From Hell’s Heart, I Stab At Thee: The Bittersweet Career Of Juan Manuel Marquez (Plus More Thoughts On Saturday Night)

Maybe you like your “chasing the white whale”-style quotes to come from the original Moby Dick. I’m no Trekkie, but that Wrath of Khan is a good flick. Either way, the “hell’s heart” quote is appropriate for lightweight champion Juan Manuel Marquez: He will chase rival Manny Pacquiao, the only man who can stake a legitimate claim to being a better boxer than him, until his dying breath and probably after. In going to tremendous lengths to get a third fight, he will provide a ton of drama and rack up wonderful accomplishments, like he did Saturday night en route to knocking out Juan Diaz. And the way things look now, he tragically won’t get another chance at the Pacman, and even if he does, I suspect he will lose. Marquez is a true great, with our without a third Pacquiao fight, but his career, underrated as it has been until the last couple years, will always be slightly bittersweet because of what might have been.

I’ll explain what I mean by all this future-telling in a moment. This I know: Nights like Saturday night are the reason I consider boxing THE supreme sport. The Super Bowl this year was awfully exciting, but minute-for-minute, I’d take around two hours of Marquez-Diaz (plus the featherweight fight between Chris John and Rocky Juarez) over it. Both battles had all the strategic intrigue, athletic prowess, ridiculous skill, back-and-forth swings, crunch time stands and hard hits of the Pittsburgh Steelers-Arizona Cardinals, and then some.


Because late 2008 absolutely made a mockery of my prediction acumen, I want to start by tooting my own horn somewhat: I don’t think I could have called Marquez-Diaz any better. I said Diaz’ youthfulness, size and style would give Marquez some fits, but that Marquez’ precision counterpunching would tell over time, and that late in the fight, he would knock Diaz out. That’s pretty much exactly how it went. As Marquez has long been my favorite fighter — I don’t go back as far with him as some, jumping on board in 2004 with the first Pacquiao fight, then remaining a believer after the setback against Chris John and subsequent rebuilding effort — it stands to reason I might just have studied him a lot closer than some. Diaz has been another of my favorites, and his fights pop up on ESPN Classic all the time. So by way of muffling my own horn-tooting, there’s something to be said for excessive exposure, as opposed to actual analytical ability. And I will inevitably now go on a 16-fight losing streak with my calls.

Any of the first four rounds of Marquez-Diaz, particularly the 1st and 4th, could be Round of the Year candidates. In video aired prior to Marquez’ arrival in the ring, the 35-year-old said, “Juan Diaz is 50% Mexican and 50% American. I am 100% Mexican.” The implication, which I don’t like, is that there’s something inferior about being American. That’s a slice of Mexican macho jingoism for you, but both Marquez and Diaz fought in the proud 100% Mexican tradition in the opening stanza — don’t back up, don’t clinch, just punch. It was the 25-year-old Diaz who forced the pace, predictably, and by blocking Marquez’ jab so effectively, then bullrushing Marquez to the ropes with a slight size advantage born of his long stay at lightweight to Marquez’ new tenure, he forced Marquez to trade. Diaz’ faster hands were the difference in those exchanges. Marquez threw 95 punches in that round, more than he ever had, and he only came in second place in that category for the 1st. In the 2nd and 3rd, it was more of the same, with Diaz, not the biggest puncher, even staggering Marquez in the 2nd. He was also cutting off the ring effectively and chasing down the slower-of-foot Marquez. But incrementally, Marquez was working his way into the fight with those precise and frequently harder counterpunches.

The 4th is when things began to shift, according to Marquez himself. He could tell that his shots were beginning to have an effect. A few adjustments contributed. One, Marquez went to Diaz’ body. Two, even when pushed back against the ropes, Marquez started blocking and ducking more of the Diaz flurries. Three, he found a home for the uppercut. Diaz clearly began to feel those body blows and uppercuts, and with fewer of his shots landing, it became an increasingly risky endeavor to unload punches at Marquez, with diminishing chances of reward. But he summoned some heart in the 5th, wading through all kinds of Marquez return fire to open a gash over Marquez’ eye. It would be his last stretch of sustained glory.

The 6th and 7th were all Marquez. Having established his power superiority, he could now begin to work in feints and jabs that made Diaz hesitate still more. Even though Marquez looked like he was tiring in those rounds, it was Diaz who was fading in reality. By the end of the 6th, Diaz had thrown more power punches at Marquez than anyone else ever had. He had to have some kind of chin to do that against a fighter like Marquez, because Marquez lives for guys constantly swinging at him. It emits the scent of opportunity. In the 8th, all those fulfilled counterpunching opportunities finally delivered in their entirety. Not only did he retaliate by cutting Diaz over his eye, but he wobbled the younger man. There wasn’t enough time in the round to finish the show, yet it was obviously only a matter of time. In the corner, Diaz looked very worried. He charged out in the 9th nonetheless, which got him a faceful of big blows. After a Marquez right hook, Diaz stumbled, and a few extra shots helped him go down and nearly out of the ring. Diaz had his senses about him enough for the fight to continue when he rose, but then came a nasty right uppercut like a gunshot that put him flat on his back. Referee Rafael Ramos waved it off immediately, the only thing he had to do all night.

Next for the loser: A few more words than I usually do for this section of a “results” entry. Diaz said afterward that the 8th round cut obscured his vision and opened him up to the knockout. A cut also badly affected him in the Nate Campbell fight. I’ve seen some harsh words out there about Diaz letting the cut affect him, and it is not entirely without justification. As we say in journalism, “two is a trend.” Two junior middleweights, Alfredo Angulo and Paul Williams, recently battled through cuts as though they didn’t happen, and fights like Marquez-Diaz show that it’s not as easy as it seems. A cut took the steam out of Diaz in the Campbell fight and appeared to diminish his fighting spirit. Against Marquez, it did no such thing. He came out swinging despite it. But he did seem to be panicked and thrown off his game, and he got too wild, helping Marquez land the finishing blows Diaz couldn’t see. There were other Diaz flaws on display as well. “Two is a trend” on body punches really getting to him, too, as Campbell and Marquez both showed. I don’t question Diaz’ conditioning, but you would think a fighter who trained for weeks and weeks wouldn’t look so doughy. More “two is a trend”: Anyone who can hang with Diaz’ pace has an advantage because he also probably punches harder, as both Marquez and Diaz did. Maybe there’s a question about the kind of training he’s doing… more weights, perhaps? And yes, he should have clinched when he got in trouble in the 8th and 9th. But Mexicans, whether they’re 50% or 100%, tend not to do that. It’s an insult to their pride, and I’m not going to ask him to do it. It’s why Diaz said he thought to himself “to hell with it,” and decided he was going to knock out Marquez or get knocked out.

Ultimately, though, Diaz should not in any way be written off. Max Kellerman summed it up pretty well when he said that what had happened was that a very good young fighter got beaten by a great old fighter. Other than Pacquiao, has anyone ever given Marquez such a tough fight? I say “no.” Obviously, Diaz needs to work on how he deals with cuts, and on how he handles body punches, and maybe on hitting harder. If he can do those things, maybe he can one day become a great old fighter. Fortunately for us, I think he has a high ceiling and low basement, with “action hero with a huge Texas following who can’t quite crack the ultra-elite” as far down as I see him go. Diaz got a great round of applause for his game effort. Others may write him off, but Texas — and Tim Starks, for that matter — still loves Diaz. And if Marquez departs the division, Diaz remains the class of lightweight until someone demonstrates otherwise.

Next for the winner: Marquez said he wants to fight Floyd Mayweather, Jr., and I don’t doubt that he would take that fight if it was offered to him, but it won’t be and Marquez knows it and wasn’t, to my view, sincerely proposing Mayweather-Marquez. I think the ambition was to stab at Pacquiao for not wanting to fight him. He suggested that the real pound-for-pound king was Mayweather, not Pacquiao, another stab at Pacquiao’s ego. Let’s face it — stabbing at Pacquiao’s ego is the only thing he has going for him for the time being. Last month, Pacquiao trainer Freddie Roach reportedly said of a third fight with Marquez: “It’ll never happen.” Pacquiao knows. Roach knows. Pacquiao promoter Top Rank knows. Marquez is the closest thing to kryptonite there is for Pacquiao, as bot
h fights between the two left Pacquiao in severe physical pain and with a near-L. Others, like Mayweather, might defeat Pacquiao if given the chance. But Marquez is the one who probably will hurt him the most, and among available opponents, he’s lower on the list of people with whom he can make outrageous amounts of cash. There’s Mayweather, there’s Miguel Cotto, and there’s Ricky Hatton, Pacquiao’s May 2 opponent, then there’s Marquez. (Neither Shane Mosley-Pacquiao, nor Edwin Valero-Pacquiao, have the fan base nor the built in rivalry sizzle of Marquez-Pacquiao III.)

So, shame’s just about it. Marquez certainly does help himself with fan-friendly performances like the one he put on against Diaz, and by beating fighters of Diaz’ caliber. Junior welterweight champion Hatton could lend Marquez a hand by beating Pacquiao. It would probably kill his ambition of fighting prime-of-their-career welterweights like Cotto. Mayweather could help by stubbornly insisting on $20 million. But if Pacquiao beats Hatton, he may have only one or two more fights left, and I doubt there’s clock enough on Pacquiao’s career for Pacquiao-Marquez III. In the unlikely event it does happen, well, the clock is ticking on the 35-year-old Marquez’ career, too. I think Diaz would have given Marquez trouble at any point in his career, but the gulf in foot speed and mobility was so surprisingly pronounced that it’s hard to ignore signs of Marquez aging. Pacquiao, meanwhile, just keeps getting better, and as strong as Marquez looked at lightweight, it’s pretty evident to me that the higher he goes, the better chance Pacquiao has at winning the trilogy bout.

It is but one of the sad aspects of Marquez’ career. He’s spent his whole career chasing, chasing, chasing, and too much of his career getting screwed. He could be 55-0 now instead of 50-4-1, if all the borderline decisions he’s lost had gone his way. It’s taken him a little longer, but he’s clearly now in the discussion for the best Mexican fighter of his generation, alongside Marco Antonio Barrera and Erik Morales. Had he gotten the chance to fight those two in their primes, I’m pretty confident he would have beaten them, much as he beat a version of Barrera who was older but still considered in the top-10 pound-for-pound. If Naseem Hamed hadn’t dodged him, he would have likely made his name against him much as Barrera took his career to another level by beating The Prince. Marquez wasted years after the draw with Pacquiao by losing a decision to John in a fight that, were he properly managed, never would have happened. Imagine Marquez’ career with jut a few more breaks. Two wins over Pacquiao. Wins over Barrera and Morales. A defeat of Hamed, plus some of his other top actual career wins over men like Derrick Gainer and Joel Casamayor. No side trips to Indonesia. Maybe his career doesn’t even include some of those fights if he gets his mitts on Barrera and Morales, but maybe he’s offered even more lucrative bouts in the process. How good is THAT career? With THAT career, how much are we talking about Marquez for extremely high placement on the list of all time greats, as we now discuss Pacquiao?

I say none of this to take for granted what Marquez has done, or what he might still do. Clearly, he has given us great thrills, turning into a certified action star, a can’t-miss attraction for true fans of the sport. Maybe he gets some good money fighting Hatton at 140 if Pacquiao beats him, or even if Hatton beats Pacquiao. Maybe he takes on the winner of this “Lightweight Lightning” tournament and makes good cash and good television that way. It’s just that I’m disappointed as a fan that one of the greatest rivalries in the history of the sport, between the best boxer in the world and his nearest competitor, is almost certain never to reach its logical conclusion. And whatever path Marquez’ career follows from here on out, anything short of getting Pacquiao again and beating him will be… bittersweet.


As amazing as Marquez-Diaz was, it would be terrible of me not to give John-Juarez some treatment. It was a tremendous battle worthy of year-end honorable mention as Fight of the Year.

One thing it showed, by way of amplifying on Marquez-Diaz, is that whatever one thinks of who won John-Marquez, John is no fluke. He’s for real. In his first performance on American soil, John very much impressed. “Gooood fighter,” HBO’s Jim Lampley said, and it spoke volumes.

Juarez was better than ever early in the fight and late in the fight, and we all know how great opposition brings out the best in an athlete. Juarez was forcing John to be his best, under difficult circumstances. He was fighting in Texas, the most suspect state for judging and refereeing among states that regularly host big fights. True to form, referee Laurence Cole found a way to favor the home state fighter, constantly slapping at John and pulling him away off-balance when he tried to tie up. I’ve seen that tactic before, but usually a ref trying to break a clinch that way does it to both fighters. The Cole method left John in constant position to be punched on breaks, and didn’t give John a chance to tie up to neutralize Juarez’ strategic edge on the inside. What’s more, John had a hiccup in his training when he caught a virus. And John might have pulled out of the fight if he was fighting, say, Marquez. But his team expected Juarez would not pose that kind of threat.

But as I said, Juarez was as good as ever, and more threatening than he’d been before. He really pressed John early on, and for four straight rounds, I alternated consecutively between the two in my scoring. John was landing more shots and outworking Juarez, but Juarez was landing harder shots. Then, true to form, Juarez took his foot off the gas pedal. From the 5th — when John cut Juarez, which he admitted later bothered him — to the 7th, John began to rack up the points as Juarez turned down the pressure. John was already seriously elusive on defense and accurate and varied on offense, and the stationary version of Juarez was made to order. Juarez accelerated some in the 8th, only for John to kick into overdrive as his punch count began to get into the 120-per-round vicinity. He took the 9th and 10th only to surrender the 11th and 12th as Juarez really began to dial in his left hook and land other knockout-caliber punches. John, we now know indisputably, besides all the other things we learned, really can take a punch. The 11th and 12th were both borderline Round of the Year candidates.

Sadly, John didn’t get the win. All three judges scored it a draw, something I’ve never seen. It wasn’t a terrible call, but there was something slightly off about it.

Next for the loser:
As much as people complain about Juarez getting alphabet title shot after alphabet title shot, it’s nights like Saturday that show why. He’s good, that’s why. It’s also nights like Saturday that show why he never wins them. Even at his best, he still got outworked and spent too much time not doing much. I wouldn’t complain if he got yet another title shot, but I think we know definitively now that the best Juarez has to offer doesn’t surpass that of the elite boxers to whom he’s lost those title shots — Barrera twice, Marquez and now John. Those men find ways to win. Juarez seems to find ways not to.

Next for the winner: I hope we get to see John again on American television. His lack of serious pop may hurt him in that regard, but it shouldn’t hurt him too much. If he could hit a little harder, he’d be just my type of boxer — skilled, with power. As he is, I like him a lot. John against Steve Luevano sounds fantastic to me as a Boxing After Dark headlining bout. Both men can bor
e at times, but both also can clearly be in excellent fights. John-Luevano would be high-level action, plus it would give the division a real, lineal Ring magazine champion. I don’t know how much money John-Luevano gets John, who took the smallest payday of his alphabet title reign that began in 2003. I just don’t want him fleeing back to Indonesia with a sour taste in his mouth. John took a big step toward proving how good he was Saturday night on the world stage. I think he has more forward steps to offer, and a backward step would be disappointing.

About Tim Starks

Tim is the founder of The Queensberry Rules and co-founder of The Transnational Boxing Rankings Board ( He lives in Washington, D.C. He has written for the Guardian, Economist, New Republic, Chicago Tribune and more.