One man must win for a chance to correct the biggest mistake of his career. The other must win because to lose again would relegate him to the hard scrabble life of a fistic journeyman, a fighter with skills but not quite enough of them to survive where the air is thinnest and the money is thickest.
Every boxing match has its subplots. From four-round fighters to world champions, there are layers of stories that are often difficult to understand.
That is not the case for Juan Manuel Marquez and Rocky Juarez. The stories behind their Nov. 3 WBC super featherweight title match at the Diamond Desert Casino in Tucson, Ariz., are clear. One fights to create a legacy. The other fights to survive his own.
Nearly three-and-a-half years ago, WBC super featherweight champion Marquez fought the way few men ever had, surviving three first-round knockdowns to battle his way back to a draw with Manny Pacquiao three years ago. Marquez didn't have his hand raised that night, but it was a victory all the same.
Angry at the way he allowed victory to slip away from him, Pacquiao wanted a chance to prove he was the better man, and a rematch was quickly offered -- a rematch with the kind of opportunity Marquez only could have dreamed of after fighting back the way he had. Even though Marquez had the title, he was still widely considered to be the underdog, and many observers were surprised when Pacquiao said he wanted to fight Marquez again.
Normally someone who fights back the way Marquez did is avoided, as if he carries with him some dreaded strain of illness. Opportunity does not knock for quite some time for such a man, but in Marquez's case it did … and then he refused to answer. Nothing has gone quite right since.
Acting on the advice of his manager and trainer, Nacho Beristain, Marquez decided the money wasn't right, forgetting that beating Pacquiao not only would have given him the biggest payday of his career but also made him a name everyone between 126 and 130 pounds would have to deal with.
Instead, Pacquiao became that name after going on to fight Erik Morales three times, beating him twice before defeating Marco Antonio Barrera in his last outing.
Marquez, meanwhile, won the WBA version of the featherweight title in his next fight but lost it 18 months later to Chris John in a fight few people saw. He then boxed in obscurity; not the right address if you hope to reap the blood-stained rewards of a most difficult profession.
Marquez did manage to outpoint Barrera in his last outing eight months ago to win the WBC super featherweight title but the fact he'd only recently signed with Golden Boy Promotions, who also represented Barrera and who are fast becoming the biggest player in the sport, made that re-emergence no coincidence.
On Saturday Marquez will risk that title against Juarez in a fight that is being trumpeted as an audition for a now long-awaited rematch with Pacquiao for the kind of money and exposure the 34-year-old Marquez has longed for.
On the strength of his win over Barrera, Marquez ranks in the top five on most pound-for-pound lists and finally has been "discovered" despite having ignored for too long the Biblical urgings not to "hide one light's under a basket" since his first dramatic collision with Pacquiao. But while those around him talk of Pacquiao, Marquez wisely has continued to ignore him, knowing that for now that is the wiser course.
"I'm focused on Nov. 3," Marquez (47-3, 35 KO) said. "The talk of rematches and the talk of other opponents doesn't matter to me because I'm 100 percent focused on Rocky Juarez. I know the job at hand is a very tough one. I know Rocky Juarez is a tough and dangerous opponent.
"I'm not thinking about Manny Pacquiao. I know he's there but I'm not going to think about him because I need to fight Juarez. That's all that matters up to this point. To have titles I have to fight Manny Pacquiao. There are many things in the future but I'm just going to keep it there. I need a win over Juarez."
Marquez seems to have all the advantages in this match up because while Juarez has proven to be someone who must be respected, he has suffered the journeyman's sad fate: Whenever the big moments come, he's been competitive but has come up short.
He doesn't have enough of what separates "greatness" from "highly competent."
His two losses to Barrera were hard-fought, the first ending in a widely disputed split decision after first having been declared a draw, but the second was a one-sided boxing lesson when it seemed Barrera took him more seriously. When those results are coupled with his defeat at the hands of Humberto Soto two years ago for the WBC interim featherweight title, it has left Juarez with the air of a guy who is simply not quite able to compete successfully at boxing's highest level.
Then again, neither was it a mismatch and Juarez went on to prove in the first Barrera fight that, on the right night, he can outwork an opponent who is not fully focused. In their rematch however, Barrera boxed beautifully, avoiding the toe-to-toe confrontations Juarez longs for.
Marquez has the skill to do the same. He also has the warrior's spirit to engage in them if necessary. Juarez hopes the latter notion prevails because he feels if he can lure Marquez into close-quarter combat he is strong enough to not only survive, but to pull off an upset that could change his life.
"I definitely know this is an opportunity that's not going to come often," Juarez (27-3, 19 KO) said when asked if he looked upon this fight as his last chance to break into the big time among boxing's little men. "We know this is a big opportunity to go against a great Mexican fighter like Marquez. It was an opportunity I couldn't resist. I took it because I'm confident I can beat him."
Originally, Juarez was to face IBF featherweight champion Robert Guerrero on Sept. 15 but when Marquez's first opponent fell out he was offered the bigger purse to challenge Marquez. He jumped at the chance, only to see the card cancelled when a cut on Marquez's right hand became infected.
Golden Boy turned what was to have been its first self-promoted major pay-per-view card into a series of fights spread across various cards before convincing Showtime to partner with it for the first time with Marquez-Juarez as the main event. Two-time featherweight champion Guerrero defending his IBF title against Martin Honorio became the semi-main.
That bit of business meant opportunity for both Marquez and Juarez, although the bigger opportunity will come to the man who proves he has learned from his past.
In Juarez's case, it is learning how to push himself a little harder, especially early in the fight. Juarez has exhibited an alarming tendency to start slowly and then try to rally. It's a significant tactical error against top-level opposition; they're the smart, aggressive ones who know how to protect a lead as well as they do their chins.
Juarez talks now like someone who understands this but the question remains unanswered until Saturday night whether he can fight not only Marquez but his own nature and push himself from the opening bell.
"I don't take fights thinking I'm going to lose," Juarez said. "That's never something that came into my mind. He starts slow. People can say I start slow at the same time. I don't want to say how I'm going to fight him but we've prepared ourselves the best we could to fight and adapt to any style he brings. I just have to concentrate and put my full attention to the fighter in front of me."
In that area, Juarez believes Marquez will find that difficult with so much talk swirling around about a man who will not be in front of him that night.
"I was watching the Barrera-Pacquiao fight and all I could hear is Pacquiao vs. Marquez (next)," Juarez said. "I'm thinking as I'm sitting on the couch that Marquez still has to fight Rocky Juarez on Nov. 3. Why are they counting me out? I know there are a lot of fans out there, and a lot of boxing critics, who feel I can't beat Marquez. That affects me in a way. It motivates me to prepare for this fight even more."
If it also motivates Juarez to fight even more than he did against Barrera and Soto he might yet have the opportunity he hopes for and desperately needs. But Marquez is in the same situation and seems to understand that at 34 this is his final chance to put himself in position to earn the big money that has eluded him for much of his career.
"I don't feel like I'm about to retire," Marquez said. "I can't tell you at what point of my career I will but fighting Juarez is going to be awesome. I'd like to have a spectacular win or a knockout. I can't tell you how it's going to end up but obviously I'd like a spectacular knockout. I know I need to win and I'm going to that. I don't know in what way but I am going to win.
"The only thing that matters to me is what people think about me. People know the quality of boxer that I am. That's all that matters. Nothing else."
Nothing but beating back the challenge of a hungry guy who knows this is his last chance to get into the position Juan Manuel Marquez now holds -- which is a step below where the champion wants to be himself.
"There are no talks (with Pacquiao, WBO super featherweight champion Joan Guzman, who is also promoted by Golden Boy or WBA champion Edwin Valero)," insisted Golden Boy CEO Oscar De La Hoya. "There are no plans yet. We have to wait and see what happens in this fight."
This is exactly what Marquez and Juarez need to remember. The next fight will come, but this fight is the one that will determine what it will mean.
Ron Borges, who has won numerous Boxing Writers Association of America awards, covers boxing for HBO.com and for Boxing Monthly.