Returning Vazquez Thrills Again Against Priolo

Israel Vazquez returned to the ring Saturday night after a 19-month layoff following his epic trilogy with Rafael Marquez. Just in case anyone had forgotten how exciting he is as a fighter, Vazquez reminded the world with a tough fight against Colombian Angel Priolo.

Vazquez had a good excuse for being out of the ring so long. Not only were his fights with Marquez intense bouts that had to take physical tolls on the bodies and spirits of both men, but Vazquez also suffered a torn right retina along the way and required several surgeries to recover. For that, most boxing scribes allowed him to keep his place among the top pound-for-pound fighters in the sport. Others wished he would retire rather than risk his health by fighting on.

But Vazquez is considered the biggest warrior in boxing today and would not settle for calling it a career. If he couldn’t be persuaded to stop, at least he was wise enough to take an easy tune-up fight before going after the big dogs of the lighter divisions – or so he thought.

For his big return bout, naturally dubbed “The Return,” Vazquez was being fed Priolo, a fighter who had lost his last seven fights, including knockout defeats to Brian Viloria, Jorge Arce and Abner Mares. Given the opponent, most expected a short night for the heavy-handed Vazquez in spite of his long layoff.

Maybe it was ring rust or maybe it’s just because Vazquez only knows one way to fight. Whatever the reason, he gave boxing fans another memorable battle by having to dig deep against an unlikely opponent.

Now fighting as a featherweight, Vazquez picked up right where he left off in 2008, taking the fight to Priolo. In an opening round where both men landed plenty, Priolo took a lead with two clean right hands midway through – one of which turned Vazquez’ head. Always quick to respond, Vazquez banged a right to the body and one to the head. Priolo avoided Vazquez’ sneaky left hook and got in a counter right hand, followed by another to the head. They traded up through the bell, but Priolo landed more to edge out a competitive round.

Vazquez came out behind his jab for the second round and clipped Priolo with a good right-left combination. He pounded in some more rights, including one big shot to the head that got Priolo’s attention. But Priolo answered back with three rights of his own, though none carried the weight of Vazquez’ shot. In fact, while both men punched non-stop, neither got much of a reaction from his opponent until Vazquez again snapped Priolo’s head back with a straight right near the end of the round.

Priolo landed the first big shot of round three, turning Vazquez’ head with a hard right. Another one landed, followed by a left hook from Priolo. After a few more shots, Priolo had Vazquez momentarily backing up – a rarity in his career to be sure. It was short-lived, however, as Vazquez came back to catch the Colombian with a left hook. They took turns hitting each other with rights the rest of the round, with Vazquez rallying down the stretch and taking a close round.

By round four, Priolo’s face was starting to bust up from the punishing rights, and Vazquez caught him with another one to start the round. Priolo dialed in two uppercuts, but Vazquez countered with the right. Even a low blow couldn’t slow Vazquez, who scored with a right-left combination. A lead right followed, and another right to the chin moved Priolo back, but he was still punching back.

Vazquez mixed it up by leading with his right and getting in a left hook. A stunned Priolo doubled over, and Vazquez pounced on him with both hands, but the bell sounded before he could put more hurt on the Colombian, who even landed his own hard right before the bell to let Vazquez know he wasn’t going quietly.

Vazquez tried to jump right back on top of Priolo to begin the fifth but walked into a hard right hand that snapped his head aside. Undeterred, Vazquez kept punching and ate another right, and this time it was Vazquez doubling over off balance. Another right by Priolo forced Vazquez to clinch – almost as rare as seeing him take a backward step. Late in the round, Priolo was still getting the best of Vazquez, landing a straight right and a big uppercut that snapped his head aside. Vazquez did manage to strike with a huge right before the bell, but it was an otherwise big round for Priolo, who really needed it after taking a beating in the fourth.

Both men continued to let their hands fly throughout round six, and they landed just about every punch they threw. Fighting in a phone booth, as they were, that came as no surprise. Vazquez, as usual, landed the harder blows while Priolo appeared to land a lot more, including a terrific right hand at the bell that may have swayed the round in his favor. Meanwhile, somewhere in the round, a bigger story unfolded.

In addition to the fight being shockingly close and competitive, Vazquez had suffered a cut over his left eye, likely from a clash of heads. And the right eye was looking grim as well. For a man who was forced to sit on the sidelines for the last year due to a torn retina, that was a major concern.

Round seven saw five really solid punches land, and they were all straight rights hands – two by Vazquez and three by Priolo. One of those rights from Priolo caused Vazquez’ cut to worsen so much that, between rounds, Referee Pat Russell asked the ringside doctor to take a look. It was nothing new for Vazquez, who has a history of cutting badly around the eyes. Unfortunately for Priolo, Vazquez also has a history of rallying from cuts to score sensational knockouts.

Fighting on borrowed time, Vazquez dug deep and lit Priolo up with two straight rights to start round eight. Before long, though, Priolo was punching back with hard rights that turned Vazquez’ head. Midway through, they traded big rights yet again, but it was Vazquez who again rallied down the stretch to just pull the round out.

The fight was close heading into round nine. Priolo had certainly done enough to win three, maybe four rounds. But, just as he did against Marquez to end their trilogy, Vazquez stepped it up in a major way to end the fight.

Stepping inside, Vazquez ripped a tremendous right hand across the face of Priolo in the center of the ring early in round nine. Priolo’s balance immediately left him, and he had no choice but to clinch. When he started punching back, as he had done all fight, Priolo ate another big right. This time, he was sent staggering sideways, doubled over. Vazquez rushed in for the kill and was able to put Priolo down on all fours soon after.

With Russell counting in his face, Priolo started to rise but stopped to pull his mouthpiece out. At the count of eight, he stood and popped it back in. And when the fight resumed, Priolo wisely held to buy some time. Then, he tagged Vazquez with a right but took a left hook in return. A right hand across the jaw wobbled Priolo into the ropes, where he tried to cover up and defend himself from the surging Vazquez, who let the leather fly until Priolo dropped onto all fours again.

Priolo again pulled his mouthpiece out, waiting until the count of nine to stand again. He struggled to get his mouthpiece back in and wobbled to Russell, who could have stopped the fight then but didn’t. Vazquez wasn’t going to let the opportunity get away; he rushed in and landed a left hook and a right hand, followed by another left hook. Vazquez continued to hammer the right hands in, but Priolo kept punching back, showing heart. Eventually, he dropped to a knee, only to bounce right back up to his feet before Russell could count to two.

Priolo needed a miracle at that point but looked like he was willing to try. Giving a shake of the head and trying to adjust his mouthpiece again, he looked to Russell, who decided enough punishment had been dealt and stopped the fight. Priolo, close to a beaten man if not there already, didn’t complain.

With a streak of blood streaming down the left side of his face and the right side not far behind, Vazquez leaped into the arms of his corner men and celebrated his first victory in a year and a half. If there was any doubt that Vazquez had finally come back to the ring, the familiar blood covering his face made it that much more convincing. Vazquez was indeed back.

The question is whether Vazquez’ layoff made the fight tougher than it had any right to be. He took far too many shots from a man who has been stopped by smaller men in less time. If he has this kind of a night with Priolo, he might need to start thinking about one or two more big fights and then retirement.

But Vazquez has always taken a lot of punishment. It’s never going to come easy for him, and that’s why fans love him. And it’s safe to say that the sport is better off with him around, even if only for a few more fights.

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