Every now and then a fight comes along that is a no-brainer to make. It's one that is easy to negotiate, is for high stakes and placed in the perfect venue. It's also a fight that anyone with a clue about boxing knows can't be anything but a barnburner.
That, in a nutshell, is the epic battle between junior lightweight titleholder Francisco Vargas and former titleholder and Mexican countryman Orlando Salido, who met June 4 at the StubHub Center in Carson, California, the outdoor stadium known to many as "the war zone" because it has hosted multiple fights of the year: Lucas Matthysse-John Molina (the Boxing Writers Association of America winner in 2014), Tim Bradley Jr.-Ruslan Provodnikov (the 2013 consensus pick) and Israel Vazquez-Rafael Marquez I and III (consensus picks in 2007 and 2008).
Now add to the list Vargas-Salido, the hands-down selection as 2016 ESPN.com fight of the year. Before Vargas and Salido even threw a punch it was hailed as a probable contender because both had been in exceptional fights.
Vargas (23-0-2, 17 KOs) knocked out Takashi Miura in remarkable comeback fashion in the ESPN.com 2015 fight of the year. And Salido (42-13-4, 29 KOs) had been in numerous great fights: two upset knockouts of Juan Manuel Lopez in 2011 and 2012, a seven-knockdown mayhem-filled win against Terdsak Kokietgym in a spectacular 2014 war and two wild battles (a loss and draw) with Rocky Martinez in 2015.
Vargas and Salido knew as well as anyone what was expected from them.
"I believe that both of our styles match very good in the ring and it's going to make a very exciting fight, and that's the reason I'm excited," Vargas said beforehand. "I know that it definitely could be a candidate for fight of the year."
Salido was more direct: "I just want to let everyone know (they should) cancel everything: no weddings, no business, no Quinceañera, no nothing. Just go watch this fight. You're going to enjoy it. We're going to give you a great, great fight, something you're going to remember for a long, long time."
Indeed, this incredibly savage and bloody HBO main event will be remembered as long as fans talk about great fights.
As advertised, they began trading with abandon in the final minute of the opening round, and they never let up. They fired hard, clean shots, crushed each other to the body and tried to impose their will on the other in one extended toe-to-toe exchange after another.
For 12 hellacious rounds, they fought at an insane pace as they relentlessly hammered and staggered each other in what could be viewed as an ode to the great Muhammad Ali, who died less than 24 hours before the bout. They did his warrior legacy proud, especially in the tremendous sixth and 10th rounds.
"We've seen some remarkable wars over the years: All three fights between Arturo Gatti and Micky Ward, all three fights between Marco Antonio Barrera and Erik Morales," HBO's Jim Lampley said as the fourth round wound down. "This is right there with them so far."
In the fifth round, Lampley remained in awe by the action: "There are many, many professional prizefighters who never want to be in a fight like this even once in their career."
"I don't blame them," analyst Max Kellerman replied. "You gotta be a little crazy to want it."
The violence continued for the remainder of the bout. They combined to throw a CompuBox junior lightweight record 1,593 power punches. Overall, Vargas landed 386 of 1,184 punches (33 percent) and Salido connected on 328 of 939 blows (35 percent). Of their 714 combined landed punches, 615 were power shots.
In the end, Vargas, who suffered severe cuts around both eyes, retained his title by majority draw (115-113 and 114-114 twice), Salido's face was lumpy and bruised and the crowd of 7,378 was in jubilation as it gave them a standing ovation.
"Every once in a while I sit in this chair and wonder to myself how do men do this," Lampley said late in the fifth round. "Tonight is one of those nights."
2. Carl Frampton W12 Leo Santa Cruz (July 30 at Barclays Center, Brooklyn, New York): When this featherweight title match between undefeated fighters was made everyone had high expectations for a first-class and exciting battle -- and then they delivered even more than expected as Frampton, the 2016 ESPN.com fighter of the year, moved up to take Santa Cruz's belt in an absolutely thrilling fight. As Frampton's Irish fans chanted and sang throughout the slugfest, he and Santa Cruz waged a blazing war. Simply, fights don't get much better. There was non-stop action in a very competitive fight, a high skill level displayed, high stakes and an electric atmosphere. As the fight came to a close, Showtime announcer Mauro Ranallo summed it perfectly: "What a night to be ringside in Brooklyn! Stand and cheer!" They'll meet again Jan. 28.
3. Dillian Whyte W12 Dereck Chisora (Dec. 10 at Manchester Arena, Manchester, England): There's nothing quite like a heavyweight slugfest, which is what bitter rivals Whyte and Chisora delivered in this title elimination fight. They had huge bad blood coming into the fight, which was nearly called off during fight week when Chisora threw a table toward Whyte at the news conference. But they maintained cool professionalism when the bell rang and let it all hang out in a thrilling rock 'em, sock 'em affair. Although Whyte won a razor-close split decision the gruelling brawl could have gone either way with both men giving and taking huge shots, including in the fifth round, which was the ESPN.com round of the year, and the eighth round. Sky Sports announcer Adam Smith said it perfectly as the ninth round began: "These two have put their heart and soul into it. There's been skills, there's been aggression, there's been courage."
4. Keith Thurman W12 Shawn Porter (June 25 at Barclays Center, Brooklyn, New York): In the return of boxing to CBS in prime time for the first time in nearly 40 years, Thurman, defending his welterweight world title, and Porter delivered a fight worthy of that lofty position. It was a match many had anticipated and it didn't disappoint as Thurman turned back a very spirited effort by Porter, a former titleholder and longtime pal of Thurman's. It was a close, back-and-forth action fight all the way. There many close rounds as they landed within five punches of each other in 10 of the 12 rounds and were separated by one landed punch in all, although Thurman was the heavier hitter. The electric atmosphere of the 12,718 at Barclays Center certainly added to the glory of the fight, which included the ninth round, a round of the year candidate filled with fierce exchanges and toe-to-toe action.
5. Jorge Linares W12 Anthony Crolla (Sept. 24 at Manchester Arena, Manchester, England): Linares went to Crolla's hometown and took his lightweight world title by decision in a fantastic action fight between the top two 135-pounders in the world. Crolla gave a great effort and applied pressure but it was trumped by the skills and speed of Linares, whose high work rate and outstanding body attack gave Crolla problems throughout the fight. Crolla cut Linares over the left eye in the fifth round, but then came the superior sixth round, a round of the year candidate, in which Crolla was clearly winning before Linares rallied to badly hurt him with a right hand and nearly stop him late in the round. Linares, who injured his right hand earlier in the fight, cut Crolla over the left eye in the seventh round of an increasingly grueling fight that we will see a sequel of this spring.
6. Francis Lafreniere W10 Renan St-Juste (Jan. 30 at Bell Centre, Montreal): There are thousands of fighters every year who lay it all on the line for small money in fights few ever see and that's what these Quebec middleweights did on the undercard of the Sergey Kovalev-Jean Pascal rematch. They went to war in a thrilling battle that left both fighters a bloody mess and out on their feet at various moments in the fight. Lafreniere rocked St-Juste with a right hand just before the end of the second round and they were both bleeding from cuts by the end of the high-contact third round, and the action never let up. Lafreniere was docked a point for a low blow in the eighth round, but he was getting the better of the insane action and had St-Juste nearly gone in the ninth round. He bounced back and they traded toe to toe in the 10th round as the crowd gave them a standing ovation as the bout ended.
7. Yunier Dorticos TKO10 Youri Kalenga (May 20 at Palais de Sports, Paris): Dorticos outslugged Kalenga to win a vacant interim cruiserweight title in a tremendous action battle in which they both showed heart and bravery. Dorticos hammered him with a series of right uppercuts in the second round to score a knockdown and appeared to open a big lead as he dominated the first few rounds before Kalenga came back strong in the middle of the fight as they went toe-to-toe for long stretches and stood up to big power shots. With the fight seemingly tightening, Dorticos took it out of the judges' hands in the 10th round. They both were landing heavy punches but Kalenga was getting ripped with right hands repeatedly and fading fast. When Dorticos backed him into the ropes and fired another clean right hand, referee Raul Caiz Jr. stepped in and stopped the hard-hitting fight with 46 seconds to go.
8. Jesus Soto Karass D10 Yoshihiro Kamegai I (April 15 at Belasco Theater, Los Angeles): When Golden Boy put together this junior middleweight fight hardcore fans knew they were in for a slobber knocker. Soto Karass and Kamegai are known for their action fights, so this had fireworks written all over it. Matchmaking is not rocket science and it produced the exact kind of ring mayhem everyone predicted. They battled chest-to-chest for virtually the entire fight with numerous close rounds before emptying their tanks in the outstanding 10th round. "This fight was a war, exactly what the fans expected," Soto Karass said. "The people truly won tonight." According to CompuBox, Soto Karass landed 352 of 1,132 punches (31 percent) and Kamegai connected on 321 of 754 blows (43 percent). The weight-class average is 17 landed and 67 thrown per round. Soto Karass averaged landing 35 of 113 punches per round and Kamegai averaged 32 of 75 per round, both around double the division average. "Soto Karass was the kind of fighter I was expecting to fight -- a true warrior," Kamegai said.
9. Shinsuke Yamanaka TKO7 Anselmo Moreno II (Sept. 16 at EDION Arena, Osaka, Japan): In a rematch of bantamweight titleholder Yamanaka's razor-close split decision against former longtime titlist Moreno in 2015, Yamanaka left no doubt this time as he retained the belt in a barnburner that featured both guys getting knocked down. The fight got off to a blazing start and as the first round came to a close, Yamanaka clipped Moreno with a left hand to knock him down. Moreno scored a knockdown of his own when he nailed Yamanaka with a right hook in the fourth round. They battled back and forth and Yamanaka dropped Moreno again in the sixth round with another tremendous left hand. Clinging to a close lead (57-55, 57-55 and 56-55), Yamanaka picked up the pace in the seventh round with Moreno ready to go and dropped him twice more, forcing referee Daniel Van de Wiele to wave off the fight at 1 minute, 9 seconds. Tremendous battle.
10. Robert Easter Jr. W12 Richard Commey (Sept. 9 at Santander Arena, Reading, Pennsylvania): Duking it out for a vacant lightweight world title, Easter and Commey put on a sensational battle. It was a brutal confrontation that Easter pulled out by split decision. Both fighters had their moments and showed their toughness and skills in a highly entertaining back-and-forth fight. Commey's biggest moment came in the eighth round when he landed a right hand that badly buckled Easter, whom referee Benjy Esteves called a knockdown against for supposedly grazing his glove on the mat even though TV replays showed he never touched. They went toe to toe in the ninth round and continued to both go for it in the final rounds of the blazing fight. Easter closed it out by wobbling Commey with a massive overhand right seconds into the 12th round. It was impressive that Commey stayed on his feet and made it to the final bell of a terrific fight.
More slobber knockers: Roman Gonzalez-Carlos Cuadras, Frank Buglioni-Hosea Burton, Juan Manuel Lopez-Wilfredo Vazquez Jr., Adonis Stevenson-Thomas Williams Jr., Jamie Conlan-Anthony Nelson, Tom Doran-Luke Keeler.