“There’s levels to this,” experienced fighter Jose ‘Chon’ Zepada backed up his pre-fight press conference words with a vicious knockout over young prodigy Josue Vargas at Madison Square Garden. Vargas had gotten well and truly under the skin of Zepada in the pre-fight build up, but paid the price by being stopped inside of one round in front of his hometown crowd.
IN THE RED CORNER – JOSE ZEPADA
Zepada came into this bout as a veteran of two world title fights so far in his career, and was hoping for a convincing win here to put himself in the mix for a third shot at gold. In 2015, a then undefeated Zepada travelled to English shores to face hometown hero Terry Flanagan for the vacant WBO world lightweight title.
After an entertaining first round, Zepada dislocated his shoulder in the second round when both men threw punches and found their arms entangled. Zepada failed to answer the bell for the third round after a failed attempt to reset the dislocation on his corner.
It was an unfortunate manner of defeat, and the victorious Flanagan sympathized after the fight, “I thought he hurt his shoulder and I would like a rematch.” That rematch never came, with Flanagan going on to defend successfully against Diego Magdaleno while Zepada was forced to wait four years for another title shot.
After reeling off seven straight wins, Zepada faced off against undefeated champion Jose Carlos Ramirez in 2019 for the world junior welterweight title in California. The fight was close, with one judge scoring it as a 114-114 tie while two judges gave the fight to the defending champion by scores of 116-112 and 115-113 respectively. “It’s kind of sad and it hurts a lot,” said Zepada who continues his quest for a world championship to this day.
With the two unsuccessful title shots the only blemishes on a 34-2 (26KO) record, Zepada entered this fight on a four-fight win streak since a no contest bout against Eleazar Valenzuela. After a unanimous decision win over Kendo Castaneda, Zepada put out a performance at both ends of the spectrum in his next two outings. First knocking out Ivan Baranchyk in the 2020 Fight of the Year, a contest where both men registered four knockdowns, before edging past Hank Lundy in a much less thrilling unanimous decision win last time out.
Ranked #3 in the junior welterweight class by The Ring magazine, Zepada would be looking for a more impressive performance here to chase his dream of a championship bout with current division kingpin Josh Taylor.
This would be the first fight in Zepada’s career that he would not have his brother Rene in his corner, thanks to a heated confrontation at the weigh in. As the pair posed for the cameras, Vargas raised the Puerto Rico flag to cover the Mexican flag held by Zepada, sparking a brawl that saw trainer Rene push Vargas and be subsequently banned from the corner for this fight.
Zepada made clear his displeasure about both the behavior of Vargas, and the disciplinary action faced by his brother in a pre-fight interview. “I have felt disrespect and he’s gonna pay for it,” said a stern Zepada. Of the suspension handed out to his brother, Zepada told ESPN “what they did to him wasn’t fair, I’m gonna do it for him. This one is for my brother.”
Winning the fight was something Zepada was very confident of, dismissing the credentials of his young opponent Vargas at the pre-fight press conference. “He’s a young fighter, he still needs a lot of experience. He doesn’t know it and his team probably doesn’t know it yet, but Saturday he will get to see that Boxing isn’t a game,” said Zepada. “He hasn’t fought any top 20 fighters so he’s gonna realize what he got into this Saturday.”
IN THE BLUE CORNER – JOSUE VARGAS
The man known as ‘The Prodigy’ turned professional at 17-years old, reeling off six straight victories and being signed up by Floyd Mayweather ran TMT Promotions before a disqualification loss against Samuel Santana. A thoroughly entertaining fight with Santana was cut short prematurely in the third round when Vargas was ruled to have committed an intentional foul with a late punch.
Since that controversial defeat, Vargas has racked up 13 straight victories that include a unanimous decision nod over Castaneda, an identical result to that obtained by Zepada against the same opponent. Last time out, Vargas was caught clean and rocked in the first minute by Willie Shaw, before going on to win a convincing unanimous decision over 10 rounds in Florida to run his record to 19-1 (9KO).
Despite an array of high profile training partners that he cited when his level of opponent was questioned in the press conference, this fight would without doubt be a step up in class for Vargas, and offered the opportunity to alter the trajectory of his career with a win. Zepada was the first opponent faced by Vargas to have accumulated over 30 career wins, and a win here would surely propel the Puerto Rican fighter into the discussion for a world title shot.
It would be more than just the prospect of glory as a motivating factor ahead of this fight, Vargas cited maturity and inspiration coming from the birth of his son just four months before the fight. “I’ve become a grown man and a father,” Vargas told assembled media at the press conference. “I’m fighting for my child now, I’m fighting for more of a reason.”
While his opponent held the upper hand in terms of experience ahead of this fight, Vargas believed the epic battle with Baranchyk had taken something from Zepada, a narrative that has been discussed by several pundits after the lacklustre Lundy performance. “After the Baranchyk fight, he looked like he was hesitating against Lundy. I believe that the Baranchyk fight did take something out of Zepada.”
As the fighters faced off after the press conference, an animated Vargas taunted Zepada and grabbed the belt from his shoulder, but failed to get under the skin of his smiling opponent. It would be a different story 24 hours later when the pair clashed after the weigh in.
Vargas was unphased by the scuffle, telling ESPN on fight day that “I won the press conference and the weigh in. I’m confident and prepared, I’m 150% sure that I’m coming to take his head off.” It was time to find out if the young prodigy could back up his words, or if he had bitten off more than he could chew.
A confident Vargas danced to the ring in front of his home crowd accompanied by former world champion Danny Garcia. In contrast, the composed hooded figure of Zepada made his way to the ring, hugging his brother Rene in the crowd before stepping through the ropes.
In the opening stages, the two southpaws circled each other looking to land jabs, the bright yellow gloves of Vargas showing speed as they probed for an opening. It was Zepada who landed the first fight altering blow in the second minute of round one, finding the chin of Vargas with a perfectly timed left hand. The hometown fighter went down face first and stumbled trying to get up before finally rising at the count of nine.
Seizing the opportunity, Zepada stalked forward and attacked relentlessly, landing a right hand before unleashing with a flurry of over 10 unanswered punches against the turnbuckle, forcing referee David Fields to step and end the fight with 1:15 remaining in the opening round.
After a heated buildup, the early knockout was especially satisfying for Zepada who hopped up onto the ropes and gesticulated wildly to the crowd. In the crowd, fans of Vargas could be seen emotionally crying and consoling each other, while the suspended Rene could be seen celebrating proudly.
WHAT THEY SAID
Zepada had made his pre-fight words true in spectacular fashion, and stated his intent to keep pursuing the evasive world title post fight. “I was ready, I was 100% ready. I told him in the press conference, there’s levels to this.”
Describing the crucial blows, Zepada said “I put the jab-right together and he got caught. I told him and he probably knew, I hit hard.” Of his next steps, Chon emphasized “I’m 32-years old and I’m in my prime, I want the WBC world title and all the belts to be honest.” If that was true, there is only one opponent to face next.
While he was confident of victory all along, Zepada admitted surprise at how early it came. “I thought it was gonna go 5, 6, 7 rounds but I was ready for anything, I was ready for 20 rounds.”
A devastated Vargas left the ring abruptly, but was interviewed by ESPN backstage. “It’s part of the sport, things happen. He caught me with a good, straight left hand.” When asked about the future, Vargas said “we’re not stopping, from here it’s on to the next.”
WHAT NEXT FOR THE WINNER
There is only one fight in mind for Zepada after this statement victory if he is to achieve his goal of the WBC title and “all the belts to be honest.” Scotsman Taylor owns the WBC title and well….all the belts to be honest. Unified champion Taylor holds the Ring, WBC, WBO, WBA and IBF titles and is the undisputed king of the division. With Zepada currently sitting at #3 in The Ring rankings for junior welterweight, Taylor holds victories over the only two man ranked higher, having registered decision victories over current #1 Regis Prograis and #2 Ramirez.
WHAT NEXT FOR THE LOSER
“He needs a lot of experience. He doesn’t know it and his team probably doesn’t know it yet.” They do now!
The words of Zepada in the pre-fight press conference proved prophetic, and Vargas will need to regroup and go again. Still early in his career, Vargas could still see the bright future many expect to pan out, but it is unlikely he will face a top 10 opponent next time out. A wiser move would likely be to get some wins and rounds in the bank as he looks to make the necessary improvements to excel at world level.
“I learned from my disqualification loss, and now I learn from my second loss,” Vargas told Mark Kriegel post fight. Addressing one technical issue that must be improved, The Prodigy said “sometimes when I throw a jab I drop my right hand and it’s bad to do that against lefties, he caught me clean.” The right hand shot discussed was one Vargas did not recover from, the hope is that this is a defeat he will.