Monday August 10th, 2009

MEXICO CITY -- Inside the ring, Rafael Marquez has a well-earned reputation as a gambler. Unlike his technically proficient brother, lightweight champion Juan Manuel Marquez, Rafael is more of a brawler, a heavy handed fighter willing to absorb a power shot if it means he can get off one of his own. It's a style that has served him well in his 14-year professional career -- a career highlighted by 38 wins (including 34 by knockout) and world titles in two weight classes.

So it comes as no surprise that his gambling mentality extends beyond the ring. Standing outside the Romanza Boxing Gym, Marquez, a noted sunglasses collector, notices a pair hanging from a reporter's shirt. He produces a coin and gently taps it off the glass of one of the frames.

"This side," said Marquez in broken English. "You give to me."

He turns the coin over and pulls his own glasses from his head.

"That side," he said. "I give to you."

When the reporter declines his offer, Marquez flashes a sly grin and says, "Will ask again later."

Enjoy it as he does, gambling doesn't always pay off for Marquez. In a one-year span, from 2007-08, Marquez participated in three epic slugfests with bantamweight champion Israel Vazquez. In the first fight, Marquez stunned Vazquez, battering him for seven rounds before making Vazquez quit on his stool. Vazquez, however, turned the tables on Marquez in the rematch when he stopped him in the sixth round of a fight that was named the Ring Magazine's 2007 Fight of the Year. The pair claimed that award again in 2008, when, after trading knockdowns, Vazquez outlasted Marquez to win a narrow split-decision.

With the popularity of both Marquez and Vazquez sky high, and the public clamoring for this series to continue, Marquez returned to Mexico to wait for word on the next fight.

He waited. And waited. And waited.

Exactly what happened after the third fight is a little hazy. According to Marquez and his trainer/manager, Nacho Beristain, Marquez took an extended break to allow his body to heal. After a few months, Marquez jumped back into training with an eye toward a fourth fight with Vazquez, in late 2008. But according to Beristain, Vazquez's camp waited months to disclose the severity of an eye injury that Vazquez suffered in the third battle. A detached retina caused Vazquez to be stripped of his super bantamweight title and has kept him idle since March 2008.

"I don't like the way [Vazquez's manager] Frank Espinoza treated us," said Beristain. "He didn't do the right things. He hurt Rafael's career."

That another fight with Vazquez hasn't materialized has certainly dampened Marquez's popularity. With the memory of the trilogy fading -- and with Marquez locked in a dispute with his promoters -- Marquez remained idle for the rest of '08. He re-emerged last May with a third-round knockout win over unheralded Jose Francisco Mendoza.

Marquez's frustrating year was punctuated when he flipped his car in June while on the way to the airport (he was uninjured) to catch a flight to New York where he was to accept the award for the Fight of the Year. Marquez is saving an Aug. 22 fight date, but his opponent, probably journeyman Gonzalo Munguia, will be little more than a sparring partner.

The real fight -- perhaps the only fight -- Marquez is waiting for is a fourth run at Vazquez.

"I was ready to fight [Vazquez] last November," said Marquez. "That's who I wanted then and who I want now."

That sentiment is echoed by Beristain, who says he doesn't see the logic in pitting Marquez against any of the champions in the featherweight division because "they are difficult fights that don't bring any money to the table." And with Golden Boy, Vazquez's co-promoter, dangling the possibility of giving Marquez the payday he is looking for in a potential pay-per-view bout this winter, Team Marquez appears willing to wait.

"It's a risky fight for Rafael," said Beristain. "He knows that. He knows he could get hurt very badly. But this is the fight he wants."

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