Marquez ready for the big time

IBF/WBA featherweight titlist Juan Manuel Marquez faces
Manny Pacquiao on Saturday night n the main event of HBO's highly anticipated doubleheader at
the MGM Grand in Las Vegas. Marquez makes no bones about it -- this fight
against the Filipino buzzsaw is the biggest bout of his career.

"Without a doubt," he says, unequivocally, through translator Ricardo
Jimenez. "And not only do I think it's the most important fight, but I also
think it's the most difficult fight I've had in my career."

It's ironic to note that it's Marquez who comes in with the two championship
belts, but it's Pacquiao that comes in here as the "A" side, fresh off his
destruction of Marco Antonio Barrera last November. With that dominating
victory, the "Pac Man" earned the distinction as the consensus featherweight
champion, and he also picked up "The Ring" championship. Neverthelesss, it's
surprising to many observers that on the heels of that monumental win he
would go right after the dangerous Marquez.

"I think that basically they thought they beat the best guy out there and
anybody else would be easier," Marquez reasoned. "So I think they're going
to find out that fighting me is not the same thing as fighting Barrera.
They're in for a rude awakening."

For Marquez and his promoter, having a blue-chip name step up to the plate
is a welcome change.

"Nobody would fight him," said Bob Arum of Top Rank Boxing, which has
promoted Marquez the past few years. "Barrera, whenever you mentioned him
(Marquez), he would faint. The manager stayed away and I was never able to
make a (Erik) Morales fight because the management was inter-connected, so we could
never get Marquez a highly recognizable name until Pacquiao. (Naseem) Hamed wouldn't
fight him. Remember, Hamed gave up his title to avoid fighting him.

"I think there has been an acknowledgement out there that Marquez was
probably the most dangerous featherweight."

But that hasn't deterred Pacquiao from going straight to Marquez. Part of
the confidence emanating from Pacquiao's representatives stems from the
sheer domination of Barrera. After the knockout win, they feel they can
beat anybody thoroughly. But maybe, just maybe, they beat a distracted
Barrera. After all, most of the pre-fight talk centered on Barrera's past surgery on his head, a
very public split with his former promoter and manager, and a training camp
in Big Bear that had to be evacuated due to raging forest fires.

"I don't think Barrera went up there in his best shape, and I don't think he
was prepared well," agreed Marquez. "He had a lot of things going on; I
don't think he was himself that night. But I still consider Pacquiao a great
fighter; that's why you have to be 100 percent to beat this guy."

Unlike most fighters who tell you that they train for every fight with the
same intensity level, Marquez doesn't hesitate to tell you that he has upped
it for this contest.

"It was more intense," he admits. "We know how important the fight is, and
the intensity level during the workouts was even more than it usually is."

For this camp he also went the extra step away from his Mexico City base.

"We also did something different that we've never done before, which is over
five weekends we went up to the mountains and ran and actually trained

In recent years more and more of Marquez's opponents have been wary of
attacking him, fearing the sharp counterpunching of the classy Mexican. In
his last bout against Derrick Gainer, he found himself chasing "Smoke" all night long
before the fight was stopped due to a cut caused by an accidental clash of
heads. The only thing that stopped that fight from being a sequel to his
forgettable loss to Freddie Norwood in 1999 was that it was stopped early.
In fact, HBO's Larry Merchant described the fight as "an abortion," which it
was, in more ways than one.

"I think fortunately people knew I came to fight and that I wanted to give
them a great fight," he says. "He didn't want to fight. He just ran; he
really didn't offer anything. But my preparation was just the same, even to go 12 rounds
if he wanted to go toe to toe -- whatever he wanted to do, but he didn't want
to do anything."

It's safe to assume that Marquez won't be chasing Pacquiao on Saturday
night. But he's not fully convinced that he will be making a beeline at him

"I would like to see how he comes out," says Marquez. "I'm not sure he's
going to come right at me like he has other guys. So I'd like to see if
first, if he's really going to do that."

A win on Saturday night and Marquez justifies the faith that many who saw
him on the West Coast in the late 90s -- when he was just a prospect -- had
in him.

Rich Marotta, a respected observer and commentator of the game, for years
was among his biggest advocates. He'd tell anyone and everyone that this
Juan Manuel Marquez was the real thing and the next great Mexican. Jimenez,
before he became a publicist for Top Rank, was the sports editor of the
Spanish daily "La Opinion" and broadcast many of his early fights locally in the Southern
California area on KCAL9, on the Spanish portion of their telecasts.

"The first time I saw him was his first fight in Las Vegas, a little
four-rounder on a KCAL show," remembered Jimenez, who's worked for Arum's
company since 2000. "And Jaime Jarrin, the Dodger announcer, we did the broadcast in
Spanish, and we were in awe. I forget who had a quick fight and they threw
him in there and we couldn't believe it, how good he was then. You just looked at
him and said, 'This guy's just a kid and look how good he is.' "

The first time this reporter saw him was April 29, 1996, at the Anaheim Pond
against Julio Gervacio. I had gotten in with a comped ticket and was sitting
with the common folk. There couldn't have been more than 3,000 fans there that
night, but they were treated to a masterful exhibition of boxing and

He would stop Gervacio in eight rounds and you just got the feeling that
this guy was going places.

Now he's on the brink of greatness. But even with a win, he may have
problems getting other big fights.

"If he wins," explained Arum, "he has a mandatory (Orlando Salido) and then
there are really no major marquee fights for him because he's a disciplined
guy, he has no problems making 126, and he wants to stay as a featherweight. And
the kind of fights he has are attractive fights but no blockbusters, like
In-Jin Chi. That's a very enjoyable fight. (There's also) Oscar Larios;
maybe if Ayala beats Barrera, that would be a good fight. Maybe Barrera if
he beats Ayala."

What's interesting is that there has been a lot of talk about a future
matchup for Pacquiao against Morales, should he beat Marquez.

"It's OK with me," Marquez states. "If that's the way they want to think
about it. It's even better for me, if they think I'm not going to put up a
fight. That's good, because they're going to find out in the ring that they're really up
against a great fighter and they better be ready."

And if he should come out victorious, he has no qualms in making a bout with
his fellow countryman.

"As far as I'm concerned, right now, all I'm thinking about is Pacquiao, but
I would like to fight Morales eventually. I think that's something that has
always been there."