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Vazquez-Marquez III: The gem in a trilogy for the ages

Israel Vazquez, right, was bloodied, but Rafael Marquez was beaten in the fighters' epic third meeting. AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill

Israel Vazquez and Rafael Marquez had already etched their names in boxing history with their back-to-back junior featherweight wars in 2007.

Marquez, the former bantamweight champion, had moved up in weight to challenge Vazquez for the title in their first explosive confrontation in March and won the fight of the year candidate via seventh-round TKO when Vazquez could not continue because of a serious nose injury. Had the fighters not faced each other again in 2007, the bout might have stood the test of time as the year's best.

Five months later, however, their August rematch trumped the first fight. This time, Vazquez regained the title via sixth-round knockout in a battle that was even more sensational, ferocious and action-packed than the first installment. It was universally hailed as the fight of the year.

Fans were bracing for another hot fight when Vazquez and Marquez met again on March 1, 2008 at the Home Depot Center in Carson, Calif., the site of their first bout almost one year to the day earlier. At the top of telecast, Showtime's Steve Albert set the stage.

"If the tiebreaker between Israel Vazquez and Rafael Marquez turns out to be the fight of the year, it won't surprise a single boxing fan," Albert said. "That's because Vazquez-Marquez I and II were bloody and brutal battles that featured power punching, knockdowns, changes in momentum and the highest level of skills."

So how could the rubber match possibly meet the incredibly high standard set by the first two encounters? It seemed impossible, yet the Mexican stars found a way to exceed every expectation by delivering an extraordinary battle for the ages, a bout that had all of the drama, excitement, blood, heart and skill of their first two fights -- and then some -- not to mention so many more rounds of sustained action.

In the end, it was Vazquez who sealed the razor-thin split-decision victory on the strength of a 12th-round knockdown seconds before the final bell, allowing him to hang on to the 122-pound world championship in an electrifying give-and-take thriller.

The instant classic was a raging battle with blistering action throughout, and it placed the Vazquez-Marquez rivalry into the pantheon of boxing's greatest trilogies alongside such famous pairings as Muhammad Ali-Joe Frazier, Evander Holyfield-Riddick Bowe, Tony Zale-Rocky Graziano, Marco Antonio Barrera-Erik Morales and Arturo Gatti-Micky Ward.

Is it any surprise, then, that Vazquez-Marquez III was also the clear choice as the 2008 ESPN.com Fight of the Year?

From the opening round, when the fighters began to trade furiously, you could sense it was going to be another special fight. After one big exchange, Albert had the feeling, too. "Here we go again," he said.

Marquez appeared to take the early rounds, including the fourth, which proved to be a round of the year candidate. Marquez dropped Vazquez in the round, but he was rocked himself later in the frame.

Back and forth they went all night, although Vazquez was narrowing the scores through the middle rounds and Marquez was docked a point for a low blow in the 10th after receiving multiple warnings from referee Pat Russell.

It all set the stage for an epic finish. Sensing correctly that he needed the 12th round, Vazquez was all over Marquez in the bruising stanza. Finally, with seconds remaining, Vazquez sent Marquez staggering into the ropes, which kept him from going down, and Russell calmly and rightfully ruled it a knockdown just before the final bell.

"This crowd was treated, as we all were, to a very special night of boxing," Showtime's Al Bernstein said as the crowd cheered.

What made it so special, besides the awesome action, is that unlike most trilogies, each of the Vazquez-Marquez fights, which came uninterrupted by other bouts for either man, exceeded the previous fight. That is unheard of.

"The historical significance of the trilogy is still sinking in," Vazquez said a month after the fight. "None of us will know the true impact until several years from now, but I truly believe that this trilogy will stand the test of time. I think it will be remembered for many, many years."

Other unforgettables:

Dan Rafael is the boxing writer for ESPN.com.