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Where there’s -330 fire, there’s “Smoke”

Aug 12, 2003 7:18 AM

It’s a fight for night owls and birds of finer feathers. Juan Manuel Marquez, who can look as good as anyone in boxing when the stars are properly aligned, is minus $3.30 next Saturday against Derrick (Smoke) Gainer (plus $2.50) in the main event of HBO’s Boxing After Dark.

It could also be a fight for bird-dogs. Gainer is very live in this partial unification matchup of featherweight champions and you can be excused if you forget which sanctioning body sanctions which guy.

More pertinent is to not forget Marquez’s lackluster performance against Freddie Norwood, another southpaw who runs. Marquez, who has two of the fastest hands of any Mexican fighter since Miguel Canto, was completely frustrated that his feet couldn’t move fast enough for his hands to be in position to strike.

After a while, it was almost as if he gave up trying.

It is why Gainer has a real chance. He is tall, moves well, and even more so than Norwood, can crack. Unlike Norwood, though, Gainer doesn’t receive as well as he throws. He was outboxing and outslugging Kevin Kelley in their classic first matchup when the New Yorker, one eye shut, landed one punch to end it.

But in the rematch, Gainer virtually shut out Kelley, making him look old and slow. He could easily dent Boxing After Dark’s reputation for excitement.

There’s a terrific prelim ”” unbeaten Fernando Montiel, the WBOgus 115-pound champion, against one of the greatest flyweight champions in history, Marcellus (Too Sharp) Johnson, who even in his dotage can still fight a bit.

But the main event is the "action" fight and, unless there’s an influx of Florida money from Pensacola, it would seem Gainer could be good value. The lanky southpaw is no trifle to be charged recklessly. He can deliver punishment.

And, though this contrast of styles usually leads to thrilling fights, even a running Gainer should be able to make the matchup exciting because of the inherent drama.

Marquez, who finally won a title this year (two weeks before brother Rafael dethroned longtime bantamweight king Tim Austin) would be a natural for Bob Arum to move up to 130 pounds and face Erik Morales, who abdicated his featherweight title.

For years, Prince Naseem Hamed refused to give up his WBOgus 126-pound title and face his mandatory challenger, giving credence to the belief that Marquez was indeed a force to be taken seriously.

After the Norwood disappointment, Marquez finally gained a belt Feb. 1. At the time, it seemed there was nothing much to write home about. So he beat Manuel Medina, a four-time featherweight champion who had seen better days.

But that assessment must be upgraded in light of Medina’s upset the other day of Scott Harrison for a fifth 126-pound title. Medina, like Gainer, likes to fight from the outside and Marquez was able to get through.

But Gainer is a more skilled technician than Medina. The joke has been, "Where there’s Smoke, there’s Roy Jones Jr." The fact is that Gainer, a longtime protege of boxing’s best practitioner, owes his skills to Roy Jones Sr., obviously one of the great unsung trainers in history. Just think, from a little town in the Florida panhandle, he helped produce world champions, in addition to his son, like Gainer, Arthur Williams and Cool Vince Phillips.

Often, though, where there’s Smoke, there’s no fire. He fights "scared," jittery, more smoke than substance. He looked very ordinary in recent defenses against Victor Polo and Oscar Leon. But when he stops moving backwards and plants his feet, he can punch bigtime.

With the heavyweight division virtually bankrupt ”” Mike Tyson literally ”” the featherweights are one of the fun weight classes in boxing. There’s the "king" of the division, Marco Antonio Barrera, who could next be fighting either Manny Pacquiao, a champion outgrowing the 122-pound class, or Medina. Morales has gone up to 130, but he’ll be more than adequately replaced by youngsters like Rocky Juarez, the 2000 Olympian who has become NBC’s flagship fighter on the network’s return to the game.

But some perspective. As good as the 126-pound division has been recently, it doesn’t quite match up with one wonderful weekend in Vegas when I was covering fights for The New York Times. I lost twice in two days ”” when Salvador Sanchez knocked out Wilfredo Gomez, then the next afternoon when Juan LaPorte beat Rocky Lockridge in the second round. When you consider Eusebio Pedroza was mugging opponents, it was probably a golden age of featherweights. Who knew?