You'd heard the name before. It caught your attention when you read how he almost broke poor Paul Toledo in half, courtesy of a wicked body attack, in 1994.
But this was the first time you'd seen this fresh-faced Marco Antonio Barrera. He was fighting a useful contender in Eddie Croft on the Riddick Bowe-Evander Holyfield 3 undercard on Nov. 4, 1995, at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. By no means was Croft supposed to beat Barrera. But it was a good test, in the national spotlight.
Croft did his job. He hung in there. But the assault coming back at him reminded some of a young
Julio Cesar Chavez, the greatest Mexican fighter of all time. The way he concentrated his attack downstairs, mixed it up with combinations to the head, and never took a backward step. The way he forced the action, yet skillfully avoided punches. The way he, workmanlike, went about his business.
Croft was no Hall-of-Famer. But you could tell that Barrera was going to be special.
Three months later, he proved it.
That was the night Barrera and Kennedy McKinney got together for that memorable Pier-6 brawl at the old Great Western Forum in Los Angeles. The setting was right for a great fight – the classic Forum, the scantily-clad California round card girls, the first HBO “Boxing After Dark” show – and Barrera and McKinney delivered more than most ringsiders thought possible.
They pounded on each other from the first round to the 12th, when the iron-hearted McKinney finally succumbed from the younger man's attack. McKinney went down four times, Barrera once. For those who saw it, it was one of the great nights, and great fights, in boxing history.
With the win, the aptly-named “Baby-Faced Assassin” retained his WBO junior featherweight title.
And went from potential great to great.
Unlike Chavez, however, Barrera took a winding road to the Hall-of-Fame. The year in which he defeated McKinney, 1996, was one of mixed emotions for him. He also beat Jesse Benavides, Orlando Fernandez and Jesse Magana, but then he was upset by former bantamweight champ Junior Jones in November. And it wasn't a fluke. Jones destroyed him – much like Thomas Hearns had destroyed Pipino Cuevas 16 years earlier. The final result was a disqualification victory for Jones in the fifth round, but that was only because Barrera's cornermen stormed the ring trying to save their man from any more abuse.
The knockout defeat was that emphatic.
However, Barrera climbed right back in the ring with Jones five months later. And he gave a sample of the style he would adopt later in his career. Instead of fearlessly moving forward, Barrera boxed. And it threw Jones for a loop, forcing the new champ to change up his game plan midstream. A lot of people thought Barrera deserved to be the champ again.
But, no. Jones won a close decision, and it was back to the drawing board for Barrera. The comparisons to Chavez abruptly ended.
From there, Barrera virtually disappeared for three years – at least from the spotlight. He fought in places like Stateline, Nev., and Indio, Calif., and London, England, trying to hone his skills, build some momentum and stir of some interest in his flagging career.
The interest came, naturally, when Barrera was matched with fellow Mexican Erik Morales on Feb. 19, 2000. At the time, Morales was considered one of the best pound-for-pound fighters in boxing, his career rising just as Barrera's was dissipating. They met at the crossroads, and the hatred they brought into the ring was played out for 12 gloriously brutal rounds.
Morales was from Tijuana, Barrera from Mexico City. And, for almost 40 minutes, they put on a show that stunned even hardened veterans at ringside. First Barrera, then Morales, then Barrera, then Morales. In the end, it looked as though Barrera had finally done it – especially after flooring Morales for the first time in “El Terrible's” career.
But, it was not to be. Morales won a split decision. Barrera's redemption would have to wait.
The big night finally came on April 7, 2001, in a sold-out MGM Grand at Las Vegas. The favorite was England's flashy “Prince” Naseem Hamed, who went into the fight undefeated and full of bravado. It took about a quarter-of-a-round for Barrera to knock that bravado out of him, and he did it with a signature left hook. However, he didn't run over Hamed, as he had dozens before him. He boxed him, as he did against Jones in 1997. But, now, his skills were much more refined, much sharper, and Hamed didn't have a chance – being virtually shut out over 12 rounds.
Finally, this was Barrera's night. He won a unanimous decision that was nothing more than a formality announcement. He had come all the way back, survived the heartbreak that was the Morales decision, and defeated one of the best and most recognizable fighters on the planet, using brains over brawn.
Right there, Barrera's status was sealed. He was one of the greatest fighters of his generation.
Since then, there have been two more fights with Morales – and two victories. If the Hamed fight didn't convince critics of Barrera's worth, then the revenge decisions over Morales did. He has even outlasted his rival, who is on his last legs and a big underdog this fall against Manny Pacquiao.
Saturday night in Las Vegas, Barrera steps in the ring against the bigger, younger, stronger Rocky Juarez for the second time in four months. The first fight was rough and tumble, as many of Barrera's fights have been. Initially announced as a draw, it was later revealed that Barrera won it. But the sand in the hourglass may be running out.
Barrera is still skilled. He is still baby-faced. But, after 17 years as a pro and all those accolades, nothing can last forever. When and if that day comes – it may be Saturday – the pride of Mexico City can exit the ring knowing that he has lived up to all the expectations.
And know that those comparisons to Chavez weren't all that far off.