The February 2009 fight between world lightweight champion Juan Manuel Marquez and former three-body lightweight titleholder Juan Diaz was a slugfest, a bloody war, and a great fight. It was so great that it was almost unanimously hailed as the 2009 Fight of the Year, winning the prestigious award from The Ring, and also topping our list of the best fights of 2009. The two men left it all in the ring, and after a fast start by Diaz, the veteran Marquez stormed back with harder blows; bloodying, flooring, and eventually stopping Diaz in the ninth round on HBO World Championship Boxing.
This Saturday night, they go to battle once again. Though this fight is a pay-per-view broadcast, it would be a lie to say that either man is at his hottest right now. Both Marquez and Diaz are coming off of pretty wide losses, as Marquez was shut out in a move to welterweight against Floyd Mayweather Jr. last September, a jump up that was ill-advised for everything except Marquez's bank account. And Juan Diaz, after narrowly beating Paulie Malignaggi in disputed fashion in his hometown of Houston, was beaten pretty soundly by Malignaggi on the neutral grounds of Chicago in December.
Diaz, a weathered 26, has lost three of his last five and many will argue it should be four of his last five. Marquez, who turns 37 next month, hasn't been in the ring in 10 months. He has been inactive that long just one time before in his career. After beating Victor Polo in May 2005, Marquez fought next in March 2006 against Chris John, and lost.
I find this fight a lot more interesting than some might. Like basically everyone on earth, I do believe Marquez will win. I'm not going to hide that until the end, so if you're looking just for the pick, there it is. But there are a lot of things I want to look for on Saturday night, too.
Juan Manuel Marquez (50-5-1, 37 KO, World Lightweight Champion)
Marquez is nearing the end of a career that should put him right into the Hall of Fame. Since Manny Pacquiao became Manny Pacquiao some years ago, he has been by far the toughest test of the Filipino icon's own Hall of Fame career, drawing Pacquiao in 2004 and losing a razor-thin, could've-gone-either-way split decision in 2008.
But in a lot of ways, that 2008 rematch with Pacquiao seems like a lifetime ago. Some of Floyd Mayweather's biggest supporters like to complain about "excuses," one of them being that Marquez was well over his best weight. My argument does not begin at welterweight being too high for Marquez. Frankly, he's really pushing it at 135, where he has gone 2-0 in a couple of fantastic fights, but there's been an obvious difference between the lightweight Marquez and the featherweight/super featherweight version of JMM. He's not as fast with his hands as he used to be, part of which is weight, probably more of which is just his age. He seems slower afoot, which I definitely blame more on the weight than I do his ticking clock.
But yes, a lot of it is age, another thing many of us brought up before, during, and after the awful loss to Mayweather. And that can be most clearly seen in Marquez's reflexes. He is, more or less, a blood-and-guts warrior at this stage of his career. His defense has greatly eroded over time. Some of that is a stylistic change. Marquez was once upon a time a pure counter-puncher with pretty solid defense, and now he's a guy willing to take a bunch to give plenty back. Five or six years ago you probably never could have convinced anyone that this guy would become one of the best go-to action fighters in the world, but that's what he is.
Because of that change over time, Mayweather was able to eat him alive. Floyd is a bigger man and Marquez was too old and all that, but if you could take each man at their best and stick them at 130 or 135 pounds, you'd have the same result. Marquez the counter-puncher would have had to become more aggressive, and Mayweather preys on aggression. Marquez the aggressive fighter was no match for Floyd.
Prior to that, however, he was able to eventually wear out Joel Casamayor, who is no easy task, and then eventually beat down Juan Diaz. Diaz started the fight very hot, winning the early rounds. But if you were watching closely, you could see Marquez getting in terrific work in return. Yes, the "Baby Bull" was winning the rounds, but Marquez was racking up more points on the ol' damage meter. His counter shots were harder than what Diaz could bring to the table, and eventually that led to Diaz being knocked out.
What I want to see Saturday is what Marquez has left in the tank. Has his power started to slip? Will moving back down to 135 bother him at all? Has his speed left him even more? Has his defense continued to slip? Will the years and years of tough battles finally start catching up with him in a fight that isn't an obvious mismatch like the Floyd farce?
Marquez is a great fighter. I would still rank him in the top five pound-for-pound in the sport, maybe even as high as number three. Saturday will tell us more about where he really stands among the current crop of fighters. If he looks shaky, his stock will fall some more, whether you still highly regard him (as I do), or whether you already feel he's sliding rapidly down the other side of the hill.
Juan Diaz (35-3, 17 KO)
I like Juan Diaz. He is, for the most part, just a nice, humble kid, smart enough to know that there has to be life after boxing. He is, last I knew, currently in law school, and I believe he's invested in real estate, as well. And that's all great, until we start talking about what goes on in the ring.
In the ring, his nice story means nothing. Juan Diaz is not a fighter in the same way that Juan Manuel Marquez is a fighter. Marquez fights because it's what he does. I don't mean to say that Juan Diaz is not a dedicated professional, or that there's anything truly wrong with what he does, but Juan Diaz has prospects that have nothing to do with boxing. He has "an out," if you will. I'm not saying he's looking for it, but Juan Diaz's entire life is not tied to his boxing career in the way that Marquez's life is. This is what Marquez does. This is one thing that Diaz does.
Let me put it this way, and it's an old adage sort of deal that many people have used over time. If you give me two guys who have basically the exact same level of ability, but one of them is going to lose everything if he doesn't win the fight, and the other guy isn't, I'm probably betting on the guy who's going to lose everything if he doesn't win. I'm not saying that guy always wins, I'm saying I'd generally bet on him.
That's not quite the case here, though. Diaz is not equal to Marquez. He's not as good. Diaz is a good fighter who probably got a little bit overrated by many of us (and I include myself) before his loss to Nate Campbell, as he was clearing out what wasn't much of a lightweight division. If you look back at his best wins, they haven't aged that well. Popo Freitas never fought again and clearly did not have the heart to go through Diaz's pressure that night. Freitas quit in the corner and did so without much worry -- he was celebrating his career with his team moments later with a smile on his face. Julio Diaz has been very rocky since losing to Juan. And Jose Miguel Cotto has really done nothing in the four years since losing to Juan Diaz, to the point that it was almost surprising to many that he was still fighting when he turned up to face Saul Alvarez in May.
The bottom line for Diaz, purely as a fighter in the ring, is simple for me: he has a habit of wilting when the other guys fight back. He wilted against Campbell when he was cut, though his hideous cutman was partially to blame, too. He got cut against Marquez, was being battered, and was out shortly after the blood came and after it was clear he was being hurt. Paul Malignaggi frustrated him horribly in their second fight to the point that it looked like Diaz had all but decided it wasn't worth the effort by the later rounds. And for the record, I've never see Diaz look worse than he did in his last fight, one fight removed from a spirited effort in the first bout with Paulie.
In Diaz's case, I'm looking to see if he, ten years younger than Marquez, might not be closer to the end of his career than his elder opponent is to the end of his career. Like I said, Diaz has other things he wants to do in life, many other goals, things he's got planned for a post-boxing life, things he's already more than set in motion for a post-boxing life. He isn't the type of guy you can say eats, sleeps and breathes boxing. Juan Manuel Marquez is that type of guy.
I'm also interested to see if Diaz is coming in with a gameplan that might see him switch up what he does. Diaz's entire career success has been built on pressure, pressure, pressure, and he's a damn good pressure fighter. But we've already seen Marquez essentially walk through his pressure and knock him out. Diaz is not a strong enough puncher to get Marquez in serious trouble. Marquez has battled through 24 rounds with Manny Pacquiao, going down four times but never being close to stopped. Even if Marquez's age shows, I don't think Diaz can really hurt him.
So will Diaz try something different, or is he just coming to fight his fight, and throw a prayer into the wind?
I do understand the folks who don't think this is a suitable major PPV headliner. But I'm thoroughly intrigued by finding out what each of these guys has to offer on Saturday. The main event guarantees a better fight than any other recent major pay-per-view (Mayweather-Mosley, Pacquiao-Clottey and Jones-Hopkins II this year have been wretched), and will probably be a better fight than any other major PPV that will come out of boxing in 2010.
And we will be here on Saturday night with live, round-by-round coverage and scoring, plus immediate post-fight analysis of every bout on the bill. We'll even be covering the off-TV undercard, which will air on RingTV.com. If you're going to order, then come on by and talk some fights with us, live as they air. If you're not going to order, I promise you you will not find a better round-by-round coverage online, so join us to get the fastest coverage that you can get without ordering the PPV.