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LAS VEGAS – Amir Khan was speaking about his burgeoning boxing career, discussing the future the way great young athletes do, full of hope, full of confidence, full of excitement.
As he spoke, his eyes tracked a figure in the distance.
"That's the kind of guy any young fighter could aspire to be," Khan said, motioning toward Juan Manuel Marquez. Khan nodded his head in admiration at a potential opponent in the not-too-distant future, one who has, in the twilight of his career, finally begun to get the recognition that was due years earlier.
"He's obviously a great fighter and he's a guy you can respect because he's so sound and he's always in great shape," Khan said.
On Saturday, Khan will have a front-row seat at the Mandalay Bay Events Center to watch Marquez fight Juan Diaz in the main event of an HBO Pay-Per-View card for the World Boxing Association/World Boxing Organization lightweight belts. It is a rematch of the 2009 Fight of the Year, a bout in which Diaz appeared to be in control but which Marquez had, as is his fashion, cleverly set him up for the finish.
The end came in the ninth round in the Toyota Center in Houston, Diaz's hometown, where a loud and vociferous crowd urged him on. The crowd clearly pumped up Diaz and Marquez quickly used Diaz's adrenaline against him.
He's that kind of fighter. If he can't beat you with power, he'll beat you with skill. And if you can't beat you with skill, he'll outthink you. He may be the finest Mexican fighter of his time. Marquez debuted as the greatest Mexican fighter of them all, Julio Cesar Chavez Sr., was on his way out. He fought much of his career in the shadow of Marco Antonio Barrera and Erik Morales, who were more popular and more flamboyant but definitely not better.
"Technically, stylistically, he's much better," said Oscar De La Hoya, a former world champion and now Marquez's promoter. "He's better than Barrera. I believe he's much better than an Erik Morales because now we know he can fight. He can fight and he can brawl, just the way that they did, but the difference is that Juan Manuel can box. The difference is that he's so smart. Technically, he's the whole package."
That's what worries Ronnie Shields, Diaz's highly regarded trainer. Marquez is one of the best in the sport at setting traps, luring an opponent into danger before the fighter realizes he's in trouble.
Diaz throws a lot of punches and in the first fight between them, Marquez found a way to exploit that. He'd slowly back to the ropes as Diaz threw. Diaz was fired up by the crowd that was chanting his name and roaring for him to finish Marquez. Marquez, though, wasn't hurt. He would position himself in a punching position and when Diaz came in looking for the kill, Marquez fired back with quick, hard fast shots down the middle.
Eventually, one of those uppercuts he was throwing wound up ending the fight.
"He's great at setting traps and that's one of the things I really paid attention to training [Diaz] for this fight," Shields said. "When we make the adjustments, we have to be careful because this guy is trying to lure us into something. He's so smart and he sees so much that he's always dangerous, no matter what is happening in the fight."
Marquez, who is two months shy of his 37th birthday, is coming off a 12-round battering at the hands of Floyd Mayweather Jr. He took a long and sustained beating in the fight and often, a fighter is never the same after taking so much punishment in a fight.
Marquez playfully frowned, feigning anger, when it was suggested the Mayweather fight may have taken so much out of him that he won't be able to match his previous level. But he insists he's fine, a six-month post-fight vacation having healed all of his wounds.
He plans to fight on for as long as his body will allow. He's finally surpassed Barrera and Morales and he's earning the kinds of purses that they once commanded. He'll make $1 million for fighting Diaz and will have more similar paydays should he move up to super lightweight and thrust himself into the mix of the game's hottest division.
The super lightweight division includes gifted talents like Khan, Timothy Bradley, Devon Alexander and Marcos Maidana. Michael Katsidis, one of the game's most exciting brawlers, said he's planning to jump to 140 and Zab Judah, the former undisputed welterweight champion, just returned to the class where he won his first world title.
"I am fine [physically] and I can still fight, so why not [go on]?" Marquez said, shrugging his shoulders. "I love to do it and I love to give the people exciting fights. That's why I'm fighting Diaz. People ask me, 'Why Diaz?' Well, I just ask them, 'Did you see the first fight?' That's what I want to do, give the people those kinds of fights that get them excited."
His younger brother, Rafael, gets so excited at Juan Manuel's fights that he can no longer attend in person. But Juan Manuel doesn't take it personally, because he's the same way. He stays at home and watches on TV when Rafael fights because he doesn't want to get too carried away in public.
Juan Manuel has won world championships at featherweight, super featherweight and lightweight. Rafael, who will fight Juan Manuel Lopez on Sept. 18 in Las Vegas, has won world titles at bantamweight and super bantamweight. If Rafael upsets Lopez, the Marquez brothers will become the first set of brothers in boxing history each to have held belts in three weight classes.
"This is one of the most important things about the Lopez fight, the fact that I could win the third title and make history with my brother," Rafael Marquez said.
His older brother has been making boxing history for years. He was long overdue for a world title shot when he finally got his first chance, an opportunity for the WBA featherweight belt against Freddie Norwood in 1999.
He lost a hotly disputed decision that night and, stunningly, was forced to wait more than three more years to get another shot at a championship. He persevered and beat Manuel Medina to win a featherweight belt. He claimed a super featherweight title by defeating Barrera and then picked up the lightweight belts last year by beating Diaz.
He appears as good now as he was in 1999, when he was 29-1 and one of the most avoided men in the game. Back then, opposing managers knew how good he was and kept their fighters away from him, knowing he was fighting in the shadows of Barrera and Morales. Bouts against him then meant a very high risk but without a comparable reward.
He's developed into a full-fledged star now, however, and should be inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame on his first try.
Diaz marveled at Marquez's staying power and said that no matter what happens to him in his career, one of the highlights will always have been sharing a ring on two occasions with someone of Marquez's stature.
"He's so good and he's so smart," Diaz said. "He's the blueprint if you want to build a good fighter. He understands the sport so well. He knows the importance of being in great shape. He has a good jab. He knows how to adjust. He knows how to win.
"That's really the best way to describe Juan Manuel: He's a winner. Some day, my kids and my grandchildren are going to be reading about the history of boxing and I'll be proud to tell them that I got a chance to fight that guy. Not once, but two times. That's really a treat."
- Juan Manuel Marquez
- Amir Khan
- Juan Diaz