CARSON, Calif. -- In the wild action fight that virtually everyone expected -- and one the late Muhammad Ali surely would have been proud of -- junior lightweight world titleholder Francisco Vargas and former titleholder Orlando Salido fought to a draw in the clear 2016 fight of the year leader on Saturday night at the StubHub Center, an outdoor stadium that has become synonymous with fight of the year candidates.
Ali, the iconic former three-time heavyweight champion who died Friday at age 74 after a long battle with Parkinson's disease, was in many great action fights. Vargas and Salido, who wore an Ali shirt on his way to the ring, did that legacy proud.
In the end, two judges scored the fight 114-114, and one had it 115-113 in favor of Vargas, who retained his title for the first time after winning if from Japan's Takashi Miura by ninth-round knockout in a miraculous comeback in the 2015 consensus fight of the year. ESPN.com also scored the fight 114-114.
Vargas was not unhappy with the decision.
"I think it was a great fight and a fight that the fans liked. I feel really good about this decision," Vargas said through a translator. "I knew coming in that I was going to be facing a very tough opponent. We never give up. I'm very happy. This is what they wanted. I'm happy I was able to face this skilled warrior. I'm looking for more challenges."
Salido, who has been in numerous fight of the year candidates, thought he deserved the decision against his Mexican countryman.
"I think I won, but it was a close fight. But I think I won," he said through a translator. "It was a draw, but I felt I won. It was a tough fight, and we fought like Mexicans do."
There was a prefight tribute to Ali, as most of the 7,378 fans turned on their cell phone flashlights and broke into an impromptu chant of "Ali! Ali! Ali!" After ring announcer Michael Buffer's remarks about Ali's life and career, there was a traditional 10-count to honor his memory. The crowd then broke into "Ali! Ali!" chants again before the fighters came to the ring and gave everyone what they expected -- a great fight.
As advertised, they began to trade with abandon in the final minute of the opening round, and they rarely let up. They both fired hard, clean shots, crushed each other to the body and tried to impose their will on the other.
A clean right hand rocked Vargas' head back late in the third round, but he retaliated with a combination, and they traded until the bell, which brought the rowdy crowd to its feet. Vargas emerged with a small cut over his left eye.
By the time the fight was over, Vargas had two huge cuts over both eyes, which he blamed on Salido's head-butting him.
"You know we banged heads, but they were accidental," Salido said.
The action rarely relented. The pair began the fourth round in an extended toe-to-toe exchange of fierce power shots. Salido (42-13-4, 29 KOs) landed a cracking uppercut, and Vargas (23-0-2, 17 KOs) hammered away at the body. By the fifth round, it was a battle of wills and all-out, nonstop action, with both landing brutal power shots.
The 31-year-old Vargas, a 2008 Olympian, appeared to have Salido, 35, a former two-division titleholder, in trouble in the blazing sixth round. He buckled Salido's legs and sent him staggering into the ropes with a right hand as he blasted away. But Salido fought back and was winging wild shots, a few of which connected. Salido bounced back in the sixth, rocking Vargas' head back with a right hand early in the round. Salido nailed Vargas, whose face was a lumpy mess, with repeated right hands in the eighth round and had him in trouble.
The 10th round was another incredible action round that featured insane, two-way action, with both landing hellacious blows.
Just after the 12th round began, referee Raul Caiz Sr. called timeout to have the ringside doctor take a look at Vargas, but he was allowed to continue, and the fighters picked up where they left off: crushing each other with power shots in the middle of the ring with little care about defense. Vargas ripped Salido with an uppercut that landed clean, but Salido came right back as the entire crowd stood and cheered these fearless warriors down the stretch of a great fight.
According to CompuBox punch statistics, 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.
The fight was in danger of being canceled in April, after Vargas failed a random drug test conducted by the Voluntary Anti-Doping Association for the banned substance clenbuterol. However, the California State Athletic Commission, in consultation with both fighters' camps, allowed it to go on because the panel gave Vargas the benefit of the doubt that the bad test was because he ate tainted meat in Mexico, where that is an issue. He was then subject to even more rigorous random drug testing.
Anyone who watched had to be pleased the fight went on. Whether they will meet again to settle the score remains to be seen. Both will need a long rest.
Salido could find himself in a rematch with Vasyl Lomachenko, the featherweight titleholder who will move up to junior lightweight next Saturday and challenge Roman "Rocky" Martinez for his belt. If Lomachenko beats Martinez, who defeated and drew with Salido in epic fights last year, he could meet Salido again. Salido beat Lomachenko by decision in 2014.
"Lomachenko doesn't want me because I'm not a world champion, but I'm here," Salido said. "This fight was a great spectacle for all the fans. They wanted to see a war. They got what they wanted to see. Blood? They saw blood. I would welcome another fight with him. I would also accept the fight from Takashi Miura, from Lomachenko. I'll fight anyone."
Vargas could find himself in a rematch with Miura, who was ringside. Of course, after the battle Vargas and Salido waged on this memorable night, one that was as even as could be, how could they not do it again?
"We'll talk about it," Vargas said. "I need to relax for a bit."