It’s hard to know what not to look at first. The mudflap ears. The lump of a chin, almost an identical twin to the Adam’s Apple in its tiny shadow. The stringy build, like a bedsheet slung over an old TV antenna — or the Vlasic Pickles Stork on a pilates regimen. With an awkward fighting style and an in-ring expression that flutters between smirking and whiny, Rey Vargas cuts the least heroic figure of any world-class competitor in boxing. His signature punch is a range-finding jab, and he hasn’t registered a knockout since Ziggy Stardust, The Waco Kid and Dr. Jason Seaver walked among us. Vargas is as Hollywood as Wilford Brimley. He’s bringing sexy back — to customer service, and only with a valid receipt. It doesn’t fit him.
Even in places like Carson, California — one of L.A.’s relatively rough-knuckled ‘burbs — pretty is its own form of currency. Maybe that’s why when Mexico’s Vargas (33-0, 22 KO) rolled into town for Saturday’s fight with Tomoki Kameda (36-3, 20 KO), it was met with something short of fanfare. The old Home Depot Center, dressed up as a thing now called the Dignity Health Sports Park, had been only half-filled — and that, thanks in part to Kameda’s oddly awesome contingent of fans. A Mexico City resident by way of Osaka, Japan, Kameda moved to La Ciudad de los Palacios at 15, absorbed the Mexican fighting style, married a local and now answers to the handle “El Mexicanito” — seemingly to the approval of both chilangos and nihonjin. Eat your heart out, cultural appropriation.
But because crooked noses and cracked eyelids are often how beauty is measured in boxing — because utility beats pretty’s ass almost everywhere but in Beverly Hills — you’d expect Vargas, unbeaten and making his fifth defense of his junior featherweight title, to have cachet among the commoners. In this case, at least, you’d be mistaken. Depending on the matchup, specifically when an opponent forces him to adjust ranges, a Vargas fight looks something like an elderly orgy: It’s all asses and elbows, and god bless ‘em, but you don’t really want to watch.
Kameda demonstrated early on that he’s the sort of fighter who can give Vargas trouble, squirming inside under Vargas’ reach and landing a cracking overhand right halfway through Round 1. The challenger controlled the first few rounds, stalking a backpedaling Vargas, mostly smothering his length and popping him with occasional clean, eye-catching power shots. Kameda, who had fallen to Vargas in the amateurs and spoken of revenge in the buildup to the fight, seemed to have found a winning formula.
At the same time, Vargas was gradually growing more active, targeting Kameda’s body and increasingly locking into range. As quickly as the answer had come for Kameda, it was gone. By the fifth, the challenger had all but stopped slipping and changing distance, was throwing less frequently and seemed confused about the path forward, in every sense. As Vargas disrupted his timing and began landing more scoring combinations, Kameda took to bumrushing him, causing a clash of heads and far too many of those aforementioned septuagenarian swinger moments — Kameda closing the gap like a linebacker, Vargas happily leaning into a clinch and, when his foe so much as considered the notion of pinning his arms, flopping like a trout on a 20-pound test. It was gross.
And it got worse. As the rounds ticked away, Kameda charged forward with no plan of attack for arrival. Vargas flapped his limbs to measure distance and muffle Kameda’s offense, but for little else. When all else failed, he ran. Vargas was up on the cards, he knew it, and it was his right to play keep-away with his belt. But a crowd that had come to watch Mexican Style let Vargas know where to stick his strategy. For whatever reason, Kameda’s willingness to pick through Vargas’ defenses had evaporated, and Vargas wasn’t interested in changing his opponent’s mind. Some styles break fights.
In Round 12, an increasingly desperate Kameda was docked a point for punching off the break — a topside blow that seemed to leave Vargas shuffling in wet sand. It was a calculated risk, especially after Kameda had smashed Vargas’ button chin flush with a right hand out of a clinch just moments earlier. But the urgency had come at least a few rounds too late, and Vargas recovered well enough in the aftermath to scoot out of danger in the final minutes.
The end result — three 117-111 cards in favor of Vargas — added up, even if the journey felt as uncomfortable and squishy as a Patches O’Houlihan motivational speech (#RIP, King). Vargas had flung 443 jabs on the night, “connecting” at a brisk 12% pace — which somehow told the story of the fight, but only if you’d mercilessly Clockwork Orange’d all dozen rounds.
Next? Kameda, at 28, has no time for get-well fights. In his last major tests, he dropped back-to-back fights to Jamie McDonnell in 2015. It’s now or never, chief. Vargas, meanwhile, will seek, and could receive, a unification bout with fellow 122-pound titlist Danny Roman, who was in attendance Saturday. Or he might try to cash in his chips with a move up to 126, where featherweight titlist Leo Santa Cruz theoretically would be waiting with open, windmilling arms. Here’s hoping Vargas, the extraordinarily effective beast of the ball, finds his consummate dance partner.
(Photo by Tom Hogan for HoganPhotos/GoldenBoy)