By Jake Donovan
It’s not difficult to conjure up memories of ‘The Tortoise and the Hare’ when it comes to evaluating the career of Juan Manuel Marquez. There are thousands of ways to describe what he’s accomplished in nearly two decades as a prizefighter, but perhaps can be summed up by a single word.
“The best word to describe Juan Manuel Marquez is, professional,” stated Hall of Fame promoter Bob Arum during a recent press conference to drum up interest for the Mexican legend’s fourth fight with Manny Pacquiao. “Some fighters are sometimes, some fighters are not sometimes. Juan Manuel is always professional.”
The compliment is a remarkable one considering the rocky past between fighter and promoter. Arum’s Top Rank company became involved with Marquez’ career some 15 years ago. Ironically, it was the attempt to secure a rematch with Pacquiao years ago which led to the falling out between the two.
Even stranger is the fact that the departure and what soon followed for Marquez made him the fighter he is today. The run – which has included championships at super featherweight and lightweight, as well as a manufactured belt at 140 – allowed him to surpass his more-celebrated countrymen Erik Morales and Marco Antonio Barrera.
Self-discipline has allowed him to not just hang around but still command respect as one of the very best in the world today.
Just ask Pacquiao and his team.
“I've faced this man three times and haven't come up with a good strategy yet,” admits Hall of Fame trainer Freddie Roach in detailing their past three fights. “Juan Manuel is a smart fighter.”
The combination of brains and brawn is what has allowed his career to flourish deep into the twilight. There was a time when his potential came into question – namely his questionable showing in an equally questionable split decision loss to Freddie Norwood in 1999.
The bout was Marquez’ first crack at a major title and his first appearance on HBO. Rather than come flying out the gate and live up to the pre-fight accolades, Marquez fought tentatively and suffered a knockdown en route to the first of several questionable calls on the scorecards in his career.
HBO and Top Rank weren’t quite ready to give up, but it would be another three years before Marquez would make his way back to the premium network. This time he took full advantage, punching Robbie Peden into submission – of the fight and his lunch. A brutal body attack had the Aussie puking in his corner, forcing a 10th round stoppage in March ’02 fight.
The win paved the way for Marquez’ eventual first championship, which came a year later when he pounded out a brutal stoppage win over Manuel Medina. The win earned him the first of two titles on the year, heading into his first showdown with Pacquiao in May ’04.
A less prepared fighter would have called it quits after any of the three knockdowns Marquez suffered in the opening round of their unforgettable first fight. But Marquez remained professional, proceeding to thoroughly outbox the Filipino idol over the course of the next eleven rounds.
The effort was enough to fight his way all the way back to a split decision draw on the scorecards. It was a remarkable feat considering he was four points down (or three on one scorecard in which the judge later admitted fault) after just one round. But it would hardly become his best shining moment.
Dealing with what would have been a lucrative rematch is what eventually led to the split between Marquez and Top Rank. ‘Professional’ wasn’t exactly the first word used at the time in describing Marquez, who allowed trainer/manager to negotiate his way out of a $750,000 payday for the rematch.
Top Rank – who had Marquez at the time and was still a full year away from becoming Pacquiao’s promoter – was none too thrilled. The company made a statement through silence, sitting out a purse bid for a fight with Chris John, in which Marquez traveled halfway around the world for what was ultimately a $32,000 payday and the third loss on his record.
Sometimes you have to hit rock bottom before climbing all the way back to the top. From there, Marquez took greater control of his career. A one-fight stint with promoter Gary Shaw saw the fighter paired up with younger brother Rafael Marquez on a Showtime doubleheader before picking up with still-rising promoter Golden Boy Promotions.
Title wins in two weight classes soon followed, as did a long-sought rematch with Pacquiao, Once again, Marquez hit the canvas. Once again, he picked himself up and fought back well enough to create controversy on the scorecards. The official verdict was a split decision loss, but the majority of polled ringside press had the Mexican winning by anywhere from one to three points.
The loss hardly mattered to Marquez, who one fight later became the lineal lightweight championship with an 11th round knockout of Joel Casamayor. His first defense was the eventual pick for 2009 Fight of the Year, overcoming a rough start to rally back and knock out Juan Diaz in the 9th round on the road in his opponent’s Houston hometown.
“Juan Manuel Marquez is a fighter I have watched grow and fights with passion like nobody else,” states Nacho Beristain. The Hall of Fame trainer has guided Marquez’ career from the moment the fighter first entered his gym as a teenager.
The win over Diaz in their first fight cemented Marquez’ legacy as a one-per-generation type of fighter. Marquez is ten years Diaz’ senior, but looked like the much fresher fighter in the crucial moments of their epic encounter.
Such is the case in nearly every one of his fights, with the exception of his ill-advised ’09 catchweight bout with Floyd Mayweather. Though even that night exuded the professionalism of Marquez, who did his best to abide by the agreed upon 144 lb. limit, only for Mayweather – returning after a 21-month ring hiatus – to approach him deep into fight week about altering the terms of the original contract.
Marquez went through with the fight, suffering his most humiliating defeat to date. It was a rare fight in which he looked every bit his age, leaving many to wonder how much he had left in his career. The loss was forgiven, considering the circumstance and the opponent. Three wins followed, including a points win over Diaz and an off-the-canvas knockout of Michael Katsidis, both of which came in 2010.
The reunion with Top Rank came about when it came time to decide on a second opponent for Pacquiao’s 2011 campaign. Marquez waited three years to settle the score with his longtime rival, so long that he was willing to fight on whatever terms for the chance to gain revenge.
Once again a catchweight was in place for a Marquez fight against a pound-for-pound claimant. This time around, Marquez didn’t just fatten up in weight but came fully prepared. Some questioned the means, exclusively due to the hiring of disgraced strength and conditioning coach Angel Hernandez.
In the end, Marquez’ effort was once again professional – and once again enough to where many believed he deserved his hand raised in victory. The judges felt otherwise, with a majority decision leaving him dejected and fans discouraged, enough to where Pacquiao was booed out of a ring for the first time in his career.
Few if any believed the third fight between the near decade-long rivals was going to be competitive. Marquez found way not only to maintain Pacquiao’s respect, but also retain his place among the very best fighters in the world. He fought well enough to where many gave him a favorable shot at bumping off unbeaten slugger Brandon Rios in a discussed July bout that never materialized.
He fought well enough to where even the premise of a full welterweight limit for a fourth fight with Pacquiao later this year isn’t enough of a handicap to fully count him out.
“(Marquez) always comes prepared,” insists Arum. “He always comes to fight and he always gives 100%. He is one of the great fighters of this era and of any era.”
Jake Donovan is the Managing Editor of Boxingscene.com. Follow Jake on Twitter: @JakeNDaBox