Dr. Barrera and Mr. Hyde

Mar 14, 2007

The split personality act Marco Antonio Barrera pulled in his two fights with Rocky Juarez last year has left his fans wondering which body he will inhabit Saturday night when he takes on Juan Manuel Marquez at the MGM Grand on HBO Pay-Per-View.

Will he be the all-out brawler who squeaked out a victory while taking a bad bruising in his first fight with Juarez last May? Or will he be the master boxing surgeon of the September rematch, slicing up Juarez with a scalpel and winning by a wide margin â€" a decision which caused some fans to boo his lack of machismo.

It would appear that Barrera has tipped his hand already. Several times in interviews since he opened training camp in the high altitude of Big Bear, CA, Barrera has said he will make a brawl of this fight. In reality, Barrera seems to have little other choice.

That's because Marquez (46-3-1, 35 KOs) is one of the most skilled boxers in the world today, perhaps even better than Barrera. Should Barrera decide to play Marquez's game of tactical boxing, and a lot of rounds turn out close as might be expected, there is a good chance he could lose on the scorecards.

Barrera (63-4, 42 KOs) knows that. He is also aware that if can force Marquez to go toe-to-toe, he will have the edge because he is clearly the superior puncher. Although Marquez has 35 knockouts, most have come from wearing his opponents down as the rounds go on, and he has never knocked out an elite opponent.

All that being said, there are many variables here that could play a factor in the outcome of this fight, regardless of which personality Barrera inhabits.

Assuming Barrera reverts to his earlier days as a two-fisted brawler, several questions are raised about this tactic. Chief among them is just how much power and stamina there is left in this aging Mexican pit bull.

Based on his record since getting battered by Manny Pacquiao in November of 2003, there are serious doubts as to whether Barrera is actually much of a brawler anymore.

After his 11th round TKO loss to Pacquiao, with the exception of Erik Morales, Barrera has not engaged in real brawl against an elite boxer. He followed the Pacquiao loss with a 10th round TKO over a past-prime Paulie Ayala, who retired after the fight. Then, Barrera had the rubber match of his trilogy with Morales, winning by majority decision. But while Barrera did brawl several times with Morales, at least half the time he was content to out-box him.

Barrera then knocked out a very outclassed Mzonke Fana, and out-boxed a seemingly sound contender in Robbie Peden. Peden, however, after a long layoff following his fight with Barrera, was knocked out last week by the very undistinguished Ranee Ganoy (21-10-2).

Then came the first Juarez fight, in which brawling nearly cost him a victory. While Juarez is a strong puncher, Marco Antonio Barrera in his prime would not have struggled with him. The fact that Barrera chose to put on a boxing exhibition in the rematch, rather than engage Juarez again, raised questions about the Mexican champion's ability to slug it out anymore.

Another possible pitfall for Barrera is that Marquez is a terrific counter-puncher. Should Barrera's hands lack their old pop, Marquez could cause some serious damage with his precision counter shots.

Barrera does hold two distinct advantages over Marquez. One is that Marquez is a career-long featherweight stepping up to junior lightweight for the first time. There is also a major difference in the class of opponents each has faced.

Barrera has consistently fought the best of his era, and has 25 championship fights on his record, of which he has won 22. In contrast, Marquez has had only nine title fights, and is 6-2-1 in them. In his defense, Marquez has been unable to lure many elite fighters into the ring with him, largely because he has been seen as a high risk, low yield ($$) opponent.

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, 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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