Vazquez brings the heat

Kevin Iole

Stack Israel Vazquez up next to, say, IBF-WBO heavyweight champion Wladimir Klitschko and it doesn't seem a fair comparison.

Even if Vazquez, the WBC's 122-pound champion, weighed 240 and stood 6 feet 6, he would, at least on paper, compare highly unfavorably to the Ukrainian-born heavyweight champion of exactly those dimensions.

"But they don't fight on paper, do they?" asked Rudy Perez, Vazquez' trainer.

No, they don't, which is why Vazquez is actually a lot more fun to watch than the highly talented but ubercautious Klitschko. The wonderfully gifted boxing writer, Michael Katz, wrote at "… if Wladimir Klitschko is the best heavyweight in the world, then this planet has more serious problems than global warming."

What's clear is that the sport would be a lot more popular than it is if fighters who actually fought were the ones who garnered the most attention.

Vazquez is the guy who's willing to take two to land one. It doesn't always work out in his favor, but it always makes for entertaining fights.

And that's why it's so hard to understand the fascination the media and the public has with boxing's heavyweight division, especially when there are fights like Saturday's between Vazquez and Rafael Marquez on the schedule.

Marquez and Vazquez will meet in a rubber match on Saturday at the Home Depot Center in Carson, Calif., in a nationally televised bout on Showtime that should be dominating the front of newspaper sports sections and boxing websites around the country.

Klitschko's painfully boring victory over Sultan Ibragimov in New York drew a large media throng, but the same can't be said for Vazquez and Marquez. They've already fought two extraordinary fights – the second, on Aug. 5 in Hidalgo, Texas, is the Yahoo! Sports 2007 Fight of the Year – but the media assembled for Saturday's rubber match would have a hard time getting together enough guys for a 5-on-5 basketball game. Gary Shaw, who is promoting the Marquez-Vazquez bout, was philosophical about the slight the far better match is receiving.

"Heavyweights still rule and Madison Square Garden still rules," Shaw said. "And fans and writers don't know a lousy fight from a great fight."

Here's the difference: Klitschko is a heavyweight in size; Vazquez is a heavyweight in action.

You can guarantee no one is booing by the second round when Vazquez fights. You can guarantee that nobody begins leaving the arena before the fight is halfway over when Vazquez fights.

The biography of Carmen Basilio on the International Boxing Hall of Fame's website is something that could be written about Vazquez when his career is complete.

Basilio's Hall biography reads, in part "(He) was one of the most popular fighters of his era. His tough, gritty style not only won him world titles, but it was the heart and desire he displayed in the ring that won him a place in the hearts of 1950s boxing fans … " But Vazquez not that long ago had to answer questions about his courage. In the first fight with Marquez, held on March 3, 2007 in the very same ring, Vazquez was forced to quit on the stool after the seventh round, just as he was beginning to swing the momentum in the bout.

But Vazquez had a badly broken nose and was having difficulty breathing. He didn't come out for the eighth round.

It had been a magnificent fight – good enough that it was a finalist for the Fight of the Year – but the post-fight talk surrounded Vazquez' decision to surrender. Vazquez didn't help his cause by his prefight comments in which he'd pledged to die rather than quit.

He's learned, the hard way, to soften those kinds of things, because those words are the type people tend not to forget.

"I was just trying to make the point how badly I wanted to win that fight," Vazquez said. But Vazquez didn't want to win the first fight nearly as much as he wanted the second. After being derided as a quitter and losing a fight that was clearly within his grasp, Vazquez was almost maniacal in his determination to reverse the result of the rematch. He ditched long-time trainer Freddie Roach in favor of Perez, who had spent many years tutoring Marco Antonio Barrera. Perez had long since grown accustomed to the professionalism that Barrera took in his approach to preparation and wasn't certain he'd come across anyone as detail-oriented.

But when he began working with Vazquez, it was as if a younger Barrera had walked into the gym.

"He would listen and study and then he would go out and execute what you told him," Perez said. "And he worked hard, so hard. He just really did everything he could to be ready to win that (Aug. 5) fight."

Vazquez won it by sixth-round TKO – which Marquez still hotly disputes, believing it was stopped far too quickly – by imposing his physical superiority upon Marquez. Marquez, who has been known as one of the heaviest-handed fighters in the lighter weight classes, was barely able to budge Vazquez despite landing a series of clean shots.

Vazquez' power took over as the fight progressed, which he's confident will be the case on Saturday.

"I am going to be throwing punches with the baddest of intentions," Vazquez said. "I want to tear Marquez apart in the ring."

That attitude is why it's Vazquez, and not Klitschko, who is the true heavyweight, regardless of size.

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