Marquez stops Vazquez in 3rd, evens epic rivalry

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Rafael Marquez stopped Israel Vazquez midway through the third round Saturday night, evening their epic rivalry at two fights apiece.

More than 26 months after Vazquez claimed the fighters' third meeting, Marquez made short work of his rival by cutting Vazquez near both eyes in the opening rounds, leaving the former 122-pound champion blinking back blood.

Marquez (39-5, 35 KOs) opened a gaping cut over Vazquez's left eye with a big punch in the first round at Staples Center, and he knocked Vazquez (44-5) to one knee early in the third after another cut opened near Vazquez's right eye due to a head-butt. Marquez then chased Vazquez to the ropes with a relentless flurry of punches, and referee Raul Caiz Jr. stopped the shortest fight of the rivalry.

"I've been waiting for this moment for almost three years," Marquez said. "Everybody saw the difference in this one."

Vazquez and Marquez met three times from March 2007 to March 2008 for a super bantamweight title, with each fight increasing in ferocity and theatricality. After Marquez claimed Vazquez's 122-pound title in their first bout, Vazquez won the last two fights, including a split-decision victory in the rubber match.

Both fighters took more than a year off after the third bout, and Vazquez underwent three surgeries to repair a torn retina. They agreed to a big payday for a fourth meeting at featherweight.

Marquez was aggressive in the opening round, landing a big right hand that cut Vazquez early on. Vazquez survived the round, but the astonishing size of the cut — nearly the entire length of his eyelid — suggested the fight couldn't go much longer.

"That was the plan, to go directly to the eyes," said Marquez, the brother of Juan Manuel Marquez. "The people in my corner said that."

Vazquez attempted to force the action, but Marquez won the second round on all three judges' scorecards and opened strong in the third, battering Vazquez to one knee 1:15 in with a combination. Blood streamed down Vazquez's cheeks, and Marquez nearly knocked Vazquez to a knee again before Caiz stopped it at 1:33.

"I feel OK," Vazquez said. "I can see and everything, but I need to take care of my eyes. He hit me with a good shot, and my eye just opened up. I didn't know until I saw the blood that I was cut."

Both fighters immediately were asked about a fifth bout, and both expressed interest if the money is right. Frank Espinoza, Vazquez's longtime manager, wasn't so certain.

"That's it. His career is over," Espinoza said. "(Vazquez) doesn't need to fight again."

The enthusiastic crowd, which included actors Charlize Theron and Garry Shandling and Arizona Cardinals receiver Larry Fitzgerald, filled much of the lower bowl. Golden Boy CEO Richard Schaefer estimated about 8,000 fans in a crowd that would have been bigger without the Tour of California cycling race's time trial snarling traffic downtown earlier in the day.