It's the ultimate boxing "What if?" question: Who would win if, in a parallel universe, Fighter A from the 1950s or '60s fought Fighter B from today? In this particular hypothetical matchup, we're actually examining two fighters from the very same era (even if one's career extended well into the next era) who should have faced each other, but never did. Juan Manuel Marquez was a mandatory challenger to Prince Naseem Hamed right around the turn of the millennium, but Hamed's interpretation of the word "mandatory" was as creative as his fighting style. So Naz versus JMM for featherweight supremacy never happened.
And that means it's up to us to figure out what would have happened. For this fantasy fight, we're matching the best featherweight versions of both fighters. For Hamed, that means we're talking about his absolute prime, circa roughly 1997. For Marquez, it's debatable what year and what weight represent his true prime, but at 126, his best run came from 2002 to 2005, after he had taken a couple of controversial losses and accrued valuable experience.
Below, we provide scouting reports for both men, and our panel of ESPN.com experts picks a winner in this classic matchup.
Juan Manuel Marquez
Perhaps the best counterpuncher of his era, perhaps the most technically sound boxer-puncher of his era, and quite possibly the most underappreciated fighter of his era until his first fight with Manny Pacquiao thrust him into the greater boxing consciousness. Has transformed stylistically into more of a crowd-pleaser as his career has worn on, but at featherweight, placed a premium on defense and precision punching. Was a few months shy of his 30th birthday by the time he finally won a major title, at which point his prime was just beginning. Boasting a rare blend of physical and cerebral talents, has proved as adept as any modern fighter at figuring out opponents and making adjustments.
Prince Naseem Hamed
Unlike anything we had seen before or have seen since, combining showmanship, an egomaniacal persona, a ridiculously unorthodox style and freakish power to forever alter the pay scale for featherweights. Won his first 35 fights in a row, including 31 by knockout, and along the way cleaned out the 126-pound division even if alphabet politics prevented him from collecting all the belts. Was technically a southpaw, but really defied conventional labels, switching stances routinely and punching from bizarre angles. If you wanted to see a fighter dip down, pivot to the side, launch an uppercut from four feet away, and not only connect with it but knock the other guy out with it, then Naz was your man.
Power: Today's bulked-up Marquez is a scary puncher, but at featherweight, his power was nothing special. The Prince could end a fight at any moment, with either hand. His streak of 18 KOs in a row from '94 to '98, mostly against world-class opposition, says a lot. Advantage: Hamed
Speed: This is a close call. As great as Marquez's reflexes are, his punches couldn't catch opponents off guard the way Hamed's leather missiles often did. Advantage: Hamed
Defense: Against a slower opponent, Naz was almost unhittable, especially with more than one punch at a time. But elite opponents with decent speed tended to find his chin. Marquez was just so much more technically sound -- and, for what it's worth, used his defense to set up his offense more effectively than Hamed. Advantage: Marquez
Chin: Both could be dropped, and although neither ever got knocked out, it was Hamed who seemed to go down more easily. To be fair, that was mostly due to atrocious balance. Still, knockdowns are knockdowns, and Hamed suffered them against mediocrities like Daniel Alicea. Advantage: Marquez
Ring IQ: No contest here. If you figured out Hamed's unorthodox style, he was done (or he shifted into Hector Camacho-style stinker mode). Marquez is the kind of guy who does the figuring out. Advantage: Marquez
Dan Rafael: Hamed by KO
Hamed's only loss, to Marco Antonio Barrera, clouds the opinion many have of the Prince. But for the second half of the 1990s, Hamed was the featherweight king who should have (if not for those politics) had all four alphabet belts. He was a pound-for-pound ranked fighter and one of the most devastating punchers who has ever been seen in the smaller weight classes. He was arrogant and rubbed a lot of people the wrong way, but that has nothing to do with his ability, unorthodox as his style was. During the late 1990s, Marquez, still unproven and largely unknown, was Hamed's mandatory and wanted the fight badly. There is no doubt that Hamed ducked him because Marquez was a dangerous opponent and the risk outweighed the reward.
However, had they fought when they were supposed to, it's my feeling that Hamed would have knocked out the late-'90s version of Marquez. If Manny Pacquiao could drop Marquez as many times as he did in their rivalry, just imagine fellow southpaw Hamed landing one of his straight left hands. Marquez got better in the ensuing years, but at the time they would have met, Hamed would have feasted on him.
Kieran Mulvaney: Hamed by decision
If we're comparing career versus career or prime versus prime, I'll take Marquez all the way. At his counterpunching best, he would have lured Hamed into too many traps. He would have taken ruthless advantage of the way in which the Brit was perpetually off balance, and would have used his opponent's momentum against him.
The modern, post-130-pound Marquez would have just beaten the snot out of Hamed. But when this matchup was supposed to happen, when Hamed was at his lightning-fast freak-of-nature peak and Marquez was still a little robotic, I would pick the Prince to frustrate, dazzle and hurt Marquez over 12 increasingly one-sided rounds.
Nigel Collins: Hamed by decision
Marquez was a far more conservative boxer during his featherweight years than the current version is. His two losses at 126 pounds (via decision to Freddie Norwood and Chris John) were both close and would probably have gone Marquez's way if he had fought more aggressively.
At Hamed's best, before he began to cut corners while training, his highly unorthodox style, blazing speed and knockout punch in each hand combined to make him both exceptionally elusive and extremely dangerous.
The match would probably have turned out to be rather tedious, with Marquez boxing defensively and looking to counter, and Hamed bouncing around the ring, seeking angles from which to launch sneak attacks. Marquez's chin has never been his best attribute, so I see Naz scoring a flash knockdown, which ultimately turns out to be the difference-maker and carries the brash Englishman to a narrow decision victory.
Eric Raskin: Marquez by decision
When one fighter blatantly ducks another, there's usually a reason, but in this case, the threat Marquez posed to Hamed was only half of it. The other half was that financially, at the time, Marquez brought nothing to the table. So from a risk-reward perspective, Hamed's disinclination to fight Marquez made perfect sense. If you can make bigger paydays elsewhere, why lose your perfect record against a guy who's going to beat you?
And make no mistake, Hamed would have lost his perfect record against Marquez. The Prince's only hope would have been the early-round blitz that Pacquiao nearly pulled off in his first fight with the Mexican icon. If Marquez survives Hamed's power early, he ties Naz in knots and counterpunches him until Hamed stops punching and starts watching the clock. This looks an awful lot like Naz's eventual loss to Marco Antonio Barrera, with Marquez winning comfortably on points.
Brian Campbell: Hamed by decision
When you're comparing them in their featherweight primes, you're looking at a version of Marquez who was dangerous enough to be avoided by Hamed, but far from the well-rounded machine he became at 130 and 135 pounds. Marquez at 126 pounds was still not as dangerous as a featherweight Marco Antonio Barrera, who ultimately solved the Prince's puzzle and ended his run. But Marquez would have hung in there to make it a fight against the dynamic, unorthodox Hamed in a pairing between natural counterpunchers, one that would have played out more like calculated chess than a free-for-all.
Hamed would have tested Marquez's passivity by pot-shotting with hard punches from awkward angles, doing his best to get Marquez off his game with taunts and in-ring flair. But ultimately we're looking at a 12-round fight, and the judges would favor the heavier puncher -- who in this case was almost unparalleled in selling not only himself but also each punch he landed.
Bernardo Pilatti: Marquez by KO
Juan Manuel Marquez's style at featherweight didn't differ much from his current style, although he was faster and answered in greater volume, which made his counterpunching more dangerous back then. Because of his unorthodox style, Hamed was actually tailor-made for Marquez. Maybe that's why the Prince never fulfilled his mandatory. A hypothetical fight between Hamed and Marquez wouldn't unfold much differently than Hamed-Barrera, which yielded the Brit's only career defeat.
Hamed was famous for jittering around the ring with his arms hanging low, challenging his opponent to throw punches from unexpected angles. Marquez would take the center of the ring, following Hamed with his guard closed, pacing his punches and waiting for his chance. Just like Barrera, he would be able to shake the Prince in the first few rounds. But unlike his countryman, Marquez would indeed knock out Hamed. Marquez would draw him in, pounce on a lapse in his concentration and, after a solid counterattack, send Hamed to the canvas for the full count.
Salvador Rodriguez: Hamed by decision
One of the things that has always worried Juan Manuel Marquez's corner is the speed of his challengers, and Hamed has his number there. Hamed was one of the fastest fighters of his time. He was elusive, a great counterpuncher and a guy who could knock out an opponent with one punch. That would have tested Marquez more than once in a hypothetical fight, and as we know, the Mexican icon's chin -- although not bad -- isn't his best asset.
And although many point to Hamed's loss to Barrera as evidence that Marquez would have the advantage in a fight with Hamed, a featherweight Marquez's punching wouldn't have had the same effect that Barrera's did. Marquez in his prime -- the lightweight and welterweight version -- would have the strength and ability to make adjustments to give himself a chance to knock out Hamed. But match up the two fighters at 126 pounds, and I believe the Prince gets the best of him.
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