Friday, February 27, 2009

Man on Fire

by Jeff Pryor

Juan Manuel Marquez is a man who is on fire inside. Long labeled a clinical technician who refused to go to war, and who fought without the passion so beloved by his Mexican homeland, Marquez now fights not just to win, but to show that he is a warrior deserving of his countries adulation.

Photos © Ray Kasprowicz

With such ambitions it becomes apparent that Marquez has resigned himself to facing more than one foe when entering the ring. This weekend he will battle at least four men in the squared circle; Juan Diaz the best young Lightweight in the world, Marco Antonio Barrera and Erik Morales the two contemporaries he has been in constant, if indirect, competition with for virtually his entire career, and Manny Pacquiao, The Moby Dick to Marquez's Captain Ahab, the white whale that pulls Marquez inexorably through weight classes in pursuit of his obsession to prove once and for all that he can beat the Filipino sensation.

This fire that now crackles within Marquez was slow to ignite, and his is a flame that burns slow, gaining in heat the longer it smolders. In many ways his career trajectory mirrors that of both Bernard Hopkins and Joe Calzaghe. All three were under appreciated for much of their careers. For various reasons each was passed over or missed opportunities that may have made their careers take off sooner. While Calzaghe and Marquez both began their late career pushes at roughly the same time, Calzaghe has since decided he's proven all he wished to and retired, while Marquez continues to face the best opposition of his career and strive for a greater legacy.

In this way his tale is more closely aligned with Hopkins'. Each man lost their first fight. Each lost their first major title bout, Hopkins to Roy Jones Jr. and Marquez to Freddie Norwood. The similarities continue in that, since then, each has suffered 3 blemishes on their record; Taylor I & II and Calzaghe for Hopkins, Pacquiao I & II and Chris John for Marquez. Setting aside official decisions, it could be argued that neither man has lost since those losses to Jones and Norwood years ago.

It is also likely no coincidence that these two aging warriors are perhaps the two best technically skilled boxers in the world. While Marquez cuts a textbook silhouette and Hopkins' is that of an old school Philly slickster, neither were particularly admired for their athleticism and it is quite apparent that their longevity is due to hard work, diligence and the deftness of their craft.

Though his mastery of the art of boxing was admired by many, Marquez realized after his controversial points loss to Chris John in Indonesia that something had to give. It is to his great credit and to our greater satisfaction that Juan Manuel realized shortly there after that to accomplish what he wished in the sport he had dedicated the greater part of his life to, he would have to sacrifice even more of himself.

So it was that in his next bout against tough, but unheralded, Terdsak Jandaeng that Marquez began to fight with urgency, offense and spirit. He came out with a swollen eye, but an impressive and entertaining performance that marked the birth of a new era for "Dinamita" as a fan friendlier and determined prize fighter worthy of our attention.

Likewise in his next fight against a similar tough, but largely unknown opponent Jimrex Jaca, Marquez laid out his foe in the 9th round, peering through a face streaked with gore from a grisly cut on his forehead. Aside from showing us blood, he revealed to us that he was willing to push the peddle even when he was ahead and deliver everything he had to offer even if it meant giving up a little of himself to bring the pain to his opponent.

He was rewarded for his new riskier approach with a string of bouts to equal anyone's agenda of the last several years, Marco Antonio Barrera, Rocky Juarez, Manny Pacquiao, and Joel Casamayor. His fight with Barrera paled only in comparison to the incomparable Marquez-Vasquez trilogy that began that year. He went on to deliver a punishing decision against Juarez. And then the long awaited rematch with Pacquiao, again surpassed within the year only by his brothers third appointment with Vasquez.

Having been denied a third go around with his own nemesis, Marquez instead followed Pacquiao up to 135lbs. and was content to one up the "Pacman" by not choosing a lesser title holder like David Diaz with which to test the waters with, but by going after one of the two men who could claim to be the top dog at Lightweight, Joel Casamayor (Nate Campbell being the other). He proceeded to knock out the future hall of fame fighter, the first man ever to do so, in spectacular fashion. It must be said that Casamayor, at age 37 is past his best, though he was just off a stirring victory over the all Michael Katsidis.

At any rate, Marquez impressively stamped an exclamation point on his appearance on the scene at lightweight and had done all he could to position himself for another big money bout with Pacquiao. However, after his surprising victory over Oscar De La Hoya, Pacquiao is chasing money up the weight divisions himself right now, and his promoter, Bob Arum seems loathe to put Manny back into the fire with Marquez, when bigger money is there to be snatched.

Though his white whale has eluded Marquez once again, it would appear he is left in a position which is rather enviable. With Nate Campbell's trouble in making the 135 pound limit a few weeks ago, and his annex to a higher weight class, Marquez now finds himself unquestionably atop the lightweight division. Enter Juan Diaz, the man Nate Campbell trod over to gain his perch as top of the division last year.

Diaz brings a non-stop attack that can rattle off ten or twelve punch combos with regularity. Though he lacks big power, his chief weapon appears to be a mental battering ram in which his foes succumb to his relentless onslaught, unable to cope with the multi-punch barrages and more importantly the strain of knowing that they must make all there punches land, just to keep up. He has broken the will of champions like Acelino Freitas and Julio Diaz. The one man who has had success against Diaz was Nate Campbell, who's willpower never faltered, and who never wilted under the attack like each foe of Diaz's that came before him.

It would be fair to say that a fighter who could be knocked down three times in the first round of a fight against the most dynamic fighter in the world, who would rally back and pull out a draw, has considerable willpower, and that's just what Marquez impressively did against Pacquio in their first go around. If you believe as I do, that the secret to Diaz's success is willpower, the question that must be answered when Marquez and Diaz square off is what will be required of Diaz in order to break the will of Marquez. Can he deliver greater turmoil to Marquez, than he experienced in the opening round with Pacquio?...

I doubt it.

While Juan Diaz's throw-everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach has worked well against sluggers, brawlers and bangers like Katsidis, Julio Diaz and Freitas, he has never fought anyone with the boxing ability and counter punch precision of Marquez. That said, Juan Diaz is exactly the type of youthful, energetic opponent that could make any 35 year old who has lost just a step or two, look old overnight.

If he should lose to Diaz, it would be the final stumble in his chase after Pacquiao. There is a fair chance it would end his hope of catching the Barrera or Morales type of esteem that he is after too. It is indeed a must win for Marquez if he is to make up for lost time.

If Marquez can defeat the "Baby Bull" and solidify his place as the best of the best at Lightweight, there will be little left to do at 135 and he will be left to chase that white whale again and hope to face off with the winner of Pacquio-Hatton. Baring that, perhaps the time would be nigh to revenge his loss to Chris John at a weight between the two, or perhaps face Nate Campbell at 140 in hopes that Pacquiao eventually is forced to look rearward and see the pursuing foe that deserves another shot.

Like Hopkins' late career win over Pavlik, Marquez can still add immensely to his legacy with a win against his young foe, at an age when most Prize Fighters are fading away. Like Hopkins' too, Marquez would likely delight in proving to fans and naysayers alike that he has been undervalued throughout his career.

After all the years of being on the losing end of the comparison to his Mexican contemporaries, Eric Morales and Marco Antonio Barrera, in the past several years Juan Manuel Marquez has been taking large strides in his quest to catch up to them. Adding a respected young champion like Juan Diaz to his win column would further close the gap between the trio, and it may take no more than another substantive win or two to cinch the three of them together in a Mexican standoff of boxing legacies.

The fire that burns in Marquez has taken him this far, propelling his late career surge in a burst of blazing ambition. Is there enough fuel left to ignite him past the fireplug that is Juan Diaz? Old "Dinamita" can be hard to predict, but if I were advising Diaz I would have one suggestion.

Handle with care...

e-mail Jeff Pryor


NotSoSilentPete said...

Very good read. Marquez showed again tonight why we're going to be talking about him in 20 years:)

C.O.G. said...

Enjoy your writing.Indeed, marquez put another exclamation point on his career with Diaz tonite.