Bradley vs Vargas: Prizefighter Purgatory

Whoever won between Timothy Bradley and Jessie Vargas was supposed to have walked away with a fair share of elusive respect, or at least signaled their arrival to a new career plateau. Bradley prevailed convincingly, but as with many of his wins in recent years, his victory lap was cut short by a controversial decision made by an official.

This time the 11th hour snafu actually started with a 12th round right hand from Vargas in the closing moments. Referee Pat Russell accidentally called time early with Bradley out on his feet, and Vargas, believing Russell had stopped the fight in his favor, began to celebrate uproariously. It was the kind of shambolic scene that only happens in a boxing ring.

Order was restored and Russell clarified his mistake to ringside officials, before scores of 116-112, 117-111 and 115-112 cemented the win for Bradley, who may simply be destined to forever yearn for acclaim that isn’t begrudging. It’s a shame, because Bradley had spent 11 rounds working effectively and consistently as the aggressor in an entertaining fight and had clearly established his superiority up that point.

Until the crazy finish, Bradley was clearly the better man.
Until the crazy finish, Bradley was clearly the better man.

The bout opened with both men jabbing well, but Vargas took advantage of Bradley’s aggression with left hand counters that kept him just out of range. At the end of round three Bradley was almost sent down when caught while pressing recklessly, and again in the following round. But by then the former champion had managed to put Vargas on the defensive and took away his jab by walking him to the ropes. There Vargas’ height was negated and to Bradley’s looping overhand rights the younger man had no clear answer.

Vargas began throwing his jab more confidently in rounds eight and nine, getting back to a steadier output and exchanging with Bradley to show he was sticking around, despite having been smacked around. But his face was reddened, swelling and wearing a look of resignation. Bradley only needed to not get caught in the last few rounds; he mixed tenacious attacking with a hint of caution, darting in and out and connecting with cleaner punches and taking an obvious lead into the final round.

With just under 30 seconds remaining, Vargas got the one opportunity Bradley’s trainer Joel Diaz had begged his charge not to offer up. With “Desert Storm” almost squared up, Vargas landed a cracking right hand in the middle of a heated exchange. Bradley stumbled to the ropes, somehow staying on his feet before shakily hobbling away. But rather than timing another final right hand, Vargas walked directly into a clinch at the ten second warning, which, in the midst of all the noise and mayhem, the referee mistook for the final bell. The fight was over with seven seconds left, and Vargas triumphantly scaled the ropes and was joined in the ring by his corner, which included new trainer Erik “El Terrible” Morales.

A farcical finish: time for a rematch?
A farcical finish: do we need a rematch?

Bradley, his clock once more cleaned, didn’t appear to understand exactly what was happening in the ring either, and after several minutes it was left up to announcer Lupe Contreras to clarify the mess. He did, and Bradley once again raised his arms in a victory that found a way to ring hollow. Had he not been rocked and seemingly rescued in the last round, the word “rematch” would not be in the post-fight discussion, but now it is.

The strange final sequence also robbed Vargas of tapping into a mindset where he, the fighter who was just given a stern lesson over 12 rounds, can reflect on what he did wrong. Perhaps he and his team can watch tape of the bout and still properly critique errors like abandoning his jab early and allowing Bradley to outwork him for stretches, but those seven seconds remaining in the fight make for a better scapegoat.

Bradley can’t advance, and Vargas can’t go back. It’s prizefighter purgatory, and maybe the only way for Bradley and Vargas to escape is to battle once more.

— Patrick Connor

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