A year ago most figured Marco Antonio Barrera had gone the way of the eight-track tape: the elite of an industry until a newer, sleeker version became the talk of the town.
That sleeker version was Manny Pacquiao, who treated Barrera like a sparring partner in handing him a vicious knockout loss on Nov. 15, 2003. Had Barrera shown any kind of resistance whatsoever, perhaps the boxing media wouldn't have been so eager to write his career eulogy. But the thrashing was dramatic.
Barrera, the man who reduced the Prince to a clown and out-rumbled El Terrible, won a single round out of 11 against Pacquiao.
But after Barrera's third and hopefully-not-final war with the aforementioned El Terrible – nemesis Erik Morales – the Mexico City native is enjoying a rebirth at age 31. That was obvious this week as Barrera and promoter Oscar De La Hoya were greeted by a rowdy throng of about 500 people at a press conference at the Don Haskins Center in El Paso, Texas.
The primary purpose was to announce Barrera's April 9 mandatory defense of his WBC junior lightweight title against unknown Mzonke Fana of South Africa. But it turned into a love-fest as Barrera and De La Hoya were hounded for autographs, pictures and handshakes. Not unusual for the Golden Boy, who drew 45,368 fans to El Paso's Sun Bowl for a June 13, 1998 fight against Patrick Charpentier; but quite unusual for Barrera who, until recently, hadn't enjoyed the popularity of the great Julio Cesar Chavez or even Morales.
Things are different now. And, for Barrera, it's all gravy.
“This is all extra,” he said, still somewhat amazed by the crowd that showed up to the press conference. “Everything I'm doing right now is extra. Everything I thought about doing inside the ring, I've already accomplished.”
Barrera, 59-4 (41 knockouts), was thought to be the heir apparent to Chavez when he burst on the scene in 1995. Not only because of the skill Barrera displayed when breaking down his opponents, but because of the uncanny physical similarities. Barrera sported the same close-cropped hair, the pleasant-but-hard facial features, the strong upper body, the aggressive style and the bone-breaking body attack.
He also had a chin of granite and an unchanging expression that made it appear as though he was as comfortable in a boxing ring as his own living room. But an upset loss to Junior Jones in 1996 ended the comparisons to Chavez and the boxing public seemed to forget about him – especially after he lost a 12-round decision to Jones in the '97 rematch.
It has been a rollercoaster ride for Barrera since then. The highs were towering: The decisions over “Prince” Naseem Hamed in 2001 and Morales in 2002. The lows were deep: The Jones loss, and that 2003 battering at the hands of Pacquiao.
But what has improved Barrera's standing and made him a near-legend is what made Arturo Gatti and Micky Ward modern-day folk heroes: a great series with a great opponent. Barrera's trilogy with Morales is probably boxing's best ongoing rivalry since Ali-Frazier. And after the upset victory over Morales last Nov. 27 – which gave him a 2-1 series lead – Barrera is slowly closing in on Chavez-like status.
He was certainly treated like a legend Monday. But he vowed to be well-prepared for the little-known Fana, who is 22-2 (18 knockouts).
“I have not seen any video of him, but I know that he is ranked number one in the world,” Barrera said. “I know that this is a serious fight. I know he's a serious fighter or else he wouldn't be ranked where he is. I know that it is going to be a serious fight.”
Still, the boxing press in El Paso seemed not as interested in Fana as what will come after Fana. It is widely accepted that Barrera will fight the winner of the March 19 showdown between Pacquiao and Morales.
“Maybe,” Barrera said when asked about the Pacquiao-Morales winner. “We don't know what will happen right now. Maybe Pacquiao will win the fight, and we'll fight him.”
Pacquiao was also a popular subject. De La Hoya, who has become so close with Barrera that he lets him use his house, said simply that his man wasn't on that night in San Antonio.
“I don't think he was focused,” De La Hoya said. “There were too many distractions when he fought Pacquiao. The forest fires we had in Big Bear where everybody got evacuated. That was two or three weeks prior to the fight happening. And then there was the medical situation people were bringing up (about surgery Barrera had to remove a cluster of vessels in his head). That was a big problem. He had to be flying everywhere, going to different doctors. You can always be training and always be in great shape, but if you're not focused, you might have an off-night, and that's what happened. He had an off-night. And we all know it. And he proved it against Morales. He proved it with (Paulie) Ayala. He's still the great champion everyone knows and he'll keep proving it over and over.”
“I never did change,” he said. “I am the same, only I don't have those problems. I feel good. The fight with Pacquiao was a bad night.”
It was obvious that Barrera's relationship with De La Hoya is a good one. At one point, when De La Hoya was translating for Barrera and struggling to find the Spanish equivalent for “legacy,” he joked that the reporter was actually asking Barrera when he would cut his hair.
Barrera talked about De La Hoya, who signed him from longtime promoter Forum Boxing just before the Pacquiao fight.
“He's a boxer. He knows the business,” Barrera said. “So he'll pay more attention to (the fighters) . . . There's a lot more liberty to talk about boxing. We understand each other a lot. Not only is he a great promoter. He's a really good friend.”
While under the banner of Forum Boxing, Barrera fought almost exclusively for WBO title belts, and virtually disregarded the WBA, WBC and IBF. Now that he's under De La Hoya, that has changed.
“The reuniting (with the WBC) is all due to Oscar, because he has a good relationship with them,” Barrera said. “They're not as bad as everyone made them out to be.”
Meanwhile, Barrera said he will go to Big Bear to train for Fana. He is due to start training soon.
“There is no sense in splitting up training (in El Paso),” he said. “I'll do my training (in Big Bear). And then I'll come a day early so I can spend it with the fans. Training here would have no purpose. That time could be better spent with the fans, signing autographs, taking pictures. That way, they can get to know us better.”