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Marquez proves he's the man

HOUSTON -- Juan Manuel Marquez has suffered many disappointments in his career.

Naseem Hamed outright ducked him for years when the Prince was at the top of the featherweight division.

Marquez also never got to fight a prime Erik Morales or Marco Antonio Barrera, the two great Mexican countrymen of his era, although he did eventually beat a faded Barrera.

He suffered a controversial draw against Manny Pacquiao in their first fight and then lost a split decision in the rematch a few years later. Legions believe -- and believe strongly -- that Marquez won both fights.

For one fight, Marquez went to Chris John's home country of Indonesia for a featherweight title bout and lost what many believe was a hometown decision.

But all of those disappointments should now and forever fade into darkness. Marquez scored the greatest, most dramatic victory of his 16-year professional career Saturday night, knocking out Houston native son Juan Diaz in sensational fashion in the ninth round to retain the world lightweight championship.

As an added bonus, Marquez also picked up a couple of alphabet titles, which were vacated two weeks ago when Nate Campbell failed to make weight.

With Campbell out of the division, the matchup between Marquez and Diaz was clearly No. 1 vs. No. 2, and it delivered. It was boxing's version of the lightweight Bowl Championship Series.

Marquez, still going strong at 35 while facing a bigger man 10 years his junior, had won the lineal title by knocking out Joel Casamayor in the 11th round of his lightweight debut in September. Diaz, meanwhile, had bounced back from his first loss to Campbell for a strong victory against Michael Katsidis, also in September.

While Diaz couldn't nail down another impressive victory, Marquez's encore at 135 pounds was a thing of beauty for fight fans. With the Toyota Center crowd of 14,571 rocking the building all night, Marquez and Diaz went straight at each other from the opening bell and put on the kind of breathtaking show all fight fans want to see.

There were no lulls in the action as they dished out hard, flush punches all night.

And there was blood. Lots of it.

Both guys were cut, Marquez (50-4-1, 37 KOs) over the right eye in the fifth round and Diaz (34-2, 17 KOs) also over the right eye in the eighth round.

Diaz looked like he was in control through the first four rounds. He was backing Marquez into the ropes and teeing off, making Marquez look like he was every bit the decade older than Diaz that he is.

But Marquez is a warrior. Even when he would wobble, he would also throw back. Remember, this is the guy who got off the deck three times in the first round against Pacquiao.

"I feel extremely happy because I beat the best," Marquez said. "I boxed him really well but he is really strong. He hurt me with one body shot but we came to work and we came to box. He threw a lot of punches but I knew how to contain him. The fight was even and then I started avoiding his punches and I hurt him in the body. I knew in the fourth round things were changing."

Going into the eighth round, Marquez was coming on, but Diaz seemed so much stronger. Then he rocked Diaz with a left hook and inflicted the cut.

That was the beginning of the dramatic end.

In the ninth, the blood was bothering Diaz and he got nailed with a right hand to the temple during a five-punch flurry and went down face first -- and almost out of the ring.

"I got caught with a good punch. There was nothing I could do," Diaz said. "I thought I was ahead by a round or two, but the cut hurt me and I couldn't see out of my right eye. The blood was dripping into my eye. I couldn't see out of my right eye."

Diaz got up, but not for long. A Marquez right hand knocked him flat on his back and referee Rafael Ramos immediately called it off at 2:40.

"When I got the first knockdown I knew I had to go at him with everything I had because I knew he was hurt," Marquez said.

As Marquez rode around the ring on the shoulders of one of his team members, the Diaz fans were disappointed and Diaz sat on a stool in the ring trying to regain his senses.

It had been an epic fight, one that the judges were split on. At the time of the knockout, Marquez led 77-75 on one card, Diaz led 77-75 on another and the third judge had it 76-76.

Marquez, violently making the case that he belongs even higher than his No. 3 spot on the pound-for-pound list, seemed resigned that he would be unable to lure pound-for-pound king Pacquiao back into the ring for a third rumble.

So instead of calling out Pacquiao yet again, he asked for the previous pound-for-pound champ, Floyd Mayweather Jr., who yielded the spot when he announced last summer that he was retiring, a move few believe is permanent.

"If Floyd Mayweather is the best, then I want to fight the best," Marquez said of Mayweather, a welterweight. "I want to move up. He is the best and I want him."

On this night, it would be hard to blame Marquez for his lofty aspirations after such a sensational knockout against a stud opponent in that man's hometown.

After so much disappointment in the past, Marquez probably felt like he could have beaten King Kong. Or at least Joe Louis.

Dan Rafael is the boxing writer for ESPN.com.