What Does The Future Hold?

Mar 14, 2007

Saturday night Marco Antonio Barrera and Juan Manuel Marquez are fighting for three things - Mexican pride, the World Boxing Council super featherweight title and the next shot at Manny Pacquiao. But what becomes of the one whose hand is not raised at the MGM Grand Garden Arena? Where does he go from there?

These two 33-year-old Mexican warriors have long been considered among the best fighters in the world, with Barrera already a world champion in three weight classes and Marquez a featherweight who has held, at one time or another, three of the four most recognized 126-pound titles (World Boxing Association, International Boxing Federation and presently the World Boxing Organization). The former admits he is nearing the end of a Hall of Fame career after having become one of only three Mexican fighters to win world titles in three weight divisions while for Marquez the road has been rockier, potholed with promotional problems and career missteps that prevented him, until now, from having the kind of fight he will finally be part of - a HBO pay-per-view extravaganza.

For both the goal is the same Saturday night. To prove their superiority over the other and thereby earn a return match with Pacquiao, who is considered to be among the pound for pound best fighters in the world. For each man, any other outcome pales in comparison.

"Pacquiao, he's the prize,'' admits Golden Boy Promotions matchmaker Eric Gomez, who books fights for both fighters. "He's the light at the end of the tunnel for them both. The winner moves a step closer to him. It's personal (with Pacquiao) for both guys.

"Marco got wiped out (when Pacquiao stopped him in the 11th round on Nov. 15, 2003). He took a beating. He was humiliated. A lot was taken from him that night. He wants revenge for that.

"Juan Manuel feels he won their first fight. He feels he only lost the first round (when Pacquiao dropped him three times and appeared to have him finished only to watch as Marquez incredibly boxed his way back into the match to earn a draw the hardest of hard ways, while half conscious for a time).

"He got off the canvas three times and turned the tide. He feels he needs vindication after that and the way to get it is to beat Barrera to get to Pacquiao.''

Whoever does win on Saturday would certainly be the logical next big-name opponent for Pacquiao, who has about exhausted the list of other possibilities with whom he can create major pay-per-view paydays. Surely he would be confident against either but especially so with Barrera (63-4, 42 KO), whom he battered most of the night 3 1/2 years ago. But for Barrera to find himself back in the ring with Pacquiao (43-3-2, 34 KO) for what would perhaps be his final fight, he must first find a way to get by the slick counter punching of Marquez (46-3-1, 35 KO), who is moving up to 130 pounds for the first time and promising a toe-to-toe brawl .

Barrera has said much the same, arguing that he does not believe he can win by trying to outbox Marquez even though he did exactly that in his last outing, a one-sided win over Rocky Juarez in a rematch after nearly losing to him when he followed toe-to-toe tactics in their first encounter. What the future would hold for Barrera if he were to lose is difficult to know because he has hinted to Golden Boy that this may be his last year in boxing. Yet Gomez argues that if the fight is a spirited one with a close decision it could easily create enough public demand for a rematch because in Mexico Barrera remains a legend while Marquez has been waiting for years for a night in which to make his case that he is as good as the man he is about to face, which would make him as good as one of the greatest fighters ever produced in Mexican boxing rings.

"The loser is not done,'' Gomez said. "Barrera is still a legend. He'll still have at least one more fight. And if Juan Manuel happens to lose he's still the WBO 126-pound champion. He can go back to featherweight and try to unify the titles. Maybe seek a rematch with Chris John (who won a highly disputed decision over Marquez to take away his WBA and IBF titles a year ago in John's native Borneo).

"Marquez may have more ways to go if he loses because Barrera has pretty much fought everybody. He could try to unify with a natural rival like John (38-0-1) or he could fight someone like Juarez if he wanted to stay at 130. Marquez is a blue collar guy. He's never really had the opportunity to become a mega-star like Barrera. That's why this is a big, big night for him. His country is watching to see if he's deserving.

"If Barrera loses, Barrera will still be Barrera, although it depends a little on what kind of fight it is. We'd have to sit down and see what he's thinking but he might still be able to fight Pacquiao because Pacquiao might want him first before Marquez if Marquez wins. Or he could try to move up to 135 and challenge one of the champions there for the lightweight title. If he did it, he'd be the first Mexican fighter to be a champion in four different weight divisions. (Erik) Morales (Barrera's long-time nemesis, who he has beaten twice in three tries) is going to try to do it. Certainly Marco Antonio would like to do it first.''

Yet the best possibility for boxing in some ways would be that neither man gets to Pacquiao too quickly after this fight. If it goes as expected, it could lead to an even more interesting situation, one of which boxing legends are made. One that involves the two of them seeing each other again in short order, as Barrera did when he fought Jaurez back-to-back in his last two fights to settle what became a looming debate following their first fight, which Barrera won after it was first announced as a draw.

"It all depends on the outcome,'' Gomez said. "If it's a great fight, a close one with maybe a controversial ending, I'm certain Barrera would want a rematch. For all we know this could be the beginning of a trilogy, like he had with Morales. The media in Mexico has been building this fight up. It's for bragging rights and that's very, very important to both of them. A lot of Mexican boxing fans have been talking about Juan Manuel vs. Barrera or Morales for a long time. In other sports you usually end up with the two best teams playing each other but not so often in boxing. This time you have two of the best fighters and they're from the same hometown. No matter how it comes out, everything is riding on this fight for both guys.''

Pride, a world title, an open road to Manny Pacquiao or just maybe a return one back to each other. That is what Marco Antonio Barrera and Juan Manuel Marquez will be fighting over. That and one more chance to prove that inside them still beats a warrior's heart.

The fact remains, however, that Marquez has only faced three boxers who could be said to have elite, or near-elite status. The first was Freddie Norwood, who beat him by unanimous decision in 1999. The second was Pacquiao, who knocked him down three times in the first round before Marquez regrouped and out-boxed the Filipino over the final 11 to earn a draw. Then, last year Marquez flew to Japan to face the unbeaten title holder Chris John on the champ's turf, and lost a unanimous decision which many felt was a robbery.

Since Pacquiao is the only common opponent for Barrera and Marquez, it would be tempting to say that because Marquez nearly beat the Filipino, while Barrera took a beating, Marquez should win Saturday night. On closer look, however, the two fights with Pacquiao don't really provide a clear window into this bout at all.

When Marquez chose to slug it out in the first round, he was nearly punched into oblivion. Had he not switched to boxing, almost certainly he would have been knocked out. By choosing to fight at a distance the rest of the way, Marquez in effect neutralized Pacquiao, who didn't have the technical skills to deal with him.

"Barrera is the most adaptable fighter in modern times," said Emanuel Steward, the Hall of Fame trainer and HBO commentator. "He can switch right in the midst of a fight. In the history of boxing, the best at switching before Barrera was 'Marvelous' Marvin Hagler. Hagler was the best I ever saw until Barrera came along."

Barrera, on the other hand, tried to engage Pacquiao the entire fight, and was clearly out-slugged. Barrera has said many times that outside distractions affected him in the ring that night, and indeed he did seem to be boxing in a fog throughout. Excuses do not erase losses, but coming from a Barrera, they are worth considering.

While there is little question that Barrera -- who has hinted strongly he will retire after this year -- has slipped a bit past his prime, it is never wise to write off a great champion. Many thought Oscar De La Hoya was through when he was knocked out for the first time in his career by Bernard Hopkins in September of 2004. But after not fighting again for 19 months, he looked brilliant in totally dismantling slugger Ricardo Mayorga last May.

Also working in Barrera's favor is that he possesses a nearly unprecedented ability to switch from puncher to boxer and back to brawler again, sometimes in the same round.

"Barrera is the most adaptable fighter in modern times," said Emanuel Steward, the Hall of Fame trainer and HBO commentator. "He can switch right in the midst of a fight. In the history of boxing, the best at switching before Barrera was 'Marvelous' Marvin Hagler. Hagler was the best I ever saw until Barrera came along."

After back-to-back losses in slugfests with Junior Jones in 1996-97, Barrera began the slow and difficult process of converting himself into a boxer-puncher, no small feat for a fighter with 44 bouts already under his belt. When Barrera suffered a split decision loss in a brawl with Morales in 2000, he committed himself fully to his extreme makeover. A year later, Barrera unveiled his Second Act conversion in stunning and dramatic fashion when he overwhelmed then unbeaten Naseem Hamed with a dazzling array of boxing skills.

Ironically, Barrera now finds himself in a position where he may have to convert again, turning the clock back to the days when he was one of the most feared brawlers in boxing. Can he do it? Will he do it? Those questions make a great match-up of elite fighters all the more tantalizing.

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