LAS VEGAS -- Juan Manuel Marquez walked briskly down an empty hallway in the MGM Grand Garden Arena, the swishing sound of his mesh pants echoing against the walls. It was quiet today. On Saturday, when more than 16,000 fans are expected to file into the building for his WBO welterweight fight with Manny Pacquiao (HBO PPV, 9 p.m.), it won't be.
He opens the door to a ballroom where a few dozen reporters are waiting. He answers questions about his weight. He answers questions about his training. He answers question after question until a P.R. rep says he will answer no more. Marquez doesn't mind. He has been dreaming of a third fight with Pacquiao for three years, since the moment the judges in Nevada announced that he had lost a split decision to Pacquiao in 2008. He has been thinking about it. He might as well talk about it.
"I've thought about this fight for so long," Marquez (53-5-1) said. "I wondered why there was no rematch. I wondered why his promoter wouldn't give me another fight. But the fight is here, and I feel ready."
Beating Pacquiao (53-3-2) consumes Marquez. Not for the money, though his career-high $5 million payday is considerable. Not for the prestige, though a win over Pacquiao would undoubtedly elevate him to, at worst, the third-best fighter in the world. But because he believed he beat Pacquiao in 2004, when he got up off the mat three times in the first round of a fight that ended in a draw. Because he believed he won in '08, when he lost the closest of split decisions. He worked hard, he fought hard and he won, Marquez reasons. The judges took it away from him.
Hard work has long been a hallmark of Marquez. It had to be. Grow up where he did, where death is lurking around every corner, and you understand that working hard is the only way to survive. Marquez has traveled a rough road to get to this point, a road many have tried to travel and only few have made it all the way.
It is a clear and unseasonably cool afternoon in Mexico City and a cab driver is lost. Really lost. His destination is the Romanza Boxing Gym, where he is transporting a reporter and a two-man camera crew to meet Juan Manuel Marquez, the reigning lightweight champion universally recognized as a top-five pound-for-pound fighter in the world today. But whereas Las Vegas cabbies can find Floyd Mayweather's gym blindfolded and Oscar De La Hoya's training facility in Big Bear, California is practically a tourist attraction, Marquez's gym might as well be a safe house for the witness protection program. One street blends into another. The dilapidated buildings with the broken windows and eroding woodwork all begin to look the same.
Twice the driver pulls over to ask local street vendors to point him in the right direction. Forty minutes into what is supposed to be a 15-minute drive the car pulls up to a tiny, non-descript building with soot caked on the windows. There are no doors, just an open foyer with a dusty staircase in the back. As you climb the stairs the thick smell of sweat combines with the thicker smog that envelopes Mexico's capital city to form a mixture that is barely breathable. With faded blue and white painted walls and a plastic roof that makes the two-room structure one very large sauna, the gym holds no creature comforts. But that doesn't stop scores of teenagers walking miles to train there on a daily basis.
Inside they shadow box on rubber mats that are glued to the floor and take turns pounding tattered heavy bags with gloves held together by duct tape with rap music blaring in the background. It's all done under the watchful eye of Nacho Beristain, the pot-bellied owner of Romanza with the Tom Selleck mustache whose 16 world champions have earned him the reputation as one of Mexico's finest trainers. Working alongside this group of non-shavers is one of the country's most recognizable stars. Marquez, the 38-year old legend who has aged better than most French wines. Though he was in the gym to work, his presence served another purpose: role model for the thousands of Mexicans who have made boxing one of the country's fastest growing sports.
The sports landscape is littered with the hard luck stories of professional athletes who have survived difficult childhoods but the streets of most Mexican cities make Compton or Camden resemble Mr. Rogers' neighborhood. Alfredo Angulo, a junior middleweight contender, was raised in a two-bedroom house with no working plumbing.
Lightweight titleholder Tony DeMarco lived with his parents and sister in a one-bedroom shanty that he helped his father build. The Marquez brothers were stuffed in a 3-by-3 meter bedroom with six other siblings in Mexico City. Still, home was often the safest place to be. Consider: growing up in Iztapalapa -- or Istalacracka, meaning "the worst"--the Marquez brothers slept with the sounds of gang warfare as their lullaby. Every night--"and I mean every night," says Juan Manuel -- the three rival gangs (Los Palmos, Los Vagos and Duzos) fought for control of the neighborhood. They took to the streets by the hundreds, their weapons of choice anything from semi-automatic guns to machette's to bottles filled with gasoline and corked with flaming rags. Some mornings a man would walk through the neighborhood with a bullhorn reading from the obituary pages of the newspaper, so the residents would know who had died the night before. "It was all-out war," says Marquez's brother, Rafael, a former two division titleholder. "They were all hungry for power and they believed the only way to get that power was to kill everyone else."
Children witnessed horrific violence. As a boy, Juan Manuel once saw two men execute a rival gang member in an alley by shooting him in the head. Rafael watched in horror as a man beaten to death on a local basketball court. Angulo witnessed a man stripped and thrown off a bridge. "Anytime you left the house," said Juan Manuel, "there was a chance you would see someone get killed."
Avoiding violence was only part of the problem. In Mexico, children were regularly recruited to become part of the gangs, where they would become at best drug traffickers and at worst murderers. Drugs and violence are synonymous in Mexico. Boxing was a way out. Marquez's father, Rafael Sr., was a former professional fighter who amassed a respectable 35-3 record. Every day after school he would strap a pillow to his stomach and let his kids whack away at him. As a child DeMarco attached himself to his uncle, Everardo Armenta Jr., a former light heavyweight title contender. As fighters aged, they sought out more accomplished trainers. For the Marquez brothers, it was Beristain, who then and now is regarded as one of the best teachers in the sport.
With daily tutelage from Beristain, the brothers blossomed, albeit in very different ways. Rafael, two years Marquez's junior, developed into a hard-hitting brawler who would go on to battle Israel Vazquez four times, the first two ranking among the most memorable fights in boxing history. The more cerebral Juan Manuel evolved into more of a tactician, utilizing counterpunching and guile to become one of the most successful fighters in Mexico's rich boxing history. Marquez would go on to have memorable battles with Marco Antonio Barrera, Joel Casamayor and Pacquiao, the man who would emerge as his nemesis, the Joe Frazier to his Muhammad Ali.
"Counterpunchers are a little bit boring at times," said Pacquiao's trainer, Freddie Roach. "[Erik] Morales and Barrera were more offensive, so he's less liked by the Mexican fans. He doesn't really fight like a true Mexican. But technique wise, he is better than all those guys.
Eighteen years after his pro debut, 59 professional fights and three world titles later, Marquez is here, in Las Vegas, with another chance to fulfill a dream. He is a heavy underdog against Pacquiao, with the consensus that his previous performance at welterweight -- a lopsided loss to Floyd Mayweather in 2009 -- coupled with Pacquiao's staggering success since their last meeting will make it virtually impossible for Marquez to win. Already, the speculation about a potential Pacquiao-Mayweather showdown is rampant while any talk about Marquez's future usually involves either a return to lightweight or retirement.
Marquez dismisses all of it. Ask him about retiring, and he just shrugs his shoulders. Ask him about dropping back to 135-pounds, and he says he is not sure. Ask him if he has a dream opponent after this fight, and he will tell you he is facing him. Every fiber of Marquez is focused on this fight. He believes he can win. Work hard, fight hard, you have success. It's what got him through life. It's what will get him through this fight.