Rey Vargas claimed a world title in a second weight class and he did it the hard way.
Vargas got off the deck from a ninth-round knockdown to finish the fight and win a split decision over Mark Magsayo to take his WBC featherweight title on Saturday night in the main event of the Premier Boxing Champions tripleheader on Showtime at the Alamodome in San Antonio.
“I’m at a loss of words,” Vargas said through an interpreter. “I worked hard for this. I want to thank God, my family, (Hall of Fame trainer) Nacho (Beristain). The first title I won, I enjoyed it greatly but this one is special. This win is for me. It was a great fight.”
Judges Tim Cheatham and David Sutherland each scored it 115-112 for Vargas while Jesse Reyes surprisingly had it 114-113 for Magsayo, who didn’t even think he won the fight. Fight Freaks Unite also had it 115-112 for Vargas.
“It’s his today,” said Magsayo, the Manny Pacquiao-promoted Filipino, who was making his first title defense after upsetting long-reigning titlist Gary Russell Jr. by majority decision on Jan. 22 in Atlantic City, New Jersey. “No matter what I’ll come back stronger. I’m disappointed but I did my best.
“I applied the pressure and did what we trained for in the gym, but he was taller and he’s the man today.”
Vargas won the WBC junior featherweight title in 2017 and made five defenses before vacating in 2020. But the coronavirus pandemic, injuries and a promotional change led to a nearly 2½-year layoff before he returned in November as a featherweight. In his debut in the division, he easily outpointed Leonard Baez on the Canelo Alvarez-Caleb Plant card to set up a mandatory shot at the 126-pound belt.
Vargas has been very effective through the years at outboxing opponents and engaging as little as possible by using the height and reach advantages he usually enjoys against opponents. But, he largely dispensed with that style against Magsayo despite being taller and longer. He spent much of the fight battling at close quarters with the aggressive Magsayo.
While the first couple of rounds appeared very close, Vargas took over after that until running into some late trouble.
Although Magsayo (24-1, 16 KOs), 27, got in a few good left hooks and rocked Vargas with a right hand to the neck area in the fifth round, overall he had a hard time dealing with Vargas’ volume punching.
Vargas (36-0, 22 KOs), 31, of Mexico, suffered a cut by his left eye from an accidental head butt in the seventh round, but it never seemed to concern Vargas or his corner, which did a good job of keeping the blood under control.
After the seventh round, Beristain was very happy with Vargas’ performance to that point, telling him he was dominating the fight. As pleased as Beristain was with his man, Freddie Roach, Magsayo’s Hall of Fame trainer, was equally concerned about his, telling Magsayo after the eighth round, “We need to score points. We need every round, one at a time.”
Magsayo apparently took Roach’s words to heart because he had his best round of the fight in the ninth. He landed combinations and a hard right before nailing Vargas with a straight right hand on the jaw to knock him down with about 30 seconds left in the round.
“It wasn’t that effective but it counts,” Vargas said of the knockdown. “He did get me there. I was in control of the entire fight, except for the ninth when I lost a little control.”
Vargas did not appear to have completely recovered by the 10th round and was unsteady. He hit the canvas again from what referee Jon Schorle ruled a slip, but it was clear he was on rubbery legs. Magsayo, however, never went after Vargas in the 10th round and seemed to let him off the hook.
“When I had him down, the punch was straight,” Magsayo said. “He did his job in the ring, running. That’s OK.”
By the 11th round, Vargas looked like he was fully recovered and snapped Magsayo’s head back with a hard left hand. They closed the fight in exciting fashion in the 12th round as Magsayo stalked Vargas but did not come close to scoring another knockdown.
“It was a good, enjoyable fight. We felt comfortable throughout,” Vargas said. “I was sound technically. We were just going round-by-round and we got the result we expected.”
According to CompuBox statistics, Vargas landed 196 of 687 punches (29 percent) and Magsayo connected on 132 of 451 (29 percent). Vargas outlanded Magsayo 45-13 in body shots.
“I will rest and watch the fight and I’m going to train to fight again and will correct my mistakes for the next time,” Magsayo said. “I did my best and will come back stronger.”
Vargas hopes that he can next land a unification bout in a division that boasts titleholders Emanuel Navarrete (WBO), Josh Warrington (IBF) and Leo Santa Cruz (WBA).
Vargas’ preference is to face fellow PBC fighter Santa Cruz, the most decorated and best known of the titleholders in what would be an all-Mexican fight. However, unless the WBA goes back on its order, Santa Cruz is next obligated to defend against “regular” titleholder Leigh Wood, although there would be nothing preventing Santa Cruz from vacating and facing Vargas in what would still be a major fight even if not a unification bout.
Vargas wasn’t thinking about boxing politics after his big win. He just wants to add more hardware to his collection.
“Now I want the unification bout,” Vargas said. “I want to fight Leo Santa Cruz. We’ve already talked about it with my team.”