Fans watching Timothy Bradley vs Jessie Vargas Saturday on HBO couldn’t be blamed for thinking Vargas had won by 12th round technical knockout. Referees Pat Russell waved off the fight as if Vargas had halted Bradley, thanks to a big right hand and sustained Vargas assault. Vargas himself was convinced, and, same with the fans, it’s hard to blame him. Instead, Russell just screwed up, thinking he had heard the bell, and prematurely ended the fight by seconds, giving Bradley a decision win.
It was, to be fair, Bradley’s rightful decision, up until 2:50 of the 12th. But it’s too bad Russell blew the call. We don’t know for sure if Bradley would’ve stayed on his feet for the final 10 seconds — odds are good, considering his resilience, that he wouldn’t have been fully KO’d — but it would’ve been more honestly dramatic if we had seen the fight to its proper end. Instead, we get the drama of controversy, which, in boxing, often settles for the best drama we get. It’s the tarnished kind. It’s not as good as the other kind.
Bradley was the better fighter, and still is. He also had a slight weight advantage, fighting at welter, where he’s no full-blown 147-pounder but he was boxing in a division where he’s resided for a while. Vargas was making a more official welterweight debut. By the middle of the fight, Bradley had taken over. He was sharper, smarter, more aggressive and generally more effective. Vargas, who has won many of his fights by the skin of his teeth, backed up too often.
This should’ve been a class mismatch. Instead, Vargas was able to catch Bradley in the final round, beyond some of the competitive rounds throughout the fight. Bradley has been slipping something since his 2013 Fighter of the Year campaign. Vargas just ain’t that good, although he ain’t especially bad, either. Hey, slippage happens. Russell used to be one of the best in the biz. Instead, word was that he retired after Saturday.
If they do a rematch — which makes sense, which Vargas wants, which Bradley said he’d take, which would be fun based on Saturday’s results — it’s something of an unfortunate monument to what’s become of Bradley. He’s still elite by virtue of his record. But he’s struggling these days with the likes of Vargas and Diego Chaves. This is a guy who bested Juan Manuel Marquez and hung with Manny Pacquiao, although he lost once official and deserved to lose the other. Vargas is a contender, of sorts. Bradley should’ve put him in his proper place.
(Vargas, left, Russell, right; credit: Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)