By Chris Robinson
While Marco Antonio Barrera and Erik Morales were making their imprints in the sport near the turn of the century, their countryman Juan Manuel Marquez seemed to be hiding in the shadows a bit. Despite sporting a sterling record of 29-1 with 22 knockouts in 1999, the only loss being his first pro fight in which he was disqualified in the first round, Marquez's only true following seemed to be on the West Coast and he hoped to change all of that with his first title shot against WBA featherweight champion Freddie Norwood in September of that year.
Fighting on HBO's airwaves underneath Floyd Mayweather's battering of Carlos Gerena inside of the Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas, this was looked at as a chance for Marquez to break through but things would unravel horribly. The technically superb fighter was dropped in the first round by the awkward southpaw Norwood and seemed to have trouble figuring out his unorthodox style for the remainder of the fight, eventually dropping a disputed unanimous decision.
That loss had many claiming the buzz around Marquez to be pure hype but one vested insider never wavered in his belief of the talented pugilist.
"No, no, no," Bert Sugar of HBO Boxing recently told me as we discussed Marquez. "Guys with bad styles can make you look bad. Sugar Ray Leonard says one of his toughest fights was Dick Ecklund. He made him look bad because he was Dick Ecklund. You have guys who fight so unorthodoxly that they can make you look bad. No, I didn't lose hope with Marquez. He was fighting a guy you can't look good against."
Marquez would indeed show everyone that the Norwood fight was merely a fluke, as he went on to rack up titles at 126, 130, and 135 pounds in the following years while showing himself to be a fearless assassin with a beautiful and precise style inside of the ring. And despite having faced off with some of the world's best fighters it seems to be Filipino sensation Manny Pacquiao who Marquez will always be tied to because of their thrilling battles in May of 2004 and March of 2008.
Pacquiao was riding a wave when he faced off with Marquez the first time inside of the MGM Grand, having just dissected Barrera in San Antonio half a year earlier. His blend of speed and power was like nothing people in the sport had seen in recent times back then and that seemed to have many giving him the edge over Marquez's brilliant mastery.
In a memorable battle, Pacquiao would storm out of the gates and drop Marquez three times before seeing his elder rise each time and turn the tide of the fight. The middle rounds belonged to Marquez but Pacquiao would close strongly as the two men battled to a split-draw that still has people debating to this very day.
In Sugar's eyes the contest was all he needed to realize how special Marquez truly was and is.
"Well, the first time you could see that he wasn't hurt," Sugar said of the wild first round. "His ability to get up, that's what makes a fighter, it's called heart. And then, like Ortiz against Berto, he got up and I don't know that he remembered the second round at all but by the third he was back. I knew then that this was one hell of a fighter. And no less Pacquiao, and it was a great matchup."
More reflectives on Pacquiao: HBO's Larry Merchant remembers when Pacquiao and Barrera crossed paths / Showtime's Al Bernstein on Pacquiao's breakthrough over Lehlo Ledwaba
Nearly four years later the two men would meet again and the fight was just as electric, as Pacquiao went on to snatch a split-decision victory after dropping Marquez in the third and holding off a furious rally from the proud Mexican before finishing strong himself. To this day a bitter Marquez claims that the fight was his and Sugar tends to agree with him.
"I thought Marquez won," Sugar said frankly. "It was a split decision and the telling point was the knockdown of Marquez by Pacquiao. Marquez is there and he's a great counter-puncher. And that's apparently what you need against Pacquiao because nothing else seems to work. And Marquez, you've seen him in other fights where he looks like he's been beaten and he comes back, time and time again."
Over the past ten years we have seen Pacquiao tear through a wide range of formidable opposition yet it has always seemed to be Marquez who has found a way to give him fits. I asked Sugar what exactly it is about the 37-year old that allows him to fight nip and tuck with Pacquiao each time out.
"Well, he's cool and calm and unlike other Pacquiao opponents he's not collected, as in pieces," Sugar continued. "He can take the hailstorm coming at him, still remain there in the eye of the storm, and counter punch. He's got a style that is a great set off against Pacquiao. If they fight again you're going to get another great action fight."
At the moment that is one of the hottest discussions in the sport, whether or not we will see a Pacquiao-Marquez III. Marquez currently has the option to sign back with Golden Boy Promotions and eye some lucrative battles or again saddle up with Top Rank for a chance at revenge against Pacquiao, who himself has business to take care of on May 7th in the form of Shane Mosley.
While Golden Boy may be dangling money in Marquez's face, Sugar sees pride being the deciding factor in a decision to meet Pacquiao yet again.
"Go in that direction? It's the only direction that he wants to go in. He's got other offers to fight other people and he let his contract lapse because he's looking for that fight. So, if Pacquiao wins, as he should, on Saturday, then that might be the next fight. It could become one of the best trilogies of all time."