Friday July 30th, 2010

Juan Manuel Marquez is no newcomer to overcoming adversity. Growing up in dangerous barrios of Mexico City, his life was littered with horrors: from witnessing to two rival gang members executing another to falling asleep each night with the sound of gunfire ringing outside his window -- the devil's lullaby echoing through the devil's playground.

He survived to become a world champion, only to nearly have it all taken away one night in 2004 in Las Vegas, where Manny Pacquiao deposited him on the canvas three times in the first round. As he lay on the mat the third time, his corner deflated and the crowd whipped into a frenzy, Marquez summoned the strength to get up, finish the round and claw his way back into a fight that eventually ended in a draw.

Six years later, Marquez faces adversity again. He is not on the mat, not literally anyway. But he was there 11 months ago, flat on his back, staring up at the smug mug of Floyd Mayweather, who had put him there on his way to a lopsided victory in a non-title fight. Once again, Marquez will be asked to prove himself, this time against Juan Diaz, as Marquez will defend his WBO and WBA lightweight titles Saturday at the Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas (9 p.m., HBO PPV) in a rematch of their 2009 Fight of the Year. A win would lead to bigger and better things. A loss could ultimately send him into retirement.

"To me, victory is everything," Marquez said. "It's very important. It motivates me. It keeps me going to defend my titles with the pride and honor and having my hand raised at the end of the night, that's the most significant and what brings it out in me. I don't know how but it comes out because of that determination that I have to win."

If it sounds a little strange that Marquez is in this position, it should. Against Mayweather, Marquez faced heavy odds against a heavier man. After spending his career hovering between 126 and 135 pounds, Marquez was asked to tack on 10 more. Saying no wasn't an option -- not with a $4 million payday at stake. But as he prepared for the biggest fight of his life, very little felt right.

"We knew going into the fight it was going to be a very difficult, a very tough task," Marquez said. "But what made it a little more difficult was also the weight, the excess weight that Mayweather had. It was approximately 15 pounds once we got inside the ring. We gave it our all, and after the fight we know that the people were behind us and we hope that they realized that, hey, we gave it 100 percent the whole time."

Said Marquez's trainer, Nacho Beristain: "[Gaining weight] was a job in camp that I developed with a physical conditioning coach that I've worked with in the past. I didn't like certain things. It was part of that camp, part of the fight and the captain was on board and he was directing it. [But] I wasn't 100 percent on board with it. With Juan, what could be his defect is that he loves what he does, he loves to work hard. But at times he can exaggerate the work. He's a very fine fighter and he doesn't need to over-train or over-exaggerate to perform up in the ring. And I think in that fight, for instance, instead of working on the weights a couple of weeks, he might have done it for four weeks and done a little bit too much."

When a fighter is asked to gain an unusual amount of weight for a fight, he can run into trouble coming back down. Just ask Roy Jones. However Marquez, who turns 37 on Aug. 23, says there have been no issues bringing his body back to 135 pounds.

"We've done it very carefully, very healthy, very well," Marquez said. "We have had the help of a nutritionist. I did, obviously, gain a few pounds to go up in weight. But we're working, as always, very hard, working with the weight and working in the gym and we'll be there for a very good fight, a strong fight, and at weight come July 31."

History suggests Marquez's words are true. Each of his previous four losses was followed by a knockout win, the last being an 11th-round KO of the slick Joel Casamayor. And Diaz's bulldog style is an ideal fit for Marquez, an excellent counterpuncher who ended their last fight with a crushing right uppercut in the ninth round.

"Juan is like a fine wine that only gets better with age," Beristain said. "He's having, technically, a better camp and is training much better than the first fight with Juan. I expect the courage that Juan Diaz brings and the courage that Juan Manuel provides that this will provide another great fight and that the fans are going to win, all around."

It's Marquez, however, who stands to gain the most. HBO has him penciled into a December date with junior welterweight champion Amir Khan, a matchup that would likely give Marquez an opportunity to win a title in a fourth weight class, something no Mexican fighter has accomplished.

"It's definitely something that keeps me going, to become the first Mexican fighter to win in four divisions is a dream come true and it's something in my mind," Marquez said. "But right now my concentration is 100 percent on July 31 to defend my titles, my belts, against Juan Diaz and then we'll look forward."

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