Pacquiao vs Vargas: ‘Young lion’ against living legend

Ryan Songalia
Pacquiao vs Vargas: ‘Young lion’ against living legend
Jessie Vargas sees Manny Pacquiao as his ticket to stardom. Pacquiao wants to prove doubters wrong by fighting as a senator.

LAS VEGAS, USA – “Never underestimate the hunger of a young lion champion!”

Dewey Cooper, trainer of WBO welterweight champ Jessie Vargas, repeated the warning several times to assembled reporters at a conference room at Wynn Las Vegas, as if his exhortation could move back the betting lines that have his fighter as a 5-1 underdog to retain his title.

Despite having his title belt at stake, Vargas felt like a man with nothing to lose and everything to gain. In Manny Pacquiao, he sees all of the celebrity and fortune he’s always wanted but has yet to attain.

“Superstardom. That’s what I’ve been wanting, what I’ve dreamed of since I was 8 years old. That was my goal, and in order to be in that position you have to beat a fighter that is respected by the entire world,” says Vargas (27-1, 10 knockouts), who will make the first defense of his title on Saturday, November 5 (Sunday Manila time).

“Everybody knows who Manny Pacquiao is. After I beat Manny Pacquiao, they will know who Jessie Vargas is.”

Pacquiao, 10 years older than Vargas at 37, has been where Vargas is now. The Filipino senator was unknown when he arrived on American shores and knocked out Lehlohonolo Ledwaba to win the junior featherweight title to get his foot in the door back in 2001, and in 2003 when he entered the pound-for-pound list with a domination of Marco Antonio Barrera, and in 2008 when he became a global figure by sending Oscar de la Hoya into retirement with a one-sided beatdown.

He also thinks Vargas’ dreams are just that.

“I understand what he feels right now because I’ve been there in that situation,” said Pacquiao before putting his thumb on the ambitious champion. “Sometimes we think too much, more than our skills.”

“In other words, the reach exceeds the grasp. That’s what he’s saying,” chimed in Bob Arum, who promotes both fighters.

Vargas has just one loss on his record, a unanimous points defeat to Timothy Bradley Jr in 2015 marred by a controversial ending, and isn’t fond of being asked whether or not he’s ready for this moment.

“It just gets me aggressive, wanting to hit Manny Pacquiao that day, at that moment, when those questions are asked,” said Vargas.

WBO welterweight champ Jessie Vargas (R) believes he can become a superstar in the boxing world with a win over Pacquiao. Photo by Wendell Alinea

Pacquiao (58-6-2, 38 KOs) was last in the ring in April, dropping Timothy Bradley Jr twice en route to a unanimous decision victory in what he had said would be his final fight. He won a seat in the Philippine Senate the following month, and shortly after began missing the sport he had competed in as a pro since 1995. He says he still needs the multi-million dollar purses he is paid for the fights to support his family and philanthropic endeavors, but says watching the middleweight championship fight between Gennady Golovkin and Kell Brook in September got his heart racing for the thrill of the ring.

“Watching [the fight], I feel lonely and sad because I’m no longer active in the sport that I love. I think about it over and over and then I decided I can still fight,” said Pacquiao, who arrived in town aboard a team bus emblazoned with the word LEGEND.

“I still have that hunger in my heart if we talk about boxing. I’m still interested and disciplined to work hard every fight. I’m still enjoying not only in my mind but also in my heart.”

The surprise of a short retirement means the MGM Grand was not available, so the fight will be held at the Thomas & Mack Center, where he had twice knocked out Erik Morales in 2006. HBO is also not on board with the fight, rationalizing that they don’t want to conflict with their pay-per-view broadcast of Sergey Kovalev vs Andre Ward on November 19.

Pacquiao had trained in the Philippines up until two weeks before fight night while working full-time in the Philippine Senate. It’s a challenging schedule which sees him running at 6 am, followed by conditioning drills with strength coach Justin Fortune, then braving Manila traffic for the Senate until 6 pm, followed by several hours of boxing preparation.

For Pacquiao, being announced as “The Fighting Senator” is part of yet another challenge in his long career.

“In our country, before they are doubting, how can I handle politics, but I already proved that to the people,” said Pacquiao.

For now, there’s no expiration date on his career and he has two fight dates scheduled for 2017. Until he goes off the deep end overnight, there’s no saying how long he’ll be fighting.

“You cannot talk about the next fight. Just one at a time,” says Pacquiao. –

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