By Tim Smith
Over a year's worth of ring rust and a cut above his left eye was not enough to slow down Miguel Vazquez in successfully defending his IBF lightweight championship against Denis Shafikov. Vazquez scored a 12-round unanimous decision over Shafikov at the Cotai Arena in Macao, China on Saturday.
Looking at the three judges' scorecards, it seemed Shafikov slowly slid down a hill toward a loss to Vazquez. Judge Patricia Jarman scored it 115-113. Judge Chris Wilson scored it 116-112. And judge Sylvian Leblanc scored it 119-109. It looked like they were all watching a different fight and they may have been. Vazquez and Shafikov, clumsy and awkward at times, made it difficult to cleanly score rounds. But it was clear that Vazquez was in control for most of the match as Shafikov never found a way to cut off the ring or land any telling blows.
Vazquez (34-3, 13 KOs) entered the ring expecting a grueling match against Shafikov (33-1-1, 18 KOs), who had fought most of his previous 34 matches in Russia and had chalked up an undefeated record. Shafikov, a 5-foot-5 fireplug known for pressing the action, was anxious to prove that he deserved to be in the world championship ranks.
For those expecting fireworks it proved to be a disappointing affair, as the short southpaw Shafikov had trouble finding his range. The 5-foot-10 Vazquez, using his height and reach advantage, often seemed two steps ahead of the 28-year-old Russian challenger. Vazquez used his jab to keep Shafikov at bay. When Shafikov tried to rush in and press the action, Vazquez used his speed and mobility to slip away or he would nail Shafikov with sharp left uppercuts and looping right hands. They weren't hard enough to stun or knockout Shafikov, but it was just as effective, as Vazquez was scoring points on the way to a unanimous decision.
In the fourth round there was a clash of heads as a cut opened over Vazquez's left eye. It seemed to throw a sense of urgency into Vazquez and he started to engage more, which played into Shafikov's game plan of coming forward and putting pressure on Vazquez. But it was short lived as Vazquez's cutman closed the gash and took away that sense of urgency.
In the fifth round Shafikov seemed to get within range to land some shots, but Vazquez was smart enough to smother Shafikov's punches and tie him up. When Shafikov thought he had gotten close enough to land, he would unleash a shot and wind up swinging at air as Vazquez pedaled away.
Another accidental head butt in the seventh round opened a nasty cut over Shafikov's right eye, but it didn't deter him from coming forward. Though it had to be frustrating for Shafikov to land nothing more than potshots against Vazquez, give him credit for never giving up. He kept trying, and in the later rounds was able to land a few telling shots, including a jarring straight right in the seventh.
But it wasn't enough. The two boxers grappled with each other in the eighth round and fell to the canvas. That was as close to a knockdown as either man get in this fight.
Shafikov had his best round in the 10th. He caught Vazquez with some sharp combinations on a couple of occasions, but it was too little, too late. Vazquez nailed Shafikov with a powerful counter right as Shafikov pressed. That seemed to stun Shafikov, who was bloodied from that cut over his right eye. The momentum was broken when the referee called a timeout to cut off a dangling piece of tape on Vazquez's glove.
The best that can be said for Shafikov, particularly in his effort against the crafty Vazquez, is that he is a game fighter.
Vazquez's style is atypical of other Mexican greats. He would rather box his way out of trouble than run headlong into a brawl. His nickname is El Titere (The Puppet) because of his lanky, loose-limb build and because he likes to bounce around. The 27-year-old Vazquez started out as a welterweight and his three losses came at welterweight and junior welterweight, losing to WBO welterweight champion Timothy Bradley and Saul "Canelo'' Alvarez earlier in his career. All three losses were by decision and they came after Vazquez acquitted himself well. Now that he has moved down in weight, it appears that he has found his championship groove.
It was the eighth successful title defense for Vazquez, who has fought his way into the mix of one of the hottest divisions in boxing with the victory over Shafikov. He is now in line for possible matches against WBC interim champion Omar Figueroa, WBA champion Richard Abril, and the winner of the upcoming match between Terrance Crawford and Ricky Burns.