The two headlining bouts on Saturday's card at StubHub Center went according to the form book. In the main event Miguel Cotto was a level above tough Japanese scrapper Yoshihiro Kamegai – winning eleven of the twelve rounds. The chief support bout saw Rey Vargas defend his WBC super-bantamweight title in what turned into a fairly close fight against Ronny Rios.
Kicking off with the top of the bill – Cotto faced off against relentless pressure fighter Kamegai. The vacant WBO light-middleweight belt was the prize on offer. Cotto, who prior to this fight, had stated that he would retire from boxing on December 31st. This prompted much pre fight discussion about whether or not he would stick to this plan. I was more interested in seeing how Miguel looked after a long (21 month) layoff.
Cotto looked like he'd never been away. After using the first round to have a look at what he was facing, Cotto went to work. He was up against a determined, durable opponent who didn't seem to possess a reverse gear. Kamegai constantly forced Cotto back towards the ropes while throwing leather non-stop. This suited Cotto as after the first session he won the remaining eleven rounds, putting on an exhibition of back-foot boxing and counter punching.
The pattern of the fight was the same for the duration – Kamegai pursuing Cotto and throwing punches which were telegraphed excellently by the experienced Puerto Rican. In the main Cotto was able to avoid being hit with anything too significant while punishing Kamegai with an array of jabs, hooks and impressive uppercuts. Some moments in particular did stand out: round three – Cotto backed into the corner, countered his foe with a left uppercut while stepping to his right to give himself some space. Beautiful. Round seven – Cotto having plenty of joy landing sharp combinations on Kamegai. Round ten – Cotto bouncing on his feet before the round commenced showing he still had plenty left in his legs.
Throughout the fight Cotto used uppercuts against his taller, aggressive opponent. Despite the tide of the match never being in his favour, Kamegai never stopped trying. The man from Japan proved he has one of the best chins in the sport by absorbing a tonne of punishment without ever looking like he would go down.
The fight ended and scores of 120-108, 118-110 and 119-109 were announced. Cotto (41-5-0, 33KOs) basked in the victory as he was handed his latest championship belt. Kamegai (27-4-2, 24KOs) took another loss in California but enhanced his reputation as an all action warrior who fights for every second. It looks like at this level though he will always just come up short.
Cotto, having just shown everyone watching that he still has something left, discussed the fight and his future during the in-ring interview: “I tried to do my best here and I think I did. He's a tough opponent. Round five or six I already knew I wasn't going to stop him. I will do it (retire on Dec 31). I'm going to be 37. I think it's enough boxing for me. One more in December then that will be all.” When asked who he would like to fight in his finale Cotto deferred to his trainer, Freddie Roach: “The winner of the GGG-Canelo fight. We're not going to duck anyone.” That really would be a stern challenge to finish up with.
Prior to Cotto's splendid showing Rey Vargas faced Ronny Rios in what turned into an absorbing contest. Mexico's Vargas, the WBC title holder in the super-bantamweight division, was making the first defence of his title against American Rios.
The opening stanza revealed exactly what both men needed to do in order to win. Vargas, owning a significant height and reach advantage despite what the stats line told us, began the fight well. The champion boxed at range behind a swift jab and was able to connect with a few powerful right hands over the top of Rios' guard. Rios had some short lived joy in the round when he was able to close the gap and fight in close but in the main Vargas bossed the session.
This continued in the next frame as again Vargas, boxing to the instructions of his legendary trainer Nacho Beristain, made use of his physical edge and boxed at range, throwing in some fast, eye-catching combinations for good measure.
The third round offered a clearer view of how Rios could win the fight. Vargas, by lowering his output just a little, allowed his opponent to get into his wheel-house. Rios got the better of these frequent inside exchanges and won the round.
As the fight progressed towards the halfway point Vargas re-established his dominance before taking another round off. Rounds four and five saw the champion adding to his lead but again his work-rate dropped in the sixth, giving Rios another opportunity to win the close quarters exchanges and win the round. Rios landed some hurtful looking body shots in doing so.
Round seven may have been Rios' best. Following on from his excellent work in the sixth the dogged challenger went on the attack. Vargas looked tired and his punches seemed to lack power as he tried to fight Rios off. The next round offered more of the same, Vargas looking like he was having stamina issues, Rios taking advantage and dominating inside. The fight was now level on my scorecard.
We headed into the final third and Vargas finally go back to what worked for him in the early stages. Rios won round nine as he had the better of the first two minutes but the final minute belonged to the champion. This was the start of his revival, setting him up for the closing rounds.
With his title reign looking like being a short one, Vargas rallied down the stretch. He returned to boxing at range, controlling the tempo of the championship rounds behind his jab. This secured Vargas the final three rounds he needed. He had reversed the slide to finish 115-113 up on my card.
The judges concurred, although two of them had it much wider for Vargas (118-110 twice, 115-113) which I though was harsh on Rios. The correct boxer was awarded the decision but it was slightly surprising to me that only one of the ringside officials gave Rios credit for his mid-fight comeback. Vargas (30-0-0, 22KOs) has the look of a very good champion while Rios (28-2-0, 13KOs) can be proud of his gallant challenge.
Overall, the world title action from California on Saturday provided us with two very watchable bouts. Rey Vargas could be tough to beat at 122lbs if he keeps a high work rate for the entire twelve rounds. As for Cotto, he showed he is still a top tier boxer. It will be interesting to see who he closes out his hall of fame career against before December 31st.