Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Marquez's Boxing Rarity--Universal Respect

Amidst the circus of modern boxing, with its controversies, hype, polarizing figures, gamesmanship, feuds, disappointments, fan neglect and self-inflicted wounds, there are still a few fighters who represent the best of the sport, who transcend the din and chaos, who exude professionalism and class, who earn the admiration of their peers and who inspire boxing fans irrespective of geography or skin color. Juan Manuel Marquez is such a fighter and as his career rolls along toward its third decade, he has garnered something much more unique than title belts or million-dollar paydays: universal respect.   

As many of his chief rivals have fallen by the wayside, Marquez still fights at an elite level. Overcoming disrespect or indifference from his promoters and an initial lukewarm reception from his native Mexican fanbase, Marquez is now more popular than ever. He has persevered through several serious obstacles that would have broken many fighters of lesser constitutions to become one of the flag bearers of the sport. 

His road has not been an easy one. Leaving Mexico to establish his career in the U.S., Marquez made his bones in the competitive Forum Boxing scene in Los Angeles. Even in his early days, Marquez had the reputation as a tough fighter who was even tougher to look good against. An early loss in a title shot to the tricky Freddie Norwood set back his career even further. It took him another 4 years and 12 fights to get an opportunity for a belt – which would never have happened had Marquez had the right kind of promotional backing. (Think of a boxer with Marquez's talent in today's boxing landscape having to fight 12 more times for a title shot).

Marquez pressed forward and eventually won his first championship against Manuel Medina. However, his chief rivals from Mexico, Erik Morales and Marco Antonio Barrera, were getting big fights; Marquez was only thought of as one who should be avoided.  Top Rank, which had Morales and Marquez at that time, had no willingness to place Morales in with Marquez. Barrera also found ways not to include Marquez into his fight plans. 

Early in his career, Marquez was a sphinx to be solved.  Sure, he was a counterpuncher, like he is today, but he used the ring a lot more. He neutralized his opponents' weapons and gradually wore down good fighters with his accuracy, power shots and array of punches. Often, his fights were neither pleasing to the eye nor competitive.

His big break came in 2004 thanks to Manny Pacquiao. In late 2003, Pacquiao blitzed through Barrera in a shocking display of speed and power. Almost instantly, Pacquiao became a star and Top Rank was looking for someone credible to match with its Filipino sensation. 

What followed was the stuff of legend, where Marquez rallied from three knockdowns in the first round to earn a draw against Pacquiao. Marquez demonstrated that for as many technical skills that he possessed, he had the heart and determination of a warrior. In an instant, the second act of his career was born.  

There were immediate calls for a Pacquiao-Marquez rematch but Top Rank/Bob Arum and Marquez couldn't agree on terms for a variety of reasons. Pacquiao was quickly becoming Top Rank's golden egg and Marquez pridefully insisted on a certain dollar figure that his promoter was unwilling to meet. Marquez's professional momentum waned, culminating in an Indonesian abyss, where he lost a disputed 12-round decision against Chris John for short money.

Marquez now aligned himself with Golden Boy, who pledged to treat Marquez like the great fighter that he was. Golden Boy kept Marquez active in big fights; his first big assignment was against a faded Barrera, who was at that point a Golden Boy partner. Marquez, as many expected, won with ease. 

He proved to be a reliable action fighter during his time with Golden Boy. He survived a vicious onslaught from Juan Diaz in their first fight and an early knockdown from Michael Katsidis. Marquez pulled out these victories not with his legs, but with power punches. He also had a stirring stoppage of Joel Casamayor in a close fight. He did suffer a disputed loss to Pacquiao in their second meeting. Once again, he got off of the canvas to rally in the late rounds.  

As his career progressed, his left uppercut became one of the modern wonders of boxing and his counter right hand was laser-like. He was now regarded as a master at making adjustments. He wisely fought off the ropes and used his infighting skills to neutralize Diaz. He used his jab to create the right spacing to keep Katsidis at bay. 

However, Golden Boy didn't always place Marquez in the best positions to succeed. They matched Marquez against Diaz, one of Golden Boy's prized fighters, in his home town of Houston – an egregious example of Marquez having to overcome a stacked deck. Furthermore, while Golden Boy did provide Marquez with a career-high payday against Floyd Mayweather, Marquez had to agree to fight at welterweight, two divisions north of his comfort zone. In truth, he was selected as a Mayweather opponent more as a default; there weren't too many non-Top Rank fighters who could have been even remotely viable opponents.

Only against the bigger and more physical Mayweather did Marquez struggle. His power at welterweight was not enough to generate any sustained offense. He lost that battle resoundingly, but was not penalized by the boxing public or media because of the massive weight difference between the two fighters.   

All along, Marquez desired a third battle with Pacquiao but the promotional wars of American boxing prohibited that fight from taking place for some time. Eventually, Arum convinced Marquez to leave Golden Boy for another crack at Pacquiao. 

By the time the third fight was announced in 2011, Marquez's status in Mexico had changed. Marquez, who had lived in California for the majority of his professional life (although he trained in Mexico), had previously never been the standard bearer for Mexican boxing. During his pro career, he had boxed almost exclusively in the U.S. In addition, atypical of the most popular Mexican boxers, Marquez  had fought in a cerebral style and had been loath to enter into unnecessary blood-and-guts battles. 

However, as he persevered and kept beating good fighters, he earned the respect and admiration of his home fans. By 2011, he was now regarded as the best fighter in the boxing-crazed country and the Mexican public supported him en masse. For the Pacquiao-Marquez press conference in Mexico City, tens of thousands showed their support. Finally, Marquez was Mexico's favorite son.

He was installed as an enormous underdog for the third fight (9-1 at some betting parlors) and conventional wisdom stated that Marquez would be too slow and small to be competitive against Pacquiao. But Marquez confounded expectations and held his own in the center of the ring. Unlike the first two fights, he stayed on his feet.  He neutralized Pacquiao's combination punching and took away his right hook. On offense, he displayed a counterpunching clinic. There were many close rounds in the fight, but Marquez landed the more impressive shots throughout the match. 

In the aggressor-friendly jurisdiction of Las Vegas, Marquez was not awarded the decision, but in the eyes of the majority of boxing observers, Marquez was the victor. The crowd booed the decision; Marquez had never been more popular. Despite losing the decision, he returned to Mexico as a hero.  

Marquez continues to expand his public profile. He has become a popular analyst on the ESPN Deportes show Golpe a Golpe. His training sessions in Mexico City garner national news attention. Last weekend, he fought in the Mexican capital for the first time since 1994. He faced an anonymous European boxer named Sergey Fedchenko; Marquez drew over 20,000 fans – a number few North American fighters could eclipse in any scenario, let alone without the benefit of an attractive "B-side."

At 38 and with 61 professional fights, Marquez is still primed for big fights. He wants a fourth fight with Pacquiao and if that bout doesn't materialize, he could have a bevy of attractive opponents at junior welterweight, including Brandon Rios, Tim Bradley, Lamont Peterson and Mike Alvarado. Regardless of whether Marquez gets his prized fourth shot of Pacquiao, the lines of demarcation are firmly drawn. The boxing public is clearly sympathetic to Marquez's position and status within the sport.  If the fight doesn't happen, any public animosity would be aimed at Pacquiao or Top Rank. 

Marquez's boxing abilities have placed him in the active legends category frequented by Mayweather, Pacquiao and Hopkins. Unlike the others, Marquez has generated no ill will. In the ring, he always puts forth his best effort and he has fought the best possible opponents available.  He never stirs up needless controversy.  Marquez represents qualities like class and dignity, which are not often abundant in modern boxing. Even Floyd Mayweather, one who does not necessarily hand out too many compliments to other prizefighters, has given Marquez repeated praise. 

Ultimately, Marquez has defeated numerous champions and provided many indelible images in the ring. He has outlasted and bettered (either in the ring or by career accomplishments) Barrera and Morales to be regarded as the best Mexican fighter of his era. However, Marquez's appeal stretches far beyond the Rio Grande. His opponents, their fans and the prickly boxing public and media have all graciously accepted Marquez's eminence in the sport. He will leave boxing having enriched and elevated it, perhaps the highest compliment imaginable.

Adam Abramowitz is the head writer and founder of saturdaynightboxing.com.
He is also a member of the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board.
Contact Adam at saturdaynightboxing@hotmail.com
@snboxing on twitter
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  1. Well written piece Adam :)

  2. Small and skinny chris john beat marquez easily mr adam...remember that