(Sergio Martinez on the mat against Julio Cesar Chavez, Jr.)
In the four years that Sergio Martinez has been the undisputed middleweight champion, who has he beaten that has impressed you?
There are six defenses in that span, itself an unimpressive feat. The standout win by boxing’s exalted Argentinian is his one punch rematch knockout of Paul Williams, a viciously conclusive ending to what had been a tit-for-tat rivalry up until that very moment.
The lanky octopus of a fighter that took the “most avoided” crown from one time Martinez vanquisher Antonio Margarito, Williams remains the only special fighter whose name graces the champion’s reign at the top, spanning back to 2010.
And yet, in that same time frame Martinez has maintained a notable presence on most pound-for-pound lists and is generally acknowledged as a very venerable custodian of the great championship history of the division.
He defends his title this weekend versus Miguel Cotto in the Puerto Rican star’s first bout at middleweight. Martinez is the favorite to win, and should be, based on the many questions Cotto must answer about how well equipped he is to be fighting several weight classes above his most impressive performances.
But leveling a critical eye at Martinez, most pundits seem unwilling to let go of the notion that the middleweight champ is an elite talent.
And maybe he was, once upon a time. Maybe for a moment. Maybe for just one punch.
What would Martinez’s esteem look like without that single scary lightning bolt that laid low Paul Williams?
Kelly Pavlik is back in Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City for the first time since boxing legend Bernard Hopkins dismantled him in a catchweight bout that left the belt around his waist while stripping everything else from him. He is left naked, exposed, vulnerable, save for that championship belt.
Two years have passed since his all encompassing defeat and Pavlik has struggled to regain confidence.
Criticism has rained down on the Youngstown fighter and rumors of a drinking problem have started to swirl around “The Ghost.” In a couple soft touch defenses, Pavlik has looked solid but listless.
Back at Boardwalk, a venue near enough for his fans from Ohio to trek, he steps in to face Sergio Martinez, a shifty, athletic boxer just off a disputed majority decision loss to Paul Williams. That close fight could have gone to either man and though he didn’t get the nod, negotiations between the winner, Williams, and Pavlik don’t bear fruit.
Martinez gets the shot instead.
Early in the fight the speed of Martinez and his unusual fight style — hands down, quick shuffles forward, back, bobbing head — seems like it’s taxing Pavlik’s mental strength as much as the looping hooks he can’t avoid are taxing his face. Within moments of the bell a small cut tears the battle weary skin over his left brow and blood trickles near his eye.
By round two Jack Loew, Pavlik’s blue collar trainer since boyhood, senses that the kid’s heart isn’t in the fight. Hell, it may not be in the sport of boxing anymore period.
Pavlik, the legitimate, undisputed middleweight champion of the world is wracked with doubt already.
“The Ghost” is a haunted man.
The spectre of Hopkins, an aging but defensive wizard, the man he failed to lay leather on in any meaningful way, seems to crouch at his shoulder whispering portentous intonations of doom into his ear.
Loew tries to talk over the voices in Pavlik’s head, shout them down with exclamations and profanity “Don’t get it in your head we’re not gonna get off. We’re gonna get off!”
Pavlik looks unconvinced, but he’s a champion. He goes out and does what has always worked in the past. He works hard. He works his jab.
And by the end of round 4 things have shifted. Pavlik is walking Martinez down. He figures out his opponent’s awkward rhythms. Conversely, the challenger seems to be tiring, his punches lose velocity, and Pavlik is picking off the shots that were connecting just a few rounds before.
Martinez isn’t a defensive wizard, he’s just elusive. He lacks technique and relies on his superior reflexes.
The plain, hard hat wearing approach is working. Pavlik is turning the tide with steadiness, with timing.
Martinez hits the mat. His awkward style contributing to poor balance and a punch that catches him at the wrong moment. He’s on his ass in a flash.
A late bloomer, only having taken up boxing in his 20s, Martinez’s lack of technique seems to have dropped him off at a plateau in this fight. With his athleticism no longer demonstrative he suddenly looks out of his depth in against the lanky champ.
The fight has turned and Pavlik seems to have pushed the demons away. He’s stringing together round after round and Martinez is wilting.
He’s silenced his fears. He’s silenced his doubts. He can box simply and win. He can hit Martinez.
Redemption through redaction. Back to basics. Back From Bernard.
But then, one of those punches that Pavlik had suddenly gotten so good at smothering with his gloves lands flush and tears open his other eye. Blood pours across his cheek and he can’t see.
In the corner Loew tells his charge not to say a word. If he says he can’t see, the doctors will stop the fight.
Pavlik slumps on the stool. The cut man works pathetically to staunch the flow. The will he’d summoned for his resurgence seems to flood out of Pavlik along with the blood that is streaking his face.
From that moment on Pavlik seems like a broken fighter. His career never amounts to much more after that.
He’d summoned up the championship spirit to rally in the face of great self doubt, and a puzzling opponent, but when his skin opened and even the very blood coursing through his own veins seemed to rail against him, the great fighting spirit that Pavlik had exhibited in his meteoric rise to stardom seemed to dim inexorably, resignedly.
The fight in him gone. The fighter in him vanquished. “The Ghost”… a ghost.
Martinez seems re-energized at the sight of blood and has little trouble poking and prodding the cut on the way to a decision victory that would make him the division’s champion.
The next battle following his belt winning bout with Pavlik cemented the perception that Martinez was a seemingly high quality champion at middleweight. His one punch posterization of Paul “The Punisher” Williams earned him Knockout of the Year honors and rocketed his name towards the top of the pound-for-pound discussion.
He’d face two more opponents sporting glossy undefeated records the next year, ending each within the distance. These men, Serhiy Dzinziruk and Darren Barker, came as imports from Europe with records built on middling competition at best.
These 2011 bouts would mark the last time Martinez looked truly impressive in a prize fight.
Three years have passed, it’s 2014, and just three more fights in the books. Each have had very shaky moments for the reigning champ. He’s come off the mat in all of the bouts and has found himself in jeopardy much more than a pound-for-pound entrant should against decidedly B-level competition.
And yet we enter this weekends showdown with the majority of pundits still holding firm to the likelihood of Martinez’s excellence, baring a flare up of his chronic knee problems and the out and out failure of the rest of his body, which seems to be wearing down precipitously.
Martinez has shown his mettle in rising from the canvas and fending off tough challenges from mediocre challengers.
Strangely for a fighter lauded for his sheer athleticism and stamina, Martinez often fades in fights. All of his recent knockdowns have come in the second halves of bouts and the steam comes off his punches late.
So ask yourself that question once more… Remove the shock and awe of the Williams knockout, a chilling explosively violent moment, unexpected, memorable and emphatic. Take that punch, set it aside, and look at the remaining performances in the run that Martinez has crafted in his tenure as the steward of the division.
With his steady diet of U.K. also-rans, Martinez has hobbled his way and cobbled together a successful run at the top.
But even if his performances and resume have you convinced he is a marvel of boxing as his nickname “Maravilla” contends, what has convinced anyone he is near the top of his own game now, let alone at the top of the sport?
Conventional wisdom on the fight this weekend is that if Martinez is healthy, Cotto has little chance to win.
No one is seeing Cotto as a legitimate middleweight. And at 5’7” it’s not difficult to see why perception would seem to dictate that he is too diminutive to do damage to a true 160 pounder.
But a re-energized Cotto has looked ripped and ready to push the limits of his own potential. Against Delvin Rodriguez late last year he looked to reload the weapon of his youth, a devastating left hook to the body.
Over the years that punch was mysteriously put into the drawer as Cotto began to “mature” as a boxer. Too much of the latter half of Cotto’s career was spent trying to minimize damage and apply the sweet science instead of the tough torture he used to foist pain on his prizefighting pals.
There once was a Cotto who busted the orbital bone in Paulie Malignaggi’s face, punched Gianluco Branco’s shoulder into dislocating, and targeted Carlos Quintana’s organs with crippling body work.
After the horror of his defeat at the hard handed Antonio Margarito, Cotto changed. He looked to minimize the punishment he had to endure. He looked to move and box rather then stalk and corner.
Then finally came Freddie Roach, the renowned trainer who excels at boiling fighters down to their essence and then adding new wrinkles one at a time. With just a fight under their partnership one can see the results of their collaboration already. Roach has instilled renewed aggression and a mauling strategy to the Puerto Rican that resets him to a formidable force to be contended with.
Cotto looked fast, mobile, sharp and destructive against Rodriguez, a sturdy second tier contender who was overwhelmed quickly and impressively, signaling a return to form for one of the generations most consistent boxing attractions.
With Roach cracking the whip Cotto seems focused and hungry, rejuvenated and confident.
Most importantly he seems prepared and intelligently ready to wage the proper kind of battle needed to cage an an awkward and quick fighter like Martinez.
Come fight time, the hand speed deficit may not be so great as people think, and if Roach has crafted the killer plan he keeps intimating, we may see the 5’7” Cotto fight even shorter, work behind a jab and bull Martinez to the ropes looking to gore him with vicious body shots and tax a man who’s weariness has been conspicuous of late.
Most are predicting the elusive bigger boxer to run circles around Cotto, but who better to stop such a style than one of the sports preeminent body punchers returning to form?
Sometimes to reach heights greater than what you are destined for, things simply align of their own accord.
When Martinez took his first step towards recognition as one of the best in the sport he benefited from a champion who had already been softened up, beaten down, ripened for the taking. He was damaged goods and the cut Martinez opened convinced Pavlik to give up “The Ghost.”
Sergio Martinez is now the champion who is ripe for the taking. Miguel Cotto, who has come up just short in his biggest fights, may find himself perfectly positioned for greatness should he be able to seize the moment.
Martinez of all people could tell him that sometimes it only takes one punch to ignite a torch that others will bear for you long into the future — carry forward in your name — as witness to a moment of greatness no matter how fleeting.