By Christopher Cruz: They say the third time’s a charm. Juan Manuel Marquez is not only banking on it, he is virtually hoping that his whole career be positively defined by it.
Marquez, 53-5-1 (39 KO’s), has been one of Mexico’s greatest featherweights in the current era. His contemporaries, Erik Morales and Marco Antonio Barrera, may have burned far brighter during the height of their legendary careers but it is Marquez who has extended his excellent career much longer and to higher weights. At an unlikely 38 years of age, Juan Manuel is the lineal lightweight champion and is still one of boxing-crazed Mexico’s top fighters.
More importantly, he symbolizes his country’s best remaining hope to slay the fire-breathing Filipino destroyer Manny Pacquiao in the much-awaited third battle of a career-defining rivalry on November 12, 2011 at the MGM Grand Garden Arena, Las Vegas. Not a trivial task by any chance, as opponents bigger, taller and stronger have proven in spectacular failures. This, because Pacquiao, 53-3-2 (38 KO’s), has implausibly evolved to become an even more difficult boxing puzzle to solve at the higher weights.
As if one did not suffer enough torment worrying about the blazing speed, the shocking power and the relentless aggression the current Pacquiao has added further wrinkles to his approach to the fight game–things like studying an opponent’s particular style, sticking to the fight plan, utilizing weird angles, underrated ring generalship and a much more-balanced arsenal.
These very things that enabled the Filipino to successfully pack on a mind-boggling 20 additional pounds in contracted weight limits–all happening after his rematch with Marquez–ironically, are exactly the fruits of that extremely difficult fight. Five-time Boxing Writers’ Association of America (BWAA) Trainer of the Year Freddie Roach claimed the Marquez rematch was the pivotal point in his ward’s complete turnaround in attitude.
Time was when Roach would religiously rehearse fight strategies with Pacquiao during punch mitt routines, only to see his fighter revert to his bread-and-butter, the booming straight left on fight night. Whatever strategy Roach had formulated would be reduced to a hit-and-miss proposition in terms of execution during fight time, Pacquiao sometimes sticking to it and at other times not.
Going into his rematch with Marquez, Pacquiao had already developed his right hook to the point where he would repeatedly wobble Morales with it in their third bout. He had also displayed refined boxing skills in outclassing an intimidated Barrera in their rematch just before the Marquez redux.
Given these high-profile successes it was understandable that Manny would grossly overestimate his newly-minted tools of war when assessing his chances in a rematch with his great counterpunching rival. It would turn out such improvements were far from sufficient to convincingly defeat an almost maniacal Marquez who would rise once again from the canvas to give him almost as tough a time as Morales did in a clear unanimous win against the Filipino back in 2005.
Indeed, not a few observers thought Marquez eked out a narrow win in the rematch and the resulting postfight chatter still reverberates leading to the third chapter of a bitter rivalry, nearly four years later.
This near-loss much like his loss to Morales, forced Pacquiao to once again humbly reassess his game and identify the weaknesses. Roach had complained in postfight interviews that his ward followed Marquez too much and failed to cut off the ring, contrary to what they practiced in the gym.
Whether it was as much due to Marquez’ brilliant ring generalship or simply Pacquiao’s stubborn attitude towards pre-fight strategy, it all became crystal-clear to the PacMan then that in the top levels of the sport one simply cannot afford to be too arrogant and ignore the importance of mental preparations and the unyielding discipline to execute the correct game plan.
Roach points to the David Diaz fight as the first fight where this drastic change in Pacquiao’s attitude was applied to. It was also the first time strength and conditioning coach Alex Ariza was brought on board, mainly to help Manny pack on additional weight while retaining his speed and power.
That Pacquiao would render elite welterweight fighters like they did not even belong in the ring with him, sent previously considered untouchable feats crashing down on those who still bother to take history notes–and then some.
It was simply surreal to see this little flaming ball of aggression pound the best welterweights into submission, and realize that only a year or so earlier this same little monster was in somewhat competitive fights against featherweightish competition. It must be said though, that some of those featherweights are bound to be considered greats when all is said and done.
Perhaps because the mystery of the rare speed-and-power mix being carried up several weight divisions is much more exhilarating than a balanced arsenal, an excellent fight plan execution or even a vastly-improved ring generalship, that these more profound improvements have been somewhat swept to the side when assessing Pacquiao’s welterweight rampage.
A little detail certainly not lost on some prominent fighters, industry players and journalists with obvious and some not-so-obvious agendas, who have tried to cheapen the impact of Pacquiao’s historic run by concocting steroid and performance-enhancing drug allegations on the Filipino phenom while virtually ignoring his more profound improvements.
The classy Nacho Beristain, a Boxing Hall of Fame-enshrined trainer with several hall-of-fame fighters under his belt as well, certainly recognizes these improvements and brushes aside all the nonsense about such unfounded accusations. But while he acknowledges the improved technique and balance in Pacquiao’s stance, he ventures these refinements will only be to his favorite disciple Marquez’ advantage. When before Pacquiao was like a wildcat whose attacks were totally unpredictable, Nacho believes the current polished version of the Filipino will be much more manageable for a technical master like Marquez.
The areas where both trainer and fighter acknowledge a serious disadvantage is in speed and power at the contracted weight of 144 lbs. A previous sortie at the same weight was a dismal failure, although it was hardly a shame being outclassed by the naturally bigger former pound-for-pound king Floyd Mayweather Jr.
If anything, it has provided valuable experience for another fight at the weight. Marquez feels the need for added strength going up against the welterweight-busting Filipino, and has enlisted specialists to help him bulk up but not lose his speed the way he did against Mayweather.
SIMILAR BUT DIFFERENT
It is curious that Beristain and Marquez, both astute students of boxing if not masters of it, would try a haphazard attempt at duplicating what Pacquiao has seamlessly achieved at this belated point in Marquez’ career.
It must be noted that Pacquiao’s remarkable weight-hopping streak started in 1999 at age 21 when he moved up to the superbantamweight class after losing his WBC flyweight at the scales three months earlier. From there he would compete in the next higher division four years later, then gradually continue up the weight ranks with surprising success finally topping out at superwelterweight against an opponent who outweighed him by 17 lbs in the ring.
In contrast, Marquez has been a career featherweight until 2007 when he scaled up four pounds to make his case for a Pacquiao rematch, and after his disputed loss in that rematch he competed at the lightweight division becoming its lineal champ. Even as a lightweight he is considered not particularly big for the weight class, hence the almost universal disbelief when the Mayweather-Marquez fight was announced at welterweight.
After the Mayweather debacle in 2009, Marquez returned to the lightweight division to notch two wins against tough but limited competition in the process suffering a nasty knockdown at the hands of Katsidis.
When the third Pacquiao fight was finalized, Marquez started his attempt at bettering his initial foray at 144 lbs by fighting unknown Colombian lightweight Likar Ramos at the junior welterweight limit. Ramos laid down from the first solid punch thrown by the Mexican in what became a meaningless exercise.
LAST SURGE OR AN EXECUTION
It is hard to imagine a supremely-gifted and proud Mexican of the caliber of Marquez going into a fight just for the paycheck. He is extremely conscious of how history will look at his legacy especially after having been unfairly treated like a redheaded stepchild early in his career, the boxing world preferring to lavish its attention on his more famous contemporaries Barrera and Morales then.
His career highlights so far are the two fights with Pacquiao, and his heroic efforts in them are for the most part why he has been highly regarded in the sport. Were he to retire at this very moment boxing historians will probably describe his pro career as brilliant but having the unfortunate burden of sharing the same era with those of Mexican compatriots Barrera and Morales, and pound-for-pound kings Pacquiao and Mayweather.
One can glean just how much Marquez resents not getting the victory in two tries against his Filipino nemesis in the first episode of HBO’s 24/7 series on the coming fight, when Marquez claimed, “To have won those two fights would put me where Pacquiao is now. It would have changed everything.”
It is entirely within the realm of possibility–given how closely competitive their styles mesh–for Marquez to have won one or both of his fights with the PacMan, minus a few knockdowns and a point or two in his favor.
But to be where Pacquiao is now, as the consensus pound-for-pound king and the BWAA fighter of the past decade, the Filipino spitfire had to dominate naturally bigger guys and usurp belts at junior welterweight, welterweight and super welterweight to add to his hoard of belts, titles and/or recognition from flyweight, superbantamweight, featherweight, junior lightweight and lightweight divisions.
Some of those smaller weight divisions Marquez never even fought at, and in all honesty his performances at lightweight indicate he may have reached his maximum weight class, reasons that make it highly unlikely he can himself achieve what his rival has so far accomplished and lending little credence to his claim.
On the other hand Marquez might have just been motivating himself further for the daunting task ahead. Will his unreal mastery of textbook technique, inextinguishable Mexican fire, ring intelligence and a more scientific muscle gain be enough to finally pull out the thorn in his side that has tormented him for far too long?
Or will Marquez’ 38 years, the last few of which have seen him accumulate considerable wear and tear even in victories, finally make their presence felt like never before?
Will Marquez’ additional pounds, gained with the help of his scientifically credentialed specialists, enable him to withstand those Pacquiao sledgehammers better than the legitimate tough welterweights who fell by the wayside?
The fight will be a sight to behold, Marquez’ technical mastery, ability to calmly operate within inches of crackling fire and the heart of a warrior competing on equal terms with the fire-breathing Filipino in the opening moments.
Halfway thru the first round when both fighters have already calibrated their range finders, assessed the most fatal threats and tweaked their respective fight plans, the first true firefight will break out and several heavy bombs would have been exchanged.
Having survived 24 rounds with the PacMan’s fists before, it will be quite a shock to Marquez how vastly different his rival’s power feels this time. While Pacquiao did possess frightening power at the lower weights, his punching power has an eerily similar effect on true welterweights. Marquez’ problem is that he is not a welterweight, and unlike his rival his chin has not exactly looked rock-solid in these higher weights.
After that initial combustion, the strategic balance of power vanishes and the Filipino’s demeanor reflects this sudden shift. Marquez valiantly tries to maintain his optimal distance and positioning, but he has never been difficult to hit all his career and one or two big shots are bound to hit him flush especially from a speed demon like Pacquiao. Before the round ends the marauding PacMan manages to twist that small space between himself and Marquez–those all-important few inches that Nacho thought vital his ward control–into a fleetingly favorable configuration to detonate a nuclear of a left cross, launched just before the master counterpuncher could correct his bearing.
The final moments of battle involving supreme skills, ungodly speed and visceral ferocity will have been worth the seven years of anticipation their first encounter generated.
Pacquiao knocks out Marquez unconscious in a vicious finishing carnage that leaves absolutely no questions unanswered this time.
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