By Lyle Fitzsimmons
Jessie Vargas has been at this for a while.
He's gotten paid to punch people for just short of 10 full years, has held world title belts in a pair of weight classes and was a member of Mexico’s 2008 Olympic team – though his amateur trip to the Summer Games in Beijing was canceled by a loss in a regional qualifying tournament.
But even as he’s labeling himself a “young veteran” these days, Vargas is simultaneously discovering it’s not too late for even a 29-year-old dog to learn new tricks.
So rather than spending every waking moment obsessing about Saturday night’s crossroads date with Adrien Broner at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, the old-school millennial is going newer school when it comes to getting pre-fight peace of mind.
“I’m focused on the fight 75 percent of the time, and 25 percent of the time I’m just relaxing with my family, hanging out with them, watching a little TV,” Vargas told Boxing Scene. “I actually got stuck on Mad Men. I’ve become a Netflix fan. That definitely distracts me and I’ve found a way to basically get away without having to actually get away. Netflix was the key.”
It’s a switch from anxiety-laden years past, he said.
“I was the type of fighter that just focused on the fight. Focused on the task at hand every minute of the day,” Vargas said. “But that also could be stressful because you need some time away from it. I’ve found the perfect route. I’m a little older now so I know exactly what I should be doing and thankfully it’s all working out in my favor. Just knowing how to mix it up.
“Now I know how to turn it on and turn it off. We need to know how to get distracted at times and just look into other things and enjoy the moment. I enjoy being in training camp, but not only focused on the fight. Having some time to just relax to yourself. That’s what I’ve been doing.”
It’s the 31st time through the pre-fight wringer for Vargas, who opened his career with 26 straight wins and had captured both the IBO and WBA versions of the 140-pound championship by the end of 2014.
He’s just 2-2 in the three-plus years since, however, with high-profile misfires against Timothy Bradley (UD 12) and Manny Pacquiao (UD 12) essentially dwarfing the positivity generated by one-sided victories over the more pedestrian likes of Sadam Ali (TKO 9) and Aaron Herrera (UD 10).
The recent tumult has been evident in the corner as well, where Vargas has worked since 2014 with Roy Jones Jr., Erik Morales, Dewey Cooper and Mike McCallum as lead trainers.
Previously, he’d also teamed with Roger Mayweather, Robert Alcazar and Ismael Salas.
The Broner fight will be his second with McCallum, a 61-year-old Jamaican who won titles at 154, 160 and 175 pounds across a career that ended in 1997, when Vargas was 7 years old.
Upon learning they’d be working together, the younger man quickly got himself up to speed on McCallum’s most significant victories – against Milton McCrory (TKO 10) and Donald Curry (KO 5) at 154, and over Herol Graham (SD 12), Steve Collins (UD 12) and Michael Watson (KO 11) at 160.
McCallum also went 0-2-1 in three fights with James Toney, and lost a decision to Jones in 1996.
“He pushes me, knowing the limits, which is nice,” Vargas said. “It’s nice to have someone who actually knows what they’re doing, has been there, done that, has suffered through it and has been in my position and feels comfortable to tell me what to do and why, because it worked for him. The technique is always different, the mindset is different on when and how. How exactly to do it.
“I have my own style and Mike has his style. That’s never going to change. But he is implementing some of his technique, some of his movement and some of his mental attributes in the ring. At the end of the day I do have my own style, but I have a better style now that I can mix things in that Mike has taught me. For that reason, I guess you’re going to see a little bit of both of us in there.”
The Saturday date with Broner wasn’t originally on Vargas’ agenda, but he was pulled into the discussion in early March when original opponent Omar Figueroa pulled out with a shoulder injury.
Vargas said an agreement was struck after a brief negotiation because he saw the matchup – to be contested at 144 pounds – as “a great opportunity.”
Broner has lost three times in nine fights since beginning his career with 27 wins and titles at 130, 135 and 147. He picked up a fourth weight class belt – at 140 – with a defeat of Khabib Allakhverdiev (TKO 12) in 2015, but dropped it six months later after failing to make weight for a defense against Ashley Theophane (TKO 9).
He’s 1-1 since, winning a split nod over Adrian Granados and dropping a wide one to Mikey Garcia.
“They called me for the fight and I was excited for it. I liked it from the get go, to be honest,” Vargas said. “(It) was an interesting fight for the fans and it was a great fight for me. He has great popular demand when it comes to the fans. I do as well, so we brought that to the table. He has a nice style.
“He’s a challenging fighter. He’s a fan-friendly fighter. He comes to fight. I figured that the fans would enjoy it and I wasn’t wrong. Everybody’s excited for it and come (Saturday) the only thing I have to do is come out victorious. That way we can make it a great night. I’m going to take control from the beginning. We’re going to take charge and make sure of it for every minute of the fight.
“I’m a smart fighter. I’m a smart, tough and aggressive fighter. I’m just going to take charge and do whatever I want do at that time, because I want to. That’s my style. I love to fight as well. If I want to box, I’ll take my time and I’ll outbox him. I want to show him that I can change styles at any given moment. I’m going to have some fun, that’s the best way to put it.”
Vargas will enter as the 10th-best welterweight on the planet according to the Independent World Boxing Rankings, while Broner is ranked fourth in the world at 140 pounds.
Two of Broner’s losses came when he weighed-in at 143½ (UD 12, Shawn Porter) and 144½ (UD 12, Marcos Maidana) pounds, respectively, and he’s won four other fights above 140 pounds.
Vargas stands four inches taller (5-foot-10 to 5-foot-6) and has a two-inch (71 to 69) edge in reach.
And a win, especially a convincing one – according to the larger man – would be precisely the catapult he’s seeking toward a full-on career reboot.
“I want people to remember this night,” he said. “I want them to be mesmerized and say ‘Wow, what a great fight, Jessie Vargas won in spectacular fashion. He looked the best that he has ever done.’ That’s what I want them to remember from then on. You’re as good as the next fight that you’re in basically. I want to give them my best. The best Jessie Vargas that I can show them, then after that we’ll elevate to another level. The victories need to shine brighter and that’s what I plan on doing.”
“I feel that I’m in the best part of my career. Now is the second part of my career, where I’m comfortable with the people I’m working with and I am ready to shine. Once you’re at this time, pretty much you’ve seen it all and you have that mind power. I’m learning from my experiences.”
That win, he said, would also mean a subsequent quest for additional welterweight jewelry – particularly that which is now held by Keith Thurman.
“It’d push me toward the biggest fights out there for the fans,” Vargas said.
“That’s my No. 1 priority. I want the WBC and WBA belts. Whoever has it at that time, I’m going to hope and try to make the fight happen. Overall, it’s up to my advisors. I’ll let them negotiate for me. I’ll let them figure out the next move. But if it was up to me I’d go for a belt.
“I’m definitely top five (at 147) right now and I’m looking forward to being number one.”
* * * * * * * * * *
This week’s title-fight schedule:
Vacant IBO bantamweight title – Singapore, Singapore
Karim Guerfi (No. 12 IBO/No. 26 IWBR) vs. Michael Dasmarinas (No. 37 IBO/No. 38 IWBR)
Guerfi (26-3, 8 KO): First title fight; Undefeated since 2014 (6-0, 3 KO)
Dasmarinas (27-2, 18 KO): Second title fight (0-1); Never won a scheduled 12-round fight (0-1)
Fitzbitz says: The Frenchman hasn’t succeeded on the world-class level, but he does have more exposure to it than his Filipino opponent, so a clear-cut decision win ought to result. Guerfi by decision
Vacant WBA super featherweight title – Brooklyn, New York
Jesus Cuellar (No. 1 WBA/Unranked IWBR) vs. Gervonta Davis (No. 3 WBA/No. 6 IWBR)
Cuellar (28-2, 21 KO): Fourth title fight (2-1); Held WBA 126-pound title (2015-16, one defense)
Davis (19-0, 18 KO): Fourth title fight (3-0); Stoppage wins in three career title fights (18 total rounds)
Fitzbitz says: Top WBA contender Cuellar hasn’t won any fight in 28 months and hasn’t won above 126 pounds since 2012, but sure, the IBO is the real problem in boxing. Davis is the commodity. Davis in 9
WBO bantamweight title – Belfast, Northern Ireland
Zolani Tete (champion/No. 1 IWBR) vs. Omar Narvaez (No. 1 WBO/No. 11 IWBR)
Tete (26-3, 21 KO): Second title defense; Also held IBF belt at 115 pounds (2014-15, one defense)
Narvaez (48-2-2, 25 KO): Thirty-second title fight (28-2-1); Held WBO titles at 112 and 115 pounds
Fitzbitz says: Tete isn’t quite the assassin that an 11-second might make a person believe, but he’s far younger and much bigger than his 42-year-old opponent here. That’s a mix for a big win. Tete in 6
Last week's picks: 0-1 (LOSS: Higa)
2018 picks record: 26-11 (70.2 percent)
Overall picks record: 947-315 (75.0 percent)
NOTE: Fights previewed are only those involving a sanctioning body's full-fledged title-holder – no interim, diamond, silver, etc. Fights for WBA "world championships" are only included if no "super champion" exists in the weight class.
Lyle Fitzsimmons has covered professional boxing since 1995 and written a weekly column for Boxing Scene since 2008. He is a full voting member of the Boxing Writers Association of America. Reach him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter – @fitzbitz.