by Kieran Mulvaney
Boxing is known as the sweet science.
It is the noble art of self-defense.
It is the art of hitting without being hit.
Or, as was the case at The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas on Saturday night, it is a nasty, dirty, foul-filled alley fight between two men who don't necessarily like each other at the beginning of the night, but flat out can't stand each other by the time it's over. And, after the fight ends in a disqualification, the guy who's officially declared a winner is the one who looks angrier and appears to want to keep on fighting. Then the weird atmosphere infects the arena security team and for a brief moment it looks as if all kinds of craziness is about to kick off.
Boxing, ladies and gentlemen. It's also the theater of the unexpected. Hell, it's just plain bizarre.
There were some actual, legal punches thrown in the welterweight contest between Brandon Rios and Diego Chaves. Quite a lot of them, in fact, were thrown and landed with sufficient frequency and authority that at first it looked to be shaping up to be one of the more memorable fights of the year.
There was no feeling out process, no circling and looking, no tentative jabbing. Rios and Chaves tore into each other from the opening bell, ripping punches to each other's body and head, and soon establishing a pattern: when there was a hint of distance between them, Chaves was in the ascendant courtesy of the extra leverage he was able to gain on his punches and his ability to change angles; in close, Rios was all mauling, smothering beast.
There was little to choose between the two men in the first round, but in the second round Rios was all over Chaves, firing bludgeoning combinations and pounding Chaves' body; already, the Argentine's punch-rate looked to be dropping. It was more of the same at the start of the third, Rios landing a powerful left hook and then a blistering right uppercut. Halfway through, however, Chaves decided that a different course of action was in order as he was clearly coming out second best in the phone booth war. He began to move sideways, step backward as Rios moved forward, and land beautiful lead right hands and left hooks as Rios set himself to throw punches.
It seemed that the battle of styles would become the major theme of the evening. But a subplot was brewing, which soon became the dominant storyline. In between combinations, whenever Rios came close, Chaves held him. Fair enough, up to a point. But a frustrated Rios drove his head into Chaves' jaw at every opportunity. In round three, though, it was the Chaves transgression that prompted referee Vik Drakulich to deduct a point. It would not be the last deduction of the evening.
In round four, Chaves came out firing behind a jab and left hook. He had found his range, using his left hand to move Rios onto his right cross, and he was landing almost at will. Rios smiled every time he was hit. He was smiling a lot. He smiled a lot against Manny Pacquiao, too, and we all know how that worked out.
But his smiles weren't the smiles of friendship. The two men were starting to snarl at each other, to rough each other up at every opportunity. When they tangled in a corner, Rios threw Chaves to the ground. Drakulich deducted another point.
In the sixth, Chaves landed a beautiful straight right behind a stiff jab, and then an uppercut. Rios closed in, and the two clinched. Rios reintroduced his head to Chaves' chin. Chaves introduced his elbow to Rios' face. Drakulich separated them and warned them both that they risked disqualification.
Chaves stared at Rios. "Fuck you," he said.
The pace slowed a little in the seventh, Chaves once more struggling to keep Rios off him, and Rios not showing the same energetic combinations in close quarters that he had earlier. By the eighth, the American once more was assuming control - which was more than could be said for Drakulich, who stepped in to break the two men after Chaves appeared to land an elbow, and then found himself struggling to keep Chaves from pushing him out the way to go at Rios some more. This was no longer boxing, this was two guys who were ready to take it outside to the parking lot if they had to.
Drakulich deducted yet another point from Chaves, and when the bell rang to end the frame, Rios was shouting at the referee furiously, pointing at his face to indicate that Chaves was raking him across the eyes during clinches.
The evening seemed to have reached the height of absurdity when the two men fell to the ground in a clinch, and Chaves WWE'd Rios onto his back. But no, there was more to come. Another clinch, another exchange of unpleasantries, another Rios complaint about being raked across the eye, and it was over.
Drakulich stepped in and waved the contest to a halt; Chaves had been disqualified for throwing another elbow. But Rios still wanted a piece of him, screaming at him, pointing again at his face. And then the corner teams spilled into the ring, before peace was rapidly restored. Boos and confusion filled the arena, as did some of the strange juju emanating from the ring, as an HBO crew raced to reach the corner where Jim Lampley was preparing to interview the boxers, only for security from The Cosmopolitan to bar their way. More screaming, more shouting, more shoving. It was that kind of night.
For the record, Chaves was leading 75-74 on two cards, and Rios was up by the same score on the other.
For the record, Rios climbs to 32-2-1, with 23 KOs, and Chaves drops to 23-2.
Also for the record, the night ended HBO 1, Cosmopolitan 0.
Jessie Vargas entered his junior welterweight bout with Anton Novikov with a reputation for always eking out close, often split, decisions in Las Vegas: witness, for example, his victories over Josesito Lopez and Khabib Allakhverdiev. He left it with a reputation of being harder to defeat in Sin City than the casinos, scoring a wide unanimous decision in a fight that ringside observers all saw as a close contest.
After an active first two rounds in which Vargas appeared to have the edge, Novikov started to walk down the American in three and four. Two right hands - a straight punch to the chin that caused Novikov to do the briefest of dances in the center of the ring in round five, and a booming roundhouse shot in the sixth - may have been enough to keep Vargas a nose in front at the halfway stage, but still Novikov kept coming. When Vargas let his hands go, he was in the ascendant; when Novikov was able to connect with his stiff southpaw jab, he assumed control, particularly when he landed crunching right hands to the body afterward. A Novikov left hand knocked Vargas back at the end of the tenth and a pair of straight lefts in the eleventh landed with crunching thuds. It felt as if the fight was up for grabs entering the final round, and although Novikov started the final frame with greater purpose, Vargas closed it stronger with fast combinations.
As it turned out, by then he had the fight already won, with the final scores of 118-111 (twice) and 117-111.
Vargas sounded disappointed with his outing. "I can be a better champion," he said. "I can do better than this. I'm still learning. I've got to learn how to finish people off."