To rattle off the list of elite fighters in the featherweight division takes a couple of breaths, a pause and maybe a short snack break. There is Chris John, Yuriorkis Gamboa and Juan Manuel Lopez. There is Celestino Cabellero, Daniel Ponce De Leon and Elio Rojas.
Often overlooked on this list -- and sometimes omitted entirely -- is Rafael Marquez, the younger brother of lightweight champion Juan Manuel Marquez, who rocketed into mainstream stardom during his four fights with Israel Vazquez. Part of the reason is that Marquez has spent most of his career at bantamweight (122 pounds) and super bantamweight (118). His featherweight career spans just two fights, a pair of third-round drillings of Jose Francisco Mendoza and Vazquez, the latter ending the brutal Mexican rivalry that took an enormous physical toll on both fighters.
But another reason is that, at 35, many in the industry don't think Marquez has much left in the tank. Featherweight is dominated by a surplus of young lions and an aging Marquez, they reason, doesn't have it in him anymore to keep up with them.
Of course, Marquez scoffs at the notion that he is slowing down.
"I tell [critics] they're wrong," Marquez said in a conference call this week. "As long as you take care of yourself and as long as you prepare well for a fight, that shouldn't be any problem. I think my brother proved it against Juan Diaz, who was 10 years younger than him. I've always taken care of myself and I think I have a lot left to give. I think that age doesn't matter. I don't see that as a problem. I really don't."
The debate over Marquez's status at 126 pounds won't be a long one. On Saturday, Marquez (39-5, 35 KOs) will step in against Lopez (29-0, 26 KOs), arguably the top dog in the division. Lopez is a sweet blend of power and speed who has cut through every opponent put in front of him over the last five years, with just three going the distance. His southpaw style has kept opponents off balance, right up to the point where Lopez deposits them on the mat.
When he watches film, Marquez takes note of Lopez's power and speed. But he also sees a weakness, too.
"I see that he has a weak chin," Marquez said. "So we have to take advantage of that and put our punches together and use a lot of combinations. I have to use all of my experience and all of my power and all my intelligence in the ring to get to him. It's a winnable fight, no question. I can win this fight. I just have to be smart enough to know what to do in there. I can't be reckless. If he wants to exchange, I'll exchange. If he wants to box, I'll box. I just think when you fight a fighter who is a really great fighter it's a huge motivator to get better and fight the best fight that I can."
For Marquez, motivation should be easy to come by. Validation will bring a hefty paycheck. Bob Arum, Lopez's promoter, has been selling the public on a potential Lopez-Gamboa matchup sometime next year. Arum has floated venues like New Meadowlands Stadium and Madison Square Garden for the fight and billed it as a matchup between two of the next great superstars. A win by Marquez would not only scuttle those plans -- at least temporarily -- but also put him in the mix for another big money fight.
"Without a doubt I know he's coming to prove himself that he's still at the same level as he's always been," Lopez said. "I'm out to prove that I'm at the same level that's he's at. I think the fans are going to be real excited about this fight and I can't see how it will not be a good fight. We both have a lot to prove and we're willing to give up everything in the ring."
Said Marquez, "This is one of the biggest fights you will ever see in the lower weight divisions."
Big for the division. Much bigger for Marquez.