by Fox Doucette
Oscar De La Hoya, in his absolute prime and still undefeated, stepped up to welterweight for the first time in 1997 and solved quite possibly the greatest defensive fighter of all time in Pernell Whitaker en route to a unanimous decision. Sugar Ray Leonard, over eight rounds in November of 1980, not only avenged the only loss of his “real” career (let us never speak of his attempted comeback in 1991 again, much less the Camacho fight in ’97, the same way Michael Jordan never—you hear me, NEVER—played for the Washington Wizards), but did so in one of the most memorable breakdowns of a man’s will to fight in the history of the sport, causing Roberto Duran to say “no mas” to the referee in the waning moments of the eighth round.
Meanwhile, our co-feature has something a little different. We’ve got two guys who were your prototypical TV-friendly fighters, the guys whose kill-or-be-killed style meant that almost none of their fights went the distance no matter whether they won or lost. We’ve got both of them when they were at their best, as John “The Beast” Mugabi comes in from his capturing of the junior middleweight championship of the world from Rene Jacquot, while Fernando Vargas comes in from the fastest and most decisive knockout victory he ever enjoyed in a title fight, against Howard Clarke.
From the Historical Fight Night Arena Presented By This Space For Rent, in San Dimas, California, these fights are scheduled for 12 rounds using the Unified Rules of the Association of Boxing Commissions. Scoring is on the 10-point must system, there is no three knockdown rule, no standing eight count, only the referee can stop the fight, and a fighter cannot be saved by the bell in any round including the twelfth and final round.
Now, for the thousands in attendance and the millions watching from around the world…
Let’s Make History.
John “The Beast” Mugabi (July 8, 1989, 34-2, 34 KOs) vs. Fernando Vargas (March 13, 1999, 16-0, 16 KOs)
The guys at the arena got a great deal on a new ring for these fights; the Sugar Ray Leonard camp, setting up the main event, complained that the ring had some loose canvas and dead boards, and those had been a source of constant annoyance during that second Duran fight. Angelo Dundee, blissfully unaware of the later use of the quip in a movie, said “Fuck! Even in the future, nothing works!”
Luckily, one of the arena equipment people knew a guy who knew a guy who knew Yvon Michel, and a ring was put on a truck in Montreal and driven over a border and across a country. The ring got set up, and only then did anyone figure out that it was the ring from the 2010 fight between David Lemieux and Elvin Ayala, all fifteen feet six inches of it. No matter; it was too late to do anything about it, and nobody wanted to spend the money to gas up the time machine and just go back and fix it, so beggars can’t be choosers; these fights will be contested in a phone booth that is a sub-minimum-sized (boxing rules demand a ring be at least 16 feet on a side) ring. Any fighter who wants to dance? He’ll do it in a mosh pit.
Not that it matters in the co-feature, as…
Any illusions of this being a boxing match went out the window as soon as Vargas and Mugabi saw the ring. Mugabi, by this point in his career, had given Marvin Hagler all he wanted at middleweight before bowing out under Hagler’s attack in the eleventh round. He had knocked out all 34 of the fighters he’d beaten, shed the label of “great fighter never to win a championship” through a combination of application of force and the betrayal of Rene Jacquot’s leg, and become as well-renowned as a big middleweight puncher as he’d ever been at 154.
Meanwhile, Vargas had fought his entire career between welterweight and junior middleweight, and while his left hook was devastating, his big wins against Winky Wright and Ike Quartey were still in his future. There was some question whether it was wise to trade shots with a guy like the Beast.
Vargas had the faster hands, though, and he put together some three-punch combinations that were reminiscent in a lot of the fans’ minds of Terrible Terry Norris. Mugabi may not have felt the sting of one shot at a time, but three, delivered in lightning succession, certainly got to him.
Vargas dominated the opening round, beating his man to the punch consistently, but Mugabi, who may have been dazed and perhaps even a bit surprised by what was coming at him, was nonetheless not so badly hurt that he could not recover on the stool between rounds.
Mugabi began to assert his strength in this round, turning the fight into a rough house tactics brawl, using the small ring to his advantage, shoving Vargas into the corner, sometimes through the application of moves better suited to professional wrestling, other times by using his forearm as a battering ram, and when he had Vargas off balance, he unleashed a barrage of left hooks and straight right hands.
Midway through the round, however, Vargas connected with a hook up top just as Mugabi was sitting on a punch, and the momentum shifted. Mugabi was staggered back, chased the 15 feet to the ropes on the opposite side of the ring, and it was Vargas’s turn to get to work, sticking the right hand right on the solar plexus of the Beast from Uganda. Mugabi was once again forced to cover up, as Vargas did not let him get his hands free to a point where he could push off and try to force the action back in his own favor.
Mugabi’s corner screamed at him in between rounds. “You gotta stop getting careless in there! Fight your fight! You’re stronger than this guy!”
Granted the one-minute reprieve that allowed him to get off the ropes and get his wind, Mugabi came out once again in the third using his forearm to good effect and imposing his superior size on his opponent. Referee Mills Lane, himself put into the time machine in 1986 fresh off having refereed Mugabi’s fight with Hagler, seemed to understand the spectacle of the exhibition and chose to referee the fight more like his playing-himself character on Celebrity Death Match than as the official in charge of a boxing match with implications. The net result of this was that all the roughhousing was tolerated and, by dint of the referee’s own silence, seemingly encouraged.
Mugabi initially came back in with the hook as his money punch, but he had a surprise for Vargas this time. Mugabi feinted with a hook and when Vargas looked to tie up, Mugabi took a step back, let Vargas lean in, then uncorked a right uppercut that landed right on the point of the chin of Fernando Vargas, sending him to the canvas, and unlike Mugabi, at this point in his career, Vargas did not know that he would someday taste defeat within the distance. He was shocked as Lane began the count, but rose at the count of seven and survived the round.
Mugabi was not going to let Vargas off the hook. From the opening bell, the Beast resumed his attack, once again bull rushing Vargas at every opportunity, and using the hook as the anchor for a variety of combinations from a variety of angles; Vargas began to have trouble getting a counter shot in.
Finally, Mugabi once again feinted with the left hook, although this time it was to set up a pair of straight right hands that got Vargas leaning the wrong way, and the next left hook crashed home sure and true upon the temple of Fernando Vargas, whose eyes were closed and his brain shorted out before he hit the floor. The size and strength of Mugabi, coupled with the tiny ring and the referee’s willingness to turn this into a street fight, proved his undoing, and Mills Lane called a halt to the contest at 2:27 of the fourth round without a count.
Your winner, by technical knockout…
RESULT: MUGABI TKO4 VARGAS.
Sugar Ray Leonard (November 25, 1980, 28-1, 19 KOs) vs. Oscar De La Hoya (April 12, 1997, 24-0, 20 KOs)
The small ring, in theory, favored the Golden Boy, who looked to close range with Leonard rather than letting him try and dance around the ring the way he had in the second Duran fight. Leonard, for his part, was going to stay on the outside of the 15’6” ring and keep De La Hoya stationary on the inside, not letting him cut down the ring and using his superior hand speed to land the greater volume of effective shots.
There are three ways to avoid getting hit in a boxing match. The first is to block the incoming punch. The second is to dodge. The third, and the most challenging, is to counter, beating your opponent to the punch and using his offense against him. Do it right and your opponent’s momentum does your work for you. Do it wrong and you get punched in the face.
Sugar Ray had frightening hand speed early in his career, and quickly figured out that comparatively speaking, the Golden Boy was a plodder, unable to get his own counters off fast enough to take all the steam off the punches coming in. Leonard danced around the outside of the ring, snapping his jab in, getting out to the side, and frustrating De La Hoya, who simply could not raise his hands to counter in sufficient time before the opportunity was lost.
Leonard continued the attack, but De La Hoya, taking advantage of the cramped quarters, began to take a cue from the winner of the co-feature, playing rougher and trying to drop hooks through Leonard’s defenses the way he had done against Whitaker.
Sugar Ray, for his part, was mainly able to slip the punches; nothing landed cleanly, and when he got out the side and Oscar turned to face him, Ray had a jab waiting for his opponent, served up as the luncheon special.
For three rounds this went on, and by the end of round four, it was evident to all that Ray Leonard was simply out-boxing Oscar De La Hoya decisively, leading 40-36 on all four cards. His hand speed, foot speed, reflexes, and the simple fact that he’d been pulled from one of his greatest victories combined to create a matchup nightmare for the man brought forth from 1997.
Power is the great equalizer in boxing. Nothing turns a rout into a fight quite like a well-placed left hook, and Oscar finally landed a left hook for the ages in the fifth, surprising Leonard and sending him to the canvas with a flash knockdown. Sure, Sugar Ray was up before Mills Lane reached the count of three, but Oscar had seized the momentum for the time being. Leonard had to respect the power of his opponent, and De La Hoya, previously frustrated and beginning to doubt himself, got a fresh sense of purpose.
De La Hoya began to try to make a brawl out of the fight, taking away his opponent’s strength, clutching and grabbing in some cases, leading with the forearm and hitting to the body without trying to tie up in others. The fight was ugly, it was debatably full of cheap shots, and at two separate points De La Hoya was warned for hitting on the break, but if you can’t win a track meet, get the hose out and turn the track into a mud pit. Where Leonard had won the first four rounds, De La Hoya won the next three, and with the 10-8 round in the fifth, that led to an even score.
Leonard re-established his jab in the eighth and pulled the Klitschko strategy of instantly tying up as soon as his opponent got in close. If De La Hoya wanted this to be an ugly fight, Leonard wasn’t about to let him dictate the terms. The crowd hated it, seeing Leonard as either running or hugging, but the simple fact remained that one guy was jabbing and the other guy was chasing, and you have to land punches to win a fight. The cat and mouse game continued; Ray Leonard won the eighth, Oscar De La Hoya won the ninth, and the fight remained even.
All that changed when Leonard walked the Golden Boy into a counter left hook. Knowing that his opponent would rush in when frustrated, Leonard set the trap; rather than jab and work off the pot shot to try and score, Sugar Ray uncorked a picture-perfect left hook that used Oscar’s momentum against him.
De La Hoya didn’t go down, mind you, but he did get stopped in his tracks, and Leonard went on the offensive, driving De La Hoya back to the ropes, putting heavy punishment on the stunned man. After another round of this, the consensus was that Oscar might just have given away too many rounds; certainly Oscar himself believed he’d need at least one more knockdown.
His strength mustered for one more run, Oscar came forward, throwing caution to the wind, elbowing and pushing and doing whatever needed to be done to get inside. He kept his body low, coiled like a snake, working the body without relent, and showing a seeming willingness to walk through hell itself to get to his opponent. The problem with this approach was that it takes a willing participant to get drawn into that sort of a fight, and believing that he needed only to survive the final round in order to seal the victory, Sugar Ray would have none of it.
Clinches, counters, putting the earmuffs on, ducking and bobbing and weaving, Sugar Ray took everything Oscar had to offer him, but nothing the Golden Boy threw landed effectively. When the bell sounded to end the fight, a monster of a technical display, the age-old question came up—would the judges reward the finesse and ring generalship of Ray Leonard or the power shots and volume punching even if the shots weren’t landing of Oscar De La Hoya?
The decision took what felt like an eternity, as the cards were tallied and re-tallied. Finally, the results were announced:
Judge Chuck Giampa scored the bout 115-112, Leonard. Judge Jerry Roth scored the bout 114-113, De La Hoya. And Judge Dalby Shirley scored the bout 114-113, for your winner, by split decision…
RESULT: LEONARD W-SD12 DE LA HOYA.
It is on like Donkey Kong as Roy Jones Jr. makes his Historical Fight Night debut, taking on Bob Foster in a light heavyweight main event. In the co-feature, it’s another all-action slugfest as Iron Mike Tyson, pulled from his win over Tyrell Biggs in 1987, takes on Sonny Liston. Tyson once said “I’m Dempsey, I’m Liston…”, well, we’ll have him fight the genuine article.
Keep it here on The Boxing Tribune on July 10 at 6 PM Eastern, 3 PM Pacific.