In boxing's great rivalries, the relationship between the two fighters can almost always be characterized in one of two ways: mortal enemies or respectful sportsmen. In the first category, fighters have found a sworn enemy and focus their energies on destroying their opponents – both in and out of the ring. Often fueled by professional jealousy, hate, regional or ethnic clashes (this can occur when both fighters have similar or profoundly different backgrounds) or combustible rhetoric, these caustic rivalries have created some of the most thrilling fights in recent memory. Examples include the Ali-Frazier and Barrera-Morales trilogies.
In the second category, many fighters who have engaged in epic ring battles gain profound respect for their opponents. They realize that these fights have elevated their respective statuses as well as those of their opponents. In short these memorable matchups have created a bond between the two fighters, and with boxing audiences.
It's not uncommon for fighters in these types of rivalries to eventually befriend their opponents out of the ring. They continue to fight their rivals as sportsmen, trying to overcome the challenge in front of them by wits, endurance and desire. But destruction is not their ultimate goal: just professional and personal accomplishment. Memorable examples of this category include the Pryor-Arguello and Ward-Gatti fights.
As Manny Pacquiao and Juan Manuel Marquez embark on their third fight later this year, it's clear that their professional relationship falls squarely in the respected sportsmen category. Even though Marquez had made disparaging comments about Pacquiao in the past as he grew frustrated in his attempts to land a third fight with his rival, once the contract for Pacquiao-Marquez was signed, Marquez has offered nothing but praise for Pacquiao. During their press conferences promoting their third fight, the respect between the rival fighters, as well as their fan bases, is obviously apparent.
An opportunity on the sport's highest stage surely provides vindication for Marquez, who early in his career was slighted by the boxing industry and overshadowed by fellow Mexican warriors Erik Morales and Marco Antonio Barrera. Those two fighters cultivated intense and loyal fan bases throughout Mexico. The boxing industry and most Mexican fight followers clearly considered Marquez as a third banana. He was a high-risk, low-reward guy who fought in a cerebral style without significant public support. Top Rank avoided placing Morales, one of its primary cash cows, in the ring with Marquez. In addition, Barrera wouldn't face Marquez until almost his 70th pro fight. It was only with the absence of rematches with Pacquiao or Morales that Barrera agreed to fight Marquez. That Marquez thoroughly outboxed Barrera was not a surprise to boxing insiders and illustrated why his two Mexican rivals took such great pains to avoid fighting him in their primes.
Marquez, now 38, is still among the sport's top-ten fighters. Although older than both Morales (35) and Barrera (37), he is the only one of this great Mexican triumvirate that can still land mega-fights. His longevity, especially against the high-level competition that he has faced throughout his career, has been stunning. His high performance level can be attributed to his outstanding defensive technique, ring intelligence and boxing fundamentals.
Unlike Morales and Barrera, Marquez could win, especially early in his career, without having every fight devolve into a ring war. Marquez understood the subtle points of ring generalship, including pacing, angles and spacing. Early in his career, he was incredibly difficult to hit, using lateral movement, selective offense and foot speed to escape harm's way. As he has matured as a fighter (and lost some of his youthful legs), Marquez has become much more comfortable in the pocket. On offense, he throws every punch in the book and he is acknowledged as one of boxing's best counterpunchers.
Although he doesn't possess the granite chin of Morales or Barrera, Marquez's ability to recover in the ring is among the best in the sport. He has been dropped over a half-dozen times but has yet to be knocked out. With the exception of the Floyd Mayweather fight, his losses have been by close decisions. In short, absent the Mayweather fight, in his 59 professional contests, he has never been outclassed.
Pacquiao has also spent considerable time in the ring with Marquez's Mexican rivals. After thoroughly beating Barrera as a little known underdog in 2003, Pacquiao fought three battles against Morales during 2005-06. Losing the first fight in an epic clash, Pacquiao was able to stop Morales in their last two fights. After struggling as a one-handed fighter in their first meeting, Pacquiao demonstrated his superiority in the ring as he incorporated an improved right hand into his offensive arsenal. His blistering two-handed speed and power was too much for the deliberate Morales. In 2007, Pacquiao fought Barrera a second time. The fight was non-essential in that Barrera was coming off a loss to Marquez and was seen as a fighter on the down slope of his career. In addition, Pacquiao-Barrera didn't leave any unanswered questions. Pacquiao cruised to an easy victory.
Pacquiao fought Marquez in 2004 and 2008. In the first fight, Pacquiao dropped Marquez three times in the first round, yet Marquez persevered and earned a draw. In the second fight, Pacquiao knocked Marquez down again and won a disputed, split-decision victory. With his two fights against Marquez, Pacquiao has been unable to prove his superiority in the ring. Even though he knocked down Marquez four times in the two bouts, Marquez won more rounds and many boxing observers claimed that Marquez should have received victories in both fights.
Because of promotional entanglements, the third Pacquiao-Marquez meeting was delayed. Immediately after the second fight, Top Rank and Pacquiao decided to move in a different direction. Additionally, Marquez was promoted by Golden Boy, which was in the middle of a Cold War with Top Rank; the two companies stopped promoting fights together for several years. In fact, it took Marquez ending his contract with Golden Boy for a third Pacquiao fight to be made.
Since their second fight in 2008, Pacquiao has fought seven times and has moved up from lightweight to welterweight. He has won four more titles as well as ended Oscar de la Hoya's career. In this span, he has lost only a handful of rounds. Marquez has fought six times since the last Pacquiao fight and has won two title belts at lightweight. He has defeated some of the best names in the division (Juan Diaz, Joel Casamayor and Michael Katsidis) and lost his only fight in this span to Mayweather, who entered the ring as a junior middleweight.
Even though Marquez is still highly ranked within the sport, there have been some areas of decline. His defense has slipped enough that he takes numerous hard shots. Also, he has become an even more pronounced slow starter, falling behind to both Juan Diaz (in their first fight) and Michael Katsidis before recovering to score victories. He also doesn't let his hands go with the same frequency that he did earlier in his career.
For Pacquiao, who has also shown slight decline in his foot speed, the third Marquez fight will be the final opportunity to demonstrate his superiority over his rival. If the fight were to take place much later in their careers, the ultimate impact would be less meaningful. As it it, Pacquiao is as much as an 8-1 favorite in the fight because of his size and power as a welterweight and Marquez's eroding skills.
Nevertheless, Pacquiao does not act like an overconfident champion; he remembers Marquez's expert counterpunching and indomitable will in getting off of the canvas. Pacquiao knows that Marquez exposed chinks in his armor.
As the two ring legends move closer to the sunset of their careers, this fight takes on more importance. For Pacquiao, the only meaningful fight after Marquez is Mayweather. For Marquez, this is his last opportunity for a mega-bout. After this fight, he can retire knowing that he has faced, and mostly defeated, the best in the sport.
Yet, as fight night approaches, there is no rancor between the combatants or mental games being played out in the media by their trainers or support teams. Both fighters are concentrating on their tasks at hand, not on gamesmanship or psychological warfare. Yes, they are opponents, but there is the ultimate foundation of respect, for both Pacquiao and Marquez know that that their respective legacies have been enhanced by the the accomplishments and skill of each other. In short, their bond in the public consciousness is unavoidable, and the fighters have embraced it.