Boxing’s Five Greatest Moments: 2000-2009
It’s about the individual moments, indistinct passages of time where, as we’ll see, two minutes can seem like a second and a second can seem like two minutes…
A friend of mine, a writer and a good one, once gave me this advice:
“Never apologize. Never. Don’t be apologetic, and never apologize. If someone is taking the time to read what you’ve written, you need to at least pay them the respect of letting them believe you think you’re right, even if they don’t gree.”
Excellent advice I think, and I’ve tried my best to follow it, but here I’m breaking with it. I’m apologizing to Diego Corrales and Jose Luis Castillo, who, in spite of the fact that they turned in arguably the most staggering give-and-take duel ever seen in boxing, haven’t made the list. I’m also apologizing to their fans, and the fans of Marco Antonio Barrera, the fans of Lennox Lewis and Glen Johnson, Floyd Mayweather, Roy Jones Jr. and all the other great and good boxers to have laced them up for our entertainment in the last decade and had their own special, unforgettable moments—they’re not on the list.
That’s partly because it’s my list, and because there are only five spots on it, but more than that, this isn’t about fights or fighters, or not just about them. It’s about the individual moments they turn in, indistinct passages of time where, as we’ll see, two minutes can seem like a second and a second can seem like two minutes. These moments can’t be compared in the same way that fighters and fights can because they are as much about the instant they occurred in as they are about an integral quality. Moments are how you lived them, and how you remember them.
So, with the apologies out of the way, here is my pick of the five most heart wrenching, stomach-churning, adrenaline-pumping, air-punching, on-the-edge-then-out-of-your seat moments delivered to us by the greatest sport in the world between January 1, 2000 and December 31, 2009.
By the time of the first bell for Manny Pacquiao’s May 2009 clash with Ricky Hatton, Pacquiao had become a firm favorite. Perhaps this was due in part to Manny’s appearance, fighting at his fourth weight in as many fights, his 140 lb. debut found him looking as healthy as any fighter ever to weigh-in, looking neither gaunt nor heavy. Suddenly Hatton’s biggest advantage at the weigh-in, the weight itself, seemed to have evaporated. Pacquiao looked every bit the light welterweight as the longtime champion at that poundage. Nevertheless, Ricky had his supporters and a vocal army of fans who had traveled a great distance to see him, and it couldn’t be forgotten that “conventional wisdom hasn’t pronounced a strong favorite,” to quote The Ring, and that the expert analysis produced in Boxing Monthly hadn’t produced a favorite at all, fourteen members of the boxing fraternity picking Pacquiao, fourteen picking Hatton, including Carl Froch, Matthew Macklin and Steve Bunce.
Even those picking Pacquiao didn’t see what was coming, or anything like it. Naazim Richardson picked Manny but added that “Pacquiao will have to box Hatton; he can’t sit there and brawl with him,” before predicting a points win. David Diaz picked Pacquiao based on his boxing ability. Al Bernstein saw it going to the Filipino on a close decision. Dennis Principe of Sports News was amongst the bravest in predicting Hatton’s being stopped in the mid-rounds.
Pacquiao seemed to want to fulfill the expectations of Naazim Richardson in the first round, jabbing and moving, as Hatton pursued him aggressively trying to “put pressure on him like no one ever did before,” as Emanuel Steward put it in commentary for HBO. Those first few seconds were a success for Hatton. He scored with some cuffing punches, and twice got in Pacquiao’s space, grappling him. Pacquiao looked momentarily fragile as Hatton responded to Kenny Bayless’ command to work out of a clinch by throwing a succession of messy right hands to head and body. A hard body punch on the ropes had Manny pumping his fists to the sky in an expression of supposed contempt for The Hitman’s punches, a sure sign that the Englishman had hurt him. But suddenly Hatton looked disorganized. A re-watch would reveal two sharp right hands landed by Pacquiao in the previous thirty seconds and they were apparently sharp enough that Hatton had become disorientated. He was more disorientated moments later as Pacquiao landed the first significant left of the fight, and then Hatton was down, a clipping right hook dropping him to all fours. When Bayless waved them back together, Pacquiao began to put them together hitting Hatton nearly at will, a sensational burst of curt punches dropping him once more, right at the end of the round.
Hatton came out at the start of the second in reasonable shape and began to fight back. He landed two hard left hands on Pacquiao who seemed intent on the knockout, and although Manny was still winning the round, there were a few signs that the fight might be headed toward the competitiveness that had been nearly universally expected as the Filipino became wilder in his attack and Hatton began to exert some modicum of discipline over his own work. As the ten-second marker sounded for the end of the round the fight seemed, if not quite back on the table, at least back in the building where the negotiations were taking place, and then the moment. Hatton moved in square slightly outside Pacquiao’s right, a punch he had been feinted back with twice in quick succession moments before, tossing out his forgotten jab, perhaps trying to turn his opponent. Pacquiao sunk to his left and turned all the way through a punch Ring magazine called “hard enough to stop anyone in the 140 or 147 lb. divisions right now.”
The punch was a left hook really. Pacquiao wasn’t square when he started throwing it with his trailing hand and he certainly hadn’t switched to orthodox, but as the punch is traveling through the air, Manny is turning all the way through his hips, the punch is generating energy through his ankle, hip, wrist, he’s generating all the torque of a hook whilst gathering all the velocity associated with the straight or overhand left all targeted on the dime that was Hatton’s chin. Even for a fighter like Pacquiao, it was a once-in-a-career type punch.
Hatton was falling before the punch had finished shaking the hair on his head. He didn’t even remain conscious long enough to take the single faltering step so many knockouts generate. The punch had completely de-boned him. Hatton had no control over his arms, his legs, and for a horrible moment it seemed he had no control over his breathing. His eyes blank and unseeing, Hatton heaved for breath as Bayless began and then quickly abandoned the count. The punch was so fast as to be invisible to the naked eye, and the signals Hatton’s brain was sending to his body were shut off immediately, but the two minutes that followed as Hatton was blankly man-handled onto his side by medical staff seemed an eternity. It seemed to me that Hatton simply must have been seriously hurt, or worse. The replay, which showed an unconscious Hatton’s head connecting sickeningly with the canvas, oddly came as a genuine relief as HBO had clearly postponed the slow-motion account of the knockout until Hatton was showing signs of life.
Pacquiao landed seventy-three punches in those six minutes, but the last one was as devastating as any blow I have ever seen landed in the ring, the most memorable single blow of the decade, which resulted in the most devastating knockout, the moment that, as The Ring described it, “woke up the rest of the world to what most of us already knew: Pacquiao is a truly great fighter.”
Bernard Hopkins’ speaking days before his October 2008 meeting with Kelly Pavlik: “I got to neutralize his greatest strength, the right hand, and make it his greatest weakness. I have to convince him, in the fight, that this is different. What’s happening is different. Cos he’s in there with a different kind of guy.”
Kelly Pavlik speaking minutes after his one-sided points loss to Bernard Hopkins: “I just couldn’t get off tonight. I dunno. I throw my jabs. Something was not ticking. I really don’t know. I felt like some novice fighter in there. I couldn’t even move. When I tried to turn southpaw and flick my hand out…against 90% of fighters that works. I just couldn’t get off.”
Pre-fight, Hopkins was seen as a huge underdog, Richard Schaefer of Golden Boy Promotions producing one survey of media men that saw nine out of every ten fight guys picking Pavlik. ESPN, New York Daily News, Dan Rafael, Bert Sugar, The Wall Street Journal, Sports Illustrated, Yahoo.com, AOL Sports, Newsday…it was hard to find a newspaper, website or magazine anywhere that thought Hopkins was in with a reasonable chance. Franklin McNeil writing for the Newark Star Ledger called it a “dangerous fight for Hopkins.” Lyle Fitzsimmons wrote that the fight would be “the end of a legend” and predicted a knockout win for Pavlik. Team Pavlik member Jack Loew put it even more frankly: “There comes a time when every dog has to be put down.” Hopkins, 2-3 in his last five fights, was pilloried, at 43 he was a fighter close to being washed-up, the latest in a long line of deluded pugs who thought they could go on forever.
The day before the fight, Pavlik was a prohibitive 5-1 favorite.
I think most of these guys knew their picks were in trouble by the end of the second round. Hopkins was destroying any semblance of a rhythm in his younger opponent with footwork, feints and movement. Against Calzaghe, Hopkins had been forced to take longer strides to create the distance because of Calzaghe’s unique punching style which did not call for him to get set before throwing. Pavlik, on the other hand, was essentially a one-two artist developing a nice line in the double-jab, working calmly and effectively, but only across one plane. Hopkins therefore altered his footwork, and can be seen edging steadily backwards in small increments, forcing Pavlik to follow him in similar stages, meaning that he had to re-set over and over again. When Pavlik seemed to be getting comfortable, Hopkins would feint Pavlik or just take him slightly off the center line, no dramatic big moves allowing Pavlik to adjust with a sudden lunge or punch, small moves where The Executioner could remain on balance to punch at a moment’s notice. This he did often, jabbing to take away the jab from an off balance opponent, before leading with hooks, straights, uppercuts, bodywork. This was not just a defensive master class. In the second round, Hopkins feinted all the way in with a straight right, abandoned it, and substituted it for a harder, sharper, unseen left hook. He boxed his way around Pavlik’s static guard going upstairs and downstairs. As Pavlik put it, “He didn’t box like an old man.”
By the seventh Hopkins, “looking almost untouchable” according to TheRing, had all but mesmerized a thoroughly broken undisputed middleweight champion of the world, who finished the fight cut, battered and utterly, utterly outclassed.
One hour from Philadelphia, Hopkins had been lustily booed to the ring. At the final bell of the fight he himself called his finest performance, Pavlik’s people were in the ring challenging him. But Hopkins paid them no mind. Instead, he crossed the ring and looked over the rope into the press rows. Looking back were the men who had written him off as “no longer boxing to secure victory”, a “slow,” “heavy-footed,” “ugly fighter.” One by one, Hopkins stared down at least two rows of pressmen between the final bell and the official announcement of a wide decision, his face trembling with emotion, seemingly on the verge of tears. Hopkins had turned in a performance of such quality, of such style, but for him it was not enough. He needed to make another point, the same point Muhammad Ali made after the Rumble In The Jungle: “Never again defeat me, never again say that I’m gonna be defeated, never again make me the underdog, until I’m about fifty years old, then you might get me!” The Executioner’s challenge was not as verbal as Ali’s, but it was even more stunning. It was as chilling and emotional a moment as the decade produced and it affected me deeply. I certainly haven’t picked against him since. When he eventually loses, I’ll be more comfortable being wrong about that than I’ll feel watching Hopkins after a victory, knowing that in some way, that stare is meant for me.
#3 “Be careful!”—Jose Morales
In the dying seconds in the 11th round of his March 2005 fight with Manny Pacquiao, Erik Morales inexplicably switched to southpaw. Pacquiao was bleeding, disheartened, and behind on the scorecards when he banged in two decent right hands, “The Manila Ice” as it was called in the build-up. This was the coming out party for the Pacquiao right. Trainer Freddie Roach had stressed that he would need to become a two-handed fighter to beat Morales, that the left wouldn’t get it done. Now the party had been spoiled. But when Morales switched to southpaw, we got a glimpse of the future as Manny put in a jab and then a sharp little hook behind the glove right on the bell.
Pacquiao had gone into the fight a favorite with the bookies, his hoards of committed fans betting him into that position, but the media was less convinced. An article in the March 2nd edition of the Philippine Daily Inquirer indicated that Morales was a slight favorite:
“100 boxing editors in the United States…indicated an Erik Morales win over Manny Pacquiao on their monumental March 19 showdown…the vote was close with fifty-four choosing the Mexican and only fifty-one siding with Pacquiao.”
Morales was unquestionably as motivated as he had ever been, regarding Pacquiao as “my most important fight. We are going to have to control the rate of the fight and to make an intelligent fight. We know that he is strong and if there is a need to box we will do it, but if there is a need to exchange blows, we will also do it.”
And that is exactly what Morales proceeded to do. This is a fascinating fight, one that we could talk about day and night, but it can also be quickly summarized. That Morales was able to do so before the fight is impressive.
In the very first round Pacquiao challenged Morales, driving him back with bodywork and landing a combination when Morales hit the ropes. El Terrible’s response was immediate as he counterattacked, bulling Manny before him, across the ring, landing as he went. This was a recurring theme throughout. In essence, Morales outboxed Manny, but whenever he felt his dominance was threatened he countered with equal or greater brutality, thereby keeping himself in the box seat whilst at the same time making it practically difficult for Pacquiao to actually bank rounds. An accidental clash of heads opened a nasty cut on the Filipino’s right eye in the fifth round compounding his misery, and Pacquiao arguably did not win another round outside of the ninth, between that fifth and round 11.
It was an action fight. But although it was an action fight, it was defined by the strict discipline with which Morales fought. And then, those strange final seconds of the penultimate round. Morales at least had learned his lesson. Turning southpaw had let the trailing Pacquiao introduce his right hand, making him, for an instant, the fighter Freddie Roach claimed he needed to become to win. He wouldn’t repeat his mistake, surely.
In the Morales corner, Jose Morales knew only carelessness could cost them now.
“You got the fight in the bag,” he said. “Please, don’t get overconfident. Be careful!”
For the first minute of the 12th round, Erik took his father’s advice. Pacquiao looked disinterested, almost offering Morales a pass with some of his least aggressive boxing of the fight. Then Morales switched to southpaw again.
And hell followed with him.
Pacquiao immediately landed a sniping right hand, then another. Confusion erupted in the HBO commentary box; Roy Jones seemed almost offended. Pacquiao landed a monster right hook and Morales fired back, but for the first time neither man was giving ground. Pacquiao needed the knockout and Morales wanted…what? Pre-fight, Oscar Villalon, writing for the San Francisco Chronicle, had written that “there’s something else boxing loves just as much [as anointing a new superstar]: a fight that proves so exciting and evenly matched that it warrants a rematch…Morales already know[s] that.” Perhaps this was a business decision, a calculated action by a granite chinned fighter determined to enhance his marquee value. Perhaps it was the decade’s ultimate moment of Mexican machismo, Morales going to war in a fight he has already won simply to prove he could. After the fight, Larry Merchant asked Morales about his motivation, and Morales replied, “Did you like that?” So perhaps it was nothing more or less than a gift to boxing and the fans.
Regardless, for the last ninety seconds of the fight, the two tore each other to pieces, with Morales now relying on a one-two that was less natural, less perfect, less accurate, as well as slower. Pacquiao winged punches in mercilessly, his morale restored, his last best chance suddenly gifted to him, his punches now the neater, his pathology just as savage. With thirty seconds remaining, Morales took a step back and a deep breath, but he kept his southpaw stance. “He’s giving the fight away like this I think,” remarked a disturbed Roy Jones, unable, for all his ring genius, to understand what he was looking at.“Just stubborn…I don’t know why he would do that, that was crazy for him to do that.”
The body shot that Micky Ward landed on Arturo Gatti in the opening seconds of the ninth round of their May 2002 contest was so hard that it lifted a cyst right out of his flesh, just below Gatti’s ribcage. “I call it my Mickey Ward lump,” a grinning Gatti told Esquire in a 2004 interview, lifting his shirt to show off the scar he would carry with him for the rest of his tragically short life.
That May evening though, Gatti wasn’t grinning. In fact, he had taken a knee and looked finished. Body punches are funny, all the pros will tell you. They sap your energy, of course, but there’s also a special kind of hurt that saps the will. There is none of the numbing sensation associated with even the best headshots that allow a hurt fighter to carry on against all the better judgment of his sense of self-preservation. Until a fighter is actually unconscious or close to it, he can continue to stagger back to scratch over and over again, as Joe Frazier proved in Kingston, as Mickey Walker proved against Jack Sharkey. But a certain kind of body blow is almost impossible to survive, and surviving multiple body punches of that quality that it is almost unheard of.
When Ward, not a great fighter but definitely a great hooker, sunk in his money punch on Gatti, Emanuel Steward said as much—“This is it, it’s over, it’s not like a head punch”—as Gatti grimaced and wrestled with the contractions in his body. With two thirds of the round remaining he hauled himself up and Ward snarled into him, a right to the head, then another punishing hook to the body, a hard left hand upstairs, Gatti tried to give ground, tried to smother his body in protection, but he was frozen by that first body punch and as he was driven back to the ropes, Ward was landing. Still bent at the waist, a half-shut knife, Gatti hobbled pitifully about the ring shipping punches, the clock for the round still somehow showing over two minutes remaining. Escape seemed impossible.
Gatti refused the knee. Instead he flung out a couple of half-formed punches, more for the referee’s benefit than anything else. What was coming his way from Ward though, had slowed, and at 2:05 remaining—somehow only fifty-five seconds had passed—Gatti threw a left hook. It missed. It rolled over the top of Ward’s protected head. But for just a second, Ward stopped. It was as if he was seeing Gatti for the first time in the round, really seeing him. He had landed perhaps a dozen flush bombs including two left hooks nearly identical to the one that had dropped his man only seconds earlier, and here Gatti still stood, now somehow punching back.
The two regarded each other for a split second, the type of moment infused with a meaning that you can’t explain, and then Gatti surged into the attack, landing a wide one-two to the body that stopped Ward in his tracks, that forced him back. An uppercut. A left hook. Gatti was standing in range with his hands down protecting his body, but Ward had punched himself out. Gatti forced Ward to the ropes, punching steadily, digging through the concrete that lay at the bottom of his heart and using whatever he found there as fuel. With seventy seconds remaining Ward finally retaliated with a one-two, but he took a huge lungful of air behind it, and Gatti, now fighting like something bionic, did not even seem to notice. Ward, pinned in the corner, seemed ready to crack, but suddenly Gatti faded, and Ward was on top again, a flush left hook to the Micky Ward lump followed by a left uppercut that cannoned of Arturo’s head. Gatti was hobbled again, taking six flush head punches as he was driven back to the ropes, stooping in a pitiful echo of defense, a man looking for his contact lens.
The final second contained a Ward fade and a Ward rally and when Gatti stumbled towards his corner and out of whatever strange underworld he had spent most of the last three minutes in, he left behind a legend.
“It’s asking an awful lot of Vazquez and Marquez to expect the rubber match to be on par with the first two. Vazquez-Marquez III can’t possibly disappoint. But the guess is that it will be the least spectacular fight of the series.”—The Ring magazine
The chemistry between Israel Vazquez and Rafael Marquez was incredible. Ostensibly, Vazquez was the puncher and Marquez was the boxer, but the magical equation that drew from them perhaps the greatest trilogy in the history of boxing is far more complicated.
Firstly, Marquez could bang, but had been honed by Nacho Buristain into one of the better counterpunchers of the era, perhaps the best bantamweight technician since Orlando Canizales. Vazquez, meanwhile, could box, and had been tempered by the technique obsessed Rudy Perez into a surgical blade. These men inhabited two worlds almost diametrically opposed, their own boxing and punching attributes a ying/yang in near mirror image, the boxer who could punch, the puncher who could box. Marquez boxed and moved well in their third fight, their March 2008 masterpiece, and early on his jab did its job, keeping Vazquez outside. The final, the most crucial ingredient that a fight needs to become immortal is heart in both combatants, and these two would prove that they had it by the blood-frothed bucket-load, though here it worked against Marquez. Vazquez just didn’t care that he was walking onto the stiff jab of his great rival and he continued to walk Marquez down, scoring in the first with a rattling left hook.
Moving away in the ring is very hard unless you have balletic skills or great power if the opponent is willing to charge you down. We see here one of the crucial equations that make the masterpiece—the relationship between Marquez’s power and Vazquez’s heart. Marquez can keep Vazquez under control with the jab but crucial he cannot discourage him. The control is physical, not mental. Vazquez is going to keep coming.
Marquez knows this.
And in some corner of Marquez’s brain a voice is whispering to him that this jab is not enough, it is not an acceptable response to the left hook Vazquez landed in round one or the left hook and uppercut he lands towards the end of round two. He might be winning the rounds, but he’s not The One. He’s not The Boss. He’s controlling the action, but he’s not discouraging the man. As Marquez peers over the top of his guard and rattles out a jab in the fourth, he must know that war is coming.
For his part, Vazquez wants to be in Marquez’s space and make that war happen, but he can’t be stupid. Marquez can punch like a son-of-a-bitch and the counters are the worst. So he has to jab his way inside, fire the jab and rush, insist, insist, insist, but no final demands just yet.
The boxer who knows he has to punch.
The puncher who has to box his way inside.
By the sixth, Vazquez is walking through Marquez’s more ragged jabs, the constant pressure has taken its toll, his form is diminished by just a sliver but it’s enough, and now Marquez is a moving boxer-puncher who can only keep his man off with power punches. But he’s winning the fight. For the first time in the fourth he decided to play Vazquez’s game and he won that first salvo, forced into the exchange by Vazquez’s insistent body punching and his alarming introduction to their series of the his career-best performance with his right hand. The right hand to go with that destructive left married to the clamorous bodywork leaves Marquez surrounded and he lashes out. A dream come true, Vazquez was on the canvas looking up but the totally unconcerned look upon his face was a dangerous clue to miss. Marquez did what almost anyone would do, and attacked, and suddenly there it is, what both men and every soul in Home Depot Center in Carson, California knew as early as the first: They are trying to destroy one another. Was it happening too soon for Marquez or too late for Vazquez?
And now, in the sixth, Marquez has to admit that he needs more than the jab to keep his end of the bargain up. In the eighth, Marquez is pushing with the jab and Vazquez is getting where he needs to be more quickly, but Marquez is far from bereft inside and he takes the round on a hurtful left hook. They are fighting where Vazquez wants it now. They are painting their masterpiece on his canvas. Marquez cannot get out, he’s trapped as though by choice, the perfect give-and-take created by the perfect balance between the Vazquez chin, the tiny slippage in Marquez’s technique under pressure, the limits of his punch, the perfect reflection of their styles.
The brutality escalates. Somewhere in the chaos, Marquez has a point correctly deducted for a third low blow. The 11th is a perfect microcosm of the fight, Marquez rallying to put steam in his jab before a bionic Vazquez walks through these snapping punches, forcing toe-to-toe trading at in the final minute. At the beginning of the 12th, the fight is in the balance. Vazquez had taken on the appearance of something indestructible at the end of round 11, but he needed the 12th and final round just to draw. A Marquez rally as seen by the right judge could secure him the win.
In the first few seconds Vazquez jabbed himself into position and landed a huge right hand. The inferior Vazquez jab and the weaker of the two Vazquez hands had become key factors. A terrible left hook to the body followed as Marquez began his half-organized half-retreat, boxing backwards and clinching twice as Vazquez allowed whatever demon took possession of him at the beginning of the round full reign. He boxed as if this last round were the first, his footwork in cornering Marquez beautiful, his punching savagery personified. Marquez is so brave, so determined not to be humiliated, fighting in tiny spurts, holding onto his technique by a thread, somehow finding punches against the human chainsaw pivoting, driving him to all four corners of the ring, until finally they are in the last 10 seconds, and Vazquez is pouring and pouring it on, and Marquez cannot find the energy to punch his way out of the neutral corner and on eight seconds Vazquez lands his second flush right hand of the round sending Marquez back.
Marquez doesn’t recover his guard. Vazquez lands another flush right hand, but he’s overcommitted, both feet off the canvas, and the punch stalls just a little on impact, but it’s carried him all the way into Marquez’s space and as Marquez starts to go back, Vazquez lands a left hook.
I’m generally not critical of boxer’s bravery, but I don’t consider it beyond criticism. I think they show a fraction of the bravery of the men and women serving in Afghanistan and Iraq, a fraction of the bravery a bone marrow donor shows. But I don’t like the word like “coward.” I try to strike a balance. After all, only Bernard Hopkins can really know if his shoulder was injured enough that he could not continue against Dawson. Only Devon Alexander knows if he was so badly hurt that continuing against Bradley would have been dangerous. Only Victor Ortiz knows whether or not he could have safely continued against Maidana. But perhaps, after these fighters who commit what Cheekay Brandon called “boxing’s ultimate sin,” and quit, perhaps once they’ve seen the doctors and seen their loved ones and rested up, perhaps they should be called upon to watch the last few seconds of Israel Vazquez-Rafael Marquez III war before they give their answer. Perhaps it should be in the fight contract.
Marquez, desperate to win in a way only a warrior can understand, draped his right hand over the ropes, his back to the turnbuckle. Rather than take the knee and drop the round 10-8, he offered Vazquez the chance to tee off on him with unanswerable power punches rather than crumble under the white-hot attack. His balance is off, his right foot extended in front of him. He is the proverbial sitting duck for the division’s heaviest hands.
Watched in slow motion, it is a terrifying proposition. Paused, it is a strangely pitiful yet inspiring sight, the biggest show of heart in a ring from the last decade, maybe forever. Vazquez showed no mercy. From a crouched position he launched himself at Marquez, the kill finally in his mind’s eye. From an eerily similar crouching position, referee Pat Russell, having the best night of a superb career, launched himself at Marquez too. Vazquez gets there first and tosses a nuclear right. Marquez pulls back but takes the punch hard. Vazquez squeezes in a jab but misses with the right as Russell forces his way between them and tolled off for a furiously protesting Marquez the eight-count. Marquez was so angry at Russell for not allowing Vazquez to thrash him, and would remain inconsolable. Marquez did appear on the verge of reorganizing himself with only seconds remaining, but to allow Vazquez to punch him at will would have been criminal.
Vazquez half shrugs his shoulders as he runs to the neutral corner, perhaps as mystified as the rest of us by his astonishing 12th. His face so swollen as to look alien he watches the standing eight, moving in as the final bell rang. The two embrace in actual joy.
The judges turned in cards of 111-114, 113-112 and 114-111, a split decision win for Vazquez. Had Marquez not received the count, then the extra point on the three cards would have spelt a draw, rending James Jen-Kin’s card 113-113. Marquez’s desperate reach for the extra point had been justified.
Afterwards, Marquez, his eyes shutting, his expression far away, was asked if he felt proud of having been involved in such a fight. He reached for his waist and wordlessly mimed stroking the belt that was not there, a final moment of heartbreak.
“I feel privileged to fight him,” said Israel Vazquez.
We felt privileged to watch.