Friday February 29th, 2008

When it comes to the movies, the finale of a trilogy can be hit or miss. You have the good (The Bourne Ultimatum), the bad (Species III) and the why-did-I-just-shell-out-10-bucks-for-this (Robocop 3). The same holds true in boxing, which has a long history of epic final battles. From Muhammad Ali-Joe Frazier to Mickey Ward-Arturo Gatti, when two pugilists meet in a rubber match, the expectations usually meet the hype. There are exceptions, however.

Erik Morales won the first fight against Manny Pacquiao in a close decision but was subsequently destroyed in the next two. And after stunning Jose Luis Castillo in one of the greatest fights in boxing history, Diego Corrales was KO'd in their second fight and refused to take the third after Castillo failed to make weight.

Rafael Marquez-Israel Vazquez III will not be one of those exceptions.

What do you like about boxing? I'll tell you what I like: Two men come into the ring looking, nay, expecting the fight to end in a knockout. That's not always the case. Exhibit A is last weekend's heavyweight title fight between Wladimir Klitschko and Sultan Ibragimov, where Ibragimov spent 12 rounds avoiding Klitschko's punches (while throwing few of his own) on his way to losing a lopsided unanimous decision. Ibragimov was more afraid of being knocked down than he was of losing. (Exhibit B could be one of the last 137 fights in the heavyweight division, but we'll leave knocking on them for another day.)

Neither Marquez nor Vazquez harbor any such fears. In their first fight Marquez, a former bantamweight champion who moved up to super bantamweight last year to challenge Vazquez for his title, stunned the champion with an onslaught of devastating combinations that eventually shattered Vazquez's nose, cutting off his airway and forcing his corner to throw in the towel after the seventh round.

In the rematch five months later it was Vazquez securing a measure of revenge when he reclaimed the title with a sixth-round knockout. The victory, however, did not come cheap: Vazquez spent much of the fight in fear of having it stopped after Marquez's cannonball sized fists left Vazquez's face bloodied.

"You know I don't want to get too emotional and talk like a promoter," says Marquez's promoter, Gary Shaw. "But at the end of the second fight I remember [promoter] Scott Woodworth behind me banging me on my shoulder pulling me up by my neck off the chair, saying, 'Can you believe this? Can you believe this?' Now, that's a promoter of the opponent to my fighter. We are against one another and he's banging me and lifting me up and can't believe it."

So with so much at stake in the third fight Saturday at The Home Depot Center in Carson, Calif., (Showtime, 9 p.m.) and with both men having tasted the power of the other, perhaps the final chapter between the two will be more boxing than brawling.

Then again ... maybe not.

"I don't see anything that's going to be different," says Marquez's trainer, Nacho Beristain. "It's going to be a war."

Says Marquez, "All I can tell you is that it will not go 12 rounds."

It's unfortunate that the spotlight is not shining brighter on these two super bantamweights. For the average American male, 122 pounds is something he used to weigh, not a division in boxing. But over the past few years both Marquez and Vazquez have become two of the sports' best pound-for-pound champions. After claiming the bantamweight title from Tim Austin in 2003, Marquez, the younger brother of super featherweight champion Juan Manuel Marquez, successfully defended his title seven times (five of which he won by KO) before abdicating his title to move up and challenge Vazquez, a fellow Mexican who also started his career as a bantamweight before moving up.

Boxing (unlike the movies) rarely creates a fourth installment, and Marquez-Vazquez will be no different. Vazquez eyes moving up to featherweight, while Marquez says he will eventually look to unify the division, which is a winded way of saying that both men know what's at stake Saturday night. "The winner of this fight is going to be the public [champion]," says Vazquez. "This fight is for the people. That's why we're doing it."

Thanks to their warrior-like mentalities, you can be sure the people are going to be pleased.

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