The first time my father and I saw Marco Antonio Barrera fight was his HBO debut on February 3, 1996 against Olympic gold medalist Kennedy McKinney. We had read several articles on how the Mexican fans and media were proclaiming him to be the next Julio Cesar Chavez. That night, my father and I were both in amazement as to how similar Barrera was stylistically to Chavez. Barrera knocked out Mckinney in the 12th round of an incredible firefight and showed several elements that would eventually result in the Mexican star becoming the 35th greatest fighter of the last 45 years.
The WBO version of the 122-pound title defended by Barrera that night against McKinney was the fifth successful defense of a belt he won on March 31, 1995 from Puerto Rican boxer Daniel Jimenez. After finishing off McKinney, Barrera stayed extremely busy in 1996, scoring three more knockouts in defense of his title before facing Brooklyn native Junior Jones on November 22, 1996. I was a huge fan of Jones as he reminded me of a young Thomas Hearns. At 5’8, Jones was very tall for his weight class and possessed a stifling jab and booming right cross similar to the legendary “Hitman.” Unfortunately, Jones also shared Hearns’ proclivity of both a shaky chin and stamina. In 1994, Jones was knocked out twice by lesser skilled fighters. Many experts assumed this would be the final straw in Jones’ career, a brutal beating at the hands of Barrera. As my father always succinctly stated, no boxer is ever unbeatable.
For the first four rounds, Jones kept the 5’6 Barrera at bay with a stiff left jab. Barrera had never faced such a lengthy boxer with height and reach like Jones. Then, with about 30 seconds left in round five, Jones landed a picture perfect right cross that dropped the iron-chinned Barrera similar to the way Hearns dropped Pipino Cuevas in his incredible August 2, 1980 knockout. Barrera got up bloodied and practically out on his feet. Jones immediately jumped on Barrera, landing several punches before Barrera fell down in a heap. Barrera’s cornermen jumped into the ring to stop the fight. Barrera’s star had taken a major hit. Barrera would lose the rematch to Jones five months later in a heated 12-round war that could’ve gone either way. Barrera, after an initial brief retirement, would begin his climb back to the top of the division 10 months later.
Barrera regained the WBO 122-pound title on Halloween night 1998 by destroying Richie Wenton in three rounds. After two successful defenses of the title, Barrera signed to fight the WBC champion Erik Morales in the greatest fight ever held between two Mexican boxers. It was the eighth greatest fight of all-time. The WBO was so incensed that Barrera did not win the decision that many felt he earned that they decided, in an unprecedented move, to continue to recognize Barrera as their 122-pound titleholder. Barrera successfully defended his title three more times before abdicating the belt to move up to 126 pounds in early 2001 for a fight against the undefeated power puncher Naseem Hamed. It would be the defining point of Barrera’s career.
Hamed had dominated the featherweight division for over five years. Hamed had defeated almost every top 126-pound fighter of his era with his unorthodox southpaw style combined with mule kick-like power in both fists. Before my father made his transition to the afterlife in July of 2000, he predicted that a talented counter-puncher could have a field day with The British Prince’s wild and aggressive lunges. The night of April 7, 2001, Barrera proved my father’s theory was on point as he put on a master display of counter punching. Hamed was continually baffled as he was beaten to the punch time and time again. Hamed was ineffective the entire 12 rounds as Barrera’s pinpoint accurate counters resulted in a convincing 12-round decision. Hamed was so flustered by this loss that he fought one more time the following year before retiring. As for Barrera, he would continue to add to his legacy as one of the greatest Mexican fighters of all-time.
On June 22, 2002, Barrera fought Morales in a highly anticipated rematch, this time for Morales’ WBC and vacant Ring Magazine featherweight championship. Morales, in my opinion, controlled the majority of the fight by using his superior height and jab. Unfortunately, the tables were this time turned on El Terrible and it was Barrera who received a 12-round gift decision and the titles. Barrera would follow up with successful Ring title defenses against Johnny Tapia and Kevin Kelley. He then would run into the juggernaut named Manny Pacquiao.
On November 15, 2003, the now 29-year-old Barrera faced at the time, the single most exciting fighter in the sport, the soon to be 25-year-old Filipino buzzsaw Pacquiao. Throughout the entire fight, Barrera looked more like 49 as Pacquiao battered him from pillar to post with blinding speed and angles I hadn’t seen since the prime of Aaron Pryor. Towards the end of round 11, Barrera’s corner had no choice but to throw in the towel and end the one-sided massacre. I thought it was over for Barrera. But the Mexican warrior had one final great fight left in him.
Barrera moved up to 130 pounds and faced his most hated rival Morales for El Terrible’s WBC super featherweight title on November 27, 2004. It was a war that rivaled their first fight, as both men several times throughout the fight traded an insane number of power punches. Barrera did not look like the shot fighter he appeared to be against Pacquiao as he got the better of most of the exchanges and finally a legit winner in the trilogy was rightfully declared. Barrera had earned his third world title and once again was near the top of the boxing world. He should’ve retired that night on top. Instead, he continued to fight and despite being past his prime, he successfully defended his 130-pound crown four times. Then came fights against the deadly duo of Juan Manuel Marquez and Pacquiao again.
Barrera lost his title on March 17, 2007 to Marquez via 12-round decision. Despite now being 33 and much slower than the master counter puncher and fellow Mexican great Marquez, Barrera was game and shockingly very competitive in losing his title. Then, seven months later, Barrera was once again very competitive in giving a much better accounting against Pacquiao than their first fight before losing a 12-round decision. Barrera would fight five more times, losing only to the up-and-coming future champion Amir Khan, before finally retiring in 2011 at the age of 37.
Marco Antonio Barrera was the closest fighter that I’d compare to the legendary Julio Cesar Chavez. An incredible body puncher who obliterated you after wearing you down, Barrera was also one of the most resilient boxers that ever lived. Despite two tough losses to Junior Jones and one to Erik Morales, Barrera came back each time an ever better fighter. In a six year time span, Barrera successfully defended his 122-pound world title 13 times. By the end of his reign in 2001, Barrera had successfully transitioned into being a tremendous boxer/puncher with much more head movement and counterpunching acumen. His trilogy with Erik Morales is the single greatest trilogy in Mexican boxing history. His epic win over Naseem Hamed is one of the greatest performances of the 45 years I’ve been watching boxing. Barrera would finish with an outstanding 67-7 record with 44 knockouts. He ducked no one and fought everyone, easily making him the 35th greatest fighter of the last 45 years.