Jessie Vargas feels re-energised with a new team around him and he’s fresh from the biggest win of his career. Now comes the most important fight of Vargas’ life, against Manny Pacquiao, and he assures Mark Butcher that fans are going to see a sensational showing ...
Timing is everything in boxing. Two years ago Jessie Vargas was strongly mooted as an opponent for Manny Pacquiao, only for the long overdue Floyd Mayweather superfight to finally drop into place. Back then Vargas was probably too green for Pacquiao, but energised by a new training team after winning a second world title in as many weight divisions, the super-confident WBO welterweight champion is now convinced it will be his time at the Thomas and Mack Arena in Las Vegas on 5 November.
With many of the world’s leading welterweights locked in with Al Haymon’s PBC enterprise, there was always a heightened possibility that Vargas might clinch a bout against fellow Top Rank fighter Pacquiao, with the clash first suggested in November 2014 when the duo shared a bill at the Cotai Arena in Macao.
“It was a possibility a couple of years back, and an opportunity that I had been expecting, but it came at the perfect time,” Vargas told Boxing Monthly over the phone from his home in Las Vegas. “I’m in my prime, I’m 27 years old and this is the opportunity for me to show the world what I have. I plan to rise to the occasion. You’re going to get a spectacular performance and me beating Manny Pacquiao. This is a dream of mine, a goal I have had since I was a kid, and I am going to accomplish it on 5 November. No matter what I have to do to win that fight — I will. I have no doubts.”
Despite collecting world titles at 140lbs (WBA) and 147lbs (WBO), Vargas has flown a little under the radar and, yet again, the Las Vegas fighter finds himself being somewhat undervalued by some fans and media.
“A lot of people are underestimating me, but they always do. When I became a world champion back in 2014 [W12 Khabib Allakhverdiev], I was a heavy underdog. My fans were able to come up on the odds at the casinos,” Vargas said.
“On 5 November, my name will be respected amongst the entire boxing world. Now I have so much more experience. I have learned what I should and shouldn’t do in training camp. I will be very well prepared technically, physically, mentally. Manny Pacquiao is a very good fighter. He is one of the best of this era. I give him that credit. I know what I’m going up against, but there is no-one I can’t beat. I will defeat him and a new star will be born that night.
“I promise you an electrifying performance. I have so many people who are doubting me that it just fuels the fire. People like [HBO colour commentator] Max Kellerman saying Manny Pacquiao is retired and, if he comes back, he’s washed up. But Pacquiao fought one month after I did. So if he was retired, I was retired as well. It’s actually quite shameful that [Kellerman] would say that. I never seem to get the respect I deserve. Eventually, I will get it, and on 5 November I am going to shut up a lot of people. I have so much fire in me.”
That second world championship victory was a mild surprise, but a shock in its emphatic realisation. Underestimated against touted Sadam Ali, Vargas took away the heart of the unbeaten Golden Boy Promotions fighter and bludgeoned him to a ninth-round defeat, displaying enhanced punching power in his first contest with new trainer Dewey Cooper, a former pro fighter and kick-boxing champion.
“Magnificent right hand,” recalled Vargas of the blow that dropped Ali twice. “It was a spectacular performance due to the team I have now. They are elevating my game, my technique and we’re only going to get better. For this fight, I’m going to have almost a whole year working with them. You are going to see Jessie Vargas shine against Manny Pacquiao. I know what I can do.”
Vargas has worked his way through his fair share of trainers in his eight-year pro career. When this writer first met the affable Las Vegan in Macao, Roy Jones Jr was in situ, whereas another former great Erik Morales took corner duties for the fight with Timothy Bradley Jr before the fighter settled on latest coach Cooper — and Vargas believes he has finally discovered the right man.
“I’ve found the perfect fit with Dewey Cooper,” Vargas said. “He is a great trainer and person. We interact well and work together perfectly. I have had several trainers in my time, but I just haven’t been able to find the right team. With Roger Mayweather, it was great — I loved training with him but he was sick and wasn’t able to train me. Roy Jones was a great trainer as well, but as everyone knows he doesn’t have the time, though I learned a lot from him. But Dewey is just outstanding with his technique and work ethic — he brings out the best in me. He really stands out and I am very happy and thankful that I am working with such a team.”
Since moving up seven pounds, Vargas’s power appears to have been invigorated in the new division — a far cry from his three world title bouts at 140lbs. All lasted the full course, including a surprisingly tough fight with an inspired Antonio DeMarco in Macao. Vargas seems to have gone up a level since. Viewing the Vargas who gutted it out against DeMarco and the livewire who trounced Ali is like watching two different fighters.
“It’s come from the team I have now,” Vargas said. “Also the man strength and the technique, the form, the confidence. There is so much in play; the strength and conditioning, me repping properly in training camp. Experience. It’s a lot of things that we put together. Dewey has a lot of knowledge and we’re going to outdo that [Ali] performance. This is going to be my best [showing] to date. I have so much confidence in Dewey.”
A unification match with IBF champion Kell Brook was extremely close to fruition earlier this year — with Vargas signing his part of the contract before the Sheffield fighter opted instead for his lucrative gamble against middleweight champion Gennady Golovkin.
“I think Kell just saw a bigger financial opportunity,” Vargas said. “He had more money on the line fighting Golovkin and nothing to lose to be honest. I am not bothered by it because that’s just the way things go sometimes. I am bothered that he wasted my time. I didn’t like that part. If he hadn’t negotiated with me, if he wasn’t serious, I would have fought [again] maybe in July. But everything happens for a reason and I wish him the best. God willing, I come out victorious against Pacquiao and, if Kell still holds the IBF [welterweight] strap, maybe we can still make the fight happen in 2017.”
Vargas’ June 2015 clash with Bradley featured one of the most controversial finishes in recent memory. With seven seconds remaining in the final round, veteran referee Pat Russell mistakenly believed he had heard the bell and stopped the contest early just after Bradley had been badly dazed by a Vargas right hand. The Mexican-American wheeled away in victory, believing he had secured a dramatic last-gasp victory, but to his dismay soon discovered the contest was heading for the scorecards and a decision win for Bradley.
“I wasn’t happy with [the] result. I wasn’t happy with the referee stepping in before the fight was officially over. But it was a [valuable] experience,” Vargas said. “I learned a lot. More than anything, I learned not to leave it up to the [officials]. To make sure I take control and not let anything be taken from me. Just to go out there and take it myself.”
Despite a strong family network, Vargas (27-1, 10 KOs) endured a tough upbringing in Las Vegas. The hard-knocks experiences that originally led him to boxing have also inspired him to help youngsters who find themselves in a similar position today.
“It has never been easy. I moved to Vegas from Los Angeles when I was six years old,” Vargas recalled. “I came from a family that was brought up tough and came from Mexico to the US in order to make a living. My father worked two jobs. I had great parenting, thankfully, but growing up in a tough neighbourhood meant we had to be tough and get respect for ourselves. That’s where boxing came in and helped me be productive with my time after school. It helped me learn self-defence, which made me into a person with a lot of confidence.
“The minute I went into a boxing gym I was fascinated by the sport and it only took me a couple of days to make it a goal,” he continued. “I said: ‘I am going to become world champion. I want to be like Julio Cesar Chavez [Sr].’ I envisioned myself doing that. Becoming a world champion and being up on the ropes, raising my hands up high with a ton of fans cheering for me, being a fan-friendly fighter and the people’s champion. I got the hang of boxing right away.
“I see myself as a clean-cut young guy and I want to continue to be a better person and find a way to help others as well. Zab Judah [and I] started a boxing and youth camp in the mountains here close to Las Vegas and it’s had great results.
“I see a kid now training at one of the gyms I go to who came down from the youth camp and said: ‘This is what I want.’ He listened to what we had to say and took advantage of the opportunities that were given to him. It’s nice to see the younger kids come up the right way and correct any mistakes they made.
“The youth are very important to me, so I try to set them a positive example. I help different types of youth camps in Clark County [Las Vegas] in community activity. Especially the troubled kids, as I know how it is growing up tough. I advise them not to make the wrong decisions, learn from any mistakes that have been committed, but to be a good citizen, stay positive, have a good life and stay out of trouble. I can see the look in their eyes when I come in and that they admire [what I’ve achieved]. They help me to change, too, and that’s what makes my day.”