Thursday, October 28, 2010

Lopez vs. Marquez rekindles a rich rivalry

With a relatively light weekend of MMA, no disrespect to Bellator 34, my focus this week turns from the octagon to the squared circle and an intriguing fight next weekend on Saturday November 6, 2010. It's the WBO featherweight championship fight between titleholder and number one ranked featherweight in the world Juan Manuel Lopez (29-0, 26 KO's) and the number four ranked Rafael Marquez (39-5, 35 KO's).

Besides this being a fantastic match-up of two great fighters at the top of their game, there is another reason why I have a vested interest in this fight. Lopez vs. Marquez rekindles a rich rivalry in boxing that has lied dormant for over ten years now; it is the one that exists between Puerto Rico and Mexico. Two extremely proud Latin countries that each have a long storied tradition in boxing and against each other.

Legendary names of Puerto Rican champions such as Esteban De Jesus, Alfredo 'El Salsero' Escalera, and my personal favorite Wilfredo 'El Radar' Benitez were just some of the few fighters I remember my uncles and their friends watching and talking about constantly when I was growing up in New York. However, there was one more thing I noticed that was embedded in me for as long as I can remember. That was the cultural pride that took place whenever a Puerto Rican fighter stepped into the ring. Never was this more evident though than when he did so in a major fight against a Mexican fighter.

In my lifetime, there are three of these rivalry matches that personally stand out in my mind and I remember them each clearly along with the feeling I had then, as though they all took place yesterday. The first one was in the summer of '81, right before the beginning of my sophomore year in college. I was 18 years old and one of my cultural heroes Wilfredo 'Bazooka' Gomez was defending his featherweight title against the young Mexican phenom, the late great, Salvador Sanchez.

Till that moment in his career, Gomez had never tasted defeat and although Sanchez came into the bout with an impressive (40-1) record, no one, especially me thought he could defeat the great Puerto Rican champion. Thus, you can imagine my shock and subsequent disappointment when Sanchez handled Gomez and ultimately won via TKO in the 8th round.

My heart was broken and I'm not ashamed to say I shed a few tears when I saw our Puerto Rican hero destroyed. It's hard to explain unless you're emotionally and culturally invested. Sadly, a rematch was never to be as almost a year to the day later, Sanchez would die in a car crash.

Alas, it would be six years till another fight of that magnitude would take place between Puerto Rico and Mexico and it did in November '87 when Edwin 'Chapo' Rosario' would defend his WBA lightweight title against the great Mexican super featherweight champion Julio Cesar Chavez. Now a grown man, weeks away from my 25th birthday, I just knew 'Chapo' with that devastating right hand of his would not only hand Chavez his first defeat in 57 fights, but would also avenge the sting of Gomez losing to Sanchez six years earlier.

Once again I suffered shock, disappointment and sadness as Chavez pummeled Rosario over ten rounds, eventually swelling his left eye shut and forcing the referee to stop the fight. 'Chapo' fought valiantly, but was no match for Chavez who was clearly at the top of his game at that time and just coming into his own as a major star.

It would be 12 long years before I got to experience and witness another landmark fight between two fighters from these very proud countries. During that time I was starting to wonder if Puerto Rico could ever overcome Mexico in a big fight. This time the match would pit two 26 year old undefeated welterweight champions in their prime against each other. Floyd Mayweather, Jr. and Manny Pacquiao should take a lesson.

Puerto Rican IBF champion Felix 'Tito' Trinidad faced off against 'The Golden Boy' Oscar De La Hoya, the WBC champ, on September 18, 1999, in what some were billing "the fight of the century." While the fight never lived up to those lofty standards, it was a good one and unlike the previous two, this one went the distance.

Also unlike the previous two, this time the Puerto Rican fighter was the victor. I know many are going to rant that De La Hoya won the fight and that's fine, to each his own. However, in the eyes of the three judges, Trinidad won and if you look at the fight objectively with no sound, like I did afterwards, you will see that each fighter in my estimation won six rounds; it was that close.

The feeling of elation and pride I felt when the ring announcer read the decision was immense. For so long I'd waited to experience that feeling and it finally came. However, it's been 11 years since that night and while Miguel Cotto may have faced Antonio Margarito two years ago and lost, the suspicion and circumstantial evidence surrounding Margarito sort of makes that bout null and void in my eyes.

So I turn to next week and the anticipation of a truly great fight between two featherweights that will not only give there all for themselves, but for their respective countries as well. As a journalist, I try to remain unbiased. However, my heart tells me I have to pull for Juan Ma, which is exactly what I'll do; because Lopez vs. Marquez rekindles a rich rivalry in boxing and win or lose, I can't wait to see it.

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