When Rocky Juarez (25-1, 18 KOs) challenges Marco Antonio Barrera (61-4, 42 KOs) on Saturday night for Barrera's WBC junior lightweight title, the Houston native will be coming in as the underdog for the first time in his professional career.
"It's a weird feeling," Juarez admitted a few weeks ago at a press conference at Staples Center in Los Angeles, where this bout will take place. "But at the same time, it's definitely a motivation. It's what I wake up to every day, motivated to go do my roadwork and to train to the best of my ability."
Last summer, Juarez was supposed to face then-WBC featherweight titlist In Jin Chi, but ended up facing Humberto Soto as a late replacement after Chi was scratched with a training-camp injury. Soto would promptly outhustle and outfight Juarez to take the interim title over 12 hard rounds.
Juarez admits that while he was there physically, his mind went a bit askew after he received the news of Chi's exclusion from their bout.
"I had only two weeks' notice, so I guess it's not that I was out of shape -- I was in the best shape I could be -- I think it was more of a mental letdown," he says. "I was supposed to be fighting for the WBC belt that night. Going into that fight [with Soto], I knew I had to win against him just to fight again for the WBC belt.
"So it was just a mental letdown. I think Soto went into that fight having nothing to lose and he was well-prepared himself. I knew it was going to be a tough fight."
What was even tougher on Juarez, a 2000 silver medalist for the United States, was the significance of his loss. Once a television staple, he had problems getting back on the airwaves. In today's game, one loss makes you disappear as if you had flown through the Bermuda Triangle.
"After that fight against Humberto Soto, I told my manager and Main Events to throw me back into the ring and to put me against quality opponents to be televised, to stay there in the limelight. I still felt [with] my ability, I didn't lose nothing losing to Soto," said Juarez, who at the time didn't fully grasp the impact of one loss on one's standing in the sport.
As a result of his loss, coupled with the inability to find a televised date for him, Main Events put Juarez on two untelevised cards to keep him busy.
"The fight with Soto set us back tremendously and it was amazing, I didn't think one loss would set us back so far," said his manager, Shelly Finkel, who also believes the exodus of the featherweight division did them no favors. "I think the division also changed. Morales, Pacquiao, and Barrera all leaving the 126-pound division and Marquez getting tied up in his problems. So the opportunities were less and then he kept the name. We kept him busy, just some fights to keep him from getting stale, but it was very rough and this opportunity came and we're very glad we took it."
Main Events and Finkel, early in 2006, searched for a fight that would be on the HBO/Showtime level, but to no avail. During this time, Chi would lose his belt to Takashi Koshimoto in Japan.
"We wanted to just see what else was a possibility, and because of Chi's loss overseas to another foreign fighter, the reality of fighting for the WBC featherweight title has just gone out the window with that loss," explained Carl Moretti, the promoter for Main Events. "I was hoping actually to get a shot at Joan Guzman in some type of fight -- even though it wouldn't have been for a title -- going after Scott Harrison is a waste of time with the way they do things over there. We never would've been able to make that fight.
"So when you look at the other options, not only was this a great offer and something to go after, it made the most sense at the time, too."
This opening against Barrera came to fruition when Jesus Chavez had to bow out of his March date against the Mexican legend when he suffered another rotator-cuff injury. Eventually, that mid-March date went by the wayside before a new date (May 20) and new foe (Juarez) was found.
Looking back, Juarez sees a silver lining in his first professional setback.
"I think I just got a loss on my record, and if anything, it probably did better for me.
I believe everything happens for a reason. If I had beaten Soto I don't think I'd be having this opportunity I have today."
Many believe that Juarez is a relatively safe opponent for Barrera, a way to bide his time and stay busy before a possible rematch with Pacquiao. Some cynics also believe that perhaps Main Events is cashing in on their investment in Juarez, whom it has promoted since he came out of the Olympic Games.
"I'd say, obviously, they're mistaken and next Saturday will prove everything, that we made the right choice," countered Moretti, who also believes that his man was itching for a significant bout. "There's no question that he wanted a meaningful bout. Any fight of his level is extremely meaningful; this is a fight that reaches the top. You can't get a bigger name than Barrera and his training has reflected the motivation level that he's up for this fight."
Juarez has made a significant tweak in his preparation for this fight.
"What he's done," explained Moretti, "to his credit, he's used Juan Diaz's conditioning coach, Brian Caldwell, from the start, and he feels so much better with him and so much stronger. I think it's going to help immensely in the fight."
This fight will be Juarez's first significant go-around as a junior lightweight.
"It's a great thing because Rocky's really walking around at 140 all the time," said his lifelong trainer Ray Ontiveros. "So 130 is perfect for him."
For the 26-year old Juarez, the time was right to move up.
"Oh, definitely," he agreed. "I was at the featherweight division since I was 17 years old. So people don't realize that I've been at that division for so long and I was having some trouble making the featherweight limit. So moving up to 130 pounds, I think I'll be more comfortable. Fighting a guy like Marco Antonio Barrera, I don't think he's a 130 pounder."
Tempo -- and setting a quick one -- will be key for Juarez. Barrera, in recent years, has morphed into one of the game's best boxer/punchers. But as the "Pac Man" showed in 2003, you have to push the cadence, bring the fight to him and get Barrera out of his comfort zone. Juarez is usually a guy who starts at a methodical rhythm and breaks his opponents down slowly over the course of a fight.
"We're working on that," Ontiveros said of getting off to a faster start. "We know that Barrera wants to set his pace. Barrera is a guy that will dictate the pace, but we want to push him to the limit, we want to take his body away from him. That's where Barrera's weaknesses are."
It's a daunting challenge, to be sure, no matter how Juarez decides to attack Barrera, who is one of the generation's best performers. But Juarez knows what he'll be going up against this weekend. There's a fine line between respect and awe that a guy like Juarez must walk.
"When I hold somebody in high regard like I do Marco Antonio Barrera, I mean it with a sense of respect and a sense of what he's done in boxing and his boxing career," Juarez told MaxBoxing. "But as far as my ability, I have a respect there, but there's no fear there.
"There's no sense that I can't beat him."