Wednesday, May 14, 2014 | 2 a.m.
Upon purchasing his first home last year, Jessie Vargas wasted no time in adorning the new space with decorations and necessities.
Vargas tucked comforts across the Las Vegas property’s prominent areas with one exception. The boxing prospect left a living-room mantel conspicuously unoccupied.
“I reserved two spots for belts,” Vargas said. “I put the lights there, ready to shine on them. I knew I was going to become world champion. I knew I was going to have the belts.”
Vargas earned them last month, deposing Khabib Allakhverdiev to win the WBA and IBO 140-pound championships in an upset by unanimous decision on the Manny Pacquiao vs. Timothy Bradley II undercard at the MGM Grand Garden Arena.
The 25-year-old Palo Verde graduate reveled in achieving a goal he set for himself shortly after his family moved to Southern Nevada from Los Angeles as a child but not for long. Cementing his status as the most promising homegrown talent in some time is just the beginning.
Vargas (24-0) and those around him anticipate reaching a whole new frontier.
“He has tremendous potential,” Top Rank Boxing CEO Bob Arum said. “Once a kid wins his first title, he gets a lot of confidence and becomes an even better fighter than he was before. Or some of them go crazy when they win a title and become so full of themselves that they regress and aren’t as good as they were. As far as Jessie, he’s a solid kid from a good family with a good outlook on life. We expect winning the title will make him better.”
Sensing the fighter had “something about him that indicated tremendous upside,” Arum lured Vargas away from Floyd Mayweather Jr.’s then-dwindling Mayweather Promotions stable two years ago.
The legendary promoter now must fight to restrain his tremendous confidence in Vargas, who called for a shot against some of the world’s top pound-for-pound fighters after the Allakhverdiev victory. Vargas went as far as to volunteer himself as Pacquiao’s next opponent.
But Arum’s experience dictates that a deliberate climb up the ranks is more beneficial. Arum plans to book Vargas for a title defense against either former lightweight champion Antonio DeMarco or Anton Novikov in July. Should Vargas prevail unscathed, Arum envisions another championship bout in November.
Realistically, next year is the earliest Vargas could tangle with someone of Pacquiao’s ilk.
“If I don’t get the opportunity to fight with the elite guys right now, I’ll just continue to prepare myself and continue to improve,” Vargas said. “That way when I do get it, I’m ready for it. Let’s say, right now, I would beat him in a decision. I’m pretty sure that if I could beat him in a 12-round decision right now, then in six months, I could be ready to knock him out in six rounds.”
Vargas believes he’s progressing that rapidly under a new training regimen. The championship win was his first fight under veteran trainer Ismael Salas, who’s worked with 14 previous champions and won the 1996 WBA Trainer of the Year award.
Salas spent the first month and a half with Vargas strictly on fundamentals, reconfiguring his footwork and positioning him to get more behind his punches. The pair has only started to delve into finer techniques, which Salas thinks will enable Vargas to further tap into his boundless promise.
“My dream is for him to be a pay-per-view fighter, and he can do it not because he has a belt,” Salas said. “The one thing he’s got is the most important in boxing — guts. Without this, you cannot be a great fighter. And he’s got a huge heart.”
Anyone at the MGM saw as much after the heavy-handed Allakhverdiev tagged him midway through their bout. Vargas controlled the opening rounds before circling into a couple of Allakhverdiev’s right hands — punches Salas stressed to avoid — to leave the result of the fight in jeopardy.
He needed a strong finish to lock down the victory.
“Vargas stayed in there and did very well in the last few rounds,” Arum said. “That won him the title. It talks to his character. A lot of young fighters start off well and when the other fighter comes on, they fold. He stayed in there and battled it out.”
Allakhverdiev’s face was bloody and battered after enduring 12 rounds of attrition from Vargas’ attacks. Some in the arena were uncertain which way the decision would land, but not Vargas.
He knew he had become a champion.
“Right after the fight, I took a deep breath, sunk it all in and thought, ‘Yes, I did it,’” Vargas reminisced. “Every day, every month, every year since I was 8 years old I had been waiting for that moment. 'I want to be champion of the world' turned to 'I will be,' then to 'I have to be.' There were no other options for me.”
The two belts draped over Vargas’ shoulders in the ring afterward were props. He’s still waiting for the actual ones to arrive in Las Vegas after getting their inscriptions.
The vacant spot allocated for them in his house makes Vargas anxious. He’s learning to deal with the patience, an attribute he could also extend to his career.
“This is why I signed with Top Rank,” Vargas said. “I knew they would get me in this position. I know that they take their time with fighters and know what they’re doing. They’ve got great examples in Oscar De La Hoya, Sugar Ray Leonard and Floyd Mayweather. I want to be in that position. I’m going to give boxing the next superstar it needs.”