- Dan Rafael, Boxing
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Juan Manuel Marquez and Juan Diaz, who had both seen their share of tremendous slugfests, produced one for the ages when they collided for the lightweight championship.
There was a raucous scene inside the Toyota Center in Houston, where 14,571 turned out to see former titleholder Diaz, their hometown fighter, square off with defending champ Marquez of Mexico. He also had thousands in the heavily Hispanic crowd rooting for him.
Before the stellar fight Marquez had promised, "I'm going to leave my Mexican blood in the ring to get that victory."
Diaz, too, knew he was in for perhaps the toughest fight of his career.
"If I get into some tough rounds and the crowd starts to chant my name it will push me to go forward," he said.
Rafael's Fights of the Year
So when the bell rang to start the fight, it was no surprise that it quickly turned into a battle that never relented. In fact, the first round turned out to be the 2009 ESPN.com round of the year.
By the time Marquez dropped Diaz in the ninth round and then knocked him out flat on his back with a rocket right uppercut moments later, we had also seen the 2009 ESPN.com fight of the year.
As the crowd roared during the pulsating second round, HBO announcer Jim Lampley foreshadowed the excitement to come: "This crowd is on its feet already and they may be on their feet all the way."
Lampley was on the money because Marquez and Diaz never gave them a reason to sit down.
Diaz, 10 years younger than Marquez, was like a whirlwind with his voluminous punch output through the first half of the fight. But Marquez, as seasoned a veteran as there is in the sport, was the harder puncher and brilliant at making adjustments, which he did to win his share of rounds as the fast-paced fight wore on.
They rocked each other with their best shots time and time again. Marquez was cut by his right eye in the fifth round and blood streaked down the side of his face.
During that round, HBO analyst Max Kellerman really did a good job explaining why what we were seeing was so good.
"These guys are fighting at a [fast] pace and putting such mustard on each shot, and fighting at a [high] skill level," he said. "You rarely see all those elements combined."
The action was so intense and so prolonged that the referee was an afterthought.
"Rafael Ramos has not had to break these guys up from one clinch at all," an astounded Emanuel Steward, the HBO expert commentator, said.
To that Lampley added, "I didn't even know he was in the ring."
In the eighth, Diaz suffered an even worse cut than Marquez as blood gushed from a wound inflicted by one of the many solid left hooks Marquez had nailed him with.
Heading into the ninth round, Marquez and Diaz had fought a bruising war that was dead even on the scorecards. One judge had it a draw while the other two each had it for one of them.
But Diaz, who had not responded well to a serious cut during the fight against Nate Campbell when he lost his title in 2008, did not respond well to this cut either. Diaz was in trouble, and Marquez dropped him face-first into the ropes with an uppercut.
When the fight resumed, Diaz was still in rough shape and Marquez landed that sizzling uppercut to score the picturesque knockout that dropped the curtain on the year's best fight in grand style.
"Feb. 28 is a little bit early to proclaim something fight of the year, but good luck to the rest of the sport producing something that good," Lampley said as he closed the telecast.
There were, in fact, many outstanding fights during the rest of 2009, but nothing lived up to what Marquez and Diaz had given us on that electric night in Houston.
Paul Williams W12 Sergio Martinez (Dec. 5 at Atlantic City, N.J.): When the fight was signed it was a bit of a letdown. Not because Martinez, a junior middleweight titleholder, was a bad opponent for Williams, but because he wasn't middleweight champion Kelly Pavlik, who was supposed to face Williams before pulling out for the second time because of a lingering hand injury. However, Williams-Martinez turned out to be a scintillating and highly competitive barnburner as the two best junior middleweights in the world fought a nontitle bout at middleweight. From the terrific first round, when they exchanged knockdowns, to the final bell, the action never subsided in Williams' majority decision win. (Let's try to put aside judge Pierre Benoist's insane 119-110 scorecard for Williams as we celebrate the year's best bouts.) An accidental head butt in the fourth round introduced blood into the equation as Williams got cut over his left eye. Kellerman loved what he was seeing in the ninth round, noting, "Considering the high level of skill at which this fight is being contested, it's an incredible fight." Ain't that the truth. Throughout the marvelous fight, they traded hard shots during furious exchanges with neither man backing down. "It's been a hellacious battle from the get-go," Lampley exclaimed as the rock 'em, sock 'em 11th round got under way. As they came down the stretch in the final round, Lampley was on the mark again: "Crowd is standing! We'd like to stand too in honor of two guys who have fought 12 brilliant rounds. What a way to end the year!" Rematch anyone?
Bernard Dunne KO11 Ricardo Cordoba (March 21 at Dublin, Ireland): This feverish battle had a bit of everything: a passionate Irish crowd rooting for hometown hero and underdog Dunne, wild momentum swings, knockdowns galore (six in all, for those counting at home), plenty of blood and guts, a dramatic finish and an upset. If you haven't seen it, better rev up YouTube. It will be worth it to see the chaos unfold. Dunne nearly had Cordoba out in the third round when he dropped him with a left hook, but he was not able to close the door. Then came the blood, first over Dunne's right eye in the fourth round followed by a gash over Cordoba's right eye in the fifth round. Then it was Cordoba who was close to ending the wild brawl as he scored two hard knockdowns in the fifth round and battered Dunne during a follow-up onslaught. Cordoba appeared in command as they went to the 11th round, but Dunne, perhaps in desperation mode, dropped him three times, including a tremendous left uppercut to finish him, as he claimed a junior featherweight belt. It was a fantastic finish to a fabulous fight.
Juan Manuel Lopez W12 Rogers Mtagwa (Oct. 10 at New York): What was expected to be a fairly routine night at the office for Lopez turned out to be an unexpected barnburner with a dramatic conclusion as good as anything you'll ever see in boxing. Puerto Rico's Lopez, defending his junior featherweight belt in front of a heavily Puerto Rican crowd at the Madison Square Garden Theater, was in control most of the way in a good action fight. He didn't get credit for a pair of flash knockdowns in the first round when referee Eddie Cotton ruled both of them slips, but it was just the start of a wild night. Lopez got credit for knocking down Mtagwa in the fifth-round knockout and seemed on his way to an easy, albeit grueling, victory. But then Lopez began to fade and the rough and rugged Mtagwa began to make his move. He hurt Lopez in the 10th round, nearly knocked him out at the end of the 11th round with a vicious series of blows, and then blasted the still-unsteady Lopez around the ring for virtually all of the epic 12th round. Lopez, whose legs were gone, was getting crushed, but showing huge courage as he hung on for dear life. He was doing everything he could possibly do to survive for those extraordinary final three minutes, which must have felt like three hours. He barely made it to the final bell in a sensational fight that featured a boatload of ebb and flow and was absolutely worth shelling out the money to buy the Top Rank pay-per-view. As broadcaster Al Bernstein exclaimed at the final bell, "What an amazing boxing match!"
Yonnhy Perez W12 Joseph King Kong Agbeko (Oct. 31 at Las Vegas): In the best Showtime fight of the year, Perez pulled the minor upset to win a bantamweight title in a bruising and breathtaking battle. It headlined the first fight card at Treasure Island in Las Vegas, and what a sweet way for the resort to enter the boxing business. The fight figured to be explosive on paper, and it turned out to be just that, an unrelenting distance war. There was no feeling-out period, just Perez and Agbeko were cracking each other all night as they traded rounds throughout the bout. The blood began to flow in the sixth round, when Agbeko cut Perez's left eye with an accidental head butt. Another head butt to his mouth rattled Perez in the seventh round, but he showed tremendous heart to fight through it. The lone knockdown came in the 10th round, when Agbeko turned and dropped to the canvas after taking a head butt from Perez, which referee Robert Byrd ruled as a punch. Besides some head butts, however, there was a whole lot of leather being swapped.
Andre Berto W12 Luis Collazo (Jan. 17 at Biloxi, Miss.): Berto had claimed a vacant welterweight title in mid-2008, but he had been babied. He'd never fought a serious opponent until being matched with former titleholder Collazo. So could Berto handle the step up in competition? The answer was a resounding yes as he showed a big heart in a tumultuous brawl as he pulled out a decision win that could have gone either way. Berto and Collazo, who were both cut, slugged it out in a crowd-pleasing affair that had momentum swings and hard exchanges throughout. Collazo rocked Berto in the first round and nearly knocked him down. But Berto, with better power and quicker hands, dug down deep, showed his toughness and found another gear in the late rounds -- especially in the 12th round, which decided the fight -- to pull it out as he passed a stiff test. As Berto said in his postfight interview on HBO: "He banged it out with me. We had a terrific fight to open the 2009 year, definitely." Well said.
Ryan Rhodes TKO7 Jamie Moore (Oct. 23 at Bolton, England): It seems like every year England produces at least one classic melee. This was it for 2009 as Moore, defending his European junior middleweight title, met Rhodes in a bout that would also decide a mandatory challenger for a world title. They collided from the start, each boring in and landing an assortment of crunching punches at a frenetic pace. This one was a cracker all the way, especially the third and sixth rounds. During the third, Sky broadcaster Jim Watt was digging the action: "This is great stuff to watch! Not a clinch, just toe to toe, tremendous punches!" Judging by the power with which they were smashing each other, it didn't seem possible that it would go the distance. Moore clobbered Rhodes with a low blow in the fifth round, but Rhodes shook it off. By the sixth, Moore was fading. In the seventh, Rhodes dropped him with a brutal right hand. When Moore somehow survived, Sky's Adam Smith was stunned. "This is already probably the domestic fight of the year," he cried. "Absolutely superb!" Moments later, Moore briefly rallied to stagger Rhodes, who kept his legs under him and roared back, jolting him into the ropes with a clean right hand and unloading a hail of punches on him until the extraordinary bout was called off.
Jean Pascal W12 Adrian Diaconu (June 19 at Montreal): This was a raging battle that will go down as one of the biggest and best fights in Canadian history as it was the first time two Montreal-based fighters fought for a world title. Fortunately for American fans, it was televised on Versus and worth the visit north of the border as Pascal claimed a light heavyweight title in the memorable fight. Set to the backdrop of a frenzied crowd of 13,659 at the Bell Centre, the styles of Pascal (the tall boxer) and Diaconu (the stocky brawler) meshed perfectly. Pascal scored the lone knockdown in the fifth round, when he caught an off-balance Diaconu with a left hook only to be rocked by Diaconu near the end of the round. In the championship rounds, the action rose to an even higher level, as they landed and absorbed numerous big shots in the 11th and 12th rounds. It was so good, they had a rematch six months later, which Pascal won.
Marcos Maidana TKO6 Victor Ortiz (June 27 at Los Angeles): Although Ortiz, Golden Boy's heavily hyped prospect, failed in his step up to the big time -- a main event at Staples Center on HBO -- when he quit after a cut and a sixth-round knockdown, this was an outstanding fight until the disappointing conclusion. They fought at a brisk pace from the outset as they both scored knockdowns in the electrifying first round. Ortiz scored two more knockdowns in the second round in the firefight, but Maidana showed true grit to continue. He not only continued, but flourished. He doled out brutal punishment in the fifth round as he landed a terrible right hand on Ortiz, who was showing signs of damage. He was cut over his right eye and there was swelling under his left one. Maidana went for the kill in the sixth round, attacking Ortiz early and knocking him down again with a flurry of punches. Ortiz rose, but was not interested in continuing as he shook his hand and his head. Referee Raul Caiz asked for the doctor to check the cut and the fight was called off at 46 seconds without Ortiz protesting one iota. The weak ending was all that held this furious battle from placing higher.
Chris John D12 Rocky Juarez (Feb. 28 at Houston): If you can put the horrible decision aside -- 114-114 across the board for an unconscionable draw when John clearly deserved the victory in Juarez's hometown -- this was a fantastic fight. It was, however, a bit overshadowed by the night's main event, which just so happened to be the Juan Manuel Marquez-Juan Diaz fight of the year. In its own right, John's featherweight title defense was terrific. He played the role of the boxer, tagging Juarez with combinations and getting out of the way as Juarez stalked him all night. The faster John appeared to open a lead and opened a bad cut over Juarez's left eye in the fifth round. It slowed Juarez down a bit in the middle rounds, but with the crowd chanting "Rocky! Rocky! Rocky!" he came on very strong in the final four rounds, pressuring John to inch closer as they swapped punches in high gear. With Juarez knowing he needed a knockout to win, he listened to trainer Ronnie Shields and went for it in the 12th round, hurting John, but ultimately he was unable to win. The fans did, though.
Marvin Sonsona W12 Jose "Carita" Lopez (Sept. 4 at Rama, Ontario): Sonsona, a 19-year-old from the Philippines, burst onto the world stage by getting past Lopez, the 37-year-old veteran making his first junior bantamweight title defense, in a slugfest. Sonsona was untested against serious competition coming into the bout, but he left the ring with that box checked off on his résumé after going through hell against Lopez. It was a rough, physical brawl, but Sonsona's youth and eagerness for battle carried the day. He dropped Lopez in the fourth round and had him nearly out. But Lopez rallied in the middle rounds when it looked like the fight was up for grabs. Lopez was pouring it on in the eighth, but lost two points for a low blow just as the round ended. They closed the show as they opened it by pounding away. In the end, it was Sonsona, whose youth and will were impressive as he went past five rounds for the first time and earned a belt in a classic.
Manny Pacquiao TKO12 Miguel Cotto (Nov. 14 at Las Vegas): Before the year's biggest fight turned into a Pacquiao rout, albeit an action-packed rout, the first five rounds were closely contested and loaded with great action. Pacquiao wound up delivering perhaps the greatest performance of his now legendary career as he won a title in a record-breaking seventh weight division against a very, very good opponent in Cotto. But there were anxious moments early on as they both gave as good as they got with a frenzied sold-out crowd of 16,200 on fire behind them. Pacquiao showed a great chin to take so many heavy Cotto shots, but delivered many of his own. He dropped Cotto in the third round, but Cotto was OK. In the fourth, Cotto was hammering Pacquiao and winning the round until Pacquiao slammed him with a left hand and knocked him down in the final 10 seconds of the round. This time Cotto was badly hurt, although he stayed competitive in the fifth round before Pacquiao took over. The first half of the fight was exciting and dramatic. The second half was very good, but a bit too one-sided to be any higher on the list.
Giovani Segura TKO4 Cesar Canchila (March 14 at Mexicali, Mexico): In 2008, Canchila outpointed Canchila in an exciting fight to win an interim junior flyweight title on the Antonio Margarito-Miguel Cotto undercard. Meeting for the second time, we knew what to expect from the little sluggers: an all-action fight. That's precisely what we got in a ferocious fight as Segura exacted revenge. Segura came out guns blazing and dropped Canchila in the opening round. Frankly, the bout could have been stopped after the hard knockdown. In the final seconds of the second round, Segura scored another knockdown with a big overhand left. Canchila rallied in the third, which was a round of the year honorable mention, as they rocked each other all over the ring. At the end of the fourth, Segura was in control again and hammered tough-as-nails Canchila as the bell rang. The referee, apparently not hearing the bell over the deafening crowd, didn't stop the fight. The fighters didn't hear the bell either and Segura got off a few more blows before the referee finally realized the round was over. But he stopped the fight because Canchila was done. So was one of the most exciting fights of the year.
Carlos Abregu KO4 Irving Garcia (May 1 at Santa Ynez, Calif.): What began as your normal "ShoBox" main event -- the unbeaten welterweight prospect Abregu facing a test in the veteran Garcia -- quickly turned wild and wooly in a rousing and unexpected slugfest in which Abregu survived a pair of knockdowns and scored a knockdown of his own. First, Garcia dropped Abregu with a pinpoint right hand to the jaw in the first round. The second round was a round of the year candidate in which Abregu beat the tar out of Garcia for most of the frame before Garcia creamed him with a desperation right hand that sent Abregu reeling. Garcia got Abregu off his feet in the fourth when he dumped him with a left hook. But Abregu showed a lot of heart to rebound and knocked Garcia out, hurting him with a flurry and dropping him with an uppercut. Garcia came to rest leaning against a corner pole with blood streaming down his face when referee Jack Reiss called it off. What an unexpected treat.
Dan Rafael is the boxing writer for ESPN.com.
From start to finish, no fight delivered the thrills and spills quite like Juan Manuel Marquez's ninth-round knockout of Juan Diaz.