The highly anticipated rematch between the two best super bantams in the world, Rafael Marquez and Israel Vazquez, was dubbed by many as “The Beginning of Round Eight.”
Their first engagement, last March, went seven tremendous rounds. The 21 minutes of toe-to-toe action displayed boxing at its finest—technical superiority and blunt savagery in equal parts. But a bad injury to Vazquez’s nose forced him to retire when he could no longer breathe though his nostrils. Though truncated, the bout has been one of the leading contenders for Fight of the Year.
Vazquez had struggled in the early rounds but was coming on hard when the fight was stopped. Israel is convinced that were it not for his damaged schnoz, he would’ve turned the tide and stopped Marquez. He said the second time, no matter what, he would fight through any amount of pain, pay any price, to claim victory. He said he needed to win, that reclaiming his WBC belt meant everything.
Fighters often say such things before a big bout. But most don’t really mean it.
When Israel says it, you can believe it.
Fighters like him—and the magnificent Nacho Beristain-trained Marquez—are a special breed. These Mexico City natives (Israel actually trains in L.A.) have the toughness and skill to compete in any era, against any level of opposition.
Saturday’s bout, broadcast on Showtime from the Dodge Arena in Hildago, Texas, should’ve been called “Round Eight—And Then Some!” Because Vazquez not only picked up where he left off, he took it to another level.
This, in spite of the fact he underwent surgery for his nose after their first fight—leaving himself precious little time to heal—and divorced his trainer Freddy Roach for a laundry list of other A-list trainers, before settling on Rudy Perez. Perez has worked almost exclusively with Marco Antonio Barrera for the past 17 years, and is therefore not as popular as ubiquitous upstarts like Buddy McGirt.
Looks like the fighter and his new trainer are a great fit. Referee Guadalupe Garcia stopped the bout at 1:16 of the sixth, when he deemed Marquez unfit to continue.
Vazquez, who along with his rival came in a pound under the super bantam limit of 122, improves to 42-4 (31). And Marquez, a bantam (118) for the first 11 years of his career, is now 37-4 (33).
Some will argue the stoppage was too quick. Showtimes’s boxing analyst Al Bernstein made this point vehemently. I beg to differ. And I am generally one who believes a fighter of Marquez’s caliber and renowned punching power deserves every chance to prove he isn’t finished.
But he had had enough of Vazquez’s heavy hands. There was a vital second or two where he was no longer defending himself well, and seemingly unable to launch an offense. The ref’s attitude was, let the brave champion live to fight another day.
Indeed he will: a few minutes after the fight, the mini gladiators stood next to each other, smiling, holding up three fingers. Once the cuts heal and the drums have been beaten, they will undoubtedly complete a trilogy that—if the third fight is anything like the first two—will be regarded among modern classics like Gatti-Ward and Barrera-Morales, or even the sepia-toned stuff of old—Ali-Frazier, Graziano-Zale.
I was glad to see Rafael smiling afterwards. He ought to be proud of his effort. He gave as good he got, until he had nothing left. It was nip and tuck practically the whole way. And, besides, he’s making history! These duels will be celebrated and studied long after the combatants are dust, as well as those who witnessed them. (I’m definitely burning a disc or two for posterity.)
The vast majority (77%) of viewers polled by Showtime believed Marquez would win the rematch. But the opening round showed both men accomplishing their presumed game plan. Vazquez used an effective jab to get inside and connect with left hooks—his money shot. While Marquez ate several of those, and was knocked backwards a couple times, he was landing straight rights and uppercuts on Israel’s tender nose. The pace was brisk, even by super bantam standards.
With a minute left in the second, Al Bernstein said, “There are so many good punches being thrown in this fight that trying to keep track of them is tricky for the judges as well as us.” It didn’t get any easier upon review. Both fighters threw unaccountable, hard, well-executed jabs, hooks, uppercuts, and straight rights. The infighting was nonpareil. Defense was never abandoned, à la Gatti-Ward I, but they were so committed to their respective offenses that something had to give.
Entering the third, Vazquez had a small cut on the bridge of his nose. And Marquez, certainly one of the best conditioned athletes I’ve ever seen, was breathing hard.
30 seconds into the round, Israel landed one of his vintage left hooks up top. It wobbled Marquez badly. The champion showed poise and grit; holding on when he must and firing back when he could.
Left hooks from Marquez opened a cut outside of Vazquez’s right eye, and the other one was getting angry. Rafa’s legs were still not completely beneath him with a minute left, but his hands more than made up for it. Vazquez never acknowledged the blood flowing from his face and showed no give as the two traded right though the bell.
Up to now, this was Corrales-Castillo I all over again—or dare I say, even better?
The appreciative crowd—composed of real fights fans, not Las Vegas whales—stood and cheered and clapped their hands above their heads.
Nacho Beristain, who does everything in the corner, took care of a new cut that had formed below Rafa’s right eye going into the fourth. The fine cut man Joe Chavez undoubtedly had his hands full with Vazquez, who looked like he saw the wrong end of a set of Ginsu knives.
A minute into the fourth, Marquez—still on unsteady legs—dug a left hook to the body that sent Vazquez reeling backwards. (Israel does not go backwards, unless it’s an involuntary response.) He recovered quickly. Soon the two were back to trading on equal terms. Rafa finished the round with devastating combinations from the outside that had Vazquez resembling a Bobblehead doll. He then took it to Israel’s body for good measure.
By the fifth, the blood flowing into Vazquez’s eyes was now an irritant he could no longer ignore; it had him blinking. But he would never so much as wipe it away with his gloves. That would be a sign of difficulty and stress the supremely proud man wouldn’t allow. Besides, he never lost focus or willingly compromised himself: boxing gloves are meant to be held high to protect one’s face, not wipe a little blood away.
In spite of the above, Vazquez’s short tight punches had lost none of their snap. His legs looked solid as ever as he pressed forward. Rafa, on the other hand, was beginning to push his jab. It was getting harder for him to keep Israel from entering the front door. And at his own peril, he opened his mouth during exchanges to gulp down extra oxygen.
The pace slowed a tad in the fifth, as the two continued to inflict serious damage to each other. With 47 seconds left in the round, Vazquez was knocked down. It was ruled a slip, and he rose quickly.
Al Bernstein said it was a good call and, reviewing it in slo-mo between rounds, told viewers that their legs had gotten tangled. Not so. They had simultaneously landed left hooks upstairs but Rafa’s was a little shorter and got there faster. It was a clean knockdown—though, admittedly, a hard one to call without pouring over the sequence like it was the Zapruder film.
The rest of the round was constant action with neither giving any quarter.
Fifteen seconds into the sixth, Israel landed a three-punch combo you couldn’t draw up better: left to the body, short right uppercut, and a left hook to the jaw Rafa never saw coming. He took the eight-count and tried to walk it off. His face was a mask of exhaustion.
When the fighting commenced Vazquez wouldn’t let him breathe. The attack lasted for what must have been the longest 40 seconds of his life. Marquez did punch back here and there, but there was nothing on his punches.
The ref knew what he was looking at and stopped it at the perfect time. Rafa was too dazed and weary to argue the call—that should tell you all you everything. Israel’s redemption was complete and well-earned. All three judges had Vazquez up 48-47 at the time of stoppage.
Was a Chico Corrales-type comeback prevented? I highly doubt it. It would’ve taken a miracle. Do I believe in miracles? Sure. But they either happen or they don’t.
* * *
The warm-up act between WBA super bantam champ Celesinto Cabalerro and opponent Jorge Lacierva was often a dirty, grueling affair that will be forgotten that much sooner because of what took place in the main event.
Celestino won a 12-round UD by scores of 116-110, 115-112 and 116-11.
The 5’11’’ Panamanian beanstalk Caballero came in at 121 and upped his mark to 27-2 (18). Giving up seven inches in height, the plucky Lacierva gave his best, but now falls to 32-7-6 (22).
The fight was definitely tougher than expected for the gifted Caballero, who made his first major statement in 2005 when he thoroughly out-boxed—and sometimes out-slugged—then undefeated banger Daniel Ponce de Leon. In 2006, he took the WBA title via TKO 3 from Somsak Sithchatchawal in his native Thailand. Last march he spanked Ricardo Castillo, forcing Castillo’s famous older brother to throw in the towel on his behalf.
At 31, Celestino is not a kid. The question is how good is he? Can he hang with a Marquez or Vazquez? I don’t want to make a prediction based on how he looked last Saturday—that would be a no brainer. I’d like to see him unify against IBF titlist Steve Molitor and, should he succeed, someday get a crack at the division’s two best.
Beyond his incredible physical proportions, what’s remarkable about the southpaw Caballero is his willingness and ability to bang on the inside. Although he has a great jab and straight left, an uppercut thrown in close quarters might be his best punch.
Maybe his defense needs some sharpening, though. Laceirva landed quite a few rights early on. When Caballero finally started using his jab and establishing his range on the outside, he pulled away easily.
Both fighters fouled and clinched way too much and forced the third man to play an active role. Never a good thing.