Saucedo vs Zappavigna: Fight Of The Year?

First things first: even as it goes through a current resurgence in popularity, boxing still doesn’t often find itself atop Twitter’s trending list very often. But that’s where it was on Saturday night. At one point, #Saucedo-Zappavigna was in fact the second most trending hashtag in the United States. That’s what happens when terrific fights appear on basic cable. People channel surf, stumble across a remarkable, action-packed battle, and then can’t stop watching. They even go on social media and start telling people about it.

Needless to say, this sort of thing is nothing but good for the sport, something to remember in our time of streaming and social media. Even so, it requires nothing less than an absolute scorcher of a bout for an undercard match to catch on. And as we saw, Saucedo vs Zappavigna was most certainly that.

Saucedo (right) appeared in control early.

Ironically enough, the bout wasn’t expected to be all that great. After all, the main event of the ESPN-Top Rank Oklahoma card on Saturday was supposed to be Gilberto “Zurdo” Ramirez vs Roamer Alexis Angulo. And while on paper Ramirez vs Angulo (which Ramirez won via decision) was the more compelling match-up, it was the junior welterweights, Alex Saucedo and Lenny Zappavigna, who stole the show. Not only was Saucedo vs Zappavigna entertaining, it was searing; brutal, in fact. The match was literally a blood bath, but it showcased what makes boxing so compelling: the chance to see courageous human beings go beyond what would otherwise ever be expected of them.

But, as I say, expectations for Saucedo vs Zappavigna were not high, in part because Australia’s Zappavigna was said to be getting on in age. He was tough, yes, and we were told that this was his last chance to really make his mark, but he certainly wasn’t seen as someone about to star in a slugfest worthy of Gatti vs Ward acclaim. Saucedo, on the other hand, was fighting in front of a hometown crowd in Oklahoma City, had an undefeated record, and was stepping into the ring with the venerable Able Sanchez at his side. In other words, Saucedo was expected to emerge the winner.

Zappavigna on the canvas in round three.

And win the man did, but in a way no one could have anticipated. Saucedo wasn’t expected to have to grind out a tough victory in such a bloody and brutal manner but, to his credit, that’s exactly what he did. Figuratively speaking, the boy became a man this past weekend. Let’s hope that fight didn’t take too much out of him; punishing slugfests sometimes do, after all.

Because Saucedo was certainly impressive in his own right and boxing fans are looking forward to what’s next. Having emerged from a true trial by fire, Saucedo has gone from a fighter on the rise, to one people will be eager to watch. Surviving a ring war can have such an impact on a young fighter’s career. If you’re a boxer looking to increase your value and your clout, this is one time-tested, though risky, way to do it: win a thrilling, back-and-forth fight that sports fans will be talking about all week long.

Saucedo certainly had control of the match early on. He had his man cut, and in round three he dropped Zappavigna hard with a vicious counter right. But the Aussie not only beat the count, he withstood Saucedo’s attempt to capitalize before going on a fistic tirade of his own, jolting the younger man with heavy right hands. But that was only the beginning. In the fourth, Zappavigna had Saucedo hurt – and I mean seriously hurt – so much so that for a moment it looked like the fight might be stopped. Now it was Saucedo’s turn to dig deep and that he did, managing to hold on and even, by round’s end, hold his own. And it was at this point that people on social media started bandying around the phrase “Fight Of The Year.”

The contest became blistering. What’s more, it was bloody. Exceedingly bloody. In truth, it was, at times, not pleasant to watch, such was the damage each was doing to the other, though of course one could not turn away. Here were two warriors giving all they had, giving and taking punishment, both unwilling to be denied but willing to go beyond the normal, the acceptable, the expected. And yet there was cause for concern, even for boxing’s most bloodthirsty fans. For Zappavigna’s face, particularly around his eyes, was turning into hamburger as we watched.

But still the man fought on, giving the battle all he could while his face became a gory mess. Saucedo had the match won, barring a miracle, but Zappavigna struggled on until finally his corner decided they had to save their man from his own courage, stopping matters in the seventh. It was a wise decision, and a responsible way to end what was clearly the best fight many viewers had seen in a very long time.

Afterwards, Zappavigna announced that he was retiring from the sport. May he enjoy his retirement. The man certainly earned it on Saturday night. He didn’t emerge victorious, but no one would call him a failure after that incredibly brave performance. As for Saucedo, who took his share of heavy shots and ended up a bit bloodied himself, it looks like he’ll be moving on to a match for the WBO title. “He’s fighting Maurice Hooker,” promoter Bob Arum declared. “He’s the mandatory.”

People will be talking about this battle for some time to come.

And if Saturday evening is any indication, it’s a shot Saucedo has certainly earned. According to Arum, the battle with Hooker should go down later this year. And, as brave and skilled as he is, no doubt “El Cholo” hopes that fight will be a bit less searing than the one he just had. After all, one can only engage in so many grueling, punishing action battles before they start taking a toll and shortening one’s career.

And let’s face it, fellow boxing fans: we are getting spoiled rotten this year when it comes to such dramatic and exciting clashes. Saucedo vs Zappavigna becomes yet another serious candidate for 2018’s Fight of the Year, joining an already crowded field of terrific fights. It’s only July and we already have to take into consideration Usyk vs Briedis, Hurd vs Lara, Sor Rungvisai vs Estrada, Valdez vs Quigg, Wilder vs Ortiz, Gassiev vs Dorticos, Stevenson vs Jack and Linares vs Loma. And the best may be yet to come! We still have Canelo vs Golovkin II and Usyk vs Gassiev on the way, among others!

But I’m pretty confident that, no matter what transpires over the next six months, come December no one will be overlooking Saucedo vs Zappavigna. It may or may not be 2018’s Fight Of The Year, but that was one truly unforgettable battle.          — Sean Crose 

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