Rafael Marquez will be forever linked in boxing lore with Israel Vazquez as a result of their four super bantamweight battles. Three of those matches were among the fiercest battles of the 21st century and the middle two bouts were chosen as Yahoo! Sports Fight of the Year in 2007 and 2008, respectively.
It's his victories over Mark Johnson and Tim Austin that defined him as one of the elite fighters of his era, even if not many were paying attention.
Marquez, who will challenge unbeaten Juan Manuel Lopez on Saturday at the MGM Grand Garden Arena for the World Boxing Organization featherweight title, has long fought in the shadow of his older brother, Juan Manuel Marquez. And given that Juan Manuel Marquez himself fought in the considerable shadows of Mexican superstars such as Julio Cesar Chavez Sr., Erik Morales and Marco Antonio Barrera, it's no wonder that Rafael Marquez hasn't been properly recognized for his accomplishments.
Neither of the Marquez brothers have received the level of respect among casual boxing fans that they do from boxing insiders. But the respect that Rafael Marquez, the 35-year-old former bantamweight and super bantamweight champion, gets from boxing insiders was evident Thursday at a news conference at the MGM Grand Garden, where the words "Hall of Famer" were mentioned as if they were a part of his name.
"He's fought so many great fighters and won most of those fights and he has the ability to fight any way you want," said his trainer, Daniel Zaragoza, a 2004 inductee in the International Boxing Hall of Fame. "He can fight many different styles, which is what makes him so good."
That is one of the problems that the hard-hitting Lopez, who is 29-0 with 26 knockouts and one of boxing's rising stars, will face in Saturday's main event, which will be broadcast by Showtime. Marquez is an elite-level technical boxer when the situation calls for it, as his wins over Austin and Johnson showed. But as he proved in his four-fight series with Vazquez, in which two of the matches were named Yahoo! Sports Fight of the Year, he can brawl with the best of them.
"There's not much he hasn't seen," said Sean Gibbons of Zanfer Promotions, which co-promotes Marquez with Gary Shaw. "You aren't going to surprise him with anything."
Marquez was a largely unknown 26-year-old when he signed to face Johnson, a former flyweight and super flyweight champion, in a bantamweight bout in 2001. Johnson was 40-1 and was regarded by many as among the five best fighters in the world, regardless of weight.
Johnson was as cagey as they come, a quick, slick boxer with uncanny punching accuracy. It was a monumental upset when Marquez won. But four months later, when Marquez stopped Johnson in the eighth round of a bantamweight title elimination fight, it didn't seem like such an upset.
Despite the impressive victories over Johnson, Marquez was a decided underdog when he fought Tim Austin on Feb. 15, 2003, at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas for his first world title. Austin, a former U.S. Olympian, was 25-0-1 with 22 knockouts and was also regarded as one of the game's 10 best fighters.
Marquez stopped Austin in the eighth to win the International Boxing Federation bantamweight title.
"Early in Rafa's career, Morales and Barrera were getting all of the publicity even though he was beating the best bantamweights at the time," Gibbons said. "Morales and Barrera were in the middle of that great series of fights they had and everyone was talking about them. He beat Timmy Austin and Mark 'Too Sharp' Johnson and they were huge wins, but he didn't get the respect that he should have gotten. It wasn't until the fights with Vazquez that people realized he was something special."
Lopez promoter Bob Arum promoted Marquez in the Johnson and Austin fights and was singing Marquez's praises even though it seemed like hyperbole.
And though Arum is confident in a Lopez win on Saturday, Arum knows it's a dangerous fight.
"He's an incredible athlete and a gutty guy who fights with his heart," Arum said. "But what sets him apart from a lot of guys is that he's extremely smart in the ring. I have enormous respect for him. He ranks right up there with the best bantamweights and super bantamweights I have ever seen, certainly at 118. But there comes a time when all the wars, especially those fights with Vazquez, catch up to you."
Marquez scoffed at the notion that either the wear and tear of a grueling career or his 35 years will have any impact upon the fight. Lopez is 27 and clearly in his prime. Marquez isn't necessarily one step away from the glue factory, but neither is his career still on the rise.
He's moving up in weight, hoping to join his older brother as the only set of brothers in boxing history to each have won world championships in three weight classes. Juan Manuel Marquez has world championships at featherweight, super featherweight and lightweight.
Rafael Marquez holds bantamweight and super bantamweight titles and will add a featherweight belt if he defeats Lopez.
Marquez, though, didn't piece together a Hall of Fame résumé by looking back.
"Lopez is undefeated and has a [great record] and a lot of knockouts," Marquez said. "These are the kinds of fights the fans deserve. These are the kinds of fights I want to fight."
If he gets past Lopez on Saturday, he can begin work on his acceptance speech, because then it won't be long before he's immortalized in Canastota, N.Y., in the International Boxing Hall of Fame.