Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Marquez Fights for His Place in the Sun

Mexico's Juan Manuel Marquez is ready to defend his title and exact a measure of revenge against Manny Pacquiao on Saturday night in Las Vegas.

Talk to those in the know around this game they call boxing and they'll tell you that Manny Pacquiao, the little Filipino spitfire, is no worse than the second best pound-for-pound fighter on the planet. Should he end up beating Juan Manuel Marquez in their rematch on Saturday night in Las Vegas, then he makes a strong case for being the best there is out there today - period.

But Juan Manuel Marquez isn't going to go into the Nevada night quietly, and even though he has a voice that reminds some of Mickey Mouse, he has a little something to say about what Saturday night means to him, too.

"There isn't another fight I have wanted as much as this one," says Marquez, the World Boxing Cartel Super Featherweight titlist. "I feel I won our first fight. He won the first round, but I won the next eleven. He's avoided me for four years - saying he's the "Mexican Executioner" - but he isn't because he hasn't beaten me and he won't beat me. I'm going to finish the job I started in 2004 and show everyone why I'm a champion today."

Marquez is right, he did lose the first round. Horribly. He was decked three times and all appeared lost. But he arose from the ashes of defeat and blew on the embers he had left and pretty soon he was smoking.

And then he was on fire.

Hopelessly behind on the scorecards after the three minutes of battling the Pacquiao hellfire he stormed back and basically won every one of the next eleven rounds on two of the judges scorecards to salvage the draw. Marquez put on a boxing clinic and was able to pepper and befuddle Pacquiao after coming back from the brink of defeat.

The training is all over and both Marquez and Pacquiao appeared in good spirits and in great shape at Monday's press conference in Los Angeles.

And it was a dogfight for the next eleven rounds. Aside from being decked three times, Marquez' nose was busted and he was punched by Pacquiao when he was down after the third knockdown. But once he got up, Marquez put on a performance that was unlike what anyone had seen in the past.

When Larry Merchant and Emanuel Steward, who have seen as many fights as anyone, and who called the fight from ringside that night for HBO were asked if they ever remembered a fighter being dropped three times in the first round and then coming back like Marquez did - both shook their heads and said they had never seen anything like it.

By the eighth round Marquez had battled his way back far enough to pull ahead in terms of punches landed on the Compubox stats.

In the corner between the eighth and the ninth rounds, Pacquiao's trainer Freddie Roach could see the way the pendulum of the fight was swinging and he was imploring Manny, "Don't let him back you up! You hear me? You be the boss out there, son. O.K.?"

By the time it ended, Marquez landed ten more total punches than Pacquiao in a fight that was closer than close.

Marquez, of course, was being tutored in the corner, as always, by Ignacio "Nacho" Beristain who is one of the best trainers in the world but doesn't get the credit.

A proud Ignacio "Nacho" Beristain with two of his most prized pupils, world champion brothers Rafael Marquez (left) and Juan Manuel.

Beristain is more than a trainer, he is a professor of this sweet science. And in his mountain laboratory in Mexico City, otherwise known as the Ramanza Gym, he is an instructor of champions. He has taught some of the best fighters that have emerged from Mexico over the course of the last two decades. Champions with names like Daniel Zaragoza, Gilberto Roman, Ricardo Lopez and Humberto Gonzalez - among others.

Watch an old tape of the great Ricardo Lopez and he was so technically brilliant under the watchful eye of Beristain that his every move was like a different page from a boxing textbook. And aside from instructing Marquez, Beristain also schools Rafael Marquez, Juan's younger brother, who just last week engaged in the fight of the year so far. They are perhaps the best brother team in the sport of boxing. Ever.

Beristain, who has seen them all in his travels, calls Manny Pacquiao a "wildcat" who has the speed and a style that is not a style at all. And that's what makes Manny Pacquiao so dangerous. Beristain and his fighters are always focused, always prepared and they always have more than one gameplan of attack when sizing up an opponent.

But even Beristain admits that Pacquiao is a different animal and unlike most others that he has encountered. "He throws punches from everywhere," says Beristain. "When Juan came back to the corner after the first round in the first fight I just told him...please go back to the plan that we had and everything is going to be fine. And he did it. He did it because he had great preparation, he had great condition, and you saw it. I mean he went all the way to distance. But it was difficult."

Marquez and Beristain expect to keep the belt and have their hands raised in victory after facing Pacquiao a second time.

It has taken Marquez four years to get the only fight that he has really ever wanted. Despite wining titles at 126 and 130 pounds and scoring a signature win over the great Marco Antonio Barrera it is only the rematch with Pacquiao that will quench his thirst to test himself once again. More importantly, a convincing win over Pacquiao would likely be enough to thrust Marquez' name onto the ballots of the International Boxing Hall of Fame.

Marquez is a cerebral sort and he appears to always be thinking about something deeper, inside and outside the ropes. As a result, he's a hard person to read. "I've always been characterized for my patience and calmness and also intelligence," says Marquez. "Thank God this has worked for me.

When a discussion of great Mexican fighters is bandied about, you'll rarely hear the name Marquez spoken. But he knows he is on the cusp of those conversations and he knows that beating Pacquiao on Saturday night will elevate his stature in Mexico and around the world. Marquez has never said that he wants to be one of the greats and you get the sense that his goal is simply to test himself against the best.

He alludes to the greats, but only in passing, and it seems like he almost doesn't dare to breathe his name with theirs. Mexican legends, Barrera and Erik Morales, were bested by Pacquiao and now Marquez feels it's up to him to bring honor back to Mexico by sending Pacquiao back to the Philippines as a loser.

"Right now, Barrera and Morales are not around," he says. "I'm the only one left. "

Marquez is smart enough to know what's at stake against Pacquiao for himself, his country and his own place in boxing history and he's pulled out all the stops in getting ready for the biggest fight of his life.

"I've always said that I prepare well for my fights. And for this one I'm preparing better because there's a lot of hope on me. The Mexican community, the fans, they expect me to beat Manny Pacquiao. There's no one else to do it."

And if Juan Manuel Marquez has his way, no one else will have to.

March 2008

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