Barrera's winding road to greatness

By Matthew Aguilar


Barrera's winding road to greatness

It was early 1996, and Julio Cesar Chavez - though he was heading into a showdown with the younger, bigger Oscar De La Hoya - was in the twilight of his magnificent career.

In recent years, he had been provided a gift draw against Pernell Whitaker. A gift victory against Frankie Randall. And a tougher-than-expected battle by the very ordinary David Kamau.

The end was near for the greatest Mexican boxer of all time, and even Chavez's rabid, loyal supporters knew it.

So the search began for a new Mexican hero.

One of the candidates was this Marco Antonio Barrera kid out of Mexico City, a rough-and-tumble hombre who bore more than just a little resemblence to Chavez himself.

Like Chavez, Barrera earned a following in the Los Angeles area. Like Chavez, he fought often - six times in 1994 and five times in 1995. And, like Chavez, Barrera had ripped through some very good fighters in his early years - fighters like Frank Toledo (KO 2), Agapito Sanchez (W 12) and Eddie Croft (KO 7).

And, like Chavez, he had picked up his first world title in an under-the-radar slugfest in L.A. Undoubtedly, the parallels were there. But the Mexican fans wanted more confirmation.

They got it on Feb. 3, 1996.

That was the night Barrera stepped in the ring with Kennedy McKinney, a 1988 American Olympian who was a former world champion and, up to that point, the most formidable challenge of the "Baby-Faced Assassin's" career. The young champion did not disappoint.

Barrera was a whirlwind against the more experienced McKinney, attacking from all angles and throwing that patented Mexican left hook to the liver like generations of his countrymen before him. McKinney, proud and dangerous himself, refused to back down, engaging his adversary punch-for-punch. It made for one of the more memorable boxing matches of the 1990s. Even the seasoned HBO crew at ringside, Jim Lampley, Larry Merchant and then-light heavyweight champ Roy Jones Jr., could barely contain themselves, shrieking with excitement after every brutal exchange.

It was that good.

It was a baptism-by-fire for Mexico's next would-be great, and he passed the acid test with flying colors. Barrera knocked McKinney down four times, but was forced to climb off the canvas himself - perhaps an indication that his career would not exactly mirror Chavez's. Regardless, Barrera was now a "made" man, after finally ridding himself of the stubborn McKinney via 12th-round knockout. A made man and a legend-in-the-making.

Marco Antonio Barrera had arrived.

No one, not even Barrera himself, could have imagined the topsy-turvy path his career would take from there. And though he eventually did become a great champion - he is surely one of the top 10 greatest Mexican fighters in history - his greatness wasn't always as evident as it appeared that magic night against McKinney.

There were the trip-ups against Junior Jones, a 6-1 underdog who knocked Barrera flat just nine months after the McKinney victory. It was a painful night for Mexican fans, who were suddenly watching Thomas Hearns-Pipino Cuevas all over again.

Things improved slightly in the rematch with Jones, as Barrera fought smarter and better. The decision was close, but Jones still won it. Barrera disappeared for three years, seemingly in boxing hibernation.

And then there was the brutal knockout at the hands of Filipino superstar Manny Pacquiao in 2003, effectively ending the second phase of Barrera's Lazarus-like career. Like the first Jones fight, Barrera was dominated - thrashed, in fact. It was hard for Mexican fans to watch. And though he dropped Pacquiao in the first round, Barrera regressed from there. He was no contest for the Tazmanian Devil in front of him, and Barrera was stopped in 11 rounds.

But, through all that, Barrera has stayed the course, and thrived - recording victories against the best fighters of his generation.

The first comeback started on Feb. 19, 2000, the night Barrera first challenged his rival for Mexican supremacy, defending WBC featherweight champ Erik Morales.

In a fight so fierce that Barrera-McKinney actually paled in comparison, the kid from Mexico City - no longer a kid and no longer baby-faced - took it right to his rival. Right about the time the supposedly fresher, better Morales appeared to have the fight in hand, Barrera would roar back and stagger a shocked champion.

It was 12 rounds of fury. Maybe, just maybe, the greatest fight of the past quarter-decade. In the end, Barrera lost a disputed (read: outrageous) split decision - even after dropping Morales in the final round. Barrera was bitterly disappointed. But it didn't matter, really. He was back, and on the radar again.

A year later, Barrera was an underdog again versus England's flashy "Prince" Naseem Hamed, a ridiculous 4-1 favorite. Sure, Hamed could punch a little bit. But he had never shown the kind of discipline and pure talent that Barrera had shown throughout his career. But, by virtue of Barrera's knockout loss to Jones five years earlier, experts figured Hamed's punch was too much for Barrera's chin.

They figured that, eventually, Barrera's Mexican, brawling style would prove his undoing.

They thought wrong.

Showing his versatility for the first time in his career, Barrera outboxed and outfoxed a confused Hamed, who had obviously prepared for a different fight. Barrera kept the fight at long range, and kept the exchanges at a minimum. At a distance, the disparity in talent between the two fighters was obvious. Hamed was outclassed for 12 rounds.

In the final round, Barrera put Hamed in a headlock and slammed the Englishman's head into a turnbuckle. Referee Joe Cortez docked him a point. But it didn't matter. His point had been made, and Barrera won an easy 12-round decision. And recognition as one of the best pound-for-pound fighters in his sport.

Two more victories over Morales followed - one of them controversial, the other not so much. The finale to their trilogy was on par with the first slugfest, a "Thrilla in Manila"-style ending to one of the greatest feuds in modern boxing history.

Now, after all of that, Barrera is in another potential war, against another Mexican opponent - Juan Manuel Marquez. It's shocking that the two warriors have never met previously, but there is promise that the pair will make up for lost time. It should be a great one.

Win or lose, Marco Antonio Barrera's place in Mexican boxing history - and boxing history in general - is secure. And while his career didn't exactly mirror that of the greatest Mexican practitioner of all time, Chavez, it still compares favorably to it, and anyone else's.

Yes, the Mexican boxing fans found another hero in 1996. Now, they're just savoring it all. Because one day, they know, like Chavez's, it will end.


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