This Saturday night on Showtime, one of the most highly-anticipated fights of the year finally comes to us live in Las Vegas, as undefeated featherweight titlist Juan Manuel Lopez squares off with hard-punching veteran warrior Rafael Marquez. The fight was originally set for September 18, but Marquez had to pull out with a thumb injury. But now we're just days away, and hopefully you're as excited for this one as you should be.
Featherweights - 12 Rounds
Juan Manuel Lopez v. Rafael Marquez
This is a fight where one man is peaking and the other is taking what could be a final stab at glory. It's a crossroads fight in that regard, but we're also talking about two of the best featherweights in the world today, at the very least two of the top five. It's a rising star against a proud, hard-charging veteran looking to win a title belt in his third weight class.
Lopez (29-0, 26 KO) wowed viewers with his HBO-broadcast first round destruction of Daniel Ponce de Leon in June 2008, winning a 122-pound belt. He successfully defended that belt five times. He started off with two defenses against overmatched Cesar Figueroa (KO-1) and Sergio Medina (TKO-1), then faced veteran Filipino Gerry Penalosa. He overwhelmed and overpowered the gritty Penalosa, stopping him after 10 exceptionally one-sided rounds of action. Lopez then dominated, albeit not in the greatest fashion, Olivier Lontchi, who was a relative unknown at the time, before his stunning war with Roger Mtagwa on October 10, 2009. That Fight of the Year contender had some questioning Lopez's ability, but in reality he showed that he could survive, even if barely, when in a fight he wasn't bargaining for.
That was his last fight at 122 before he moved up to 126 in January, dethroning long-reigning WBO titlist Steven Luevano (TKO-7). In July, he engaged in less than two full rounds of fury with Bernabe Concepcion, and though Lopez tasted canvas in the fight, he was able to stop the challenger at 2:37 of the second round.
Then there's Rafael Marquez. At 35, he is eight years older than Lopez, and is two inches shorter than the titlist, as well. The 5'5" Marquez dominated the ranks at 118 pounds from 2003 through 2006, starting with a win over Tim Austin and ending with two victories over Silence Mabuza. In March 2007, he moved up in weight to make a dream fight with super bantamweight champion Israel Vazquez, and they did not disappoint anyone over three miraculous slugfests. It was a career-defining series for each man. Marquez on the first bout and lost the next two, and evened the series earlier this year in a watered-down version of the rivalry against a physically finished Vazquez. Between the second and third fights, Marquez defeated Jose Francisco Mendoza in Mexico on May 23, 2009, his first fight as a featherweight.
Marquez has not been nearly as active as Lopez, and he's taken far more punishment over the years. Since the third Vazquez fight on March 1, 2008, Marquez has fought just two times, and has totaled less than six rounds in the ring. In that same timeframe, Lopez has fought eight times. There's a huge difference in their level of activity in the last two and a half years. Activity, youth, size and wear-and-tear are all on Lopez's side.
Grading the Fighters
Both can punch. Both have shown the ability to take a good punch. Both are quick, and on top of that, accurate punchers. Of the two, I think Marquez is the harder puncher even at 126 pounds, and his accuracy plays a role in that. Marquez is a pinpoint puncher when he's at his best. He gives the appearance of being a bit wild and reckless, but really is pretty fluid and controlled. He's almost got what you might call an instinct for landing good, clean punches.
That's not to say that Lopez does not have terrific power or can't knock Marquez out, because he can. When Lopez gets zeroed in, he can be nasty. Ask Daniel Ponce de Leon and Bernabe Concpecion about that. They both have a tendency to get into wild exchanges that leaves them vulnerable. When he's not going nuts, Lopez is actually a pretty good defensive fighter, but Marquez will try to draw him into a firefight. It's the way Marquez knows how to fight. Both have shown an ability to overcome adversity in the past, though Marquez has definitely been through more wars to date and has exhibited a world-class ability to not just take punishment, but to rally from bad spots in big fights.
This fight is massive for the division. If Lopez wins, it sets up potential showdowns with every other major star in the division, including that fan-demanded bout with Top Rank stablemate Yuriorkis Gamboa. If Marquez wins, it likely sets up a rematch, and that's not something I think many would argue with. The only even possible knock on this fight is that Marquez is past his prime.
Good Fight Potential:
Simply put, this is a rare must-see fight on paper. Marquez is never in a bad fight, and Lopez has been pretty damn entertaining to watch since he burst onto the global scene, too.
Overall Pre-Fight Score:
It's a great fight. It's exactly the type of fight that fight fans want to see. Top names, plenty to gain and lose on both sides, and the sense that the fight itself, no matter the outcome, will be memorable.
Lopez is the betting favorite, though the odds aren't extreme, and both of those seem about right to me. With a fighter like Rafael Marquez against a guy who has shown vulnerability, you just can't count out the veteran. He's not a smart bet, but he's a very, very live underdog. At 35 and with plenty of hard miles on his body, the win would definitely be an upset, but he absolutely still has the raw power to get it done. Rogers Mtagwa had Lopez wobbling and stumbling all over the ring, and Bernabe Concepcion was able to put him down. While that was more a flash knockdown, Marquez punches harder than either of those guys, and with far more accuracy. There's a good chance this turns into a pier-six brawl and leaps into the Fight of the Year discussion. Both have that in them, and it's exactly what Marquez will probably try to bring out of Lopez. A tactical boxing affair would strongly favor the younger man, who is polished and when he does fight smart, does the job very well. I'm guessing we see Marquez go out on his shield in this one, and I don't think it lasts too long. It's been a long time since Marquez faced a guy as good as Lopez is now, and the lack of quality opposition since 2008 is a big factor to me. Lopez TKO-5