LAS VEGAS (AP) -- Fernando Vargas helped rescue the career of Jose ''Shibata'' Flores by putting him on his undercards and making him a sparring partner. On Saturday night, however, his generosity went only so far.
Vargas became a champion once again, wearing down Flores with a punishing assault on his body before finally stopping his former sparring partner to win the vacant WBA 154-pound title.
''It was crazy. All the time in the ring I was thinking I can't believe I'm fighting him,'' Vargas said. ''All the time he was sparring with me and now I'm fighting him. He's a great guy.''
Vargas had to overcome a shaky start to regain a portion of the junior middleweight title that he lost when he was stopped by Felix Trinidad last December.
He did it by using a relentless inside attack that wore Flores down as the fight wore on. It was only a matter of time before it was over, and that time came at the end of the seventh round.
Vargas had hurt Flores with a series of body shots midway through the round and was pummeling him with both hands on the ropes when Flores went down in self defense.
He sat on the canvas as referee Joe Cortez counted him out at 2:59 of the seventh round, then smiled as he got up and congratulated the fighter who revitalized his career.
''He knew a lot of my moves so I had to stay a step ahead of him,'' Vargas said. ''It was the body shots that finally did it.''
Vargas, fighting for only the second time since losing to Trinidad, was hit frequently in the early rounds and appeared to be hurt by a looping right hook from the left-hander midway through the second round.
Flores tried to press the advantage, getting Vargas on the ropes only to get caught with a left hook that put him on one knee.
From that point on, Flores fought gamely but was outclassed by Vargas, who was stronger and more active on the inside.
''It was one of my toughest fights of my career,'' Flores said. ''But we're still friends.''
Flores (42-9) said he may retire after getting his first shot at a title and his biggest payday, $315,000. His career had been going nowhere when Vargas hired him as a sparring partner in 1999 and began putting him on the undercard of his fights.
It got him the No. 1 ranking by the WBA and a shot at the title vacated by Trinidad when he moved up in weight, but Vargas was simply too strong and too active.
''The body shots were the difference,'' Vargas trainer Roger Bloodworth said. ''In training camp we taught him to stay calm and not get caught.''
Vargas (22-1, 20 knockouts) earned $1 million and won a piece of the title in the fight that drew a vocal crowd at the Mandalay Bay hotel-casino. More importantly, he tried to answer critics who thought his devastating knockout loss to Trinidad had cost him confidence in the ring.
Vargas landed 159 of 293 punches, according to Compubox statistics. Flores landed 84 of 318 punches. Both fighters weighed 153 1/2.
Vargas has been vocal in his desire to fight Oscar De La Hoya, but De La Hoya backed out of plans to fight him in December. Vargas said he now wants to unify the 154-pound division, which would eventually mean a fight with De La Hoya.
''Personally, I want De La Hoya,'' Vargas said. ''But he doesn't want to step up.''
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