By Tom Gray: He speaks in a quiet and unassuming tone, frequently avoiding eye contact, as he reminisces on a spectacular twenty two year professional career which may still not have come to an end.
His face belies the sacrifice of that journey and a stranger would never guess that this diminutive and innocent looking man was once a glorious gladiator, who waged war against some of the finest fighters in the world.
Amongst his rivals were Prince Naseem Hamed, Junior Jones, Kennedy McKinney, Juan Manuel Marquez, Manny Pacquiao, Johnny Tapia and of course, his fiercest foe, Erik “El Terrible” Morales.
The great Marco Antonio Barrera captured world titles at super bantamweight, featherweight and super featherweight, thrashing his way through opposition with a vicious, yet ultra-talented, style which captivated fans the world over. Indeed his legendary status and Hall of Fame credentials were assured almost ten years before his formidable skills began to fade.
Throughout his career his versatility as a fighter was undeniable as was his somewhat surprising talent scholastically. The Baby Faced Assassin studied law for three years at La Salle’s College in Mexico and still vows to one day complete his degree. The Barrera family wanted a lawyer but they were forced to settle for a legendary warrior who dealt out his own special brand of fistic justice.
Barrera, who now makes his home in Guadalajara, was a celebrated amateur who lost only four times in over one hundred contests, picking up five Mexican titles along the way.
“I just loved boxing but at fifteen years old I was bored at amateur level and didn’t find it fulfilling,” recalls the Mexico City star. “I pressured my parents and trainers to falsify the necessary paperwork because you had to be seventeen and I didn’t want to wait any longer. This was the sport I really liked - it was my life.”
The premature professional had promised his family that if he didn’t make it in boxing he would return to university and fulfil their ambitions for him to enter law. Unfortunately his parent’s hopes were dashed when Barrera took his first world title from Daniel “Cobrita” Jimenez at the age of twenty one.
“I’m frequently asked about my match with Kennedy McKinney but my first world title fight was harder. I was a 115lb fighter and was forced to come all the way up to 122lbs because none of the champions in my weight class would face me.”
If prospective opponents were looking in the opposite direction it was understandable. By the time Barrera squared off against “Poison” Junior Jones in November 1996, he was 43-0 (31KO’s) and the natural successor to fellow Mexican great, Julio Cesar Chavez.
That said, in boxing it only takes one shot and Jones, a tall boxer puncher from the Thomas Hearns mould, landed a rocket right hand in the fifth round which decked Barrera in an eye blink. The Mexican sensation was badly hurt but made it to his feet before a follow up assault prompted his trainers to enter the ring when the round was still in progress.
The official result for that infringement was a DQ loss but Barrera, for all intents and purposes, had been stopped.
Jones repeated his win over Barrera on points and, despite the fight being extremely close, the vanquished warrior decided to take time off from the sport.
“Junior Jones’ style was difficult to solve,” states the Barrera with a sigh. “He was able to box well, use his reach and he made things very difficult for me. In a way I’m glad I had those setbacks because I learned more from defeat than I did from victory.”
The former champion continues; “From that point onwards I took fights more seriously, trained harder and refused to take anyone for granted. My trainers and I worked on polishing my boxing skills after the Jones losses and I was more careful defensively.”
The big test for Barrera’s improved skill set came in February 2000 against fellow Mexican super star, Erik “El Terrible” Morales. In light of an easy fourth round knockout of Junior Jones and an undefeated record, the Tijuana fire cracker was installed as a huge favourite. Still, despite the odds, Barrera was determined to take his opponent to hell and back.
“I knew it was going to be a hard fight because there was so much animosity,” reminisced the former champion of the potent rivalry which electrified the modern era. “When the fight was in progress I had no idea how great it was because we were both caught in the heat of the moment and pumped with adrenalin.”
Morales was awarded a controversial split decision but Barrera had made his point in one of the greatest fights in boxing history. He was back with a vengeance, stronger than ever, and Mexican fans were no longer convinced that Morales was the best fighter within their boxing rich landscape.
England’s Prince Naseem Hamed was an undefeated superstar who had made his name, not only in Britain but across the Atlantic. His showboating arrogance juxtaposed with bionic punching power had made The Prince a huge box office attraction and he entered the ring with Barrera as favourite at the MGM Grand in April 2001.
The Baby Faced Assassin could not get to Vegas quick enough.
“I changed my style, fought a more defensive fight and attacked Hamed from angles,” states Barrera with a look of contentment. “I’m happy that I beat Naz and was very surprised that, by doing so, the people in Great Britain accepted me. That was just the opposite of what I had expected.”
Barrera’s place within the pound for pound rankings was bolstered further when he avenged his loss to Morales. He was now firmly established as the undisputed King of Mexico.
More impressive performances followed before Barrera was matched with a southpaw dynamo by the name of Manny Pacquiao in November 2003. The affable Filipino was a two weight world champion but Barrera was considered, by most experts, as too experienced and the odds reflected that sentiment.
The boxing world was in for one big surprise.
“Manny was relatively unknown when we met the first time but all of a sudden I was in an extremely tough battle and I couldn’t solve the style,” remarks Barrera with a hint of frustration at his astonishing eleventh round stoppage defeat.
“We fought twice and although I lost both times, I’m at peace. I didn’t lose to just anyone, I lost to someone who is exceptional and to this day Manny is still regarded as one of the best fighters in the world.”
There was still one challenge which could not be ignored. While Morales was a countryman, Juan Manuel Marquez was a virtual neighbour, who hailed from Barrera’s home province of Mexico City. Although there was literally no animosity between the two, the fight was a natural and a classic waiting to happen.
The two decorated warriors were at their very best at the Mandalay Bay in March 2007 and it was difficult to pick the winner after twelve talent splashed rounds. At least it was difficult for unofficial scorers.
Officially, Marquez was declared a runaway winner by unanimous decision; 116-111, 116-111 and astonishingly 118-109. The great Barrera’s work had not been appreciated by the Vegas judges and, as a result, his immense fighting spirit seemed to be tragically extinguished by three surprisingly wide and controversial scorecards.
“After the fight I was very sad,” states Barrera recalling his emotions. “I asked Marquez if he felt like a winner and he said it was the judge’s decision but I have never agreed with it. Juan knows in his heart that he lost and, better still, I know it.”
There was yet another high profile defeat at the hands of Amir Khan, who met Barrera in March 2009, at the MEN Arena in Manchester. The Mexican was cut brutally by a clash of heads in the first round and the blood soaked affair was awarded to the home fighter by technical decision after five rounds.
“That wasn’t even a real fight!” barks the future Hall of Famer incredulously.
Barrera will be forever linked to Erik Morales and, like Ali and Frazier before them, the fascination with their great trilogy travels beyond the ethics of sport into an indescribable area that only the fighters share. The Baby Faced Assassin bested El Terrible twice and his contentment at that particular statistic is visceral.
“There is always respect between fighters but things are always the same between us, he just doesn’t like me,” states Barrera with an abrupt shrug. “Seriously, I wish Morales all the luck in the world and it’s a great thing that he’s still fighting. With myself, if I got a good offer then I would maybe take one or two fights but, if not, I am content with everything that I accomplished.”
Rest assured El Grande Campeon - so are we.
Please follow Tom Gray on twitter.com/#!/tgraysecondsout
May 18, 2012