For most of his career, Rafael Marquez has lived in the considerable shadow of older brother Juan Manuel Marquez, carving out a different kind of legacy in their shared passion. Now, with the help of Israel Vazquez, Marquez is about to enter a realm of boxing history even his more famous brother cannot reach. Boxing lore is filled with fantastic trilogies, but two men combining their talents to create four memorable fights is one of the rarest of feats. At 35, Rafael Marquez hopes to enjoy more marquee moments under a spotlight, beyond Saturday night, and he understands only a victory over Vazquez guarantees that.
It seems strange that Rafael Marquez is not held in higher esteem within boxing circles, especially considering the Mexican boxer/puncher is one of the hardest hitting fighters of his generation. He remains overlooked despite sporting a 79% kayo ratio (34 of 38 victims never heard the final bell), yet this Marquez’ name rarely crosses the lips of fans discussing the best boxers of recent vintage. Yes, inactivity has been a mitigating factor. However, when Marquez sets foot in the ring, his combination of skills, speed, and power are thrilling. As far back as 2004, Marquez was optimistic that his star was on the rise, as he crushed six consecutive challengers to his bantamweight title, later saying “Ultimately, if you go out every fight and you show the people your heart and your skills, things will change.” Positive thoughts which are sadly unrealized among the majority of fans.
Recognition always came slow for Rafael. I was happily surprised to see Marquez had peaked at the number three spot in The Ring magazine’s unbiased pound-for-pound list three years ago. After the second Vazquez fight, Marquez dropped to number seven, and it was a sign of respect for both men that Marquez did not drop from the number seven position after suffering a loss in the third fight with Vazquez. Where Marquez did suffer was the wallet, settling for the low-end of an $800,000-to-$400,000 purse split in their rubber match. A rather hefty slap in the face, considering both men had won a fight apiece, and that, arguably, Marquez had looked better overall. Marquez has taken a back seat to Vazquez in the build-up to this fight as well, which seemed unlikely after their first encounter. Many opined that Marquez forced Vazquez to quit, shattering his rival’s nose and forcing Vazquez’s corner to stop the fight with his incessant aggression. But, in all fairness, Vazquez roared back from that loss to win the next two fights in their now-epic trilogy.
Rafael Marquez was raised in a boxing family; his father was a professional boxer and, of course, his brother Juan led the way in the professional ranks. Rafael first donned a pair of gloves at age seven, entering an amateur tourney shortly after. The only time Rafael did not box was when he took a job at a factory hand painting G.I. Joe and Batman figures. Knowing how to use his hands was necessary in the rough Ejercito Constinalista section of Mexico City, where the brothers Marquez were raised. Rafael reflected on the surroundings, “It was a tough neighborhood. There were always predators looking to rob you.” Still, he cannot disconnect from the city, happily remaining there, but moving his family to the suburbs of Cuernavaca. In a sense, this love of home has hurt Marquez’ marketability in America. Whereas countryman Vazquez (both were born in Mexico City) has garnered the majority of the positive American press, giving many interviews from his easily accessible home base of Los Angeles.
It has been nearly a decade since Marquez’ coming-out party, two wins over Mark “Too Sharp” Johnson (a notorious thorn in the side of Mexican bantamweights) in 2001, and still, Marquez toils in relative anonymity. In an odd sense, this seems appropriate for a man who was a stablemate and influenced by the criminally-underrated Ricardo Lopez. The Mexican legend became impressed by the work ethic and determination he saw in Marquez, and Marquez became a protégé of sorts for Lopez, who provided commentary on his fights for Mexican television. The pair initially met and even sparred because the shared the same trainer, Arturo “Cuyo” Hernandez, to whom Marquez’ father had sent him to learn the finer points of the sport. Like Lopez, Marquez soaked up the knowledge, spitting it forth in venomous combinations as he matured in Mexican boxing rings.
In 2004, Marquez believed people were ready to accept him, telling Kevin Iole of The Las Vegas Review Journal. "Obviously, I’d prefer to have everyone know about me, but I still have a job to do either way. I feel like I’m the best, and so I’ll fight anyone to prove that. Sooner or later, people will notice." One person who did was former WBA bantamweight champion Paulie Ayala, who said, “He hits hard; he can box, and he’s very accurate. That’s how he gets all those kayos. Marquez is a complete fighter.” A 2007 Ring magazine feature on Marquez asked the rhetorical question, “Can his marketability catch up to his talent?” Even his own promoter at the time, Bob Arum, seemed at a loss. "Rafael, as a fighter, is a tremendous talent. He is about as good as it gets, as far as talent. He’s a good kid, a nice-looking kid, but it’s very, very hard to market him.” Perhaps Top Rank should have listened to Marquez in 2007, who told The Ring magazine, “I want to fight three or four times a year. I want the breaks between fights to be shorter.”
The confusion surrounding Marquez seems strangely fitting for a man who was suckered in his first professional fight. Marquez and trainer/manager Nacho Beristain thought they scheduled an exhibition bout with former WBC bantamweight champion Victor Rabanales. It turned out to be a sanctioned bout, and Rafael’s inadvertent pro debut. Marquez remains bitter over the event, “He hit me hard in the second round, and I thought, ‘This isn’t an exhibition,’ and became angry.” It was a case of a man versus a boy, in age and experience, which Marquez succumbed to in a ninth-round stoppage. It would not be the last time Nacho Beristain was criticized for his managerial acumen. Eventually, Rafael was caught in the crossfire between Beristain and Bob Arum, over refusal of a purse figure for an immediate rematch of Juan Manuel Marquez and Manny Pacquiao, and Top Rank hesitated to re-sign Rafael along with his brother because of their relationship with Beristain. Soon after Rafael signed a promotional contract with Gary Shaw, while Juan Manuel defected to Golden Boy Promotions.
Now Gary Shaw and Rafael Marquez are looking at his immediate future, and to the surprise of many, enter with a new man in his corner. Gone is Beristain and his wealth of championship-caliber training experience, replaced by the highly respected and long-reigning former world champion Daniel Zaragoza. In Marquez, he has the perfect student, a man who is compulsive in his training. “I’m a perfectionist. I like to do things right. I put my best foot forward and give my best,” said Zaragoza. To that end, Marquez is a gym rat. He rises at 4 AM to run for an hour, followed by a two-hour training session. At seven, he returns home for some nourishment and rest, but is back in the gym by 1:30 PM, staying there until 5 PM. All of this is done at altitude, near the hollowed-out volcano at Iztaccíhuatl on the outskirts of Mexico City.
The wait for the fourth fight has been long, and it is a defining fight that Rafael wanted to contest much sooner. In August of 2009, Marquez told Sports Illustrated, "I was ready to fight Vazquez last November. That’s who I wanted then and who I want now." Nothing has changed now that the fight is at hand. “It’s going to be a great fight, just like the other three. I can’t wait to get in the ring. It’s going to be a spectacle. Israel is a good fighter and that’s the kind of fights that we make. We’re here to please the fans and that’s exactly what we’re going to do.” Marquez also believes the last loss was not all of his own making. “I lost the last round in the last fight, basically because my [former] cornermen made a lot of mistakes. Instead of telling me to go out and fight, my instructions were to box and that cost me the fight.”
Time has not dulled the respect Marquez has for Vazquez. “Israel is a great fighter. He’s very strong. He’s resilient. He hits hard and he’s proven he can come back when he’s down on points. He can always come back and win a fight.” Adding, “I’ve always said that he’s a great fighter and that he really has no weaknesses. I feel that’s why I accepted to fight him the first time. I said I only want to fight the best and that’s why I agreed to fight him.” Though itching to get back in the ring sooner, Marquez feels the extra time has given him one edge. “The only thing that’s different with me this time is I’m more mature. And that’s with any fight; you keep learning. You keep maturing mentally. The only difference between me this time and last is I have matured mentally, and I know what it takes to win.”
Vazquez and Marquez have managed to create two “Fight of the Year” award bouts (from various publications internationally), that also encapsulated two “Round of the Year” awards in the three occasions that they shared the ring. So it is no wonder that more than just the fighters are looking forward to their fourth meeting. Co-promoter Gary Shaw says, "At the end of the day, boxing and boxing fans are the winners. They are the stuff Hollywood movies are made from." Ken Hershman, Showtime’s Vice President of programming, was eager to air the fourth fight, saying, "We are honored to have them back. Vazquez-Marquez IV is a fight we couldn’t say no to! The rivalry between these two warriors is rooted in the deep respect they have for one another." Oscar De La Hoya will be ringside as well, saying, "May 22 is more than a fight; it is for pride, honor and respect of the boxing world. This type of fight reminds us of the great events from the 70s at the [Los Angeles] Olympic Auditorium and the Forum, featuring two great Mexican warriors who leave it all in the ring."
De La Hoya touched on boxing’s rich history of fighters facing each other on multiple occasions. A rarity now, entertaining four-bout series have memorable precedents. The two equally bitter Sandy Saddler Willie Pep and Beau Jack Ike Williams rivalries spring to mind immediately for their ferocity. Sugar Ray Robinson and Gene Fullmer had a more civil rivalry, as did Jersey Joe Walcott and Ezzard Charles. More recently, Azumah Nelson and Jesse James Leija shared the ring four times. Perhaps the fight that most resembles the Marquez Vazquez rivalry is that of Bobby Chacon and “Bazooka” Limon in the late 1970s heyday of the California fight scene. Some still hold out hope for a fourth fight between Marco Antonio Barrera and Erik Morales, but that pair seems to lack the fire which still burns in Vazquez and Marquez.
Most view this fight as the ending of a great series, but don’t tell that to the combatants just yet. Marquez could envision a scenario for a fifth go-round. “It’s up to the fans. We do this for the fans. They are the ones who decide. This fourth fight was in demand because the fans wanted to see it. If they want to see it then we have to leave it up to the fans,” said Marquez. Marquez also touched on what other boxers who are joined by great fights have learned. “Israel Vazquez and I are destined to be intertwined together because of the legendary battles we have waged against each other.” Vazquez is similarly inclined about a fifth fight, “’Rafa’ and I might be in wheelchairs one day but we’ll still be throwing punches and battling from our wheelchairs.” And boxing fans would push people in wheelchairs over to see it.