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LOS ANGELES – The series between Israel Vazquez and Rafael Marquez ended Saturday as it began three years ago, just a few miles down the round – with Marquez beating up Vazquez and claiming an impressive technical knockout victory, in front of 9,200 fans at the Staples Center.
Marquez stopped Vazquez at 1:33 of the third round Saturday in the fourth battle in one of the greatest boxing rivalries ever.
More big fights, against the likes of Juan Manuel Lopez, Celestino Caballero and, yes, perhaps even Vic Darchinyan, await Marquez. He remains one of boxing's stars and elite champions.
The future is much more murky for Vazquez, who suffered a gash on his left eyelid and eyebrow that was so large the bone was exposed. Plastic surgeon Pearlman D. Hicks had to go three levels to close the cut. Miguel Diaz, Vazquez's fabulous cut man, said he'd only seen one cut that could compare to the one Vazquez suffered when he was ripped open by a blistering straight right from Marquez.
Vazquez said he's going to talk to his family to discuss his future. The reality is that there is very little left to say. One of the sport's most exciting fighters and popular champions, Vazquez has no decision to make other than to retire.
Quickness was never his forte, but he looked like he was fighting with ankle weights on Saturday as he plodded forward.
His left eye didn't look good before the fight, and Marquez simply went to work on it from the opening bell.
Marquez, who ditched Nacho Beristain as his trainer in favor of Daniel Zaragoza, was impressive throughout and was back to being the boxer-puncher that he was when he was terrorizing the likes of elite veterans Mark "Too Sharp" Johnson and Tim Austin at bantamweight.
"My real strategy was my preparation in the mountains," of Mexico, Marquez said at the post-fight news conference, after raising his record to 39-5 and evening the series with Vazquez at two apiece. "I was prepared to throw a lot of punches. That was the real strategy."
He could barely miss Vazquez, whose idea of good defense was stopping a punch with his nose instead of his chin.
Vazquez entered the bout with a 44-4 record and a reputation as one of the hardest punchers in recent times at super bantamweight.
Saturday's bout was fought at featherweight, which would have figured to have favored Vazquez. Marquez, though, came out firing his jab, which continually found a home on Vazquez's face and quickly began to lump it up.
But he dropped the right hand behind it regularly, while Vazquez tried to bore in and get himself underneath the jab and into a range where the fight would suit him. All he did, though, was pay for it by eating huge shots.
The massive cut was opened when Vazquez followed a jab with a whistling right hand that shredded Vazquez's skin. Blood poured into his eye.
After the second round, trainer Rudy Perez was ready to halt the fight. Diaz, one of the best cut men of his era, asked for one more round.
"Israel can really punch and we wanted to give him a chance to see if he could [land something big]" that would end the fight, Diaz said.
Vazquez tried, as he always does. He was firing back with bad intentions, but he wasn't finding Marquez on Saturday as easily or as often as he did in the first three fights.
When Vazquez was cut above the right eye in the third round by an accidental head butt, he was virtually blinded. He never argued when referee Raul Caiz Jr. stopped the bout because he knew he had no chance to win when he couldn't see.
"It really affected me," Vazquez said of the wound above his left eye. "It really, really affected me. Honestly, there was a lot of blood. I couldn't see the punches coming from Rafael. I couldn't see anything. We demonstrated in those three rounds that we wanted to continue [our magnificent series], but I couldn't see what was going on."
That's why Vazquez must end his career. He can undergo surgery to try to remove scar tissue, but that ignores the reality of the situation. Vazquez fought only once since winning a pulsating victory over Marquez in their third bout, on March 1, 2008, in Carson, Calif.
That was a tuneup against Angel Priolo on Oct. 10. Though he won by ninth-round knockout, he didn't look good.
The fights with Marquez were exceptionally brutal and clearly took a lot out of Vazquez. Marquez wasn't willing to say he noticed a difference in his friendly rival, praising him for his power and his courage, but it was obvious to any objective observer.
"Honestly, I don't think so," said Marquez, when asked whether Vazquez had declined. "He's a great, great fighter. He can change the course of a fight with one punch because he can really punch hard. We came really prepared because we respect him so much, and we knew that the other fights changed with just one punch."
Long after the fight ended, Vazquez sat on a bench in the lobby of his hotel with his manager, Frank Espinoza Sr. Espinoza, who had his arm draped over Vazquez's shoulder, had earlier said he thought Vazquez should retire.
Espinoza brought Vazquez to the U.S. from Mexico at 19 years old because he believed Vazquez could become a star. The two quickly became fast friends and Espinoza became more like Vazquez's father.
When Vazquez suffered a detached retina after his third fight with Marquez, Espinoza went to every doctor visit with him.
"He's been a big part of my life for a long time now," Espinoza said before the fight.
Fighters are often the last to accept the reality of the situation. He's going to hear cries from those he's entertained so much over the years to pursue a fifth fight with Marquez, to chase another world title.
Both promoters Oscar De La Hoya and Gary Shaw said they aren't interested in putting on another fight between the men.
They didn't want to be critical of Vazquez publicly, but they knew. Vazquez doesn't have it any more.
"We were privileged to witness one of the best trilogies in boxing history," De La Hoya said. "Marquez is a great fighter and he comes from a family of great fighters. He is a champion. It's 2-2 now and that's the way it should end. We witnessed history. For fight fans and us fighters, those were fights we'll remember for the rest of our lives."
Boxing is a wonderful sport, but it's often cruel. It's difficult to say goodbye when it's all a man has known, but for his own safety and the well-being of his family, Vazquez has to retire.
It would be criminal if he fights again.