I once encountered Juan Manuel Marquez on Wilshire Boulevard in downtown Los Angeles. I called his name and he turned around, seemingly surprised that anybody recognized him in that part of town.
His lack of pretension matched the man. There was no entourage, no bodyguards or flunkies, just "Dinamita" and a couple of family members. We engaged in a brief conversation, limited by my woeful lack of Spanish, and parted company, only to meet again when we were seated next to each other at the annual Tecate Premios Deporte Awards a few days later.
That same week, Michael Jackson died shortly after rehearsing at the Staples Center, the venue for that Saturday's brawl between Marcos Maidana and Victor Ortiz. When I returned to the Biltmore Hotel following the fight, Marquez was in the ballroom, watching guests dance to Jackson's music in what seemed to be part celebration, part wake.
We exchanged greetings, and when I asked Marquez what he thought about Jackson's demise, the boxer glanced down at the floor, shook his head sadly and took a sip of the beer he was nursing.
The "King of Pop" was a victim of his lost childhood and the burden of an all-devouring fame. He lived in a bizarre world of his own design where he needed massive doses of medication just to make it through the days and nights of his private hell.
Marquez will never know that kind of celebrity or that kind of torment, but he is, nevertheless, one of a handful of fighters whose name is recognized by general sports fans. He has earned tens of millions of dollars with his fists and is a beloved superstar in his native Mexico. That's enough to throw a lot of fighters off kilter, but not Marquez, who is as balanced in his life as he is on the balls of his feet inside a boxing ring.
He is admired for his mastery of the sweet science but beloved for his tenacity and willingness to fight through adversity. It was these attributes that allowed him to survive three first-round knockdowns and battle back to earn a draw in his first fight with Manny Pacquiao in 2004. "PacMan" had forced Marquez out of his comfort zone and into a struggle for survival, which resulted in the first epic fight of the Mexican's career.
Gradually, over the course of a decade and three more fights with Pacquiao, Marquez became increasingly aggressive without forsaking his technical expertise, and last Saturday's fight with Mike Alvarado was the latest manifestation of that agreeable transformation.
Like the ebb and flow of the incoming tide, the Alvarado fight took on a rhythmic repetition as the movement of the boxers was reiterated again and again in a violent pattern that seldom varied. The crowd of 12,090 was ecstatic, enthralled by Marquez's spellbinding display of controlled aggression. Shouts of "Olé" reverberated through the renovated and reopened Inglewood Forum like it was 1995, the year a baby-faced Marquez first fought at the fabled Southern California venue.
His performance was aided in no small way by having the perfect bull in front of him -- one that charged straight and true, directly into the same trap, time after time. But the precision and grace with which he fought -- just close enough to the edge to make it interesting -- was riveting stuff.
Alvarado's face soon became a welter of cuts and contusion, one of his eyes grotesquely lacerated and swollen. He wore a look of grim resignation as his tormentor inflicted pain and moved around the ring on legs that knew where to go without being told.
It was a performance uncannily similar to one Pacquiao gave against Antonio Margarito in 2010, when Manny's artful assault and Margarito's stubborn courage combined to create a fight that gratified both the lust for violence as well as the quest for expertise. That the losers in both instances remained dangerous to the end provided the tension required to convert spectacle into drama and turn a pair of essentially one-sided fights into compelling struggles.
Marquez and Pacquiao have now reached a point where they go about their business in roughly the same manner. That could be a bad thing, except for the fact that there is every indication they won't hesitate to abandon caution when the situation calls for it. Their fourth fight, when both suffered knockdowns before Marquez flattened Manny with a single punch, is a recent and obvious example.
While the media and public continues to pine for a match between Pacquiao-Floyd Mayweather Jr., Marquez and Manny have already given the sport a series of enthralling fights that will be remembered long after the whining about the lack of a Mayweather-Pacquiao bout has faded into a forgotten footnote.
Back when Mayweather-Pacquiao fever was at its pitch, I cautioned that the clash of styles wouldn't necessarily have resulted in an exciting fight. It wasn't a knock on either fighter, just an educated hunch. Sometimes it just happens that way, even in the most anticipated matches.
I still feel a flush of annoyance when the showdown between Oscar De La Hoya and Felix Trinidad in 1999 is mentioned. It was a massive disappointment, and I'm not talking about the controversial decision. It was a lousy fight, void of highlights and fought in a mechanical fashion without a scintilla of passion between them. It was arguably the biggest letdowns in careers of two great fighters whose reputations were built on engaging in fan-friendly fights.
The pairing of Marquez and Pacquiao, on the other hand, is a brand we can trust. We've seen them go at it for 42 captivating rounds, a duo so closely matched that there is still doubt, despite Marquez's emphatic victory in the most recent meeting, as to who is the better fighter.
Since that career-defining triumph, circumstances have changed. Marquez has lost to Timothy Bradley Jr., who in turn lost to Pacquiao. Moreover, it's fair to say that Pacquiao's margin of victory over Bradley was more comprehensive than Bradley's win over Marquez. That doesn't mean Pacquiao is necessarily going to beat Marquez should they fight again, but it certainly adds another layer of intrigue to an enthralling series that has never failed to satisfy.
There are fans who don't want to see Marquez and Pacquiao fight a fifth time and would prefer to see the old guard take on young bloods such as the unbeaten duo of Shawn Porter and Keith Thurman. But even setting aside the political hurdles blocking these matches, Porter and Thurman are nowhere near sufficiently established to uphold their end of a pay-per-view attraction. Not yet anyway and maybe never.
The recent decline of both Pacquiao and Mayweather's sales numbers have emphasized the necessity of marquee participants, preferably in matches where both have a reasonable chance of winning. A fifth Pacquiao-Marquez fight fits both criteria and is likely to be another rousing affair, maybe even one that stirs the blood and makes us forget about all unsatisfying PPVs that have taxed our patience and looted our bank accounts.
Universal agreement as to what is pleasing and what is not is both an undesirable and unachievable goal, but there has been, for most of boxing history, a general agreement as to what constitutes a good fight. It is, of course, about courage and adversity, dedication and skill, the give-and-take of unarmed combat and the will to carry on when surrender is not an option.
In other words, it's about the entirety of the human condition, both the good and the bad, laid bare for all to see, which gives boxing its enduring appeal. When legendary matchmaker Teddy Brenner famously said there was no place in boxing for perfection, he wasn't just talking about neglected virtuoso Harold Johnson. He was talking about the public's craving for drama, a condition that can't exist in a perfect world.
Therefore, Mayweather's emergence as boxing's biggest and highest-paid attraction has been a culture shock of seismic proportions. His breathtaking talent and achievements are irrefutable, but virtually all the drama has come outside the ring. He is unique in this -- the only boxer in history to climb so high on the strength of an undefeated record, littered with fights as void of excitement as 12 rounds of shadow boxing.
There is a certain beauty in the elegant manner in which Floyd employs his cosmic skill set, as well as unanimous respect for the demanding work ethic required to do what he does. But if "Money" Mayweather is the avatar of a new ethos, boxing just might be in jeopardy of even greater irrelevance when he retires. Just as a generation of would-be Muhammad Alis failed to duplicate the feats of their idol, the growing horde of Mayweather wannabes is doomed to an analogous fate. The sport needs new originals, not hollow imitations of greats who went before them.
Supremely talented individuals such as Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Michael Jackson are anomalies -- one of them an entertainer who couldn't handle the burden of his gift and the other an athlete who wallows in his celebrity but chooses, perhaps wisely, to keep his genius on a short leash.
I'm not sure where that will leave us, but to corrupt a line from Friedrich Nietzsche, "Only as an aesthetic phenomenon is boxing justified."
The tricky part about the business of aesthetics is that it usually comes down to different strokes for different folks. But from my perspective, it's fighters such as Marquez and Pacquiao who best represent boxing's rationale -- a ritual of physical risk and reward that makes us feel more alive to have witnesses. And that's as close to an aesthetic experience as I need to get.