Golden Boy Promotions’ Lightweight Tournament is packed with intriguing matchups involving some of the division’s finest talent, and it very well may be the best card of boxing we’ll see in 2009, but Saturday’s duel between Juan Manuel Marquez and Juan ‘Baby Bull’ Diaz is interesting because it pairs one of the sport’s most accomplished practitioners over the past decade with one of its most promising young fighters. Marquez’s achievements in the ring require no validation, and neither does his performances in his biggest fights - he’s taken on the best in three different weight divisions and acquitted himself splendidly. Whether Marquez secures that elusive third match with Manny Pacquiao is irrelevant because his high standing in boxing history is assured. Furthermore, many boxing fans are still not convinced that the Filipino superstar won either fight, and even more will assess his career with raised eyebrows if he doesn’t settle the score with his toughest adversary, once and for all. So, even though it appears that Marquez fights on only to force a third bout with boxing’s pound-for-pound king, it says here that Marquez’s legacy is complete without any additional engagements with the Pac Man. In fact, it could rationally be argued that Marquez has yet to suffer a definitive defeat inside the squared circle. Diaz, on the other hand, is looking to regain his perch atop the Lightweight Division, a perch he grudgingly relinquished last March in a shocking upset loss to Nate Campbell - shocking only because the odds makers never saw it coming and Diaz had looked so dominant in capturing the WBA title from Julio Diaz five months earlier. ‘Baby Bull’ rebounded nicely and recaptured his previous form against Michael Katsidis in his last outing, but Marquez is a huge step up from the Aussie brawler - and that’s what makes this fight one worth watching!
Analysis: Was the loss to Campbell just an “off night”, or was it a harbinger of future difficulties for Diaz against versatile boxer-punchers? Few boxers are more versatile than Marquez, so on the surface, it would appear that Houston’s finest fighter could be in over his head, but let’s not forget what got Diaz to this point in his career - namely, a measured approach in the ring, sound fundamental boxing and maturity characteristic of a seasoned veteran with years of experience. The loss against Campbell had more to do with Campbell and less to do with Diaz. The ‘Galaxxy Warrior’ was able to cut Diaz over the left eye in round five and had the wherewithal to exploit that cut. ‘Baby Bull’ fought bravely with the cut, but was clearly handicapped. Minus the cut, would Diaz have had enough to hold off Campbell that night? That’s open to conjecture, but the fact remains that even though Diaz didn’t fight his best fight against one of the division’s better fighters, he still fought competitively enough to lose by close split decision. The CompuBox numbers would indicate that it wasn’t a close affair, but Diaz’s ring generalship, even under adverse circumstances, probably bought him a few more rounds than he merited.
Prior to that loss, thirty-three fighters were unable to solve the young lightweight. One loss has done little to derail the momentum of Diaz’s career and his willingness to jump right back into the fire against one of boxing’s top five fighters speaks volumes about the confidence and self-assuredness of not only the fighter, but his management team as well. And let’s not forget that not too long ago, the 34-1 lightweight/college student was being mentioned as a potential opponent for Ricky Hatton at 140 lbs., in what would have resulted in a fairly even matchup, if I may say so myself! Going from Katsidis to Marquez is akin to playing the Charlotte Bobcats one night and the Los Angeles Lakers two evenings later, but if there’s one fighter in the lighter weight classes who can handle such a severe step up in class, it’s Diaz. Why? Because his attack isn’t based upon raw punching power. His power is good, but not concussive. Hence, he’s more of a boxer-puncher who uses angles, footwork and well-timed counter-punching to get the job done. But will Diaz have to bring even more to the table to get the job done against the highly-skilled Marquez, a natural featherweight whose career spans nearly sixteen years? The odds makers don’t think so, but the odds makers don’t do the fighting. And despite his stoppage of lineal lightweight champion, Joel Casamayor, it’s safe to assume that Marquez doesn’t possess true lightweight power. What Marquez has in abundance is ring savvy and tons of big fight experience. In recent fights, he’s opened up his offense more in an attempt to become a more “fan-friendly” fighter, but in the process, he’s had serious defensive lapses that have caused him to taste the canvas on more than one occasion. While such lapses probably won’t prove fatal against Diaz, they could expose Marquez to unnecessary punishment. Diaz has been nothing if not accurate and efficient with his punches, so any lapses by Marquez Saturday night could lead to the same type of swelling and cuts he suffered against Barrera and Pacquiao. That’s the predicament Marquez faces - fight aggressively and provide lots of excitement, intensifying the fans’ calls for a third Pacquiao fight, or rely on his superior technical boxing skills and risk losing yet another close and disputed decision. It’s definitely something Marquez will ponder repeatedly in the final few days leading up to the bout.
Prediction: As gifted a technical boxer as Marquez is its defensive lapses at key moments in his biggest fights that have continued to trip him up and prevent him from separating himself from his more-celebrated contemporaries. Had he avoided the knockdowns in both Pacquiao fights, its doubtful Marquez would have even ventured north to the Lightweight Division and there probably would have been an exciting rematch with Barrera. Even in the Barrera victory, Marquez was forced to pick himself up from the canvas. Luckily and oddly, the knockdown he suffered at the very end of Round 7 was not scored as one. The strange scoring of that fight aside, it’s puzzling to see a fighter as skilled as Marquez on the canvas so often. Is it merely quirks of fate and something technical that can be corrected in the gym or does it have more to do with the fact that Marquez is a far better fighter while counter-punching and becomes a more available target when attempting to lead? In any event, his opponent Saturday night is very good at forcing the action, but even better at countering, so there’s a very good chance that this fight will come down to whose jab is most effective in the early rounds. The fighter able to establish his jab will win this fight. Two factors that weigh heavily in Diaz’s favor are the fact that he’s the natural lightweight and he’s already faced a crafty opponent in Campbell. What Diaz learned from the Campbell fight is that he’s at his best when he gets inside, fires his punches and maneuvers out of striking distance; that’s what he did against Katsidis and the Aussie was never really in the fight. Will he be able to do that against Marquez? It’s doubtful that he’ll enjoy that same kind of offensive success in this fight, but if he can get Marquez moving forward for most of the fight, that means that his jab is working, and if his jab is working, the combinations to the head and body will be all that more effective. Marquez is no spring chicken, but his stamina in the late rounds has never come into question and his sense of when to apply pressure and when not to is peerless. However, I just can’t wrap my mind around Marquez as a lightweight and am not entirely convinced that he’ll be dominant at this weight. Diaz on the other hand, looks quite comfortable at 135 lbs. and continues to improve technically each fight. This is a nearly dead-even fight and though I’d normally favor the more experienced and technically-sound Marquez against virtually any other opponent, he’ll be facing a Diaz who knows that a second loss in the division within a year could prove fatal, a Diaz who knows his strengths and is unlikely to neglect them again. I don’t see an all-out war evolving at any time in this fight, but I do see Diaz matching Marquez combination-for-combination and having enough in the tank to score a razor thin decision victory. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Marquez win because he’s truly an all-time great, but Diaz is the future of the division and is hungry to erase any lingering memories of the loss to Campbell last year. Diaz by UD.
Aftermath: Both fighters are classy and well-respected pugilists. For Marquez, the question is whether or not to continue pressing for another Pacquiao fight. Win or lose against Diaz, Marquez has to decide whether to remain at 135 lbs., an unnatural weight for him, or return to his more natural weight class of 130 lbs. There’s no guarantee that Pacquiao will ever fight as a lightweight again and a victory over Hatton in March will lead to a showdown with Floyd Mayweather. Marquez can make plenty of noise in either the 130 or 135 lb. divisions, with or without a third bout with Manny, and kudos to him for fighting the two best lightweights in his new division right off the bat! It’s one of the reasons Marquez is so highly-regarded and is assured a place in Boxing’s Hall of Fame. A victory for Diaz on Saturday night will lead to larger purses and a spot against the winner of Golden Boy Promotions’ upcoming Lightweight Tournament. There have been relatively few indications that Diaz has any plans of fighting at 140 lbs. in the near future, because with Hatton’s days in boxing numbered, it’s doubtful even a victorious Diaz would be on the short list of future opponents for England’s ‘Hit Man’. There are plenty of potential opponents on tap for both Diaz and Marquez. The 135 lb. division is a bit deeper than the 130 lb. division, so win, lose or draw, expect Marquez to continue campaigning at the lightweight limit. Just don’t expect to see him in the ring with Pacquiao again. 2009 will be an exciting year for the Lightweight Division, with Marquez and Diaz right in the thick of things. And that’s a good thing!