Juan Manuel Marquez lands a blow for the nearly men of sporting history

The Mexican boxer’s dogged refusal to accept defeat resulted in the most glorious of pay-offs.

At some point in time Sisyphus must have hit a wall.

Calves burning, back broken, blood coursing from his ragged hands, even the most durable of mythological figures must have despaired at the size of his task.

Punished by Zeus for a legacy of evil and scheming, the first king of Ephyra, is somewhere approaching 2,500 years of fruitlessly attempting to push a never resting boulder to the top of a never ending hill.

Last Saturday, a world or two away from Sisyphus’ perpetual toil, Juan Manuel Marquez’s personal boulder was a heavy one.

Facing eight weight world champion Manny Pacquiao for a fourth time, the Mexican pugilist stared up at a climb he had failed to scale on three separate occasions and prayed for redemption.

Before the pair’s first meeting in May 2004, he was the ugly sister of a trio of Mexican fighters dominating the sport’s lighter weights. Dwarfed by the instantly iconic Erik Morales and Marco Antonio Barrera, Marquez entered into a Las Vegas ring to face a whirlwind Pacquiao as a major betting underdog. 

During the opening stanza of the rivalry, Pacquiao set Marquez on his backside three times and, had referee Joe Cortez stopped the fight then and there, as many would have, this story would have been aborted before conception.

As it was, the Mexican would instead face a near decade long battle for vindication as he shared first a draw and then two razor thin defeats with the man many argue to have become one of the finest fighters ever to enter a boxing ring.

On Saturday, eight years and 42 rounds later, Marquez finally set his burden to rest.

What anguish must the Mexican have faced in November last year when, having put together arguably the most consummate performance of his career, he was deprived so cruelly on the judge’s scorecards for a third time in succession.

The four weight world champion threatened retirement- admittedly not a luxury afforded the condemned Sisyphus, however the crisis of confidence reflected the weight of the past sitting squarely on the then 38-year-old’s shoulders.

The last forty years of ring history would have told Marquez that chasing career defining fights against boxers who have transcended the sport in the manner Pacquiao has over the last decade, rarely ends positively.

Like Joe Frazier, Marvin Hagler and Ricky Hatton in their respective pursuits at the mountain, Marquez had waged a war against a man whose influence extended beyond his sport and whose achievements defined a decade and in doing so had come up agonizingly short.
The cost of that failure could never be defined in dollars earned or in titles won. 

Hagler’s ultimate rival Sugar Ray Leonard would be revered as the finest pugilist of his generation and rewarded handsomely for his charisma and commercial appeal. Hatton’s conqueror, the undefeated Floyd Mayweather Jr, would become the wealthiest fighter in the history of the sport and Frazier’s long-time foe Muhammad Ali would be simply remembered as ‘the greatest’.

For Marquez, the idea of failing to undo his great foe for a fourth time was too dreadful to bear. Even the perennial nearly man Frazier had an initial triumph over Ali to fall back upon as he sat in his Philadelphia apartment for 30 years between his 1981 retirement and death in November last year.

Hagler had his victory over Tommy Hearns, Hatton had one night in Manchester with Kostya Tszyu but Marquez, despite his four world titles at different weights, had only a legacy of missed chances to torture him for the rest of his life. Coming from a nation of great Mexican fighters, he would not even have the undivided adulation of his people to console him.

Somehow he had to better his best creation. Months of bag work, early morning road runs, hill sprints and iron clad discipline would have to follow for the chance at possibly scaling that impossible mountain- an obstacle he was convinced he had done enough to already conquer.

All of these factors combine as context for Marquez as he produced as close to a perfect punch as you are ever likely to see in a boxing ring. Having shipped the majority of the first five rounds and with only a handful of seconds left in the sixth session, the Mexican found the right hand of Sisyphus to lay Pacquiao out cold.

With that blow, Marquez simultaneously landed a punch for the nearly men of boxing’s brutal history.

Logic would have suggested that Pacquiao, at a fourth time of asking, would finally lay his ghost to rest. The Filipino man of the people could blame his busy work schedule and marital problems for his most recent failures but by laying the aged Mexican on the canvas for a fifth and final time, he could remove all doubt from the equation he had struggled most to solve. But this was no longer about logic.

A motionless Pacquiao brought back memories of a lifeless Hatton after he was destroyed by the Filipino in 2009. As ESPN’s Dan Rafael put it in the immediate aftermath of the fight: “Sometimes you’re the windshield and sometimes you’re the bug.” Marquez, like Sisyphus, knows well the feeling of being the bug.

Sadly, after of this, however, the fable is unlikely to end here. Pacquiao has already rejected his wife’s plea to quit the sport and Marquez could make upwards of $20 million from a rematch, so boxing’s Sisyphus appears likely to volunteer another stab at his grandest test. He should walk away and in doing so secure something that none of his nearly men brothers have ever managed. But he won’t. He can’t.

Juan Manuel Marquez (R) and Manny Pacquiao battle during their welterweight fight on December 8, 2012 at the MGM Grand Garden in Las Vegas. Photograph: Getty Images.

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How Devon's humpback whale is dredging up the politics of the sea

The arrival of a humpback whale at Slapton Sands has caused a local splash. But the history of the village has a warning for those who think of the sea as spectacle alone.

The Devon coast road from Dartmouth to Torcross is as pretty as it is treacherous. After winding through a cliff-top village, the road ahead falls away to reveal a giant lake – the Slapton Ley - flanked by green hills on one side and ocean on the other. 

Tourists (or "grockles") gasp at the view and, in recent weeks, even locals have been staring out to sea - where a giant humpback whale has taken up residence in the bay.

Not seen at Slapton in living memory, the whale has swum into rural stardom. Hundreds have lined the beach with cameras and telescopes. The nearby pub and farm shop have seen levels of trade only usually enjoyed in the summer.

According to Keith Pugh, (the ice-cream-van-man who has been keeping the crowds supplied with tea) one lady from Plymouth caught the bus here every day for six weeks just to catch a single glimpse. That’s a four-hour round trip.

If this all sounds a bit fishy, that's because it is. Experts believe that the whale is feeding on the bumper numbers of small fish and mackerel that have been reported in the area. But even these are behaving in unexpected ways. “The mackerel are further north than usual for this time of year,” says Mark Darlaston, a photographer who first identified the whale as a humpback (and jokingly named it after storm “Doris”).

So what is the humpback up to, so far south of its northern feeding grounds? And should its presence be seen as a sign of recovery - for whales and UK waters in general? 

Not yet, say conservationists. And not if the history of Slapton is anything to go by.

Troubled waters

Villagers at Torcross, at the far end of Slapton sands, are familiar with secrets from the deep. In 1944, a military training in the bay went horribly wrong, when nearly 1,000 American servicemen were drowned. The tragedy was hushed up for decades.

But the greatest threat to the community comes from mismanagement of the sea itself. On 26 January 1917 the entire neighbouring village of Hallsands was swallowed by a storm. The tragedy was partially manmade. The underwater sandbanks, which had helped protect the shore from longshore drift, had been thoughtlessly dredged to supply building materials for the Plymouth docks. Some 660,000 tonnes of material were removed and never replaced.

The results of that plunder are still felt at Slapton today. In 2014, a gale-force storm swept away part of the road that runs between the sea and the ley. Just last year, the seawall at Torcross crumbled, as the protective beach beneath was carried away by waves.

Into the Brexit deeps

So much in our oceans is tightly connected to human activity. If whales are a rare sight on the UK coast, it is partly because of the human campaign against them for many years in the form of whaling. According to Sally Hamilton from the conservation charity Orca, the 1980s moratorium on whaling has helped some populations to recover. 

But others are still fighting to survive in the face of pollution, noise, and over-fishing. The UK’s last resident pod of killer whales looks likely to die out after high levels of PCB chemicals have stopped the females reproducing. In Norway, a stranded whale was found to have over 30 plastic bags blocking its digestive system.

There is also no certainty that the glut of fish that the whale is feeding on will come again next year. “There is still masses we don’t understand about the ocean,” says Will McCallum from Greenpeace, “Climate change and the threat of over-fishing mean that where fish are moving to is more unpredictable that it has ever been.”

And it's not just whales that could get caught out. Some UK politicians have demanded that a Brexit deal include blocking foreign vessels from fishing in British waters. With 58 per cent of UK-caught fish caught by non-British fleets, it is argued that a ban would benefit the UK industry.

But with migration patterns becoming more erratic, McCallum is sceptical. "Re-territorialising our waters would be an absolute potential disaster because we just don’t know where fish stocks are going to move," he says. 

Out of the Blues

At Torcross, the sea has long been a source of worry. Claire, the landlady at the Start Bay Inn, recalls the many storms that have pelted the seafront pub since she was a child. Just last year she was “running from one end to the other” trying to sweep the water out, while bottles rattled and the chip-fryer shook.

So it was perhaps unsurprising that news of the whale’s arrival first met with local concern. “I can’t bear to see it,” one woman tells me. She had read in the press that it had come so close in to shore to “beach” itself and die, and heard rumours it was in mourning for a lost calf.

But thanks to the investigations of Mark Darlaston and the divers at the British Divers Marine Life Rescue, such fake whale-news has been corrected - and its visits are fast becoming a source of wider hope. The owner of the Stokely farmshop has joked about replacing it with a decoy “nessie” when it leaves. Claire cannot wait to put its picture on the front of her menus (where the picture is currently of the recent storm).

It is not yet known what lies ahead for Brexit fishing policy, or for whales. But dip into the history of the village of Torcross, and it's clear that understanding and protecting the sea is inseparable from protecting ourselves.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.