Mexico vs. Puerto Rico. In boxing, there is no rivalry better than this. Sure, Frazier-Ali gave us great matches. Morales vs. Barrera was a great inter-Mexico rivalry between Tijuana and Mexico City. LaMotta and Robinson was as lopsided a great rivalry as there is with the wins going 5-1 for Robinson, yet the fights were always heated and competitive. But there is something about Mexico vs. Puerto Rico that always gets boxing fans and the boxers themselves pumping extra fast.
June 26, 1934 in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, Sixto Escobar vs. Rodolfo Casanova for the Montreal Athletic Commission World Bantamweight title started it all when Escobar stopped Casanova at 2:36 of the ninth round to become the first world titleholder from Puerto Rico. Since that time, the rivalry has grown and grown as each side has taken wins and losses over the years. Salvador Sanchez over Wilfredo Gomez. Felix Trinidad over Yory Boy Campas. Wilfredo Gomez over Carlos Zarate. Edwin Rosario over Jose Luis Ramirez. Wilfred Benitez over Carlos Palomino. These are but a few of the great fights we’ve seen from these two regions over the years. In recent years, we’ve seen Trinidad vs. Fernando Vargas and Oscar De La Hoya then Ivan Calderon vs. Giovanni Segura, among others.
Saturday night at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, NV, the tradition continues when Puerto Rico’s Juan Manuel Lopez, 29-0 (26), takes on Mexico’s Rafael Marquez, 39-5 (35), in a featherweight title showdown. The difference between the fights I mentioned earlier and this one, however, is that one guy, Lopez, is near his prime and the other, Marquez, is not. Lopez has shown some chinks in his armor in his last few fights at 122 pounds, particularly against Rogers Mtagwa when he was hurt late and nearly stopped in a fight he was winning. Since moving to featherweight this year, Lopez has gone back to his invincible ways, taking out Steven Luevano and Bernabe Concepcion in dominant wins. The move up in weight seems to have rejuvenated the 27-year-old Lopez.
On the other hand, the 35-year-old Marquez, who has 195 rounds to Lopez’ 119 rounds as a pro, has lost two of his last four while winning his two featherweight fights via KO- albeit against less than stellar opposition in Jose Mendoza and a shopworn (to say the least) Israel Vasquez. With that said, it’s hard to tell if Rafael is ready to take on and beat a priming fighter like Lopez.
Rafael Marquez is a product of veteran trainer Nacho Beristain, who developed and trained Daniel Zaragoza, Ricardo Lopez, and Marquez’s brother, Juan Manuel, among others. However, after Rafael’s split decision loss to Vasquez in their third fight, Beristain and Marquez ended their longtime relationship. Beristain told me earlier this year it was because he felt Marquez had lost his desire to train properly. Marquez, who has trained by Daniel Zaragoza for his last two fights, had a different reason.
“It got to the point where Nacho wasn’t training me anymore,” Marquez said at a recent workout for L.A. media. “And that’s the honest truth. He wasn’t training me anymore. And so it was time to move on. And when I spoke to Daniel, he took me on. He has always been a warrior inside the ring. He taught me that mentality. And I think you saw it against Vasquez in the last fight and you will see it again.”
Normally, a change of trainers at this late stage of a fighter’s career can be problematic. But in this case, Marquez tabbed in Zaragoza one of Beristain’s great protégés, a former two-division champion who not only understands the ins and outs of Beristain’s style but what it takes to be a champion. An additional benefit is that Zaragoza, who has been a trainer since 1999, does not have the sizable stable Beristain does and thus is able to give the kind of attention a fighter like Marquez requires.
“I think it’s the same thing, the fundamentals of Nacho Beristain fighters,” Zaragoza told me. “We’re all brought up. The only difference is I am a little closer to the fighter. I pay attention to him because I don’t have that many fighters. Nacho has too many fighters and can’t pay attention to all of them.”
Marquez and Zaragoza have known each other all of Marquez’s fighting life, dating back to Zaragoza’s championship days in the 80s and 90s.
“I’ve known him all my life,” said Marquez. “I actually used to spar with him when he was fighting. Coming up with Beristain, I did a lot of sparring with him for his fights, helping him out. And then now, he’s been my trainer for about a year.”
What Zaragoza brings to the table is the respect of a former champion as well as a deeper understanding of what Marquez has forgotten as well as what he knows.
“He’s always been a good technician,” said Zaragoza. “We know he is powerful. We also know he can box. Sometimes you just have to remind him to be smart.”
“He is very attentive, very careful, very meticulous in what he tells me to do,” Marquez said of his new trainer. “So we work that way. He helps me to remember the little things. ‘Don’t forget this when you are doing this.’ So he has all the little details that sometimes you don’t think about.”
Considering his age and ring wear and the move up in weight, Marquez is the underdog in this fight. He is taking on both an undefeated and powerful fighter that will be all over him from the opening bell. Despite the uphill battle, Marquez doesn’t seem concerned.
“When you get ready for this type of fighter,” explained Marquez of Lopez, “I’ve fought guys like this. I’m not intimidated by his record. When I fought Tim Austin, he was undefeated. He was a great champion, undefeated with a lot of defenses and I beat him. If you know what you are doing, you don’t have to worry about that. As long as you have good conditioning, you know what you are trying to do in the ring and you are smart. And I think I am capable of doing that. I am not worried about anything like that, him being undefeated.”
“They are both so strong and powerful,” said Zaragoza. “I really don’t expect a long fight. Hopefully, it will be a short fight and our guy will win.”
Another problem Lopez presents is his southpaw stance. But Marquez feels he is as prepared for that as anything, considering Zaragoza is a southpaw himself. One school of thought is that the right hand lead is the best weapon to negate a southpaw’s strengths. Marquez acknowledged that he had worked on that part of his game but that it is not the only key to victory.
“For this fight, [Zaragoza’s] not only key because he’s been a champion; he knows what he is doing,” explained Marquez. “He’s left-handed and I am fighting a left-hander. So I think that opens a lot of opportunities for me. He’s taught me how to fight a left-hander. Obviously, that is what we trained for him in the gym is the right hand. I think it’s going to be there but you just can’t go with one hand. You have to be able to do a lot of things in there. I think the key in this fight is really the conditioning, who is better conditioned throughout the 12 rounds. That’s going to determine who is the winner.”
While the straight lead is very helpful in fighting a southpaw, Marquez said he believes his jab is an important tool that will help dictate the fight as much as anything.
“I believe in it,” he said of his jab. “That is what I was taught. You always open up everything with the jab. If you don’t have a good jab, how can you set up other things? So you need to use your jab and be conscious of what you are doing with the jab and then everything else comes together.”
If there is one major difference between Marquez and Lopez beyond their ages and where they are in their respective careers, it’s the experience that Marquez brings to the table. He’s been a two-division champion with multiple title defenses against a wide variety of fighters. However, Marquez pointed out that when the bell rings, experience oft-times counts for nothing. For him, conditioning is key.
“I don’t think you can depend on experience to carry you through everything,” Marquez said. “Obviously, I’ve been through some tough fights. It has given me experience but I really don’t put any stock in that. I don’t think that’s an advantage. My stock is in my great condition and the things that I do in the ring. If you don’t have the conditioning to do it, what’s the use in having a plan? It’s important to be conditioned to apply the plan.”
Something else that Marquez puts little stock in is watching tape of opponents. While he does do it, he doesn’t marry himself to the image on the screen. With every fighter match-up, fighters react differently to the strengths and weaknesses they see in the ring before them. Getting too bogged down in what an opponent did against someone else can be costly.
“You really can’t put too much stock in it,” Marquez explained. “I’ve seen some of [Lopez’s] videos of his fights. But I don’t know if he is going to fight me the same way. When you go in there, you’re fighting a total different guy. I see it to see what kind of movement he likes to use, what kind of things he likes to do. But not to study him to see, say, ‘OK, I’m going to do this against him.’ Because I don’t know how he is going to fight me.”
For Marquez, winning this fight is all about intelligence and having the conditioning to make that work.
“You just have to be smart,” he said. “You have to be intelligent. Not let him hit you flush. He’s a real strong guy so you don’t want to get hit flush by this guy.”
When asked if a short fight or a long fight benefits him or hurts him, Marquez answered, “I’ll fight however he wants to fight. If he wants it to be a brawling fight, we can make it brawling. If he wants to box, then it will be a longer fight. But I think if he wants to exchange with me, it will be a very short fight.”
This fight is two very different things to each fighter. For Lopez, it’s a chance to win a big fight in Vegas against a name opponent on a big stage which will set up future mega-fights against the likes of Yuriorkis Gamboa, among others.
For Marquez, it means extending his career, proving he is not a shot fighter but one with enough left in the tank to return to former glories. Some would call this a must-win for him.
“It’s something that I want and something I am very capable of doing,” Marquez said of a win over Lopez. “It means a lot to my career.”
What was most surprising in talking to Marquez was that he put little-to-no weight on the Mexico-Puerto rivalry. When asked to name a fight from that history, he came up with only Sanchez vs. Gomez. For him, Saturday night is about personal success, adding a third title in as many divisions he has campaigned at and extending his career. The rest is for reporters and fans to argue about.
“No, for me it’s something; it’s not something that is extra, said Marquez. “There’s no pressure there. There’s nothing in there. All I know, we’ve had some great fights, Mexico and Puerto Rico. I know of the great tradition because we both had some great fighters so when they meet, we are talking about some of the best fights in the world just like we are right now with the two best fighters.”
After talking with Marquez and getting a chance to see him briefly shadowbox a couple rounds, I came away impressed at the depth of his answers but a little worried that he seemed to tire after each round of work. Not much can be gleaned without a look at sparring and a full workout. Marquez struck me as a proud fighter who believes in his power and intelligence as well as the man training him now. All those factors will need to come together perfectly for him to succeed come Saturday night.
Long fight or short fight, experience vs. a younger fighter, orthodox vs. southpaw, shopworn or ready for one more war, how this fight fits into the Mexico-Puerto Rican rivalry history, it’s all speculation how those things will shake out. The only certainty Marquez could offer was when he was asked how he saw the fight going.