This week, lightweight champion Juan Manuel Marquez declared that his fight Saturday night on HBO against Juan Diaz would be “complicated” and “violent.” I don’t know that he could have picked two adjectives that, taken together, better summarize what I love about the sweet science.
That a complicated and violent fight is expected to break out between the lightweight champion and his very best challenger is enough to make Marquez-Diaz one of the highest-quality and potentially best fights of 2009. Throw in the facts that Marquez is one of the two finest boxers on Earth and that Diaz has a chance to be a superstar in the sport, and the cup gets full to the brim. Then, if the undercard fight between featherweights Chris John and Rocky Juarez breaks the right way, Saturday’s offering could turn into the best overall card of the year, and the cup overfloweth. The Toyota Center in Houston, which is hosting the show, already has hit overflow levels: Records for live boxing gate grosses in Texas could very well fall.
JUAN MANUEL MARQUEZ – JUAN DIAZ
I’ve never shied away from saying JMM is my favorite. So I’m thrilled that he’s getting so much recognition these days. And I’m thrilled that he’s in big, important, fun fights. But I’m a little worried for him in this one. Before I explain why, I’ll share some video highlights of both men. They tell the stories of each better than I can, in many ways.
What’s interesting and dangerous about this fight, for both Marquez and Diaz, is the way the strengths of each fighter are aimed like a pinpoint laser at the weaknesses of each other. Or, perhaps I should say, the possible weaknesses of each other.
Marquez is 35. He is the last Mexican warrior of his generation still fighting at an elite level. In his two fights with the best boxer around, Manny Pacquiao, they are separated by a grand total of one point on one scorecard. The scorecard changes, and maybe JMM is considered the pound-for-pound king. He’s very, very skilled — great combination puncher, nothing he’s missing from his arsenal, and, especially, a great counterpuncher. But he is 35.
Diaz is 25. He may be the next hero of Mexican fans, although he’s Mexican-American. (His overall superstar potential is tied in part to his college student by day, boxer by night back story, and a general likability.) He fights in a style that wears down his opponents — a constant attack that creates severe claustrophobia. But he’s still learning.
If I were drawing up an opponent who could make Marquez age overnight, I might do no better than Diaz. If I were drawing up an opponent who could school Diaz, and dissuade him from his constant attack with counterpunching, I might do no better than Marquez.
There are some other X factors. One is that, while Nate Campbell took Diaz to night school, it helped him that he was a big lightweight. So big he didn’t make weight in his next fight. Diaz, too, is a big lightweight. Marquez is new to the weight class. He looked very comfortable in it against Joel Casamayor in taking the Ring magazine belt, but Casamayor was no big lightweight. Another factor is how much Diaz has decided to switch up his game. In his last fight out, he boxed Michael Katsidis a lot more than I expected. I don’t know if that was a one-time strategic choice against a man who had the ability to out-brawl him, but if he tries to box Marquez, that could be a big mistake.
Diaz would be wise to make Marquez, a master of controlling distance, fight at an uncomfortably close range. If he does that, we’ll get a great counterpuncher/brawler match-up, one of the archetypically most action-packed fights in the sport. If it pays off, he moves directly to the front of the line — with a win over an elite opponent whom people have begun to call “a great,” and with an exciting style, Mexican-American heritage and relatable personality. If Marquez wins, add it to his list of Hall of Fame-worthy achievements.
My prediction: Marquez by late knockout. Diaz is a determined youngster, and Campbell couldn’t knock him out after a long, grueling fight. But Marquez’ precision is enough to hurt anyone. I think Marquez is going to hit him very cleanly at points, and he’ll have to take a lot of fire to do so, but by the end, he’ll catch Diaz with something.
Confidence: 60%. I don’t agree with the people who think Diaz is in over his head. I think he has the style to bother Marquez. And if he makes it to the bell in his home state, which hasn’t exactly been the land of fair decisions of late, he definitely will have an edge.
My allegiance: JMM. For reasons given. My hope, though, is that if Diaz loses to Marquez, that people won’t write the young man off. Two losses in two years against top opponents at age 25 should not be a death knell for his career.
CHRIS JOHN – ROCKY JUAREZ
So at long last, America gets a look at the mysterious and talented Indonesian, Chris John. It’s surprising that it’s taken this long, but then, John was making easy money beating up mostly nobodies in his homeland, where he is extremely popular. Maybe he’s run out of opponents he can credibly beat up there. Maybe he really does want to prove himself around the world. Maybe he hopes to set up a potentially lucrative rematch with Marquez, whom John beat by disputed decision a few years ago, and who remains the biggest “w” on his list.
Whatever the reason, I’m happy to have him. He’s a very skilled boxer with good speed but only decent pop, with knockouts in half of his wins. And while one can dispute John’s win over Marquez, it’s unquestionable that he hung close with an elite fighter. That, plus his recent win over highly-regarded Hiroyuki Enoki, was enough for him to sneak into my pound-for-pound top 20.
There seems to be some fan fatigue with Juarez, who keeps getting shots at alphabet title belts and keeps coming up short. But there’s no question that he’s a dangerous opponent at all times, and he’s a very credible opponent for John’s U.S. debut. His power is always a threat. In his last fight, it emerged at nearly the last minute, when he scored an 11th round knockout in a fight he appeared to be losing against Jorge Barrios. That power very nearly ripped Barrios’ whole lip off in a highly disgusting scene.
And Juarez is fighting on his home turf again. I said “appeared to be losing against Barrios” because somehow the judges didn’t see it that way. So John is very much leaping into the lion’s den.
My prediction: John by relatively comfortable decision. I think Juarez’ fatal flaw, a kind of plodding, stationary inactivity, makes him a sitting duck for a mover like John.
Confidence: 60%. If Juarez so much as grazes John in one round, does he get the decision? Also, how much effect will the illness John suffered this week affect matters?
My allegiance: I don’t have one. I’ve been highly critical of John for not fighting outside his homeland, but I’ve warmed to him a little for finally breaking the pattern. I liked Juarez earlier in his career, and I like him at moments still, but he is exasperating, the way he just kind of stands around three quarters of the time.