The last time Israel Vazquez and Rafael Marquez stepped into the ring with one another, they fathered a masterpiece. It had everything every boxing fan could ever want. Bravery. Skill. Power-punching. Wild swings of drama. Action. Especially, action. Historic levels, in fact: Their July rematch of their initial March meeting was almost unanimously considered the 2007 Fight of the Year. The third round of the rematch was almost unanimously considered the 2007 Round of the Year. Their first fight was no slouch either, garnering a lot of runner-up votes in the year-end awards season. It is no exaggeration to say, as myself and others have said many times before, that if their third fight Saturday night is anywhere near as good as the first two, it will go down in history as one of the best trilogies in boxing history — up there with the likes of Bowe-Holyfield, Gatti-Ward, Zale-Graziano, Barrera-Morales and yes, even Ali-Frazier.
If you are a casual fan and have any hesitation about watching this fight because you don’t believe you can derive much enjoyment in two pint-sized men you’ve never heard of hitting each other — they will weigh 122 lbs. each — there are a few things you need to know. First, Vazquez and Marquez are two of the best 10 fighters roaming the ring today, of any size, period, by the estimation of most experts and observers, so trust that Marquez’ and Vazquez’ obscurity is no reflection on their ability. Second, the heavyweights have proven definitively in the last week or so (read: the Klitschko-Ibragimov unification “fight”) that they are an unreliable source of entertainment. Forget about ’em, folks. The smaller weight classes produce by far the most action and drama these days. Since 1997, The Ring magazine’s Fight of the Year award has gone exclusively to battles held between 122 and 140 pounds. And if you doubt that’s possible, just watch the first two Marquez-Vazquez slugfests. If, after that, you still don’t want to see Vazquez-Marquez III, my guess is that you’re just plain invulnerable to excitement, but then, hey, some people don’t like roller-coasters.
The main thing I’ve learned from Showtime’s “All Access” web videos about Vazquez and Marquez in the build up to their third contest makes me think back to something I heard said by ringside television commentators during a recent brawl, a paraphrase of comments uttered before on behalf of the under-appreciated — Commentator #1: “How much are these guys getting paid for this?” Commentator #2: “Whatever it is, it’s not enough.” Vazquez lives in a nice, modest-sized pink house in LA, and Marquez has a well-manicured backyard at his own modest abode in Mexico City. I had hoped both had big mansions for all they’ve done in their careers, and against each other.
Marquez’ victory began the series, and it was one of the finest wins of his career. Marquez started his career as a pure power-puncher, and his power served him well as a 118-pounder. He scored 33 KOs in 37 wins, and after some early losses that are common to the careers of Mexican fighters who are thrown to the wolves against tough competition at the beginning of their careers, he ran off an unbeaten streak from that began in 2000. He knocked out acclaimed fellow little men Mark Johnson, Tim Austin and Silence Mabuza, absolutely dominating the division and establishing himself as one of the hardest hitters in the sport, regardless of size. But he also honed his craft, mixing in an excellent jab and polishing up in the skill department that his boxing brother, Juan Manuel, had previously held the exclusive copyright over in his family. This made him more dangerous. Not only did he have fight-changing power, but his quick, slashing punches could cut up his opponent to the point that referees would stop fights and award him a victory. All along, he showed he was vulnerable to big punches himself and proved very hittable, so moving up four pounds to take on Vazquez, the best of the bunch in the loaded 122-pound division, was riskier than it sounds. He climbed up to as high as fourth on the “pound-for-pound” lists of best active fighters in all the divisions.
Vazquez’ own path to being one of boxing’s best was just as roller-coaster up-and-down as one his typical fights. In 1997, he knocked out Oscar Larios in one round. In 2002, he got knocked out by Larios in the 12th. In 2005, he again KO’d Larios, this time in three. Jhonny Gonzalez in 2006 put Vazquez on the mat twice, but Vazquez rose to dish out a beating of his own and won by technical knockout in the 10th. Marquez mangled his nose and forced him to quit in the seventh in March of last year, then Vazquez came back in the rematch and forced the referee to halt the fight in the sixth and give Vazquez the victory. It’s been said elsewhere — and I’d give credit if I remembered where — that one of the worst things you can do to Vazquez is beat him up. It just means the same’s coming to you. Marquez has tasted the canvas en route to victory before, too, but for Vazquez, it’s a regular habit. By nature, he is a brawler, and his record of coming out on top in such brawls and his own 31 KOs in 42 wins has justified that path. But he is an underrated skills guy, one who is especially effective at wading through big blows to get on the inside, where he is excellent up close.
A combination of factors listed above made their two fights incredible: A willingness to brawl. Power punches for days, thrown with great accuracy, and not much dodging anyhow. One fighter, Marquez, trying to fight from a distance, and the other, Vazquez, trying to force a fight in closer quarters. Both fighters vulnerable to getting knocked out, but just as likely to get hurt and come back harder than before. In the first, Marquez was winning the slugging match — he nearly flattened Vazquez in the first — and was boxing beautifully until Vazquez knocked him down in the third, then things got hairy for Marquez. Fortunately for him, the nose injury he inflicted on Marquez had limited a reported 90 percent of his breathing through his nose, and Vazquez felt compelled to quit. In the second fight, Vazquez started off better by getting inside Marquez’ jab quicker, and in the third round he rocked Marquez around the ring until Marquez rallied and inflicted deep cuts on both eyes that with each passing round threatened to force another stoppage loss for Vazquez. But the damage Vazquez did began to accumulate heavily, and in the sixth, he knocked Marquez down again and then had him on shaky legs before he was rescued by the referee, over his objections.
It’s fair to say, as Vazquez has, that he underrated Marquez in their first fight. It’s also fair to say, after he defeated Vazquez the first time, that Marquez did not anticipate such a challenge the second time around from Vazquez, as he has acknowledged. By one standard, this fight should be even better, since there’s no reason for either man to have discounted the other at this point. Both are proud Mexicans who want to be able to say, “I came out on top in this historic trilogy.” Do I fear that both men have been through too many wars, and one or the other will succumb too easily because of it? Sure, but both still come across as pretty fresh to me, and they’ve been given some much needed rest between the second and third fights. There is a school of thought out there, which I subscribe to, that the more boring the fight is, the more likely Marquez is to win, since he’s the better-skilled fighter and the one who benefits least from brawling, but that doesn’t mean it will be boring at all. The first fight was the one that was ideal for Marquez, and it was fantastic. It is my belief that this fight will be won and lost on whether Marquez keeps his distance or Vazquez prevents him from doing so. That guarantees some seesaw action in and of itself, though. And does anyone believe they won’t be slugging it out at least part of the time?
I doubt it.
My prediction: Marquez by late-fight TKO. I think Marquez will be sharper than his last fight, when I (and fellow 122-pounder Daniel Ponce De Leon) believe that Marquez did not train as hard as he should have. He knows he made a lot of mistakes. My bet is that Marquez is growing into his size a little better now that he’s been at the weight for about a year, and his better skills mean he will be more judicious and better-adjusted to Vazquez’ own improved technique. Eventually, he will hurt or cut Vazquez, as he has several times over the series, bad enough that the referee or corner will call a halt to matters. And while Vazquez’ has the doctor’s clearance to fight Saturday, the doc said there is some chance of him getting cut again.
Confidence: 55%. It’s not that high, because I’m going with something of the underdog here. Vazquez is naturally bigger, it’s true, and the harder hitter at this weight. Under the tutelage of trainer Rudy Perez in the last fight, there was a noticeable uptick in his ability to work his way inside. They’re now working on his defense, too. But I think Marquez’ mistakes in strategy and training are as much to blame for him losing as Vazquez’ improvement in the rematch.
My allegiance: Marquez is one of my favorite fighters, I cannot lie. Whereas I think I’m usually good at separating my allegiance from my prediction, this might be one occasion where my pick is distorted for it. I’m a fan of Vazquez too, though. I hope at least one, or preferably both, ends up with a palatial estate out of this.