LAS VEGAS – Charley Burley is one of the greatest boxers who ever lived. No less an authority than the late Hall of Fame trainer Eddie Futch regarded Burley as the finest fighter he'd ever seen.
That's high praise coming from Futch, who was the Vince Lombardi of boxing trainers.
In his 2006 book, "Boxing's Greatest Fighters," boxing historian Bert Sugar ranks Burley the 59th best of all time. He wrote, "The fighters who turned Burley down as an opponent would make an honor roll of boxing's best."
Burley was so good that he fought 98 times in boxing's golden age, yet never received a world title shot. Part of it is because he was an African-American and racism prevailed and kept him from getting what he was due. Jackie Robinson didn't break the color line in Major League Baseball until 1947, when Burley was 11 years into his Hall of Fame career. But part of the reason Burley never got the opportunity to fight for a world championship is that he was just so good, the champions found other men to fight.
Juan Manuel Marquez may turn out to be his generation's Charley Burley. There aren't nearly as many great fighters now as there were in the late 1930s and throughout the 1940s, when Burley fought, and there are significantly more championships available.
And to be fair, Marquez hasn't been as oppressed as Burley. He's won championships and faced the best. He is 0-1-1 in two sensational fights against Manny Pacquiao and lost a one-sided decision last year against a far-too-big Floyd Mayweather Jr. Despite the losses, Marquez is still in the top five pound-for-pound on nearly every major list.
He holds the World Boxing Association/World Boxing Organization lightweight title and has gotten his shot against the game's elite.
Marquez, though, has never gotten the acclaim in the U.S. that his skills would suggest he's due.
In his most high-profile event, he was drubbed by Mayweather last year and failed to win a round. But he had to abandon the lightweight division to move up to welterweight in order to do it. He likely wouldn't have beaten Mayweather no matter the weight they fought, but he was slower and more lethargic against Mayweather as a result of jumping up too far to get the big payday.
When Marquez, who defends his title on Saturday against Michael Katsidis in an HBO-televised bout at the MGM Grand Garden Arena, returned to the ring in July, he weighed 133½ pounds in a lopsided win over Juan Diaz.
That's where he belongs, but he has to jump two classes in order to get the big paydays.
"He's the No. 1 fighter out of Mexico," promoter Richard Schaefer said. "The appreciation for his skills has come later in his career. He's one of the craftiest, smartest fighters there is."
The problem is, Marquez never had the kind of fan base that his talents warranted. In his formative years, he was far behind Marco Antonio Barrera and Erik Morales in terms of fan and media attention, even if he was a superior talent. He never got the opportunity to fight Morales and only met Barrera when Barrera was on the downside of his career and was no longer held in high esteem.
Marquez drew with Pacquiao in a sensational battle in 2004, a fight many believe he deserved to win, and he lost a highly controversial split decision in 2008. But both of the fights came just before Pacquiao's climb in weight that coincided with the Filipino congressman's ascension to superstar status.
Marquez never had the passionate fan base among the Mexican fans, who reserved their fervor for Barrera and Morales, and he hasn't become a star among English-speaking Americans because his English is limited. Pacquiao isn't a great English speaker, but he's better than Marquez and Pacquiao has a largely English-speaking camp, led by trainer Freddie Roach. Marquez's team speaks less English than he does, making it difficult to communicate with the larger American audience.
As a result, his following has been confined largely to the hard-core boxing fan base, which recognizes his marvelous all-around skill set and ability to produce exciting fights.
The Katsidis fight should be nothing less than a classic. Katsidis is emerging as the modern-day Arturo Gatti, a blood and guts fighter who turns every match into an edge-of-your-seat slugfest.
Marquez, though, isn't just prepared to play the matador. Katsidis has begun to show boxing ability in some of his recent fights and is adding finesse to his brute force. Typically, Marquez is prepared for all eventualities.
"Katsidis is a complete fighter, a champion," Marquez said. "I'm not worried about just one thing; I'm worried about everything he will bring."
It's typical Marquez, prepared for every eventuality like he's a fighting version of an Eagle scout.
He may have to leave his best division in order to seek the richest fights. Given the nuclear winter that exists between Golden Boy, which promotes Marquez, and Top Rank, which has Pacquiao, it's highly unlikely they'll meet a third time even though the first two were tremendous bouts.
Arum said he'd only promote a Pacquiao-Marquez fight if Golden Boy agreed to do something he called a "provision of service" contract and provide Marquez, but then avoid being involved in promotion of the fight.
Schaefer said he'd agree to that in order to get Marquez the fight, with a stipulation.
"I'd do that as long as Bob understands that the next time around, when the tables are turned and Golden Boy has the 'A' side and he wants the fight for his guy that he does the same thing and agrees to a provision of service deal or whatever it is he's calling it," Schaefer said. "I don't want to hear him complaining then when the situation and the roles are reversed."
The result is that if Marquez gets past Katsidis – and he's a heavy favorite to do so – he's likely going to have to chance one of the top 140-pounders that Golden Boy promotes, such as Amir Khan or Marcos Maidana, for a match.
Years from now, fans and media will rave about Marquez in the way that many now do about the late, great Charley Burley.
The good thing for us as boxing fans is, Marquez is still here to appreciate.