With great guesswork, Mosley has more left in tank

Feb 21, 2006 9:43 AM

"I’m thinking of a number from 450 to 850. Do you know what it is?"

That’s got to be the dumbest opening line in advertising history. Oddsmakers are much too shrewd to leave that much to guesswork. But there’s a major fight, on pay-per-view television yet, between two major stars coming up at Mandalay Bay.

Whatever the odds, it seems like there’s more than a little guesswork involved.

There must be a cockroach race somewhere that would be easier for me to handicap than Fernando Vargas and Sugar Shane Mosley. How far gone is either of these ring icons? That’s the question.

I didn’t see much of Mosley’s last fight, a critically unacclaimed victory over a journeyman named Cruz. I was backstage because, after the previous bout, the ill-fated Leavander Johnson had collapsed in his dressing room. What I especially didn’t see was the former lightweight sensation throwing his quick combinations.

Just maybe, ever since dismissing his father Jack as trainer and hiring John David Jackson, Mosley has concentrated too much on basics. For him, that’s defense. Perhaps at 34, the hand speed that made him one of the very best fighters in the world is still there. That and a bit of foot quickness (not dancing, but pivoting to quickly change angles) are what he will need to defeat the naturally bigger Vargas.

Vargas is only 28, but fights a lot older. The once precocious talent has slowly unraveled from his early promise. Blame Felix Trinidad Jr., who separated Vargas from his senses in their opening round. El Feroz has been staggering around ever since. Oh, he’s a talented fellow all right — once giving Oscar de la Hoya all he wanted in Vargas’ only other loss.

One could easily be excused to think that Main Events, his promoters, are wisely trying to cash out on the erstwhile wunderkind. Injuries and beatings have taken their toll on Vargas. He was off for a couple of years, partly from a steroid ban. In two fights with a new trainer Dan Smith, he has been more cautious than ferocious.

Still, in beating Raymond Joval and Javier Castillejo (You might well say, Who?) he has beaten better than Mosley has faced since losing two in a row to Winky Wright (David Estrada and Cruz).

Mosley is rightly the slight favorite at anywhere from 7-5 to 2-1. At their peaks, he was the superior, though smaller, fighter. This is probably just as accurate as comparative scores in college football. You know the kind where, after enough manipulations, you can make Podunk U. six points better than Notre Dame.

However, two common opponents figure greatly in any discussion of Vargas and Mosley. Wright beat Mosley twice and lost a controversial decision to Vargas (Winky was robbed, I believe). De la Hoya lost twice to Mosley and knocked out Vargas.

The Mosley who beat de la Hoya the first time, when they were welterweights, was the best of all. But he unraveled when he faced the much taller Vernon Forrest and has never been able to recapture the old aura. The reason, I believe, was height differential.

Chris Byrd explained to me before the first Mosley-Forrest meeting at Madison Square Garden that his pal Shane would have trouble landing combinations against his bud Vernon. That he would have to punch "up," and would not leave him any time to get back safely.

At the press conference announcing this matchup of Southern California stalwarts (at this stage it might be like the 1997 Angels facing the ’98 Dodgers), Mosley was delighted to discover that Vargas was only a tad taller. Advantage: Sugar.

Mosley couldn’t get through to Forrest, though he was much better in their rematch. Noticeably shorter against Wright, he was easily handled the first time. Again, in the rematch, Mosley did much better. I suspect he will be able to land the combinations. The question is whether he can still throw them.

Vargas, until cracked by Trinidad, had pretty good whiskers. But how many guys got knocked out by de la Hoya once Oscar went to welterweight and beyond? Back when both were at their peaks, Vargas might have been too big, physically, and strong. Now both are somewhat damaged goods.

My mother told me never to bet on old-timer games. Besides, this could be the resistible force vs. the moveable object. Age, it has been said (mainly by the older), is just a number. In this case, all I can do is take a number — from 450 to 850. Okay, I’ll guess Mosley. But I don’t bet on guesses, or at least shouldn’t.