He’s not a front runner. He is patient. Watching, calculating. Defense first, elusive tack. He takes what you give him and turns it around. Catch the grenade and toss it back.
Juan Manuel Marquez is certainly among the greatest counterpunchers in the history of the sport. He may even be the best. And those things that are intertwined in his fighter's DNA are also what encapsulates much of his career and how he will go down in boxing lore.
That patience and technical acuity are not only stalwart strengths of Marquez in the ring, but it is those same traits that define the long-smoldering fuse of "Dynamita’s" career.
His trilogy with arch-nemesis, Manny Pacquiao, lays out like his career in microcosm.
Out of the gate, disaster... losing his first fight by disqualification in '93 for a headbutt, glossy unbeaten record never to be -- against Pacquiao down three times, in round 1. Busted nose, staring up at the bright lights, blood pounding in his ears, crowd raucous, thick with cheers and jeers.
A career started 0-1, pulling himself together and rattling off 29 straight victories in the next six years -- getting off the deck and putting on a clinic of counterpunching perfection to battle back the Filipino fury, salvaging a draw from the disaster-strewn first stanza.
After these opening struggles... the perseverance, the second chance.
Those 29 victories upended by a lackluster Freddie Norwood loss on his first big stage -- that hard fought, spectacular draw with Pacquiao undone by an ill advised choice to face unheralded Chris John for short money in the Indonesian jungle.
And then the patience. Biding time, adapting and adjusting, in ring and out. Giving and taking more.
The rest of his career has unfolded much as the middle bout of the Pacquiao saga played out. Stretches of exciting brilliance, but pockmarks of violent setbacks, knockdowns, moments on the brink. Yet unlike his early career -- performances of tedious, technical brilliance, that new willingness to tear away his reserved nature, unleash ferocious attacks like a wild dog bent on survival.
At times it's almost as if Marquez is caught between his early cerebral dissector disposition, and his late career fire-in-the-blood warrior fever vision -- the extreme patience to wait in the wings and bide time watching Pacquiao’s triumphant surge through the welterweight division... and the impetuous grab at greatness in calling out Floyd Mayweather hunkered several divisions above his own.
If that strange dichotomy of character exists now, anyone who has followed Marquez’ career for more than this last chapter or two knows that it was not always the case.
In the old days, Marquez cut a textbook silhouette and possessed a young apprentice's razor focus on performing Svengali trainer extraordinaire Nacho Beristain’s exacting assignments.
Those early bouts built the man that would later have all the skills in the world, but also showed glimpses of the fire that coursed through his blood, unneeded and mostly unused for years at a time.
Oct. 19, 1996: Three years into his career, the 23-year-old Marquez steps in to face unheralded Darryl Pinckney. Known as “The Nightmare,” Pinckney is just coming off a 7th round stoppage of Guty Espades Jr. who would later go on to give Erik Morales a close fight several years later.
A veteran of 45 fights, Pinckney is surprised early with a string of three left hooks Marquez, ever the combo puncher, fires his way. All three land and the last sends the Floridian down to the mat, the ropes all that keep him from launching out into the spectators seated nearby like some errant palm frond in a hurricane.
Pinckney is a tough pro, though, and recovers fast. Several rounds later, in the 7th, Marquez is caught lunging forward and gets clipped with a compact left hook that puts him on his seat. It's the first knockdown in his career. He isn’t hurt, but a bit chagrined. Business-like, he gets to his feet and re-establishes himself. They battle on for a few more rounds.
A straight right flattens Pinckney in the 9th, twirling him viciously to the mat face first. He snaps into a crouch and waits for the count to get to eight, then tears after Marquez. They brawl for much of the remaining round. Though Pinkney lasts to the bouts final bell, he catches hellacious straight right hands for much the rest of it.
Marquez says after the fight it was a good experience, going down, as he expected he would likely go down again at some point in his career. Boy would he. It's a portentous harbinger of a legendary night in his future.
Two fights later, Feb. 3, 1997: a gangly featherweight, Cedric Mingo, is tasked with facing the young technician for the vacant WBO NABO featherweight title, the first belt Marquez would attempt to gain. In the 4th round, a Marquez straight right hand wobbles the 5'9" southpaw. The unusually aggressive Marquez is showing a new wrinkle, he is coming forward for much of the fight.
It’s the sort of bout where Marquez is winning each round, but moment to moment the fight is close. Normally, the sportsman, Marquez seems a little on edge. In round 7 there is a clash of heads and he refuses to touch gloves.
Mingo's corner tells him after the round, "He's beating the **** out of you with the right-hand. He’s fighting just like every other right-handed fighter fights a southpaw. That kid ain’t fit to carry your goddamn gym bag."
While it may have been a competitive fight through eight rounds, Marquez picks it up in the 9th. By the stanza’s close, Mingo's nose is broken and bleeding. In the corner, the doctor gives him one more round.
Valiant and desperate, Mingo heads out to the center of the ring for what would be his final chance. In the opening seconds he is hit with a blistering Marquez left-right combo that puts him down. He pops back up quickly, a gout of blood spurts from his nose. Though he makes it through to the round’s bell, it is stopped by the doctor as promised in the corner.
After the fight, revealing himself as a grand puppeteer, trainer Beristain reveals that Juan Manuel was not told he would be facing a southpaw. He had trained for a right-hander. This was even his first bout with a lefty.
Five months later, Panamanian Catalino Becerra travels to the Great Western Forum in Inglewood California to fight in the States for the first time. Marquez’s brother Rafael, just seven fights into his stellar career, notches a 2nd round technical knockout on the undercard.
Older brother Juan Manuel’s more safety first approach and Becerra’s tentativeness lead to a slow first round as they feel each other out. The crowd begins to boo within the first 15 seconds.
Just before the end of round 1, Marquez lands two quick punches that catch his foe off balance and send him to the mat. Unhurt, Beccera gets up, the bell rings and he grins in the corner as his handlers berate him.
The action steadily picks up over the course of the next few rounds and in the 4th Beccera decides that boxing with this guy is like trying to bang with Joe Frazier. It’s not gonna work out. Boxing flies out the window and he begins to attack, catching Marquez off guard.
In the sudden ferocity they clash heads and Marquez is cut badly in the corner of his eye right eye. The round is fraught with drama; blood speckles the deck. The action stops and the doctor checks the eye. He gives the go ahead.
They trade shots for the rest of the round. They trade big shots, with each man getting stung. The fire that Marquez would display in his marquee fights against Pacquiao, Juan Diaz and Michael Katsidis, then in the distant future, flares up and we glimpse the same iron-willed mettle his more celebrated Mexican contemporaries Erik Morales and Marco Antonio Barrera emblazoned on the boxing conscious at the time.
In Round 5, Marquez re-establishes control of the pace and again manages to stagger Becerra near the end, but can’t put him away. The fight is exciting, eventful. Adding insult to eye injury, Becerra hits Marquez low and the referee takes a point away from him.
With electrifying suddenness in the 7th, Marquez throws a right uppercut, followed by a left uppercut and then a straight right which bends Becerra over backwards, Matrix-style, and to the mat in a tangle. Though he rises, his knees wobble and the the referee waves the fight to its conclusion, ending the tumultuous anything-could-happen affair.
The next fight found a further continuation of Marquez’s maturation process, as he stepped in to face “The Kid” Vincent Howard from Guyana. A tall lightweight at 5'9" training out of Brooklyn, Howard has his moments in every round.
Early on, “The Kid” complained of low blows that were actually on the belt, showing some frustration and complaining often. The Kid’s whining succeeds in making Marquez tentative to throw to the body and blunts some of his momentum.
In the 2nd round they throw right hooks at the same time, but the promising Mexican’s gets there first and Vincent crumbles to the mat. He would survive, but throughout the fight Marquez would land three and four punch combinations, twisting Howard's head and showing the multi-punch mastery that he has since become revered for. Oft-times after these blows, Howard would raise his arms straight out as though on a crucifix, seemingly to say, "What more are you gonna to hit me with?"
Late in the fight Howard catches Marquez with a crisp uppercut that cranks his head to the side, his best punch of the fight. Marquez eats it up and comes back throwing a six- or seven-punch combo, landing most.
With desperation a seeming necessity, in the 11th hour, Howard comes out and stuns Marquez with a series of big blows, driving him back into the ropes with a volley of overhand right bombs. The future Hall of Famer immediately regroups, reconfigures and punishes Howard the rest of the round.
After this onslaught, they head into the final three minutes and Howard’s will has been broken. He disengages, and referee Mills Lane decides he's had enough, ending the fiery Marquez combination exhibition. At the time Juan Manuel Marquez was ranked number six at lightweight in The Ring Magazine.
Marquez is a rising contender, still climbing up the ranks and fighting in the shadows of his more famous countrymen.
These four early fights, a smattering from six fights in a year in the life of Juan Manuel Marquez, illustrate the fighter he was becoming and would crystallize into dramatically in that first bout with Pacquaio several years of maturation down the line:
The ability to rise from a shocking knockdown as he did against Pickney and overcome it. The faculty to adjust on the fly against a tricky southpaw mid-fight as he did against Mingo. The adroitness to face down adversity whether blood, low blow, or furious action, while maintaining his technique and mastery in the middle of a firefight as he did with Beccera. And finally the adeptness to surgically pick apart an opponent with crisp strings of precision combination counterpunching such as he displayed in the Howard bout.
Those building blocks formed the man we have seen the last few years. Long labeled a clinical technician who refused to go to war, and who fought without the passion so beloved by his Mexican homeland, Marquez realized after his controversial points loss to John that something had to give; to accomplish what he wished in the sport, he would have to sacrifice even more of himself.
So it was that in his next bout against tough but unheralded Terdsak Jandaeng that Marquez began to fight with urgency, offense and spirit. He came out of it with a grotesquely swollen eye, but an impressive and entertaining performance that marked the birth of a new era for "Dynamita" as a fan-friendlier and determined prizefighter worthy of everyone's attention.
Likewise in his next fight against a similarly tough but largely unknown opponent, Jimrex Jaca, Marquez laid out his foe in the 9th round, peering through a face streaked with gore from a grisly cut on his forehead. Aside from showing us blood, he revealed to us that he was willing to push the peddle even when he was ahead on the cards and deliver everything he had to offer, even if it meant giving up a little of himself to bring the pain to his opponent.
He was rewarded for his new riskier approach with a string of bouts to equal anyone's agenda over those years: Barrera, Rocky Juarez and Pacquiao for the second time.
His fight with Barrera paled only in comparison to the incomparable Rafael Marquez-Israel Vazquez trilogy his brother began that year. He went on to deliver a punishing decision against Juarez. And then came the long awaited rematch with Pacquiao, again surpassed within that year only by his brother's third appointment with Vazquez.
Losing the split decision to Pacquiao and having been denied a third go-around with the Filipino, Marquez instead followed him north to 135 lbs. and impressively stamped an exclamation point on his appearance on the scene at lightweight, knocking out Joel Casamayor, who was arguably the class of the division along with Nate Campbell.
He had done all he could to position himself for another big money bout with Pacquiao. However, after his surprising victory over Oscar De La Hoya at welterweight, Pacquiao and his promoter, Bob Arum, seemed loathe to put Manny back into the fire with Marquez, when bigger money was there to be snatched in the form of historic bouts against luminaries of the welterweight division.
Marquez, meanwhile, took on the young dynamo Diaz, in what turned out to be 2009‘s Fight of the Year. He withstood the onslaught that Diaz deluged him with early 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 counterpuncher and simply settle for landing the cleaner blows. He also turned up the volume and put out a steady stream of return fire, knocking out the WBO beltholder and putting himself firmly at the top of the lightweight division.
Always with an eye on one last Pacquiao rejoinder, Marquez then daringly decided to try and cut the Filipino congressman off at the pass and make pound-for-pound supremacy a road that would run through Mexico. His road map to do so? Take out the former pound-for-pound king, Floyd Mayweather, and rip the throne away for himself, thus forcing a third go-around in what he hoped would be a final showdown with the dynamic Manila monster.
The ill-fated Mayweather bout infamously kicked off with Floyd’s refusal to make the agreed weight. Simply too fast and big for him to do much with, Mayweather outgunned Marquez from the opening bell.
There is no other fighter on the planet who adjusts to his opponent as well as 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 re-calibrated and triumphed.
With Mayweather, those leaping left hooks that first caught Marquez off-guard rarely landed as the fight went on. Juan Manuel didn't have the speed to do more than dodge them once he had the timing figured, but as the shorter, slower man, with much less reach, Marquez was somehow able to clip the defensive maestro a number of times as he pulled back and landed some of his cleanest blows while Floyd languished on the threads. Though largely meaningless, those clean blows were something seldom seen in a Mayweather fight.
After that division-hopping failure, Marquez and Diaz faced off again to try and recapture that Fight of the Year flavor. Marquez had a much easier time in the rematch and cruised to a decision. He followed that with a tension-packed thriller against all-action Aussie Katsidis, and came off the deck to stop the grinding punisher.
It’s at that juncture this latest Pacquiao rematch came to fruition. Now that we’ve seen the two all-timers fight three times, with almost no separation, where does Marquez sit in relation to his contemporaries with all this history to consider?
Like Marquez in the ring... like Marquez’ career... patience is the key to everything.
There will be those that claim Pacquiao deserved the nod in the bouts he won. There will be those that claim countrymen Morales and Barrera accomplished more. There will be those that point to Marquez' losses to Norwood and John and Mayweather and Pacquiao at important junctures in his career.
But patience will build his case. Over time -- when Pacquiao is evaluated as the best of his era, likely among the best of any era -- Marquez will still be there, tantalizing with his mastery of the pugilistic arts, captivating in his shift from ice-cold calculator to live-wire warrior. He'll be alluring in his ability to adjust, refocus and regroup under any avalanche of adversity. He’ll capture the minds of future boxing fans and gain ground as someone who earned his spot amongst the immortals of the sport, but didn’t quite get all he deserved in the cards he got dealt.
The immediate fallout from his questionable decision loss to Pacquiao is but the first volley in the debate of his ultimate greatness. Time will deliver the counterpunch that Marquez has positioned himself perfectly to strike with.
When all is said and done, the man who lost his first bout, the man who rose three times from the floor to fight an all-time dynamo to a standstill, and the man who in the eyes of many deserved to have his hand raised at least once in an all-time trilogy, will have done all he could to emblazon his name on the oldest and most storied sport in history.
Juan Manuel Marquez. Boxing’s textbook tactician. The ultimate adjuster. The combination cruncher. Manny’s match. The master.
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