Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Juan Manuel Marquez: The Gambler

Jeff Pryor takes a look at what's at stake for the brilliant lightweight champ in his upcoming fight with the returning Floyd Mayweather.

Photo © Ray Kasprowicz

On the short list of todays most technically proficient fighters, Mayweather, Marquez and Hopkins would undeniably rate as the top three in debatable order. That two of them will meet this summer is a more exciting prospect than it may be in practice, when the bell rings and two counterpunchers try to figure out who leads the dance.

Their personalities vary so much; the conceited self assured braggadocio, and the quietly humble technician. Marquez betrays his bemusement with only a slight smirk or a cocked eyebrow, while Mayweather proclaims loud and often that he is still the biggest and the best the sport has to offer.

For all that startling juxtaposition of demeanor, if one were to chop Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Juan Manuel Marquez into a heap of one pound cubes, and then measure the boxing acuity within each dismembered piece, there would likely be little to separate them. But this isn't a mythical match-up pitting them, theoretically, at each man's best weight, it's going to be a bona-fide fight at a weight that favors the naturally larger Mayweather, considerably; 144lbs.

The boxer known across message boards as "PBF", for Pretty Boy Floyd, could just as well have gotten his nickname shortcut from Pretty Big Favorite, as he'll enter this pound for pound showdown as a solid bet to win handily.

Three major factors have placed Mayweather so clearly as the preordained winner in the eyes of virtually everyone. He's got the size and speed advantage, and of course youth. Both natural counter punchers, some have gone so far as to flatly state that anything Marquez does, Mayweather does better.

A closer look, indeed confirms Mayweather's advantages, though they are not so steep as one might have been led to believe by the overwhelming sentiment of assured victory for Floyd. Height is a near wash with only an inch separating them. While the reach advantage, measured as it should be from fist to armpit, is 22 inches for Marquez and 26 inches for Mayweather. Four inches is enough to make a difference, however Floyd doesn't fight tall or long, and in the end, his most recognizable advantage will clearly be his outstanding hand speed.

But after all these stat based musings, as the saying goes, fights aren't fought on paper. In fact, they are fought for paper and in the case of "Money May" it has been suggested that his un-retirement is due largely to financial woes.

What effect this would have on his passion for fighting is debatable, but regardless of Floyd's mental state, one intangible among many (and I believe the chief advantage Marquez can claim) is indeed the mental edge. The pressure is off, as no one is predicting he'll win, and several threads are coming together to make this the penultimate fight of Marquez's career; the bout that will ultimately deliver or steal away a last shot at the white whale, to his Captain Ahab; Manny Pacquiao.

As I profiled in the preview to his fight with Juan Diaz a few months ago, Marquez is truly a man smoldering inside, bristling so much at the lack of respect that he perceives is missing from his career, that he was willing to call out the one opponent over whom a win would bring even more glory than to finally overcome his Filipino nemesis. Perhaps the only man to take Marquez's challenge seriously, as he proclaimed it in that blood stained Houston ring, was Floyd himself, never one to turn down a lucrative fight with a smaller opponent.

With little outside expectations of winning the bout, Marquez comes in with only the pressure that he puts on himself. That personal pressure has likely folded a fighter or two, but Marquez seems to feed the flames of his ambition under such circumstances. At this stage of his career, a loss may finally close off his coveted third go around with Pacquiao. The prospect of this showdown with Pacquiao seems to drive Juan Manuel's career fully now, and has for several years.

He overhauled his cautious defensive style into an exciting offensive sharpshooter, and then faced Barrera to get to his second go around with Pacquiao. After his disappointing (and debatable) near miss in the rematch, he followed the Pacman to 135lbs and outperformed him within the division. Pacquiao escaped out the side door, onwards and upwards to more lucrative bouts.

In response, Marquez has daringly decided to try and cut Pacquiao off at the pass and make pound for pound supremacy a road that runs through Mexico. His road map to do so? Take out the former pound for pound king, and rip the throne away for himself. Thus, forcing a third go around, in what he hopes would be a final showdown with the dynamic Filipino.

It's a one-two gauntlet that would cement Marquez as a legend within the sport and catapult him beyond the reach of his much ballyhooed rival countrymen Barrera and Morales. It's a power play that is both admirable in the boldness and daring of it's design and desperate in it's throw-caution-to-the-wind, last stand, for all the marbles, audacity.

Marquez has pushed all his chips in and is laying out his hand.

As touched upon earlier, Floyd seemingly holds an ace or two that may trump whatever Marquez brings to the table, however Marquez has several distinct advantages that come to the fore should the speed deficit be overcome.

Marquez, the older, slower, man is also perhaps the sports most accurate combination puncher. He withstood the onslaught that Juan Diaz deluged him with in their fight and used his immaculate technique to slice up the young man and ultimately gore the Baby Bull. He did not fall into the trap of many a classic counter puncher and simply settle for landing the cleaner blows. He also turned up the volume and put out a steady stream of crisp return fire.

Against Mayweather, a classic counter puncher to be sure, Marquez will have the ability to out throw his opponent. If the bout turns into a nip and tuck counter punch chess match, the man who simply throws the more punches may find his hand in the air at the end of the night.

While Mayweather's mitts are blazing fast, Marquez has dealt with speed it's equal before. Against Pacquiao, Marquez acquitted himself well against a naturally faster and more powerful opponent. In the paper, scissors, rock of boxing, one might say speed often trumps power, but timing can counter act speed. Marquez is like a virtuoso violinist, with the ability to hit all the right notes at tempo Allegro (a.k.a... pretty damn fast). His sense of timing and distance are nonpareil, and his pinpoint placement will trouble even the supreme defensive wizardry of Mayweather.

Two variables will likely tell the final tale of this fight. After 17 months off, will the down time and/or Floyd's ever advancing age take an edge off his speed advantage. Secondly, if Marquez is able to deal with the speed and see punches coming, will he be able to capitalize and sting Mayweather in openings no other opponent has been able to take advantage of?

As with any bout worth it's salt, and quibbles over Marquez's diminutive size aside, this one is worth a good deal of the white gold (a phrase I've invented to signify just how much salt is worth), there are a number of intriguing questions to be answered come fight night. Some of which have been outlined here and others which will be regurgitated in many preview pieces you'll read from here until the bell dings. (By the way I appreciate you reading this one.)

Finally, one other point about Marquez's chances. There is no other fighter on the planet who adjusts to his opponent as well as Juan Manuel Marquez does. Pacquiao dropped him thrice in three minutes, Marquez adjusted under extreme duress, and turned the fight 180 degrees. Diaz pushed him to the brink with claustrophobic pressure and activity, Marquez adjusted and triumphed.

The first thing Floyd does well, will be the first thing Marquez takes away. It's in the second salvo that we'll see two masters digging in their bag of tricks to outfox the other. Who has the deeper bag? And who maximizes their advantages? More questions, answers TBD.

Floyd has fostered an air of invincibility over the last decade or so, remaining undefeated with a carefully chosen and wise path.

Floyd isn't invincible.

Whether Marquez is too old, too slow or too small to prove that point, he has thrown down the gauntlet. After much of his career as a safety first, counter puncher, criticized for his perceived lack of competition, he has torn through a new division's best and now has decided to make a last stand against perhaps the most naturally gifted fighter of this era, several weight classes above his natural fighting size.

In a grab at rarefied greatness, this fight is Marquez at the zenith of his career arc. Either he joins Pacquiao on the next level or he is smacked down to earth. It's a gamble that could pay off huge... or leave him with few options to play in the waning moments of his career...

The stacks of chips tumble over as Marquez pushes them to the center of the table. His jaw flexes, an eyebrow arches... a grim smile tugs at the corner of his mouth. He feels the wax of his cards between his fingers and tosses them down face up, unblinking.

All or nothing at all.

e-mail Jeff Pryor


Lee Payton said...

Great read, Jeff.

Anonymous said...

What a great article. Come on, JMM!

Anonymous said...

This article rewrites history: "Pacquiao escaped out the side door, onwards and upwards to more lucrative bouts." You speak with fork in your mouth. Did he run away? or did he advance?

After seeing what Pacaquiao did to Diaz, then dela Hoya, then Hatton, Marquez has somewhat quieted down. He doesn't have the same explosiveness and speed as pacquiao, who is now much, much better than when he fought Marquez. The boxing leading experts say Pacquiao is #1, You don't mention him even at #4. No body takes you seriously, only those who envy pacquiao, like you. haha

Anonymous said...

No way you gonna approve. you approve only those that support you. You tricky, sneeky bad journalism. I dare you to approve this one. I just want you to know, it is quite obvious you weed out comments not favoring you.

Andy said...

All comments on older stories are moderated, but very few aren't approved. If you want to be critical, go right ahead and have your say.

Jeff Pryor said...

I take it you're a bit of Pacquiao fan?

You're reading negativity into any mention of Pacquiao here, where it just isn't.

If you re-read the first sentence I refer to Marquez, Mayweather and Hopkins as being the best technicians. I didn't include Pacquiao, because he's not among the best technicians of this era. Best fighters? Of course. And the current P4P #1 unequivocally.