By Chris Robinson
In February of 2000, Marco Antonio Barrera was considered a huge underdog heading into his fight against bitter rival Erik Morales. There once was a time when Barrera was considered the heir apparent to Julio Cesar Chavez because of his debilitating attack and fierce demeanor but a pair of heartbreaking losses to Brooklyn's Junior Jones in 1996 and 1997 left his career up in the air.
It was common knowledge that Morales and Barrera had serious disdain towards one another well before their fight and there was a definite conflict of personalities involved, as Barrera grew up well in Guadalajara while Morales' childhood saw him live in near poverty in Tijuana. Despite being only 25 years of age as he approached the Morales showdown, Barrera's career was on the line and it was this night that he chose to produce one of his finest outings as a professional.
For twelve pulsating rounds the two exchanged viscous bombs from left and right inside of the Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas. When the fight had closed it was Morales who had kept his unbeaten record in tact by way of controversial split decision but it was Barrera who had won people over.
Calling the action from ringside, HBO analyst Larry Merchant vividly recalls the magnitude of that fight.
"It was as intense as a fire fight as you can see," Merchant recalled. "There were no knockdowns, just because both guys refused to be knocked down. But it was one fire after another. There would be fire, then they would take a step back, and then there would be more fire and if someone was hurt his answer would be to fire back. It was an amazing fight.
"I guess the reason it happened in the first place was that Barrera had lost those fights to Jones and Morales had taken the mantel, at that time, of being the logical successor to Chavez. So it was a drama in the sense that Barrera was no longer considered the next great Mexican star and suddenly he came back to fight this amazing fight, which he literally won by losing. I remember thinking it was a bad decision but that both of them came out with their statures raised," Larry continued.
Barrera's career was suddenly revived and he reeled of three consecutive victories before eyeing another huge clash in April of 2001, this time against cocky yet often-devastating Prince Naseem Hamed. The outspoken English fighter had raised eyebrows for his flashy style and crippling power and he seemed to be polar opposite to the subdued Barrera in terms of personality.
Barrera was an underdog this time as well but once again he showed tremendous poise in taking Hamed out of his element and roughing him up as he pulled out a commanding twelve-round decision. Hamed's awkward attack and stout power were deemed ineffective by Barrera, who fought with both calculation and steadfast determination, even showing a bit of bite late in the fight as he shoved Hamed face-first into one of the ring corners.
Merchant feels that the victory wasn't just about Barrera as a fighter; it dug deeper than that.
"Well, that night was received as redemption for the great Mexican featherweight," Merchant said. "That this flamboyant Brit was brought down. And that Barrera did it with style as well as with cojones. And so that it was a very emotional victory, not just for Barrera but for Barrera representing his country."
Two months after the Barrera-Hamed fight, the boxing world was witness to another sensation in the making as the Philippines' Manny Pacquiao shocked Lehlo Ledwaba with a thrashing sixth round TKO to capture the IBF super bantamweight crown at the MGM Grand underneath the Oscar De La Hoya-Javier Castillejo bout. The left-handed dynamo certainly left an impression upon Merchant and he seemed to have a feel for what he was capable of.
"I don't remember the sequence of fights but he fought on the undercard of Lewis and Tyson I believe," Merchant added. "But I remember talking to some of my British sportswriter friends and telling them to watch this kid on the undercard, Pacquiao. So he had shown that he had this explosive potential and now the potential was realized."
But when Pacquiao signed on to face Barrera at the Alamodome in San Antonio in November of 2003 there were question marks floating all around. Sure, he was a ball of fire but would be be able to handle the technical precision, power, and experience of a seasoned champion like Barrera?
"We knew that Pacquiao was this typhoon who had come across the Pacific but we didn't know how powerful it was," Merchant said, admitting his curiosity towards the fight. "He exploded on Ledwaba but now he was facing an elite fighter and yet a lot of people sensed that his unusual power and his straight left hand would be a lot to deal with."
But this was Pacquiao's night. He didn't let Barrera gain any momentum and his blend of speed and power was simply too much for Marco to handle. Barrera suffered a knockdown in the third off of a Pacquiao left hand and was subsequently overwhelmed before seeing the fight stopped in the 11th round.
For Merchant it was a profound victory.
"When it happened, and when he got to Barrera early and he broke him down as time went on it was almost as if 'Oh, now we see how good he is. Pacquiao can do this even to the top fighters'. He was showing the stuff that he was equal or better to whatever level of competition he was in with. He was not going to be outclassed," Larry noted.
Not wanting to discredit Pacquiao's victory but still wanting to throw it out there, Merchant would come back to note that some of the personal turmoil going on in Barrera's life prior to the fight had tipped several people off ahead of time that perhaps his time was running out.
"Going into the Pacquiao-Barrera fight, one of the reasons that it wasn't the big shock, at least to insiders, to the boxing people, what happened to Barrera was that his camp had been broken up twice, I recall," Merchant said. "Once it was because of a fire up in Big Bear and there was a lot of discomfort. Perhaps he took Pacquiao lightly but I remember going into the fight there was a lot of turmoil going in the Barrera camp."
True enough, Barrera did have some issues prior to the fight but all credit goes to Pacquiao for seizing the moment and delivering a world class performance. It was this fight that showed us just how serious he was and he has yet to leave the scene dating back to his grand arrival against Barrera.