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Timothy Bradley's fight for recognition, respect is a battle Juan Manuel Marquez knows well

Kevin Iole
Yahoo Sports

LAS VEGAS – No one can better understand Timothy Bradley's plight or feel more empathy for the undefeated but unloved champion than Juan Manuel Marquez, the man who on Saturday will try to separate Bradley from his senses and steal his world championship belt.

In so many ways, they are the same person: Classy, confident skilled, courageous and, mostly, underappreciated.

They'll meet at the Thomas & Mack Center in the main event of an HBO Pay-Per-View card with Bradley's WBO welterweight title as the prize.

For Marquez, though, the bout is sort of like a victory lap en route to the International Boxing Hall of Fame, while for Bradley, it's another step along his uphill battle for public respect and acceptance.

"I'm here trying to build a fan base here, man," Bradley said, "and to get people to realize that I'm one of the best fighters in the world."

Marquez knows those feelings better than anyone, because he's lived that for more than a decade.

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Marquez turned professional in 1993, in the early days of the Clinton Administration, and has been among the sport's elite for at least the last 15 years.

But try as he might, Marquez could never break through to become a star among stars. He was, as is every Mexican boxer, fighting under the vast shadow cast by Julio Cesar Chavez Sr., the most beloved athlete in the history of that boxing-crazed country.

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Timothy Bradley has heard plenty of criticism throughout his career. (AP Photo)

It wasn't just Chavez, though, whose presence shunted Marquez to the background. There was Ricardo Lopez, and then Erik Morales and Marco Antonio Barrera who relegated Marquez to the periphery, turning him into a third wheel who was never appreciated and rarely acknowledged.

Then, came the rise of "Pac-mania," when the world fell in love with Manny Pacquiao. In 2004, Marquez met Pacquiao at the MGM Grand Garden, a couple of blocks down the street from where he'll square off with Bradley on Saturday in search of his fifth world title.

Three times in the first round, Pacquiao put Marquez on the deck. Three times, Marquez dragged himself off the canvas and rejoined the battle, and over the last nine or 10 rounds, Marquez fairly dominated the action.

But it was those three first-round knockdowns that turned Pacquiao into a legend and left Marquez at the altar like a snubbed bridegroom.

The enduring memory of that fight is not the incredibly gutty performance Marquez gave in overcoming those knockdowns and, in the eyes of many, winning the bout. Rather, it was about Pacquiao and his overwhelming punching power.

Not even defeating the great Barrera in 2007 was enough to finally gain Marquez worldwide acceptance for his brilliance. Barrera was perceived to be at the end of the line and was praised for the exceptional effort he gave.

Marquez had two other cracks at Pacquiao, in 2008 and 2011, and each time, he thought he'd done enough to win only to lose a bitterly fought decision. By that point, Pacquiao had become regarded as no worse than the second-best fighter in the world and was the man the promotions were centered around.

[Related: Juan Manuel Marquez ready to move past Manny Pacquiao]

It wasn't until December, when a perfectly placed counter right hand knocked Pacquiao cold, that Marquez finally seemed to get his due.

And just like that, Marquez gained the respect that he had long since earned.

That has led him to Bradley, who has yet to earn that public acceptance despite an unbeaten record and a win over Pacquiao in 2012.

"Bradley is a great fighter, and I really mean great," Marquez said. "I don't know why people don't see that."

What should have been Bradley's finest hour somehow became a living nightmare. Bradley defeated Pacquiao via split decision on June 9, 2012, in a bout that created extraordinary controversy. He received death threats and taunts of all sorts.

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Juan Manuel Marquez, right, didn't earn worldwide acceptance until his knockout of Manny Pacquiao in 2012. (AP …

The vast majority of the viewing public, the HBO announcing team, and the ringside media had felt Pacquiao had won. Top Rank CEO Bob Arum, who promotes both fighters, went apoplectic.

Arum called for an investigation by the state attorney general. He said Bradley had admitted to him in the ring that Pacquiao won, a charge Bradley denies. And Arum ripped the judges.

The fury of the response turned Bradley into a recluse.

"That killed everything," Bradley said of the scoring in the Pacquiao fight. "That killed, like, everything, that whole controversy. Man, it was terrible, but I guess I had to go through it. I sat back and I was like, 'Hey God, why did I have to go through this?' But now, I'm ready and I can withstand anything. You can say anything. You can talk about my Mom and I'll just laugh at you.

"Me and my promoter, I love my promoter, but we've got a love-hate relationship. One minute we love each other; the next minute, we hate each other."

Bradley took the first step toward redemption in March when he defeated Ruslan Provodnikov in a sensational back-and-forth battle. Bradley was battered by the powerful Provodnikov and doesn't remember much of the fight because of a concussion he sustained.

Some of those who had dogged him for what they perceived was getting a win he didn't deserve reached out to him to express their admiration for his courageous showing.

"I wanted to stay in the light and that Ruslan fight was crazy," Bradley said. "I got mad respect from that fight from a lot of people. A lot of fans, boxing fans, from around the world, they wrote me, they hit me on Twitter, Facebook, all that multi-media. They showed major love and were saying, 'Wow, I didn't know you were like that, champ. You are a true champion.'

"People were like, 'I don't like you. I never have liked you, but you showed me something completely different. I've never seen anyone with the type of heart you have.'"

But that was with a group of boxing fans. He admitted that the general sports fan still isn't aware of him and doesn't appreciate his talent.

And that is much of what Marquez had to deal with as he fought his way out of the shadows of Chavez, Lopez, Morales, Barrera and finally Pacquiao.

Marquez now stands at the top and is recognized as one of the legends of the game, and will be, regardless of what happens on Saturday.

He sees a bit of his old self in Bradley – angry at a lack of respect, far more talented than most believe – and knows he'll need to be on top of his game to win.

"Bradley has a lot to prove and so I know how hard he is going to come at me," Marquez said. "He's dangerous no matter what, but he is really dangerous because of that attitude."

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