vargas fight ranks highly in the Mexico – Puerto Rico rivalry, because of what was at stake and the attention the fight garnered.  It’s rare for two men at that level, with that much money on the line to risk it all.  As Larry Merchant said at the end of the fight “What a fight!!”  Yes, what a fight it was.

About the Author

Hector Franco
Graduated from USF. Photographer, boxing writer, comedian. 100% Puerto Rican.

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