By Patrick Kehoe
Photo © Chris Cozzone/Fightwireimages.com
Underneath the high definition calm of his practiced professionalism, Marco Antonio Barrera frets, holding in check his nervous anxiety when ever he’s asked about his next fight. In training camp, the great Mexican featherweight avails himself of more moments of solitude and contemplation than when he was a younger man. No wonder. Most all the mysteries of a life in boxing have been revealed to him, having been celebrated or endured.
The summation of his future hall of fame career – effectively what he hopes will be a two fight series against Juan Manuel Marquez then Manny Pacquiao – locks itself into position, the inevitability Barrera will be forced to live out and overcome. The endgame for great boxing champions remains a constant: you must attempt to dispel common belief by beating the odds, defying time’s mastery, the entropy of the body and the excellence of all opposition arrayed against you. Sometimes a great career comes down to the illusion of knowing what cannot be demonstrated: faith.
November 15, 2003 the Alamodome in San Antonio Texas, was almost silenced, save for shrieks of disbelief, as referee Laurence Cole conceded to the wishes of Marco Antonio Barrera’s corner to stop the one sided slaughter of their beloved warrior at the rampaging fists of Manny Pacquiao in full blooded assault mode. Time, at moments of destruction seems to freeze, the four seconds remaining in the eleventh round and the subsequent one minute respite looming was rightly adjudged to be of no calculable aid to the battered Barrera.
Round after round Barrera had been bludgeoned; the brutality of the finish came as a tidal wave of headshots, as per Pacquiao’s trainer Freddie Roach’s husky voiced directives. “Manny, it’s too late to go to the body now; go to the head.” HBO broadcasters Jim Lampley, Larry Merchant and colour analyst Manny Steward couldn’t see any way back for the beleaguered MAB. They couldn’t see any way for Barrera to survive through to battling Erik Morales for a third time; as an ‘A’ lister “The Baby Faced Assassin” – two months shy of 30 – was deemed to be finished.
The dictates of youth had been too cruelly demonstrated by pride of the Philippines. Barrera’s first fight for Golden Boy Promotions seemingly had signaled the end of a legend; seated beside partner Bernard Hopkins, the golden boy himself, Oscar De La Hoya, could only attempt to talk his way out of a sense of shock.
Of course, that night against Pacquiao was not the end for Barrera. His partnering link forged with Golden Boy Promoters quickly arranged for a battle of desperate men, fighting a fading but always popular Texan, Paulie Ayala, in Cason, California to begin the transmutation of Barrera back into a significant threat in major fights. Hurtling Erik Morales in their subdued rubber match or stumbling past Rocky Juarez, twice, the fictional recovery of Barrera has been maintained.
We used the term ‘fictional’ here to toss out an operative affront, to suggest that the post-Pacquiao Barrera has indeed been generating the luminosity of his stardom by besting the best of the rest. No, that’s never a crime in boxing. And in fighting Juan Manuel Marquez Barrera now takes on the burden of fighting the elite of his era at the end of his career. Fighting dangerous, ambitious men in the twilight of ones career is another burden of being a great fighter attempting to add ever more glories to the record of personal accomplishment.
True, there are the images of wiz kids Mike Tyson and Salvador Sanchez and Wilfred Benitez who blazed early, defeated daunting opposition within the first blush of their careers. They are however the notable exceptions to the rule of ritual examination coming at, nor near, the end of a fighter’s timeline. Big money and big challenges tend to come late. The end calls champions to challenge for glory and greatness as the last reserves of concentration and adroitness must be marshaled at all costs. Barrera trains diligently knowing Marquez, also 33 years old, fights him now to appease his sense of having been locked out of the generational fights of ‘their’ era.
As Barrera and Morales, then Pacquiao formed a triangle of icons – warring through epic encounters – Juan Manuel Marquez, was marginalized first by his promotional house at Top Rank, then his inflated sense of his own economic worth, but always his protective defensiveness in the ring earning him the status as a box office middling.
That perceptual blind spot was something he shared with other champions from Shane Mosley to Winky Wright and Bernard Hopkins. They too needed a legitimating superstar in the ring with them to make the mega dollars. Be it all so much water under the bridge or not, something festering in the mind of Marquez or not, he’s arrived, no longer needing to plead his case nor be scourged by frustrated dreams. With Naseem Hamed long vanquished and Morales used up, Marquez circles around, ready to attack.
The question of involving Marquez in the lucrative featherweight super-bouts always came down to why? Why risk fighting Juan Manuel Marquez? Barrera and Morales was, until Pacquiao’s ascendant super-stardom, a closed club, thee rivalry of Mexican legends, a perfect duality of marketable, opposites and two men who just happened to despise each other. Marquez was technically exceptional to be sure, but, was also patently boring in his ability to dominate without risk, without creating the melodrama of blood theatrics that Barrera, Morales, Hamed and the other extreme fighters of the new millennium could.
Even as Barrera morphed his in the ring style from youthful left hooking body hunter into matured counter punching surgeon, there was always Morales or Pacquiao or Rock Juarez to bring out his elemental ring savagery, as if on cue for the madding crowds.
Not even Marquez’s magic trick to levitate off the floor three times in the first round against a rampaging Manny Pacquiao, in May 2004, to last twelve rounds and gain a draw was enough to thrust Marquez into the cauldron of money making featherweight super fights. By that time he’d all but priced himself out of consideration, the cycle of featherweight super fights was a cast dye. Patience was the only course open to Marquez. His measured boxing with jab syncopated movement and scoring counters dissolved Pacquiao’s murderous intentions.
For “Sugar” Ray Leonard against Roberto Duran such guile was likened to genius, for Marquez it ruined the fight as a spectacle of blistering ferocity. The blame fell on the shoulders of Marquez. Then came another debatable loss to Indonesian Chris John, a title lost – WBA featherweight – and yet it was following this ignominious loss that “Dinamita” was reborn a gambling puncher, a guy going for the kill.
Suddenly, Juan Manuel Marquez was marketable, the kind of challenge that would make sense, dollars and cents, matched up against Marco Antonio Barrera. Though boxing fans crave a Barrera-Pacquiao rematch, they see that fatalistic justice can no longer be out off; Marquez comes in from the cold, a hot(ish) property, and a man very much on a mission to right longstanding wrongs, perceived slights and egregious omissions. While they are at it, Barrera and Marquez can settle a debate that fight fans have debated, if only esoterically, for almost a decade. Who is the better man?
In a very real sense, Barrera and Marquez have arrived at the same place in time and career trajectories. Barrera twice boxed his way to wins over a determined but predictable Rock Juarez in his only fights of 2006. Painfully programmed and economic in his punch selection, the less than fleet footed Juarez was able to hit Barrera with his Western Union Telegraphed right hand, repeatedly. Not that Marquez can smile in unaffected amusement, for Marquez has been getting clipped of late too; fighting to win by knockouts means Marquez dares to edge ever closer to boxing’s ultimate danger zone, twinkling obliteration.
That was the same trap of determined indifference that turned Morales into a crowd pleasing winner and knockout victim.
The ultimate dilemma of heroism or victimization faces both men; boxing thus reduces itself to elemental endings just when the greatest glories loom.
Barrera fully understands that beating Marquez will reinforce the title and deed to his legendary holdings, with only the rematch with Pacquiao to be negotiated in terms economic and athletic. The burden Barrera faces comes as he tries to live up to the reputation he has created, insinuated, battled for and braved. The road truly winds upward all the way for greatness stands as the summit to all things attempted.
For Barrera the endgame begins now; besides, promoter politician though he may be, he promised his son 2007 was his last competitive year… didn’t he?
Visualization, that’s what the self-help industry says brings us from wishing to realization. Is Barrera remembering his last fight with Morales, making that his center, his point of dependable self-referencing? Is he remembering back to his ability to adapt to a higher standard of technical boxing against his arch rival from Tijuana and precisely how he tipped the scales during the course of their generational duel?
Or would that be an admission that he’s searching for the last time he was truly great while in the ring?
No wonder Marco Antonio Barrera wears his mask of confidence so publicly; official verdicts duly recorded stand. Everything else is conjecture upon the facts as they are known.
Like who was the better man: Barrera or Marquez?
Patrick Kehoe may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org