Juan Manuel Marquez vs. Timothy Bradley Saturday on HBO pay-per-view is a match-up spilling over with danger beyond recompense, and danger of the drool-worthy and bitter variety alike. If only we could mandate by law that boxers have chips on their shoulders of the boulder size Marquez and Bradley do, where more money is on the table for other match-ups — named Manny Pacquiao, mainly — but each of them want to move on to new conquests instead. This is the rare kind of fight where the lower reward comes with non-commisurate risk, and both men said, "Sign me up for that." Because of the lack of commercial name appeal outside of Marquez's Mexican fan base, we get a bout that ends up being underrated, somehow, as if two of the 10 best boxers alive have any business being in a battle that could be less than the sum of its parts. (Even the undercard, so-so in terms of the match-ups, has at times overshadowed the main event, since the first openly gay [male] boxer, Orlando Cruz, is fighting in one of the supporting bouts.)
But there is a difference of the kind of danger offered by ending up in bed with a woman with a few skull tattoos and the kind posed by playing poker with the Russian mafia. Perhaps it's the unsavory elements that help undersell this clash of top welterweights and top overall fighters. Bradley, thanks to his bravado in his last fight against Ruslan Provodnikov, said he spent some months afterward slurring his words. His honesty on this count is commendable in a Kantian way, peculiar in a marketing way. Doesn't Bradley's vulnerability make this fight less desirable for those who have any moral compunctions about the health effects of the sport? And doesn't it diminish his chances of winning to advertise it? Likewise, the secondary element of Marquez's ingestion habits factors into the potential for the wrong kind of danger. That the Nevada State Athletic Commission is doing more advanced drug testing helps on that count, but we also don't know the full extent of that testing by design, and won't until after the bout. It's a miscalculation by the NSAC, by my estimation, given the cloud hanging over Marquez due to his association with admitted past performance-enhancing drug dealer Memo Heredia and due to his physical transformation since acquiring Heredia's services. Maybe we learn after that the testing regime was as thorough as promised, but for now it's a lingering question that doesn't help with the buying public.
This fight is crazy, basically. Bradley aches so much for glory that he traded punches like an idiot with Provodnikov just to prove a point. Marquez is so maniacally focused on winning that he used to drink his own urine when he believed it could help him obtain victory. But as little sense as it makes for it to be happening on so many levels — a pay-per-view sandwiched between two bigger pay-per-views is far from a sure thing for HBO and Top Rank — it feels so right. At least, when it's not feeling so wrong.
These two men are linked in the ring by Manny Pacquiao and the controversy those fights engendered. Marquez fought him four times, never winning until IV, even if people thought he deserved some or all of the first three. Bradley beat Pacquiao on the scorecards, even though no one but the judges saw it that way. Yet still, the best wins of both men are tarnished in the public eye. After Marquez caught Pacquiao with a perfect shot in their fourth meeting for one of the best knockouts of all time, there was a debate about whether the perfect shot did it or whether some artificial enhancement did.
That said, Marquez is probably in a better place than Bradley over it all. Bradley took the criticism so much to heart that he needlessly brawled with Provodnikov in a bid to win back the fans who had turned on him over the Pacquiao decision, as though he was somehow to blame. Then came all the talk of concussions and not remembering the fight and the slurring. He said he's fine now, and learned from sparring with heavy-handed Lucas Matthysse that he could still take a punch.
Headgear and getting into the ring with a 140-pounder, though, are not the same as no headgear and getting into the ring with the kind of muscular, hard-hitting welterweight Marquez has become. He's gotten even more muscular-looking and grotesquely veiny for this fight, and at age 40. Even some of his biggest fans (as I've historically been) have to wonder about the transformation.
However he got there, Marquez was better nearly than ever in his last bout with Pacquiao. A pro's pro, Marquez is a master of his craft. He is a gifted counterpuncher, and as he has slowed physically, has become more offensive-minded. His combination punching and that rare ability to throw a right uppercut from range without getting tagged in return borders on art. There isn't a flaw in his technical make-up — he mixes punches well to the head and body, his timing and precision are finely tuned, and always has carried his heaviest power in his right cross, the punch that did in Pacquiao. Add into that the incredible power he demonstrated against Pacquiao and you have a very serious fighting machine.
Yet he is not without his weaknesses. Once at least moderately quick, he now lumbers a bit, something he compensates for with the aforementioned timing and precise punching. He can be rocked and dropped even by light punchers, although notably he has never been stopped. And he has had his greatest struggles against pure boxer-types. Floyd Mayweather dominated him, only in part because of his size advantage. Freddie Norwood and Chris John both beat him, and while most fans and writers view both decisions as incorrect, he had his troubles with both of them. Force Marquez to lead, if you're in the ring with him, then watch him search for answers.
Enter Bradley, who is more than capable of boxing intelligently when it suits him. He can get sloppy with overhand shots and wide hooks, but when he is at the top of his boxing game he's very good — offense, defense, what have you. His versatility serves him well; he can fight in a variety of ways, playing the role of inside mauler or slickster. Sometimes his raggedness serves him well, however, as do the wild head butts that once plagued his every fight and did heavy damage to his opponents, although he's been head butt free for two fights in a row. He's a strong puncher, not a big one, and does some of his best damage to the body. He can be hurt, obviously, and maybe more now than ever, but he has also ultimately withstood shots from some big hitters, like Pacquiao, Kendall Holt and Provodnikov. His greatest asset is his conditioning and willpower, both ungodly. He's bent more than a few opponents to subservience with his menacing motor.
Bradley's first instinct is to be a boxer-puncher who applies a lot of intelligent pressure. Against this version of Marquez, with Bradley coming off the kind of damage he endured against Provodnikov, I think he will have to suppress that instinct. People who pressure Marquez can beat him or at least trouble him — Paquiao, Michael Katsidis, even Juan Diaz. But the more pressure you put on him, the more you open yourself up to the kind of treatment a piece of timber gets from pushing into a log splitter. Bradley is fast enough, athletic enough and smart enough to at least theoretically outbox Marquez.
The problem will be what happens once Bradley gets hit. I don't think he'll handle it well. That willpower of his will make him want to punch back, to re-seize control. And doing so will open him up to being badly hurt. That's why so many are predicting a late knockout for Marquez. Bradley is very likely to win early rounds. Eventually he will get hit, and then all those early rounds will mean very little. I'll join the crowd: Marquez by late knockout.