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Greatest Hits: Marco Antonio Barrera

Photo by The Ring/ Getty Images
17
Oct

Editor’s Note: This feature originally appeared in the August 2022 issue of The Ring, which is available for purchase at The Ring Shop.

AS ONE OF THE FOUR KINGS OF THE 21ST CENTURY AND ONE OF MEXICO’S BEST EVER, “THE BABY-FACED ASSASSIN” PRODUCED ONE CLASSIC AFTER ANOTHER

Marco Antonio Barrera is a versatile man. As a young university student, he studied law. Simultaneously, as a budding professional boxer, he blasted his way to 43 consecutive wins. And eventually he turned his analytic eye toward himself, morphing from a seek-and-destroy puncher to a skilled technician in a career that would see world titles in three divisions and gain him a place in the pantheon of Mexico’s all-time greats.

Barrera was born in Mexico City on January 17, 1974, one of four children. His father worked as a set designer and his mother was a housewife. Unlike many of his countrymen who used boxing as a means to escape poverty, Barrera grew up in a financially stable family. Nevertheless, his childhood was not without challenges.



“Iztacalco was a dangerous neighborhood,” Barrera told The Ring through his son Marco. “I was fighting day by day. You had to always be aware of your surroundings. That’s where you learn how to fight and defend yourself.”

Barrera gained notice as a 115-pound prospect in the early 1990s, but he made his name at junior featherweight. (Photo by Holly Stein /Allsport)

Barrera’s older brother, Jorge, boxed and received more attention since his coach, Rudy Perez, believed Jorge had more potential than his younger sibling. Nevertheless, Barrera won a national title and compiled a 65-5 amateur record before turning pro at the age of 15. 

“I was fighting in high school,” he said. “My day started at 3 a.m. I went out running, then breakfast, and then went to school.”

Barrera won the national title at junior bantamweight in his 17th pro bout and made five defenses before claiming the NABF 115-pound title in his 27th fight. The 20-year-old then traveled to Argentina to face future two-weight titleholder Carlos Salazar in a WBC 115-pound title eliminator. Unfortunately, Barrera officially missed weight, but he disputes that.

“I always carry my own scale,” he said. “However, the promoter had a different scale that put me two pounds heavier than I had to be.”

Although Barrera won a hard-fought 10-round majority decision, it was Salazar who was given the world title shot.

“The thing is, nobody really gave me a world title shot in the lower weight classes. That’s why I had to move up in weight,” he explained. “If they gave me the opportunity to fight for a world title at 115 or 118, I would have been a world champion even earlier.”

Less than a year later, Barrera received his long overdue world title shot up at 122 pounds against WBO titlist Daniel Jimenez. 

“I didn’t finish law school; I was in the second year when the world title fight came,” said Barrera. “My parents were like, ‘If you lose the world title, then you’ve got to [go to] law school.’ So, when I won the world title, I dropped out of college and 100 percent focused on boxing.”

The new champion’s star quickly ascended and his reputation marked him as one of the best young fighters in the sport – and perhaps the next big-name Mexican. Perhaps even someone who could help fill the void as Julio Cesar Chavez entered the final stretch of his legendary career.

Barrera made eight defenses before he stunningly came up against his “Poison” in the form of respected former bantamweight titleholder Junior Jones.

“I had a mild malformation in my head that was leaking blood to my brain, and every time it would do that, I had small seizures. But I did not give importance to that,” said Barrera, who was twice on the canvas in Round 5 and lost via disqualification when one of his cornermen entered the ring to save him from further punishment. “So I went into the ring and lost the fight. After the fight, I was examined by the doctor. He said I was alive by a miracle, because someone else with that type of mild malformation would have died by impact right away.”

Junior Jones shocked the boxing world with back-to-back victories over Marco Antonio Barrera.

Incredibly, Barrera faced Jones in a direct rematch five months later.

“I wanted to go back and fight,” said Barrera, who lost a competitive 12-round unanimous decision. “Even in my preparation, I was running and felt the shocks going all through my body. I went and fought. 

“After the fight, I went to my parents’ house and started having seizures, and my mom instantly took me to the doctors.”

It appeared as though his once-promising career had come to an abrupt end.

“I thought my boxing career was completely over,” he admitted. “It was either [have surgery] or be on pills the rest of my life. 

“My sister said, ‘If you want to go back in the ring, you’ve got to have the surgery, because you can’t just live on pills.’ Dr. Ignacio Madrazo, who was Muhammad Ali’s doctor too, he guaranteed I was completely fine and could step back in the ring. The operation took eight hours.”

After 10 months spent recovering, Barrera decided to return to boxing.

“I did eight title defenses, but I was living in the same place. I didn’t have a car,“ he said. “I said, ‘I haven’t really done anything in boxing.’ I thought God gave me a second chance, so I completely took it.”

Firstly, “The Baby-Faced Assassin” regained his confidence with a few tune-ups. Then he got his old WBO 122-pound belt back by stopping Richie Wenton after three rounds in 1998. 

After two title defenses, he met archrival Erik Morales in an instant classic in early 2000. Despite losing a split decision, the fight was so intense and hotly contested that Barrera’s reputation was enhanced. 

The next big opportunity was when he met lineal featherweight champion Naseem Hamed in 2001. Barrera, who was a 3-to-1 underdog, shocked the naysayers, boxing a very disciplined fight to take the Brit’s unbeaten record. 

Barrera officially became a two-weight titleholder when he leveled the score with Morales to claim the Ring and WBC 126-pound belts in 2002. Subsequent wins over Johnny Tapia and Kevin Kelley followed.

But just as stunningly as he had beaten Hamed, Barrera had the carpet yanked from under him by a relatively unknown Manny Pacquiao. 

“Leading up to that fight, there were problems,” said Barrera. “It was a secret that I’d had brain surgery, but my promoters at the time showed the commission I’d had brain surgery, so the Nevada commission called me and were not letting me fight. The moment they released me, I had 15 days to prepare for that fight. It’s not an excuse, because we lost to a really great fighter, but it was a really big thing to deal with at that moment.”

It was time again for Barrera to move up in weight. This time he headed up to junior lightweight, where he settled one of boxing’s bitterest rivalries with Morales, edging a 12-round majority decision for the WBC title. He made four defenses and also added the IBF belt to his collection. 

However, he lost to Juan Manuel Marquez and then the rematch with Pacquiao. Although he fought on, Barrera’s appearances became less frequent until he bowed out with a homecoming fight in 2011. He retired with a record of (67-7, 44 KOs). 

“I was 37 years old when I retired. I fought whoever I had to fight,” said the 2017 International Boxing Hall of Fame inductee. “I didn’t leave anything pending. Life since then has been really great. So I think I left boxing at the right time.”

Barrera, now 48, is married, has four children and lives in Guadalajara. He worked as a commentator for TV Azteca for over a decade, has a popular podcast with Morales and owns a gym in Mexico City – Gym Barrera.

He enjoyed looking back on his career and reminiscing about seven career-defining performances for readers of The Ring:


DANIEL JIMENEZ
March 31, 1995, Arrowhead Pond, Anaheim, California • Title: WBO junior featherweight

“He was the only champion who was going to give us the opportunity to fight for the world title.

“Having to jump from 115 to 122 was a really difficult thing to do. Camp was completely different from all the other fights. But we didn’t care about that. It was a title fight, so we were going all out.

“It was a very special night, because every boxer’s dream is being world champion. So, from the first bell, my mindset was going all out to become world champion. My mindset was on fulfillment. 

“My dream came true – I was a world champion. I didn’t think I was going to do more than that.

“I was a very low-key champion. I just went back to the hotel room and ordered room service for family and friends and we celebrated.”

Result: Barrera UD 12

 


KENNEDY MCKINNEY
February 3, 1996, Great Western Forum, Inglewood, California • Title: WBO junior featherweight

Barrera decks McKinney in their classic war. Photo by Jed Jaconsohn/ Getty Images

“[Then-HBO Sports executive] Lou DiBella came and said, ‘Do you want to come and fight for HBO on the new Boxing After Dark series?’ What I was looking for at that moment was more recognition. … Without thinking twice about it, I said, ‘Yes.’ I had to fight Kennedy McKinney – a real threat, a real champion.

“It was an all-out war. We knew from the initial bell it was going to be like that – a former world champion, Olympic gold medalist – we knew we had a big challenge coming up. He was the first fighter to send me to the canvas in my career [in Round 11]. We knew we had a real fight going on. He just caught me by surprise; I wasn’t expecting that right hand. When I got up, I stuck to the plan, continued what I was doing, didn’t really change what I was doing, was just a little more cautious about not getting caught by the same right hand.

“I felt relief, I felt happiness [at the end of the fight], because I was completely exhausted. I hit him with my best punches and he kept punching me back. When I caught him with the right hand, I thought he was going to get up and the referee counted him out [in Round 12].

“Lou DiBella came up to me and said, ‘That’s what we were expecting. That’s the [kind of fight] we want on HBO.’ From that moment, I started fighting for HBO.”

Result: Barrera TKO 12

 


ERIK MORALES
February 19, 2000, Mandalay Bay Event Center, Las Vegas • Titles: WBC/WBO junior featherweight

Action from Barrera vs. Morales I. Photo by John Gurzinski/AFP/Getty Images

“Before the fight was signed, there was a lot of trash talk between him and I. There was a lot of hate between us. My camp was in Big Bear [California] and I remember saying to myself, ‘Any fighter can beat me but Morales.’

“He was angry for some reason. I was born in Mexico City. There’s a common thing between [Mexican] boxers that says boxers from Mexico City are the toughest, the most feared boxers there are. The press asked him about fighting a fighter from Mexico City. [They said Morales] has to be dangerous, him being close to the border. He said, ‘I’m the best.’ There was back and forth going on just because of the fact that we were from Tijuana and Mexico City.

“I remember he hit me in the fifth round with a right hand in between my neck and my chest. I was going down but, in my mind, I was like, ‘Morales can’t take me down. Anyone can take me down but Morales.’ I hit him back. I think it’s remembered as one of the most dramatic rounds; it was considered round of the year.

“Props to Morales. He was a warrior. I punched him, he punched me back. It was back and forth action. To this day, over 20 years later, people still remember that fight. People still consider it the best fight of the trilogy.

“I felt bad. I felt sad [about losing.] I told the commentator after the fight, I told HBO that Morales was no good, knowing the cards weren’t on my side. Even though the people say I won, it still felt really bad.

“I took a vacation; I went to Acapulco. I completely stepped away from boxing. I had to take a little bit of time for myself. No noticeable injuries, only the left ear. He hit me a lot on that ear. If I put a lot of pressure on it, it hurts to this day.

“However, the WBO came to Mexico City, to my house, to give me the belt back. In the press conference they told me I was their champion and they reinstated me as champion.”

Result: Morales SD 12

 


NASEEM HAMED
April 7, 2001, MGM Grand Garden Arena, Las Vegas • Title: Lineal championship

Marco Antonio Barrera and Naseem Hamed during their 2001 showdown in Las Vegas. Photo by John Gichigi /Allsport/Getty Images

“Rian – Hamed’s brother – approached me and said, ‘To me, you won the Morales fight. So we want a fight with you, because you’re the best.’ For me it was a great offer because Hamed had come from beating every champion of every organization. It was a good fight. It was the best fighting the best, and that’s all I wanted to do. That was the best purse in all my career.

“Something that stands out, because I felt like I was in a movie: When I was training in Big Bear, training for the Hamed fight, the snow was up to our knees, so my team was running in front of me making space so I could run. It felt like a Rocky movie.

“My mindset was completely different. We studied all of his fights. We watched his tactics and what had to be done. Something I really saw was that his opponents let Hamed do anything he wanted. They let him move, dirty tactics. In my mind – I didn’t tell my corner this – [I was thinking] if he plays dirty, I’m going to play dirty.

“That was my big task, 100 percent, to get recognition from all the world. Changing my tactics, outboxing Hamed. That was definitely one of my best performances. I completely changed my tactics. There’s a saying in boxing: With a right hand, you can beat a southpaw. I wanted to change that and demonstrate with a good jab and left hand you can completely outbox a southpaw. So we completely changed the outcome of the fight.

“The people’s reception was insane. After the fight, I was eating in a restaurant in the hotel in Las Vegas and there was a huge line outside just waiting for me. Back in Mexico, my wife already had a party set up. It was the first time I celebrated a big fight.”

Result: Barrera UD 12

 


ERIK MORALES 2
June 22, 2002, MGM Grand Garden Arena, Las Vegas • Titles: WBC and vacant Ring featherweight

Marco Antonio Barrera vs. Erik Morales 2. (AP Photo/Laura Rauch)

“The press was pressuring him, saying he didn’t really want to fight. He asked for a second fight, so we gave it to him. The second fight with Morales was a fight that needed to be made. It was necessary for the people to see a second showdown, because in the first one there was still doubt about who really won the fight and the fans were still hungry for more. So it had to be made.

“We didn’t change anything in camp. We had the right strategy, the same thing we did in the first fight. Morales changed his fighting style; we saw a lot of movement from him, working from a distance and using his reach to his advantage. I had to slowly work my way in, hitting to the body, trying to slow him down, and it worked. It was a very necessary rematch. A lot of people saw me win. It was just a classical Mexican fight. 

“It was very overwhelming, because we knew the Ring Magazine belt was only won by the best fighting the best and beating the best. It was a really overwhelming feeling having that belt. That belt opened so many doors for me. It was really, really big for me.”

Result: Barrera UD 12

 


ERIK MORALES 3
November 27, 2004, MGM Grand Garden Arena, Las Vegas • Title: WBC junior lightweight

Marco Antonio Barrera vs. Erik Morales 3. Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images

“When I won the WBC title at 126, Mauricio Sulaiman didn’t give me my belt. When I was in camp for the third Morales fight, Mauricio came to my camp to wish me good luck. I said, ‘I don’t need your luck. What I need is my two belts: the one you didn’t give me last time [at 126] and the one I’m going to win this time.

“Mauricio thought because it was 130 pounds that I wasn’t going to beat Morales. He gave me a pat on the back and said, ‘Yeah, yeah, I’ll do that.’ 

“Twenty-four hours before the fight, I had a double cheeseburger and fries before the weigh-in. Ever since I was at 122, it was my mentality: before the weigh-in, I had to eat my cheeseburger, eat my fries and drink my soda. Why? I don’t know. It always worked. I never had problems with it. Oscar De La Hoya walked into my room and saw me eating the burger and thought I had weight problems to the point that he said, ‘Hey, if you want, we can order the plane and get you out of here?’

“It was a great relief, overcoming everything. All the drama behind the scenes, saying the gloves had to be Winning, had to be yellow.

“After the fight, you can see me on video holding two fingers to Mauricio, saying, ‘You owe me two belts.’ Yes, he gave them to me.

“I think my best performance and the easiest one was the third one. [There were] never any talks of a fourth fight. We still have a couple of issues. It’s 20 years and counting.”

Result: Barrera MD 12

 


JUAN MANUEL MARQUEZ
March 17, 2007, Mandalay Bay Event Center, Las Vegas • Title: WBC junior lightweight

Barrera vs. Marquez.

“We weren’t really a fan of cherry-picking. My mentality was to fight the best, and at that moment the promoter said, ‘Marquez is the best right now. You’ve got to fight him.’ I didn’t look at it twice and said, ‘I’m fighting Marquez.’

“There wasn’t really bad blood, there wasn’t really friendship. We were just two fighters. We were even from the same neighborhood in Mexico City, just a few houses between. My brother saw him frequently in the ice cream shops, but I didn’t see him.

“It was an all-out war, two Mexicans in the ring. What else can you expect? It’s going to be trading punches back and forth. It was in the seventh round that I knocked him down. Unfortunately, I slipped and punched him when he was on the ground. At the end of the day, they lifted his hand up and I have to live with it and accept that loss. I did what was necessary for me to win the fight. Unfortunately, the judges saw it the other way.”

Result: Marquez UD 12

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