LAS VEGAS – There's an edginess that has enveloped Marco Antonio Barrera these last few weeks.
The soft smile has been replaced by a hard stare. The light-hearted banter has given way to sharp rebukes.
Barrera has long been known as "The Baby Faced Assassin," and, these days, at least the last part of that nickname is apt. He's no longer got the baby face that helped make him one of Mexico's most beloved boxers, but he's carrying himself with the countenance of a hired assassin.
He'll end his illustrious career on Saturday at the Mandalay Bay Events Center in an HBO Pay-Per-View bout when he takes on Manny Pacquiao in the rematch of a 2003 fight that gnaws at him to this day.
Pacquiao stopped Barrera late in the 11th round of that bout in San Antonio, one of only five losses in Barrera's 69 fights and one of only two times he hasn't made the finish.
It gnaws at him each morning. He thinks of it when he awakens and he dreams of it when he's in bed.
"Totally, 100 percent, everything I've done the last two months was think of Manny Pacquiao and think of winning this fight," Barrera said.
Whether he's knocked out in the first minute of the first round or he puts together one last vintage performance, Barrera is bound for the International Boxing Hall of Fame. He began his career as a brawler, but ends it as respected for his boxing ability as for his willingness to stand toe-to-toe and trade.
Few fighters have ever been able to make that transition as seamlessly and seemingly as effortlessly as Barrera.
He shrugs at the thought of it and says it's simply a result of time spent in the gym.
"My job," he said. "It's a sport, but when you are in it, you have to take it as your job. When you go to work every day, don't you try to get better and do your best so that you make more money? It's the same thing if you're (a boxer)."
This fight is one that Barrera wants a little more than most. Even though he had a bitter relationship with Erik Morales, he never showed, outwardly anyway, the passion that he has in the preparations for Pacquiao.
One of the publicists hired to drum up interest in Saturday's show has released quotes attributed to Pacquiao trainer Freddie Roach that have annoyed Barrera to no end. Barrera sneered at Roach at Wednesday's news conference inside the House of Blues at Mandalay Bay and said at one point, "Freddie Roach has a big mouth. He talks too much."
Such behavior is atypical of Barrera, who could never in the past have been accused of having rabbit ears. But as the days in his career have dwindled to a handful, Barrera has not only heard every taunt, he's also taken them personally.
Whatever it takes to prepare himself to take on the man that Top Rank promoter Bob Arum says is the best pound-for-pound fighter in the sport is what Barrera's prepared to do.
"Marco knows this fight is going to be his chance to leave a memory of what he was all about inside that ring," his promoter, Oscar De La Hoya, said. "A lot of people are excited about Manny and they remember that first fight and they're acting like Manny has already won this one.
"But the bell hasn't even rung for this one. I like it, because I know what that's doing to Marco. He's the kind of a guy who, when you tell him he can't do something, is going to go out and work 10 times harder just to prove to you he can. And that's what he's done this time."
Barrera refuses to discuss much about his 2003 fight with Pacquiao, but it's obvious it's not far from his thoughts. In the weeks before that fight, Barrera had to explain to the Nevada Athletic Commission why he had a metal plate in his head, which had come from an earlier surgery.
He also had to cope with an interrupted training regimen because of wildfires near his Big Bear, Calif., training camp.
He was ripe for an upset against a guy who, at the time, was little known but also supremely talented.
Now, it's Pacquiao who is the superstar and the overwhelming favorite. Pacquiao opened as a better than 2-1 favorite but was bet up to more than a 3-1 choice.
But it's also Pacquiao who has the distractions around him this time. He was at the center of a bitter and costly feud between Golden Boy and Top Rank over his promotional rights.
In 2003, a favored but distracted Barrera performed poorly and was stopped. In 2007, Pacquiao is favored and distracted, but Barrera said neither point will matter.
"I am winning this fight," he said, slowly and through clenched teeth. "I am winning this fight. I am prepared for the best Manny Pacquiao there has ever been. But it doesn't matter. No excuses. I am coming to win this one."
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