It is popularly thought, and rightly, for that matter, that Juan Manuel Marquez’s counterpunching style is the antidote for Manny Pacquiao’s ultra-aggressive, livewire-as-bullwhip style; four meetings have borne that out. But, then, the antidote for a lot of things is a counterpunching style, and maybe no more so than for a natural counterpuncher like Marquez, facing Mike Alvarado this Saturday on HBO. Marquez has never been more spectacularly effective and exciting than he has against all-aggression types like Pacquiao, Michael Katsidis or Juan Diaz, despite difficult moments against all those men. He has never looked worse than against fighters who gave him some of his own medicine and forced him to lead, like Floyd Mayweather or the man he met in his last fight, Timothy Bradley.
That makes the question of which version of Alvarado shows up fundamental. Against Brandon Rios the first time, a maniac for undiluted offense, Alvarado joined the madness. He lost. In the rematch, Alvarado realized he was taller and the better boxer, and spent more of his time moving and counterpunching. He won. In his next fight against Ruslan Provodnikov, he got stuck in some kind of no man’s land between the Alvarado we saw in Rios I and Rios II. He ended up retiring in his corner.
And to perhaps an even larger extent looms the question of how much of the best version of each man remains. Marquez is an all-time Mexican great, a Hall of Famer in the near future, still one of the best fighters alive in any weight class. The “in the near future” part is the rub. Marquez is 40 years old and has spent the last 10 years in the ring being delightfully incautious, ever since that first meeting with Pacquiao triggered a change in his mental makeup about the market value and competitive value of taking daring risks, and then his aging legs forced him to adopt that approach full-time. Alvarado, nicknamed “Mile High” after his hometown of Denver, is 33 but has paired hard miles of punishment inside the ring with miles of hard living outside it.
These are two men coming off losses, both respectable losses against excellent competition, but losses that hinted at the possibility that the best of each man had come and gone. For that reason, opinions are all over the board about not only how this one will go, but how worthwhile it is. If both have some gasoline left in the tank, or are equally drained, putting Marquez and Alvarado in the same ring ought to, in theory, set all that fuel on fire. If one’s a shadow of his old self and the other isn’t, prepare for a lopsided evening. And there’s also the possibility of a poor style clash or class mismatch in either scenario.
Certainly if it’s a class mismatch, it’ll be because Marquez is just plainly a much better fighter, not the other way around. Alvarado is a legitimate fighter, a top junior welterweight contender even now, meeting Marquez at 144 pounds. But it’s been a shaky rise with some prominent bumps along the way, while Marquez has only ever lost by a wide margin once against way, way better fighters than Alvarado has ever sniffed.
If it’s a style clash, that would be of Alvarado’s doing, and it’s something that needs doing if he’s going to win against even a near-peak Marquez. His last camp was a mess, with two trainers tugging at his ear, one wanting him to move and counterpunch, and the other wanting a more straightforward style. The trainer who liked the counterpunching version, Rudy Hernandez, is gone, but the team that remains has advocated for the counterpunching approach against Marquez anyway. Given Marquez’s struggles against counterpunchers, given that the much taller (by four inches) Alvarado has an advantage boxing from distance, it’s probably the right call, although if Marquez is burnt out at age 40 a full-on assault would probably serve Alvarado better. Alvarado’s last camp was also a mess because, to paraphrase Top Rank Promotions’ Bob Arum, he trained in bars rather than in gyms. Alvarado has a knack for getting himself into trouble out there. Whether he has avoided la vida loca this time around isn’t absolutely clear, but the signs point to, at minimum, a more disciplined Alvarado for Marquez than the one we got against Provodnikov. (Let’s go ahead and presume that him quitting against Provodnikov was not an indicator of some kind of faded desire to fight at all — as quit jobs go, that was as understandable as they come.)
The last Marquez we saw couldn’t get his punches off against Bradley, didn’t do Pacquiao IV-level damage when he landed and was uncomfortable following Bradley around the ring. As with Alvarado’s inability to keep Provodnikov off of him, this is as much about the first man as the second; nobody keeps Provodnikov off of them, just as Bradley’s youth and athleticism give everyone trouble and no one ever has much luck disconnecting him from his senses. Bradley made Marquez look bad. It’s unclear how much Marquez being old also made Marquez look bad. The fight was not as close as Marquez would have you believe — despite a late surge from Marquez — with that trademark petulant insistence that he won. Some fans wondered if that meant Marquez and strength and conditioning coach Memo Heredia had been neutered by the Voluntary Anti-Doping Association testing. There is no sign of that testing or any other kind of advanced testing for the Alvarado bout. It feels creepy to put those two sentences together as though they imply something, but the idea is only to address the perceptions of Marquez above lightweight, what made Marquez above lightweight, the factors people attribute to why he was less dynamic in his last fight than against Pacquiao in the third and fourth fights and whether they are present here.
Marquez has to be hoping Alvarado comes at him. Alvarado can win that way, certainly, especially if Marquez is faded. Lesser punchers than Alvarado, like Diaz and Katsidis, have shaken Marquez. Yet attacking Marquez recklessly is as much fun for him as when wildebeests decide to drink from crocodile-infested waters. Eventually, he’ll adjust and devour you. But Marquez doesn’t like chasing and doesn’t much seem capable of it anymore anyway. Alvarado’s jab is good enough to connect at times from the outside on Marquez, whose technical bag of tricks are mostly on the offensive, rather than defensive, end. If Alvarado can work from distance behind the jab while circling and win the occasional skirmish without being starched by Marquez, he can win by decision or by knockout.
The problem is that Alvarado’s boxing abilities are sufficient for holding off Rios, who lacks Marquez’s sophistication; we don’t know if they’ll be enough for Marquez. Marquez can’t attack like Provodnikov, but he’s found a way to land enough against fellow counterpunchers to keep it close against everyone but Mayweather.
This thing could go down any old way. My default mode, when out of answers, is to side with class. It doesn’t always work; sometimes size or age beats class, of course. But it’s the safest bet I’ve got. I expect a fight where Alvarado might even hurt Marquez early before fortunes are reversed, Marquez hurts Alvarado right back and deserves to win a clear decision, although some of the judges might see it closer than everyone else.
On the other side of the W awaits Pacquiao. That should motivate both men into a solid fight with some good, not great, action. Both men can score a knockout, and will be wary of that possibility. Their respective game plans demand of them that they not get too out of control while chasing that Pacquiao money, lest they find their dreams of Pacquiao money erased by a forced slumber.