In certain respects, Marco Antonio Barrera is not your typical Mexican fighter. When compared to such compatriots as Julio Cesar Chavez, Ruben Olivares, and longtime rival Erik Morales, Barrera had a relatively placid upbringing. He was in fact born into an affluent family in Mexico City with ties to the movie industry. He didn’t need prizefighting in the same way so many more desperate fellow countrymen did. Before winning his first world title in 1995, Barrera had already enrolled in a prep school that would help segue him into his dream of becoming a lawyer.
“But the people didn’t let me retire,” Barrera said in a 1995 interview, speaking of the Mexican boxing fans who became enamored with his rising talent. Quickly becoming a fan favorite in the Fabulous Forum in Inglewood, Barrera put on a terrific show there against former champion Kennedy McKinney, making a name for himself on an international stage in the inaugural broadcast of HBO’s Boxing After Dark series.
But while a young Barrera was renowned for boxing “Mexican style,” as Gennady Golovkin would later call it, an older, more mature version of Barrera exhibited some of the cerebral craft he failed to call on in his tough defeats to Junior Jones and Erik Morales. Most notably, Barrera came in a three-to-one underdog against unbeaten featherweight sensation “Prince” Naseem Hamed before putting on a stunning boxing clinic, completely neutralizing the “Prince” behind his jab and a well executed game plan that had Hamed confused and floundering.
But after a young Manny Pacquiao steam-rolled Barrera in 2003, many thought the end had come for a great champion. That is, until November of 2004, when Barrera met reigning 130 pound champion Erik Morales for a third and final time and brilliantly out-hustled his Tijuana rival in another 12 round epic. Barrera had mounted an unexpected comeback back into the upper echelon of the sport, and despite having 63 fights and over fifteen years of combat under his belt, “The Baby-Faced Assassin” was almost as good as he ever was, a maestro in the ring with the aggressive machismo that once defined him still in reserve.
In fact, Barrera was so good in 2006 that many overlooked challenger Rocky Juarez, despite the younger man’s explosive one-punch power and decorated amateur pedigree. A 2000 Olympic Silver Medalist, Juarez scored the 2003 Knockout of the Year against Antonio Diaz with a shot that made just about everyone take notice. But Juarez’s weakness was his over-reliance on his power, as many thought he almost gave away his fight against Zahir Raheem in 2004 before losing his unbeaten record at the hands of Humberto Soto the following year. Heading into the Staples Center to face Barrera in 2006, Juarez wasn’t given much of a chance against The Ring‘s number three ranked pound-for-pound fighter in the world.
But despite being the underdog, Juarez made a statement early, wobbling the champion with a hard left hook to the temple at the end of round three. It was clear that Juarez was not content with being outworked in the same manner as he had been in his disappointing performances against Soto and Raheem, and was bringing the fight to the veteran champion. Barrera’s biggest weapon early was his left jab, which the veteran timed in such a way that Juarez could not anticipate it as he tried to work inside Marco’s patented range-finder.
A fight broke out in the sixth as the champion began to trade freely in close quarters with Juarez, Barrera getting the better of the combat as he began to put the dangerous challenger on the retreat. “El Barreta” had another strong round in the seventh, but by the eighth Juarez was putting pressure on the old champion, who was starting to look uncomfortable.
Round ten featured some of the best two-way action of the fight. Juarez began the round fighting brilliantly on the inside, ripping well-placed uppercuts and hooks under and around the guard as Barrera languished in close. But then the champion picked up steam as he drove Rocky back to the ropes and connected with combinations of his own. Determined to get the last word in, Juarez then struck with a straight right hand which had the old champion stiff-legged against the ropes. It was possibly just enough to secure the round for the challenger and bring the contest even closer on the cards.
Bleeding from the nose and small cuts over both eyes, “The Baby-Faced Assassin” looked like an old Aztec warrior as he went toe-to-toe and punch-for-punch with Juarez in the following round, giving as good as he got despite appearing battered and exhausted. And in the closing stanza it was Barrera who boxed with intelligence and authority, his late surge securing a close victory on the scorecards, though when Michael Buffer stepped into the ring to announce the winner, it was still any man’s fight. Originally, Buffer announced the fight as a split draw, not a disagreeable outcome, but shortly later it was announced that the scores were tabulated incorrectly and that in fact Barrera had won by split decision.
While Barrera could have marched forward with his career by taking on less risky fights, Marco chose to give the game challenger from Houston a second chance just four months later, claiming “it’s for all the people, for myself, and to put all the controversy to rest.” And the aging Mexican legend once more rose to the occasion and won Barrera vs Juarez II in more decisive fashion, although this would be the last significant victory of his celebrated career. In his next fight Barrera would go out in style in a spirited but losing effort against Juan Manuel Marquez, and despite one-sided losses to Manny Pacquiao and Amir Khan in the twilight of his career, by then the legacy of one of Mexico’s all-time greatest boxers was more than secure. — Alden Chodash