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Marquez's Moment

Sometimes things are simple, even in the often bizarre world of prize fighting. Certainly that is the case this time for Juan Manuel Marquez.

Marquez has waited nearly four years for this moment. He has, in a sense, been waiting all his life for it and on March 15 it will have finally arrived. What he does with it will define his professional life.

Simple. Pure. Just the facts.

Regardless of what follows his rematch with Manny Pacquiao, what happens in the ring at the Mandalay Bay Events Center in Las Vegas is what Marquez will be remembered for. The WBC super featherweight title he holds will be at stake but that belt will be unimportant to him. Future income potential will be decided but for once this really isn't about the money. What this is about is even more than pride and Mexican pride is a formidable thing among Hispanic fighters.

What it is about is a fight over how Juan Manuel Marquez will be remembered long after he has slipped lightly between the ropes and into the most dangerous venue in sports for the last time. That may be unfair but it is the harsh reality of what his career has come to.

Having taken bad advice that cost him what might have been a defining moment with Prince Naseem Hamed eight years ago and after having been convinced to pass on a rematch with Pacquiao in a dispute over money 2 1/2 years ago that led to his being upset in Indonesia instead by Chris John for $720,000 less than he would have received for facing Pacquiao, this is the 34-year-old super featherweight champion's last chance to show the world he is a fighter whose memory should live on long after his skills have faded.

Marquez is very likely no fan of country music but if he is he should enter the ring that night to the Vince Gill song, "One More Last Chance'' because that is what this fight with the biggest little man in boxing is for him. Win and he will step out of the long shadow cast by his Mexican contemporaries Marco Antonio Barrera and Erik Morales for all these years. Lose and he will remain, despite his accomplishments, where he has been trapped throughout his career. He will stand a step below them.

Marquez realizes this and resents it. He knows it was a mistake to turn down the $750,000 rematch with Pacquiao two years after he got off the floor three times in the first round to fight his way back to a draw with him that could have just as easily gone Marquez's way. He knows he should not have passed on the chance to fight Hamed, who was an HBO icon at the time, and instead let the fight go to Barrera, who promptly destroyed the myth of Prince Not So Charming and cemented his own legacy among Mexico's top fighters of his time.

Most importantly, Juan Manuel Marquez knows this is truly his last chance to establish that what he has always believed he was, is really who he is.

It has been cold living in the long, dark shadow of Morales, Barrera and Pacquiao but he began the process of changing that when he beat up the aging Barrera last year on his way to a decisive unanimous decision that seemed to retire Barrera from boxing's upper echelon.

Yet Marquez did not get all he wanted from that victory because most boxing experts felt Barrera was a shell of the fighter he once had been by the time Marquez got a chance at him. The same was true when he defeated Rocky Juarez in a lopsided decision in his last outing, a night in which fans who packed a casino ballroom in Tucson began chanting "Bring on Pacquiao! Bring on Pacquiao! Bring on Pacquiao!'' throughout the final two rounds as Marquez's promoter, Oscar De La Hoya, nodded in agreement at ringside.

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If things had been different none of that would have been necessary. Marquez's draw with Pacquiao on May 6, 2004 could have been a moment from which he was transformed from a skilled fighter into a growing legend because his recovery from those three knockdowns and the way in which he took over the fight by countering Pacquiao's wild left hand again and again the rest of the night was remarkable. But he was not well served by his advisors after that and thus seemed to disappear.

While Barrera, Morales and Pacquiao grew into the heavyweights of the lower weight classes, Marquez lingered on the edge of big fights that never came. He became the face in the back of the room, a guy boxing insiders understood was among the best fighters in the world but one who never really gave himself a chance to prove it because every time he had to make a choice to step up or step back, in the end the choice he made was always the latter.

That changed when he signed with De La Hoya's Golden Boy Promotions however, a marriage that led him to the fight he knows will decide who he is or what he is not.

"This fight is an opportunity for me to seek revenge and to get a tremendous victory for my career,'' Marquez said recently. "It's the most important fight of my career. It isn't going to be an easy fight for me but it isn't going to be an easy fight for him either.''

The pressure Marquez will face is clear and undeniable. He knows it. Golden Boy knows it. Everyone around him knows it. Even Pacquiao knows it. How he will handle it nobody knows.

All they do know is that Pacquiao is five years younger at 29, a more powerful puncher and a fighter who has improved considerably from the left-hand happy kid he was the night he thought he'd blown Marquez's doors off in the first round only to see him batten down the hatches and batter his way back into the fight. Marquez's refusal to stay beaten when it appeared so obvious he was, has convinced Pacquiao's trainer, Freddie Roach, that this will be a difficult night at the office for his fighter not simply because of Marquez's counter punching ability but also because he believes Marquez understands this is the night that will tell the story of his career.

De La Hoya knows this as well while arguing that Marquez is already the best fighter in the world at 130 pounds. He may be but not until the morning of March 16 dawns with his hand raised will it be a point beyond debate.

"There's no way around it,'' De La Hoya insists. "He is the best. He keeps on proving it over and over again. At super featherweight Marquez is No. 1. Pacquiao is No. 2. If Pacquiao wants to be called the world champion mat 130 pounds he has to beat Marquez.''

Marquez (48-3-1, 35 KO) makes the same argument with relative ease simply by pointing out the obvious.

"He hasn't beaten me and he won't beat me,'' Marquez said. "Everything will be the same as the first fight except the first round. He's planning for future fights but he has to beat me first.''

If Pacquiao is to continue his reputation as the Mexican Assassin for his unusual string of having beaten 10 Mexican fighters in his last 11 fights, including both Barrera and Morales, that may be true but he will remain both a top draw and the most popular sporting figure in the Phillipines regardless of what happens on March 15. He is facing pressure as well but it is the normal kind that comes with a big fight. The pressure simply to win.

Juan Manuel Marquez is dealing with something bigger than that. Bigger even than the power punches of Pacquiao (45-3-2, 35 KO). He's dealing with his legacy. Or the loss of it.

That is why this time there were no conditions Marquez wouldn't accept. When Pacquiao threatened to leave him in the lurch and move up to 135 pounds to challenge David Diaz, Marquez quickly agreed to the smaller end of the purse. For once, money would not stop a prize fight of his from happening.

"They put many conditions on the table,'' Marquez said of the negotiations that stalled the rematch for so long. "There were many conditions (designed) for the fight not to happen. It was ridiculous. I accepted everything because I wanted this fight to happen.''

He wanted it because he needs it. Pacquiao wanted it because it's a big money fight and because for all the respect he and his trainer, Freddie Roach, claim to have for Marquez they believe he is not the same fighter today that he was nearly four years ago.

"I thought the first fight was very close,'' Roach said. "I can't complain about a draw. It could have gone either way. Manny had a great start. Marquez came back and won a few rounds. I certainly didn't think he pitched a shutout but that's all behind us. Quite a bit of time's gone by. They're two different guys now.

"Marquez is going to have to deal with a much better fighter than he faced the first time, and I don't think Marquez has looked as good since that fight. I'm not sure if the Pacquiao fight took something out of him or he just changed his style to be more pleasing and sell more tickets but it seems like he's setting down (on his punches) more and exchanging a little bit more than he used to.

"I'm not sure where that lies. I'll take it that he changed his style to sell tickets, but I believe this fight he'll go back to that counter punching style because that's the best way to fight a guy who attacks you like Pacquiao does. We'll have to deal with that.

"We know this is the toughest fight for us style wise. He gives us a little bit of problems but if he sits down on his punches like he's been doing that's our type of fight. Obviously I hope that happens but I don't think it will.

"His trainer is too smart for that. He knows styles. He'll be the old counter puncher he was before. The difference this time is we use two hands now, not just one.'' Marquez admits he has been more aggressive of late but he believes the hand speed that so bewildered Pacquiao when they first met is still there. More importantly, on March 15, Juan Manuel Marquez will be there too. The same Marquez who for so long has been considered the unrecognized equal of the biggest names at featherweight and super featherweight. There for his moment, come what may.

"I can tell you Manny has become more of a boxer,'' Marquez said. "I can predict better now where his punches are coming from. That's an advantage for me. "He used to be pretty wild and it was hard to figure out where those punches were going to come from. Now I feel more comfortable with Manny as a boxer. Many things have changed in four years.''

The one thing that has not, Juan Manuel Marquez believes, is himself. He is the same man who bravely kept pushing himself up off the floor through that first, harsh round. He is the same fighter who came out after it was over and boxed and counter punched Manny Pacquiao into a stupor for the rest of the night.

If he's right, he will do what Erik Morales could not do the last two times he faced Pacquiao and what Marco Antonio Barrera could never do. He will meet and defeat the challenge of Manny Pacquiao. He will render him the Mexican Assassin no longer.

If he does it will put his name in every conversation that also includes Erik Morales and Marco Antonio Barrera. Right where he has always believed it should be.

Juan Manuel Marquez vs Manny Pacquiao

HBO PPV - Mar. 15, 2008

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