From time to time along comes a fight where both warriors are so carnivorous and so offensively skilled that every time you think of it, you’re ALREADY on the edge of your seat. On three occasions from 2007 to 2008, that fight was Israel Vazquez-Rafael Marquez. They meet for Vazquez-Marquez IV Saturday on Showtime, but for me, it’s the undercard bout between Yonnhy Perez and Abner Mares that has my rear end preemptively hanging off the couch. Vazquez-Marquez twice was the Fight of the Year and a third time was an honorable mention, but their bodies have paid the price for those past laurels and neither man is the prime fighting machine he one was. Perez-Mares is the Fight of the Year-worthy match-up of 2010.
There’s a sentiment that Vazquez-Marquez IV is a more humane route than other alternatives, like putting Vazquez or Marquez in with a “now” featherweight like Juan Manuel Lopez or Celestino Caballero. Certainly, it pays them more. But boxers don’t have to be in their primes to hurt each other permanently. Vazquez and Marquez match up so well to produce back-and-forth punishment that their trilogy may surpass even Muhammad Ali-Joe Frazier. And does anyone dispute that by the Thrilla in Manila that those two rivals were over the hill yet they very nearly killed one another? In some ways, it might be more merciful to put Vazquez in with Lopez, because it is a prolonged beating rather than a knockout that leads to a frightening ending. I love everything about Vazquez and Marquez, I love what they did for the fans together, I want them to prosper — but I might be watching this fight between my fingers, with my hands over my eyes.
I have fewer reservations about Perez and Mares. Perez is 31, but hasn’t had a long pro career. Mares is 24. Perez spent 2009 banging out wins in two bouts with tons of action, one a legitimate Fight of the Year candidate against Joseph Agbeko and the other a really nice battle with Silence Mabuza but he came out looking no worse for the wear. Mares is untested, and while he had a detached retina not so long ago like Israel Vazquez, he didn’t have three surgeries like Vazquez, and he’s looked superb since returning from that eye injury, unlike Vazquez. Perez is a super-aggressive boxer, and so is Mares. They fight in one of the best divisions in boxing, bantamweight. I want to see them fight so bad I can hardly stand it, and that doesn’t send my moral compass into a tizzy like Vazquez-Marquez IV.
ISRAEL VAZQUEZ-RAFAEL MARQUEZ IV
There are plenty of people who aren’t as worried about Vazquez-Marquez as me. And because it’s part of a storied tradition, this is not, even for me (to quote Ben Folds somewhat out of context), the Battle of Who Could Care Less. But I bet those who are eager to see IV probably still view it as the Battle of Who Has What Left.
In his day, Vazquez was the premier action fighter in the sport. He fought like he wouldn’t be happy unless his next punch knocked out his opponent, and he carried plenty of power in both fists. He cared not one whit about defense, which made him vulnerable. His willpower ranked with some of the best who ever fought, so he was never all the way out of any competition. His surge of energy in the 12th round of III to score a knockdown that was the difference on the third and final scorecard — despite a torn retina, badly swollen eyes that needed dozens of stitches and an injured knee — goes in my time capsule of boxing episodes that prove what man is capable of achieving when mind and matter are at odds.
In his last fight, though, Vazquez returned from a long injury layoff in October to struggle with Angel Antonio Priolo. Priolo hadn’t fought for more than a year himself. He’d lost six straight, five by knockout. Two of those KO losses came four — repeat, four — divisions below featherweight, to flyweights. Granted, it was a great action fight, but it shouldn’t have been. Granted, Vazquez got the 9th round knockout, but he needed it, as two of the judges had scored the fight a draw to that point, and he shouldn’t have needed it. Ring rust doesn’t explain the kind of struggle Vazquez had with Priolo, unless we’re talking layers and layers of ring rust.
Marquez, in his comeback fight after his own long layoff, took a better shade of soft opponent, and he handled it better, too. For a round and a half, Marquez struggled with Jose Francisco Mendoza, who had lost by knockout to the best man he had faced previously, Eduardo Escobedo. But Mendoza was a legit featherweight, and Marquez was at his best at bantamweight, the size differential between Marquez and Vazquez always a factor in their three fights. By the 3rd, Marquez looked as though he’d shaken off his rust, and while he didn’t look spectacular, he at least looked viable.
Marquez was the better technical boxer in the fights with Vazquez, steady with his jab and capable at times of dodging a punch. Even though Vazquez knocked out Marquez in the second fight and nearly knocked Marquez out in the third, in the final tally, it says that Vazquez took more punishment than Marquez in their trilogy, or at least had been through enough ring wars over his career that it caught up with him by the time Vazquez-Marquez III ended.
For this fight, Vazquez says he will box and move more. While he’s no caveman, especially on offense, it’s hard to envision him sticking to that plan, as he never has before. In pre-fight quotes, Marquez has blamed his corner — since changed from Nacho Beristain to Daniel Zaragoza — for telling him to box in the 12th round of the third fight, which sounds like he’s going to be more inclined to brawl in this one. It’s an interesting turnabout, but if Vazquez-Marquez ends up as anything but a pure slugfest, no matter whether it’s at as high a level as the previous fight, I’ll be surprised.
And even though I went with Marquez over Vazquez for all three fights and was proven wrong in the last two, I’m going with Marquez again. Vazquez is bigger even than in the previous match-ups, but Marquez has more left. Since the fight is happening, all I can do is encourage both corners to be ready to throw in the towel if either man gets in trouble, since it literally might be the difference between life and death — and I think it’s Vazquez, with his bad eye and disappearing power, who’s going to get in that trouble. Marquez by technical knockout, let’s say the 7th.
YONNHY PEREZ-ABNER MARES
Watch Perez fight. Watch Mares fight. Tell me how it won’t be fantastic when they fight each other. In fact, they fought three times in the amateurs, with Mares winning twice, and Mares said the trilogy had the crowd in a tizzy. I buy it. Give me two combination punchers who refuse to take shots without firing three in return, and it’s a recipe for greatness.
The dynamic adds spice, too. Perez is ranked #4 by Ring magazine at bantam to Mares’ #8. Mares is the prospect who has bigger things written all over him, but hasn’t proven himself yet. Perez snuck up on all but the most hardcore boxing fans to beat Silence Mabuza and Joseph Agbeko and suddenly found himself perched on the precipice of being one of the elite boxers in the sport. Oh, and they’re friends. Mares’ dad is involved in the management of Perez.
Mares fancies himself the more complete boxer, and he’s probably right. He’s good on defense and offense, where he mixes punches upstairs and downstairs — the downstairs punches are particularly impressive — and he has speed and power in large doses. He’s the more acclaimed amateur, a Mexican Olympian, even if Perez blames his losses to Mares in the amateurs on politics, since Mexico has more clout than Colombia. At any rate, he fights like the more complete boxer, setting things up off his jab, hitting his man to the body when he’s hurt to the head, that kind of business. His long exit from the ring probably did him some good, from that standpoint. I was watching his fight against Diosdado Gabi for this preview, and I noticed his defense wasn’t as good in 2008. Granted, he hasn’t fought anyone as good as Gabi since, but the improvement felt tangible. He also has fought his recent opponents going forward rather than going backward as he did against Gabi, but he’s capable of doing both well.
As with any fight like this where a youngster is stepping way up in class, Mares’ weaknesses aren’t so obvious. Maybe he punches a bit wide at times. We don’t know about his punch resistance, because while he’s not betrayed any kind of glass jaw yet, he’s also not faced the level of opposition that would turn his chin Benedict Arnold on ‘im. His best opponent was Gabi, whose only loss in six years came via Vic Darchinyan, but Gabi and Perez are leagues apart. He’ll certainly be at a height disadvantage, standing 5’5″ to Perez’… well, Perez’ official height isn’t listed anywhere I can find, but he was definitely a fair bit taller than Agbeko, who stands 5’5 1/2″.
If Mares is more complete, no one should confuse that with the idea that Perez isn’t versatile. Like Mares, he has offensive diversity both in his variety of punches and in his ability to lead or counter. Both of these bantams are accurate as all get-out. Perez sometimes dispenses with the defense, but when he focuses on it he can catch a lot of shots on his gloves. From watching him against Mabuza, I wouldn’t say he was fast, but against Agbeko he appeared the faster man, which surprised me. And his power may be a bit superior to Mares’, having knocked out 14 of his 20 victims to 13 out of 20 for Mares, with Perez’ competition a good deal better. But what really stands out about Perez is his volume. Nobody would call Agbeko conservative, but Perez was busier than him.
Perez is battle-tested, which is a huge advantage for him coming into this fight. But it must be noted that Mares is more naturally talented either than Agbeko or Mabuza, his last two opponents. Agbeko and Mabuza were justifiably ranked higher than Mares because they’d fought and beat better opposition, but if Mares’ abilities aren’t an illusion, he may be better than them both.
Perez is the kind of fighter who proves me wrong enough times that I start to get skittish about picking against them, even if my brain tells me to. Carl Froch comes to mind, or Bernard Hopkins. But I’m going to do it one more time. I see Mares’ boxing ability as capable of offsetting Perez’ volume. Perez’ chin has stood up to heavy hitters, but I think Mares is going to be able to slow him down a bit with body work. And though the amateurs and pros are different animals altogether, Mares found a way in two out of three of their meetings with headgear. The key will be what happens in the moments when they slug it out, and I think those moments are going to come in spades. Will Mares get the better of the exchanges, landing more of his shots and blocking more of Perez’, or will Perez overwhelm the untested youngster? I’m betting on Mares, but it’s a real toss-up. I’ll take Mares by unanimous decision, skittishly.
[TQBR Prediction Game 2.0 is in effect. Don’t forget the rules.]