The fistic calendar marks two notable, as in very notable, birthdays today, January 17th. It was of course 82 years ago today when “The Greatest” (and, absolutely, at heavyweight, he was and is indeed) Muhammad Ali was born, this in Louisville, Kentucky. Tributes will no doubt be pouring in from all over the world today. Ali stands alone as the heavyweight king of kings.
But in Mexico City, Mexico on this day 50 years ago, Marco Antonio, another super-special fighter, was born. Barrera, looking far younger today than his half century, is of course celebrated, revered, hero-worshipped, for his many ring epics, his savage, intense and unforgettable three-fight rivalry with fellow Mexican icon Erik Morales in particular.
Born into a more affluent part of the country than his future rival, Barrera had other options open to him aside from boxing. But it is to our good that Barrera, AKA “The Baby Faced Assassin,” decided to embark on a boxing career. And what a superb ring career it was.
After an amateur career that saw him go a reported 104-4, Barrera went pro, this in November of 1989, aged just 15. It wasn’t long before the super flyweight began his march up the rankings, and then up the weight divisions. Capable of boxing smartly as well as fighting the typical ‘Mexican way,’ with sheer aggression, vicious body punching and a mind to hurt the other guy being the order of the day, Barrera went 16-0 before he won his first pro title, this the Mexican super fly belt which Marco won in April of 1992.
Barrera made a number of retentions, before he won the NABF strap the following year. Barrera’s great nights and fights were not too far away now.
After scoring a good stoppage win over Eddie Cook in December of 1994, the now super-bantamweight Barrera, aged 20, won his first world title the following March, when he decisioned Daniel Jimenez in Anaheim, California. Barrera, who had made his US debut in 1992, this at The Great Western Forum in LA, would become a fan favourite in America pretty soon. It was in February of 1996, on HBO’s new ‘Boxing After Dark’ telecast, when Barrera gave us his first classic. Making the fifth defence of his WBO title, Barrera went to war with Kennedy McKinney. The fight remains a cherished one today, and with good reason. These two little giants took each other to some hellish places, the action red-hot all the way to the end, when Barrera finally scored a 12th round stoppage win.
In a huge upset just three fights later, Barrera was stopped (officially by DQ, his corner entering the ring to rescue him from taking any more ‘Poison’) by Junior Jones, the fifth round loss seeing Barrera lose his 122 pound belt after having made an impressive eight retentions. Barrera lost the return, with Jones winning a close decision in April of 1997.
Was Barrera finished? Not a chance, he was just getting going!
Enter “El Terrible” and one of the greatest trilogies the sport has ever seen and ever will see.
After scoring half a dozen bounce-back wins – including one over Richie Wenton in October of 1998, this seeing Barrera win the vacant WBO 122 pound belt, thus becoming a two-time champ – Marco made two retentions (including one over Paul Lloyd in the UK). Before he signed to face bitter rival Morales. Morales, unbeaten and the reigning WBC super-bantam champ, was listed as a considerable favourite, the losses to Jones convincing many that Barrera’s best days had gone.
As all fans know, the fight of February 2000 was incredible, the violence, the relentless trading of leather, the sheer heart on display from both sides mesmerising. Morales got the win, via split decision, but many felt Barrera had been hard done by. The controversy regarding the decision and the fact that the fight was great enough to have lived in ANY era ensured there would have to be a return.
There was, but not before Barrera took the unbeaten record of a certain “Prince” Naseem Hamed. Under pressure from HBO to fight a top fighter, either Morales or Barrera, Hamed chose the latter, and he was soundly beaten on points over 12 rounds in April of 2001. The fight, up at featherweight, saw Barrera refuse to fight any way recklessly or in the typical ‘Mexican way’ and this confused Hamed. Barrera bounced Hamed around pretty good, though, with only Hamed’s amazing chin keeping him upright. Barrera scored the win that he says today means the most to him. It was also a huge payday for “The Assassin.”
Barrera admitted he found it hard getting back to hard training after enjoying his big win so much. But Barrera had unfinished business with Morales, and the two met again in June of 2002. Not as great a fight as the first war, the rematch was still far from a snoozer, and this time Barrera got the decision when plenty of people felt Morales deserved it. Nevertheless, the two arch rivals were now 1-1.
But before the rubber-match came, Barrera ran into, and was run over by, a relative unknown called Manny Pacquiao, this after Barrera had beaten Johnny Tapia and Kevin Kelley in fine style.
It was in November of 2003 when “Pac-Man” arrived on the world stage in grand fashion. Dominating a shocked, ‘where-the-hell-did-he-come-from’ Barrera, Pacquiao scored a late stoppage, and just like that, Barrera’s future career was in doubt. But after a solid win over Paulie Ayala saw Barrera restore some confidence, the third and final battle with Morales came.
Now fighting at 130 pounds, Barrera slugged it out with Morales for a third time, the finale of the rivalry even topping the original in the opinion of some fans. Once again, both men gave their all and the fight went right down to the wire. This night, November 27 of 2004, belonged to Barrera, but only just, with him winning via majority decision. The rivalry now ended, the two once bitter enemies actually became friends.
Barrera, now aged 30 and sporting a 60-4 record, fought on for a little over six years, with him scoring good wins over Robbie Peden and Rocky Juarez, before he was beaten by yet another Mexican great in Juan Manuel Marquez. The Marquez fight of March 2007 was arguably Barrera’s last great fight, with him then losing widely in a fairly dull return with Pacquiao seven months later. Barrera, now past his best by a considerable margin, would be badly bloodied in a fight with Amir Khan in March of 2009, the result being a fifth round TD loss for Marco. Aside from a couple of comeback wins, one in 2010, the other in 2011, that was it for one of the greatest Mexican ring warriors of all-time.
Barrera, an immensely popular and admired fighter, gave us at least five modern day classics and his place in the hearts of fight fans all over the world is secure.
Barrera, who was enshrined in The Hall of Fame in 2017, retired with a fine 67-7-0-1 no contest (44) record. There is no doubt Barrera belongs in any Top 10 Greatest Mexican Fighters list.