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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A swimming pool and a bleeding toe put my medical competency in doubt

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Sometimes the search engine wins. 

The brutal heatwave affecting southern Europe this summer has become known among locals as “Lucifer”. Having just returned from Italy, I fully understand the nickname. An early excursion caused the beginnings of sunstroke, so we abandoned plans to explore the cultural heritage of the Amalfi region and strayed no further than five metres from the hotel pool for the rest of the week.

The children were delighted, particularly my 12-year-old stepdaughter, Gracie, who proceeded to spend hours at a time playing in the water. Towelling herself after one long session, she noticed something odd.

“What’s happened there?” she asked, holding her foot aloft in front of my face.

I inspected the proffered appendage: on the underside of her big toe was an oblong area of glistening red flesh that looked like a chunk of raw steak.

“Did you injure it?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t hurt at all.”

I shrugged and said she must have grazed it. She wasn’t convinced, pointing out that she would remember if she had done that. She has great faith in plasters, though, and once it was dressed she forgot all about it. I dismissed it, too, assuming it was one of those things.

By the end of the next day, the pulp on the underside of all of her toes looked the same. As the doctor in the family, I felt under some pressure to come up with an explanation. I made up something about burns from the hot paving slabs around the pool. Gracie didn’t say as much, but her look suggested a dawning scepticism over my claims to hold a medical degree.

The next day, Gracie and her new-found holiday playmate, Eve, abruptly terminated a marathon piggy-in-the-middle session in the pool with Eve’s dad. “Our feet are bleeding,” they announced, somewhat incredulously. Sure enough, bright-red blood was flowing, apparently painlessly, from the bottoms of their big toes.

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Often, what patients discover on the internet causes them undue alarm, and our role is to provide context and reassurance. But not infrequently, people come across information that outstrips our knowledge. On my return from our room with fresh supplies of plasters, my wife looked up from her sun lounger with an air of quiet amusement.

“It’s called ‘pool toe’,” she said, handing me her iPhone. The page she had tracked down described the girls’ situation exactly: friction burns, most commonly seen in children, caused by repetitive hopping about on the abrasive floors of swimming pools. Doctors practising in hot countries must see it all the time. I doubt it presents often to British GPs.

I remained puzzled about the lack of pain. The injuries looked bad, but neither Gracie nor Eve was particularly bothered. Here the internet drew a blank, but I suspect it has to do with the “pruning” of our skin that we’re all familiar with after a soak in the bath. This only occurs over the pulps of our fingers and toes. It was once thought to be caused by water diffusing into skin cells, making them swell, but the truth is far more fascinating.

The wrinkling is an active process, triggered by immersion, in which the blood supply to the pulp regions is switched off, causing the skin there to shrink and pucker. This creates the biological equivalent of tyre treads on our fingers and toes and markedly improves our grip – of great evolutionary advantage when grasping slippery fish in a river, or if trying to maintain balance on slick wet rocks.

The flip side of this is much greater friction, leading to abrasion of the skin through repeated micro-trauma. And the lack of blood flow causes nerves to shut down, depriving us of the pain that would otherwise alert us to the ongoing tissue damage. An adaptation that helped our ancestors hunt in rivers proves considerably less use on a modern summer holiday.

I may not have seen much of the local heritage, but the trip to Italy taught me something new all the same. 

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear