My fight with the champ
I went three rounds with super featherweight Juan Manuel Marquez -- and lived to tell about it
Posted: Wednesday August 1, 2007 4:57PM; Updated: Friday August 3, 2007 4:42PM
I suppose I could have tried to make a bigger splash in my first foray into participatory journalism by challenging Barry Bonds to a home run contest or approaching Kobe Bryant about a game of H-O-R-S-E. But these days Bonds is busy chasing that Aaron fellow and Bryant is trying to prove USA Basketball is still a player on the global landscape. Not that either one them would have taken my phone calls.
Still, when I first approached Oscar De La Hoya's Golden Boy Promotions in April about taking on one of their golden boys, WBC super featherweight champion Juan Manuel Marquez, I was surprised by how willing they were to fly Marquez across the continent to step in the ring with a novice. "That's a great idea!" they said. "When do you want to fight him?"
Truly, this was one of those good-ideas-at-the-time-bad-idea-at-the-moment deals. Four months ago, the prospect of following in the illustrious footsteps of the late George Plimpton, who famously stepped in the ring with light heavyweight champion Archie Moore in 1959, seemed like an irresistible notion. The chance to go three rounds with Marquez, a two-division champion who boasts a career record of 47-3 (with 35 knockouts), would be the opportunity of a lifetime. See, I think Plimpton had it easy. In the '50s and '60s most sports were perfectly willing to let a writer try to make it as an NFL third-string quarterback (which Plimpton chronicled in his book Paper Lion) or try his arm against the likes of Hall-of-Fame baseball players (which he did in Out of My League). Back then publicity was hard to come by. But in today's mass media world I probably would have been laughed out of the room if I called Bill Belichick and asked if I could audition as Tom Brady's backup or if I tried to convince Tony La Russa that it would be worth his time letting me pitch to the heart of his order. (Though Sports Illustrated's Tom Verducci did play in two exhibition games with the Toronto Blue Jays and umpired a game in Spring Training.)
But boxers are the same in any era. They are the same one-man press-hungry machines today as they were nearly 50 years ago when Plimpton first approached Moore to write Shadow Box. In the boxing world, publicity creates attention and attention usually translates to Pay Per View buys. With Marquez scheduled to defend his title on Sept. 15 against Jorge Rodrigo Barrios, and a potential mega fight with Manny Pacquiao looming sometime next year, I wasn't stunned that he accepted my invitation. Besides, having spent some time with Juan and his brother, super bantamweight champion Rafael Marquez, in Mexico City last year for a story for SI Latino, I knew he was a pretty good guy to begin with. Though, as I said, I was a little surprised at how eager he was to come to New York City to punish my face. Maybe he didn't like the article.
Once he accepted, however, I knew I had my work cut out for me. After months of hacking away at the heavy bag at the Church Street Boxing Gym, I made a commitment to learn the fundamentals of the sport. I enlisted Omar Wellington, president of Nexxt Level Sports, a company in Cherry Hill, N.J., that has trained NBA players Cuttino Mobley and Dajuan Wagner, among others, to help build my strength (I have a new appreciation for stretch bands) and change my diet (and even less of one for rice cakes). Fast food was out, though I drew the line at the suggestion I down a couple of raw eggs every morning.
But over time the cold reality of what I would be doing overcame the Rocky-montage romance of training. How hard was he going to go? What if he knocks a tooth out? When did getting punched repeatedly become a good idea? It didn't help that the advice dispensed by other boxers was, well, less than helpful.