So begins our marathon coverage of one of the biggest fights of 2011, Manny Pacquiao vs. Juan Manuel Marquez III Nov. 12 on HBO pay-per-view. Now: The big question about Pacquiao-Marquez III. Next: Keys to the fight.
Manny Pacquiao made Juan Manuel Marquez. Before those two fought for the first time in 2004, Marquez was the odd man out in a trio of Mexican fighters alongside Marco Antonio Barrera and Erik Morales who was viewed -- unlike his two peers -- as something less than the prototypical warrior of his country, a boxer who fought more with his brains than with his testes and who produced tactical boxing exhibitions rather than grimy slugfests. When against Pacquiao, Marquez rose from three knockdowns and a broken nose in the 1st round, his testicular fortitude was no longer in question; when the remaining 11 rounds produced a classic back-and-forth battle, so, too, did the questions about his "wow" quotient.
Marquez, in a much less direct way, made Pacquiao. Before Pacquiao-Marquez I, Pacquiao was storming through men who had never been stormed through by way of extreme amounts of speed and power. Marquez in 2004 was the first to show that wasn't enough. Morales, in his first fight with Pacquiao, took up where Marquez left off, exploiting Pacquiao's one-dimensional jab/straight left combinations and mastering him with timing and counterpunches. After that, Pacquiao realized he needed to evolve, and he did, developing into a two-handed fighter. But Pacquiao-Marquez II in 2008 showed Pacquiao remained an unfinished work, and it was only after the rematch that Pacquiao developed into the all-around force he is now.
In their two fights, Pacquiao and Marquez showed they were made not only by each other, but for each other: Pacquiao played the role of id to Marquez' ego, Pacquiao the role of pure aggressor to Marquez' pure counterpuncher. That combination of styles meant both men gave each other nightmares, but it meant wondeful things for fans.
So why is the boxing world so split on whether Saturday's trilogy fight on HBO pay-per-view is the conclusion of a classic rivalry, or a gross mismatch?
It's because some things have changed since 2004 and even 2008. And some things are the same.
Whether it's a "gross mismatch" is no small matter, for reasons that should be obvious to anyone who prefers athletic competitions over the athletic equivalent of watching a professional bodybuilder squash an ant. Selling this as "conclusion of a classic rivalry" is central to making anyone want to see it, outside of the large contingent of people who would pay $50 to watch Pacquiao sitting on a bench doing nothing. And with Pacquiao mostly steamrolling everyone he's faced since he last met Marquez in 2008, and with a Floyd Mayweather, Jr. mega-fight STILL not happening, there's a small tide among boxing fans rising against forking over big cash to witness boxing's two best men and two biggest stars -- Pacquiao and Mayweather -- repeatedly coast to easy victories.
Continuation Of A Classic Rivalry
Anyone who has recently watched the first or second Pacquiao-Marquez fight can't help but wish for a third fight just like them. The rivalry was, no doubt, one of the best of the previous decade. Both fights were bloody, evenly-matched, dramatic affairs. There's even been a rare bit of hostility by a Pacquiao opponent: Most everyone he fights seems to genuinely like the man, an outgoing and jovial sportsman. Marquez thinks he won both fights, and after some bad business decisions following the first fight, has largely spent the latter part of his career chasing him for a rematch. Outside of Pacquiao knocking out Mayweather, there's nobody Filipino boxing fans would rather see their idol put down for the count. And while Mexican boxing fans have ceased their hostilities toward Pacquiao, they still surely would love to see one of their own defeat the man who earned the nickname "The Mexecutioner" for his stream of wins over Mexican fighters.
Outside of the loss to Morales in their first bout, no boxer's style has given Pacquiao more trouble than Marquez. Among those who expect a competitive bout, the belief is that Marquez "has Pacquiao's number." Pacquiao always has fared best against come-forward sluggers who try to engage him. Boxers who are more cautious give him more trouble, even though he still defeats them, but Marquez isn't just cautious, he's thoughtful. He has a gift for figuring out what his opponent does best and taking it away from him. Marquez, in their two fights, has taken Pacquiao's strength -- his aggression -- and not only taken it away from him, but used it against him, making him pay for mistakes. Pacquiao's team thought before the Marquez rematch that their man had improved too much and that Marquez would be no match. They were clearly wrong. They could be again.
And even though Marquez is now 38 (his age has been cited as a reason the fight won't be competitive), that hasn't kept him from being one of the the best fighters in the world. I have him at #5 to Pacquiao's #1. With so many fighters these days competing at near-prime levels well into their 30s and sometimes even their 40s, a fighter's age is secondary to what he's accomplished. Right now, Marquez is the lightweight champion of the world, having beaten top-notch 135-pounders since Pacquiao-Marquez II like Joel Casamayor, Juan Diaz and Michael Katsidis.
Aware that he appeared doughy and slow against Mayweather in a move up to 144 pounds, Marquez says has taken steps to address what is viewed as the biggest reason Pacquiao-Marquez III won't live up to the first two fights: He's too small. Pacquiao-Marquez III is at 144 pounds, too, and Marquez has hired a strength coach who his team says has Marquez putting on weight the right way, adding power and speed in addition to bulk. (That man, Angel Hernandez, has a shady background as a past supplier of performance-enhancing drugs, so if you want to get really optimistic about Marquez' chances and don't mind a little cheating, maybe you can say, "Hey, if he's 'roiding up, that could be the equalizer!")
Except the size issue is a really, really thorny problem. Marquez was horrendous against Mayweather, some of which had to do with Mayweather's excellence. But Marquez was beyond slow, and Mayweather literally laughed at him when Marquez connected. Based on his showing, I don't think Marquez would've beaten a top-20 welterweight, because of size alone. Hell, Marquez isn't even REALLY a lightweight. At 135 pounds, he was wobbled badly by Diaz, never thought to be anything more than a pitty-pat puncher. Pacquiao, meanwhile, has blossomed into a smallish but legitimate welterweight. His power at the weight has made full-blown welters like Miguel Cotto, Joshua Clottey and Shane Mosley literally cower. If you said that Marquez and Pacquiao would be about the same size on fight night, you'd be right, but you'd be missing the point. Some fighters are more effective at higher weights and some aren't. Ricky Hatton was the top junior welterweight in the world for years; when he moved up one division, he struggled to beat a fringe top-10 welterweight in Luis Collazo.
Age might not be the end-all, be-all, but youth does indeed have its advantages. Among them, for Pacquiao-Marquez III, is that as before, Pacquiao has gotten better since they last met. But Marquez has gotten worse. Never a speed demon, Marquez had at least passable quickness. As he's moved up in weight and aged, he's slowed down even more. Pacquiao has gotten bigger, stronger, better defensively and more versatile. Although some have seen signs of aging in the 32-year-old Pacquiao in his last couple fights, 2011 Pacquiao would thrash 2008 Pacquiao. You can't say the same about Marquez and his old self.
Once driven like Captain Ahab to defeat Pacquiao once and for all, Marquez of late has shown a suspicious lack of meanness toward Pacquiao that makes one wonder if he's merely "cashing out" in one last big fight. Whereas before Marquez and his team constantly spoke ill of Pacquiao and Marquez even once voyaged to the Philippines to confront him seeking a third fight, the promotion for this bout has been marked by Marquez getting a friendly, playful faux interview from Pacquiao and Marquez singing karaoke together. Although it was but one source, HBO's Max Kellerman said recently that he'd heard Marquez wasn't training as hard for this fight as for others. And whatever preparation he's made to move up to the 144-pound limit this time, Marquez' strength training could work in the opposite direction: Pacquiao's strength guru Alex Ariza said he thought it was foolish for Marquez' team to move him up in weight so quickly in this camp.
While the debate over whether the fight will be competitive is a real one, you'd be hard-pressed to find any top boxing writer who gives Marquez much of a chance of winning. Pacquiao is also an 8-1 betting favorite. For Pacquiao-Marquez II, he was 2-1. Almost everyone, then, is deciding that Pacquiao-Marquez III will end with Pacquiao's hand raised, and that takes away from some of the drama. Some boxing fans think that Marquez could be competitive even in defeat, and that he's unlikely to go down without a fight. But people thought the same thing about Mosley and Mosley proved them wrong, and other aging legends have of late surprised us in performances where they looked merely as though they were trying to survive after it became clear they were unlikely to win.
In the coming days, we'll break the fight down in depth to further explore its competitiveness. But Pacquiao-Marquez III could go one of a couple ways: like Muhammad Ali-Joe Frazier III, where most people thought Frazier was too faded only to learn he still had something left for his hated nemesis, and Ali was more on the decline than we previously realized, making for one of the best fights ever; or more like Bernard Hopkins-Roy Jones II, where it was a continuation of a heated rivalry between two of the previous decade's best "in name only" and a do-over of a fight that had long since passed its expiration date to turn out ugly.