The Great Equalizer

The calendar is the great equalizer in boxing. It can level any playing field. It has been a co-conspirator in the demise of nearly all of the sport's finest prize fighters. It is the one opponent that remains eternally undefeated.

This comes to mind because on Oct. 6 one of the greatest Mexican boxer's to ever lace on gloves will be fighting more than his opponent. On that night, 33-year-old Marco Antonio Barrera will also be fighting the most powerful force in boxing. He'll be fighting the years.

Barrera has survived 68 ring wars and triumphed in all but five. He has been stopped only once, four years ago by the same man he will face that night at the Mandalay Bay Events Center, the Filipino whirlwind named Manny Pacquiao. Considering how their first meeting went in San Antonio, one wonders why Barrera would accept a rematch that is so long overdue when he is clearly now residing on the dark side of his career.

Some will say simply that it was a business decision, one final big payday before Barrera goes to the only safe haven in boxing - into retirement. Perhaps there is some truth to that for boxing is a business as well as a sport but Barrera is a warrior too, one who has lived longer than he would like with the bad taste in his mouth of having been stopped by Pacquiao in the 11th round of a fight that was stunningly one-sided almost from the opening bell.

Barrera said, and still believes, that was more the result of a lack of focus on his past, citing promotional and managerial problems as well as other distractions at the time which left him unable to concentrate on his work. Many fighters have used such circumstances to convince themselves a second chance will be different, even against an opponent perfectly suited to counter everything they do in the ring. Many believe that is the case with Barrera. Manny Pacquiao is among them. Certainly no one would argue Barrera (63-5, 42 KO) is the same fighter he once was. Anyone who thought that was disabused of the notion six months ago when he lost a decision by a wide margin to the world's other top super featherweight, Juan Manuel Marquez. Even Barrera conceded he would retire immediately after the decision was announced but he quickly changed his mind when he was presented with the chance to face Pacquiao a second time, a decision his critics considered unwise.

Since signing for that fight Barrera has returned to the mountains above Mexico City to train at altitude, pushing himself he insists like he has not done in some time. While he has been working, some insist it is now Pacquiao, a national hero in the Philippines with a host of political and business dealings outside of boxing on his mind, who is the distracted one. In such a circumstance one is reminded that occasionally a great fighter like Barrera can marshal all his will and his skill for one last moment, one final night in which the years fall away and he becomes again what he was for so long -- a fearsome force.

In such a circumstance one is reminded that occasionally a great fighter like Barrera can marshal all his will and his skill for one last moment, one final night in which the years fall away and he becomes again what he was for so long -- a fearsome force

Either or even both those things are possible, which is what makes boxing one of the most intriguing of sports, but upon sober reflection this appears to be a fight that will be decided not by such vagaries but rather by one thing divided into two parts. It will be decided by speed. The speed of Manny Pacquiao and at what speed Barrera can keep the fight at.

If Pacquiao is able to push the pace to an uncomfortable level, which is what he intends to do from the outset because that is always his aim, Marco Antonio Barrera cannot survive. But if Barrera can find a way to do to Pacquiao what he did to young Rocky Juarez in their rematch last year, which was to box brilliantly and avoid lengthy toe-to-toe exchanges in the center of the ring, then things could be different than they were four years ago.

Logic, of course, argues against the fight taking such a form because if Barrera could not do that at 29, how can he be expected to do it now? The answer to that in part is that boxing is the sport of self-delusion. At it's best, it is a sport based as much on creating shadowy confusion as on any other skill, the art of luring an unsuspecting opponent into places he best not wander.

That is Barrera's one hope. He hopes to box rather than fight, using his jab and his quick mind to keep Pacquiao at the end of his punches in the same way his countryman -- Marquez - did after first being driven to the floor three times by Pacquiao's initial barrage in the opening round of what ended up becoming a most unlikely draw just over three years ago.

The difference is the aging Barrera will be trying to do it to a fighter who at 28 is in the prime of his career and is considered almost universally not only the best super featherweight in the world but a fighter second only to Floyd Mayweather, Jr. in the mythical pound-for-pound rankings. Barrera knows what he wants to do and he has a blueprint to follow. The one Marquez came up with when the third round of his fight with Pacquiao began. Up to that point, Pacquiao had been a perfect storm of thunder and lightning. He had by then thrown 150 punches, dropped Marquez three times in the opening round and had him in trouble again in Round 2. The outcome seemed merely a matter of time.

As things unfolded it was a matter of time, the time Marquez used to slow Pacquiao down. Neither he nor Barrera could survive the frantic pace Pacquiao sets when at his best. That is how he overwhelmed and battered Barrera when they first met and it was how he was dominating Marquez early in their oddly contested match.

But Marquez found a way to slow the pace by using movement, angles, his jab and a patient approach that lured Pacquio into a more controlled environment. Over the final 10 rounds that night, Pacquio threw an average of only 49 punches per round, thus blunting the whirlwind he had been in the first two rounds when he threw 77 and 73 punches. This also limited his opportunities to slam home the straight left hands and crisp right hooks that so bedeviled and bombarded Barrera for 11 rounds and Marquez for two.

It is that unusual combination of speed and power that has made Pacquiao (44-3-2, 35 KO) one of boxing's most respected and idolized practitioners. He is the embodiment of an action fighter when he is at his best and that is how he intends to attack Barrera. If allowed to do so the rematch will become a shorter version of what came before it, a one-sided blistering of an aging champion for whom the boxing ring is no longer a safe address.

To avoid that, Barrera must use his jab and his mind to blunt Pacquiao's rushes. He must control his aggressiveness by clouding his mind with confusion and then doubt, two things he was unable to do in San Antonio. He has to find ways to control the spacing and the distance to prevent Pacquiao from beating him in close with his superior hand speed and stop him from regularly landing the straight lefts that so bedeviled him when they last met.

Whether he can do that is the only issue to be decided because if he cannot what will follow will be obvious. He will take as much punishment as he can stand until someone intervenes, as his corner did at the end of the 11th round in their first fight. The problem with such a battle plan is that Barrera is no longer the dominate force he once was while Pacquiao (44-3-2, 35 KO) has greatly enhanced his skills both offensively by punching more often in combinations and defensively, with more head movement. That has allowed him to win 21 of his last 22 fights, many at the expense of some of Mexico's best boxers.

Barrera was once like Pacquiao, an aggressive brawler who came to the arena to be as destructive as possible. But that began to change after two difficult nights with Junior Jones and he transformed himself into a skilled boxer who could still do damage offensively without exposing himself so completely.

Against Juarez in their rematch, Barrera showed all of those technical skills. After having barely won a pitched battle with Juarez in their first fight, this time he used superior ring generalship and a stingingly accurate jab that he threw an average of 31 times a round (10 more than the average super featherweights in recent years according to CompuBox statistics), to baffle Juarez and keep him off balance and on his heels. That jab will be equally important this fight because he'll need it to blunt Pacquiao's aggressiveness and break his rhythm as the southpaw tries to apply the relentless pressure that is his trademark.

"Marco will try to make the fight a slow one," Pacquiao's trainer, Freddie Roach, said. "For Manny to win, he needs to make Marco work hard. Harder than he's comfortable with. Barrera has shown a tendency to fade in the second half of fights so we want to push the pace early."

The problem for Barrera is that Manny Pacquiao is not Rocky Juarez. Unlike Juarez, Pacquiao is a fast starter, a far harder puncher and a super featherweight with more speed. This does not mean he is without flaws, only that those he has are most often masked by his gifts.

Barrera knows well what Pacquiao's intentions are. He knows the younger man wants to force him to work at a rate that exceeds his comfort level. He wants to make this fight about pressure, relentlessness and eventually about pain. He wants to wear Barrera down in the early rounds by making him fight every minute of every round and then beat him down in the second half of the fight, as he did in San Antonio.

Pacquiao regularly throws between 80 and 100 punches per round so as important as conditioning will be for Barrera, tactics will be more important because to win he must make the fight the opposite of what Pacquiao and Roach intend.

Barrera has seen Pacquiao's flaws, most notably a bad habit of some times reaching when throwing his straight left. That leaves him open to counter hooks and a fighter as smart as Barrera knows it. But he could not take advantage of that flaw in their first fight because he was too often knocked back and beaten to the punch.

While Pacquiao's chin remains suspect, you have to hit it with unseen punches and with authority to test it and you can't do that if you are on your heels and concerned with being legally assaulted. Certainly Barrera still has the power to extract a stiff price if Pacquiao miscalculates his distance and leaves himself open too long. Manny Pacquiao has been dropped by fighters with far less firepower than Barrera so all things are possible on paper. But this fight will be fought on canvas not on paper and it is there that Marco Antonio Barrera must defeat two forces to survive what he is facing. He must defeat one of the best fighters in the world and he must defeat the calendar. The latter will make the former more difficult yet for some faith in Barrera remains. "When he faces a great champion Marco elevates his game," insists his promoter, Oscar De La Hoya. "Oct. 6 won't be an exception."

De La Hoya may be right about that but his fighter will have to reach the same high altitude in which he prepared himself for Pacquiao to write a different story than the one that emerged four years ago. Anything is possible in boxing, as Buster Douglas once proved as remarkably as anyone ever has, but that was a longshot. The same is long odds are true on Oct. 6 for Marco Antonio Barrera, an old warrior standing in a young warrior's path.

Watch 2007-10-06 Manny Pacquiao vs Marco Antonio Barrera

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