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By Cliff Rold

My first year of graduate school is almost over. Almost. I am struggling to type that last page, paragraph, word that symbolizes a four month respite. I might even get straight A's, which is good since my best friend in school probably will too and she talks way too much trash to have her outperforming me again this semester. That is just unacceptable. She refers to all this as the "A" club and is happy to point out that with only one A in our first semester (and some damn fine B+'s I might add), that she is the sole ruler of her little club (and if she gets a "B+" or other non-A, she reserves the right to change club rules so it's not like I ever get to be club President). But hey, at least there are rules to get into this club. To become a champion in the sport of Boxing, it isn't that simple.

It should be simple. Simple rules, simple process, simple elevation. In football, you play sixteen games towards the goal of a Super Bowl. There are criteria to making the playoffs. Meet them, and each team has an equal shot. In Baseball, 162 games weed out the top eight teams on the way to the Yankees playing in yet another World Series. In Chutes and Ladders, you slide backwards according to the board and climb forward according to the board. It should be simple. It should be a game. But Boxing is not a game.

Boxing is a beast; an amalgamation of interests. It is a collection of promoters. It is a loosely defined set of governing bodies. It is state commissions without uniformity. It is television networks that demand charisma over substance. It is fans who claim to love the science but thrill most at the sight of blood, at the easiest way to a thrill. The fighters are too often the last thought, the component that is most dispensable.

For Juan Manuel Marquez, toiling with the beast has never been simple. It should have been. He should already be the "A" club President. Every unwritten rule, every supposed coda, has been followed in his career. He is a fighter who on May 8 will face the beast head on. Manny Pacquiao is the Featherweight Champion of the World. The beast would prefer he win. His fights are all action. His defensive liabilities and offensive firepower the antidote for a fan base wallowing in their thirst for violence. Pacquiao, twice knocked out in his career and only in his mid twenties is the recipient of favor that should have gone to Marquez.

Boxing is often referred to as 'The Sweet Science.' Marquez has lived up to those words. He has taken the time to learn his craft, perfect his timing, hone his skills. He is the embodiment of the values Boxing is supposed to embrace; he is the true professional. The beast claims to respect those values, but is not always willing to pay them their just respect. Marquez, at thirty years of age, has spent a decade as victim of such phenomena.

It should be simple. There should be rules but the Beast has never gotten around to prescribing them. For Marquez that has meant over a decade in the Boxing wilderness, a nomadic experience that saw him taking fights in small Mexican locations and international venues that didn't know what they had in the ring. There was never a certainty of opportunity, never a promise that a champion would be forced to face him. He simply continued, waiting.

Lesser fighters were getting title shots for beating other lesser fighters. Like Mark "Too Sharp" Johnson learned at Flyweight, one can be too good. Derek Gainer got to face Kevin Kelly and Diego Corrales. Marquez got to watch. When the two of them stepped in a ring against each other, it was no contest. It was also a sign of the need for rules. But those rules would establish a process.

It should be simple. There should be a process. A fighter should know that if they win, and keep winning, they will receive the title shot they covet. For Marquez, his first flirtation with world supremacy ended controversially against then-WBA Featherweight titlist Fred Norwwod. A process would have allowed a quick return to the spotlight. For Marquez, the lack of a process meant years of his career would float by before he could take a step into the ring against Manuel Medina and win the WBC Featherweight title.

Unfortunately for Marquez, there are so many titles to win that they make the holding of the real crown that much harder. Four recognized titles in each of seventeen weight classes mean that just about anyone can hold a title. They need not even be a great fighter. You can be Jane Louise and feed the promotional beast. You can be the incomparable Arturo Gatti and fulfill our bloodlust. There is a trinket that can be yours. A belt that you can point to as a statement of achievement. But what has truly been achieved?

Marquez is a rare commodity at this moment. He has not one but two belts. What is their value? In the words of Mister Miyagi, "JC Penny. $4.99." He may hold belts, but it is Pacquiao who is the Champion. He is the man who beat the man. That is all that truly matters. Sometimes, the beast forgets that. It tells people that Evander Holyfield won four heavyweight championships when he only won two. It omits that Shannon Briggs was once the heavyweight Champion of the World. It sits on my TV screen and says Vitali Klitschko is the new man after fighting three fat men in a row.

Pacquiao got his title shot early, a sign that the beast favored him. That Marquez has waited this long tells us all we need to know about the lack of process in the sport of Boxing. It isn't fair, but fair is a concept in games. Boxing is not a game. It is a contest, and there is sport, but never is there a game. Every fighter risks his life, risks his belief in himself, his integrity, and humiliation in front of the world each time they enter a ring. Showmen like Muhammad Ali, Naseem Hamed and Sugar Ray Leonard looked like they were having fun out there, created the illusion that we were watching another athletic game. It's easier to think of it in those terms than those that are true.

May 8 will not be safe for Marquez. Pacquiao can knock out any man in his weight class with either hand. He is faster, more reckless, more dangerous than Marquez. Yet this is the only option. Sun Tzu wrote in The Art of War that "one may know how to conquer without being able to do it." Marquez faces just such a dilemma. Marquez has titles, acclaim, respect and yet those are all hollow victories. He doesn't have what he truly wants, what all of us aspire to in our endeavors.

It should be simple. There should be elevation. When proper achievements have been attained, it should be easy to weed out the great from the very good. For Marquez, the absence of such a standard means that so much of his place in history hinges on one night. That gamble has been a successful one for many fighters like him recently. It went well for Bernard Hopkins against Felix Trinidad; for Vernon Forrest and Winky Wright against Shane Mosley. The lack of rules and process force fighters who may have been great all along to seek elevation in one bold stroke.

And elevation is the key. It is the gateway to what is most desirable. To be transcendent, a part of something bigger than the individual achievements. Marquez fights for a place in history next to Salvador Sanchez, Alexis Arguello and Henry Armstrong. Marquez fights to be appreciated by the beast in equal proportion to the love he has given it.

For that, it is time for the beast to apologize. When Hamed was ducking Marquez, when Norwood refused a rematch, when Barerra and Morales pretended as if Marquez was not their countryman, there was no real protest. Marquez isn't thrilling enough, too clinical at times. The claim to appreciate the value element of the sport stays overshadowed by the base thrill. As boxing recedes from the national landscape, it should be remembered that a true professional like Marquez is a gift to the beast. He is the link to the past, the image of all the skill that has been acquired through years of practice. At thirty, old for a fighter, he is near to the end of the line, win or lose, on May 8. Should he falter, the beast will likely allow him to fade from view again.

And that would be a shame. The things in Boxing that matter are fighters like Marquez. When we take them for granted, we leave ourselves open to the possibility of missing something we didn't know we could lose. May 8, when Juan Manuel Marquez takes his shot at the Featherweight Championship, the beast gets a chance to apologize and say thank you at the same time.

Should he win, Marquez will finally have that all important pass to the "A" club. He will have made his mark. As to myself, if I keep writing this column, my last take home exam may be less than stellar, and less than stellar means I'll spend at least another semester being reminded that I am trumped…BY A GIRL (oh the agony). I already probably set myself up to lose a Pepsi challenge about whether I can learn to speak Albanian in thirty days, so I better make sure I have at least one win to point too. See you soon with the May One-Away rankings.

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