The goal in life should be to figure out what you are meant to do and then set about doing it. The lucky and hardworking persevere in this endeavor; the tests they face season rather than deter because those hopeful for greatness, like middleweight champion Sergio “Maravilla” Martinez, understand that attaining a life’s goal is about fighting through each challenge the journey there presents. In order to attain greatness in your calling, new challenges must constantly be met or created and overcome in order to further stretch your personal limits; It’s this principle that’s been the driving force behind Martinez’ success since his first loss back in 2000 when he was a mere 14-0 fighter.
Saturday night on HBO, Martinez faces an altogether new challenge in hard-nosed U.K. contender Martin Murray at the Club Atlético Vélez Sarsfield in Buenos Aires, Distrito Federal, Argentina in front of 40,000 screaming fans. The fight itself will be tough. Murray is a true contender. What may be harder is what Martinez will be navigating all the way to the ring through to the final bell. The hardest of tasks: returning home a rock star while attempting to live up to expectations.
“Everything that I’ve been through in my life, you know, has been so overwhelming and hard that the boxing would be actually the lightest of the hardest things that I’ve had to endure in life. That’s how I feel about that,” Martinez told reporters on a recent conference call. “I’ve had to learn, you know, to deal with changes and the pressures of boxing, but that’s done hand in hand with kind of like how my life has been as far as things being rough and things changing as I’ve evolved as a fighter in my life.”
Peaks don’t get much higher than the one Quilmes, Argentina’s Sergio Gabriel “Maravilla” Martinez scaled last September 15. The night had a magic to it generally reserved for fairy tales with storybook endings. For eleven dominant rounds and change, Martinez reclaimed his WBC middleweight belt from incumbent champ Julio Cesar Chavez, Jr. The fight wasn’t even close. In and out Martinez would dart, playing a vicious and demoralizing game of cat and mouse with young Chavez. Martinez fluidly switched roles all night until finally Chavez swatted him with a right hand that rocked Martinez to his core.
The rest of the round was pure mayhem. Martinez was knocked down and then later thrown to the canvas. He fought brilliantly all night long but in that final round after getting caught, injured his knee so badly it required surgery. Martinez, who had recently switched out from using veteran Russ Anber as a hand wrapper, also injured a hand. He survived that final minute but the injuries tell the story of a man whose hard journey has spanned continents getting to the recognition mountaintop. The unanimous decision victory completed a fantastic story that had taken the 38 year-old boxer from Quilmes to the U.S., where he experienced his first loss, back home and then off again to Spain, England and ultimately the U.S. again. His is a magnificent tale wonderfully told. But where does it end? Was the Chavez fight the peak?
Even though Martinez came to boxing late at age 22, this will be his fifty-fifth fight. At 50-2-2 (28) Martinez has boxed 379 rounds. He has been stopped on his feet once, cut, knocked down multiple times, and suffered the injured knee and hand as well as had a recurring leg and elbow issue. Martinez has gone serious rounds with Paul Williams, Kermit Cintron, Kelly Pavlik, Mathew Macklin, Darren Barker (who broke his nose) Antonio Margarito (his first loss. A seventh round TKO) and many more. Like the man says, “It’s not the years, it’s the mileage.” You wonder where the rubber meets the road?
“I don’t even think of that kind of stuff right now,” Martinez said of age and retirement. Martinez’ co-promoter and manager Sampson Lewkowicz said the champion had promised his mother he would not fight past 40. “I’m focused right now on this fight that is coming up. Maybe after the fight, I’ll talk with my team and as they move with their future plans, I can give a better answer to that, but right now, I don’t think about any of that as age or a time or date. Right now, that’s not even a question in my mind.”
“Like any good fighter - a good fighter, and that’s exactly what Sergio is - every good fighter’s lane comes to an end sometimes and I believe its Saturday night,” said Ricky Hatton, who recently retired for the second time following his third stoppage loss. “There’s always some young, hungry person that comes forward to set the mantle and I believe Martin Murray is the man. He’s been in the lion’s den before against Felix Sturm, put in a performance while he was there and it may have been a little bit too soon for him, but we didn’t. That will hold him in good set for the task ahead.”
Hatton’s fighter and Martinez’ worthy challenger is St Helens, Merseyside, United Kingdom’s Martin Murray. An undefeated right-hander, the 30 year old fighter’s record stands 25-0-1 (11). Murray’s claim to fame is that he should be wearing the belt Felix Sturm lost to Daniel Geale. Murray was there first, having “lost” a December 2011 split decision to Sturm in his native Germany. Thought to be just a pug sent to be out-boxed going in, Murray left the ring with boxing fans knowing they’d seen a relentless meat grinder of a middleweight. Though he left a little something in the tank, Murray showed he belonged on the world stage. He does not have the one punch eraser but makes up for it with volume. He is what they mean by a ‘hard man.” Between the endless pressure and attention to body punching as well as the bullying manner, it’s all ugly for an old fighter coming off knee surgery.
“I’ve looked at tapes of him and he’s one of the toughest guys in the middleweight division, absolutely deserving of being, not only in the top ten, but probably in the top five or six,” Martinez’ promoter Lou DiBella said on the conference call promoting the fight. “He’s a very, very good fighter. That’s one of the reasons why Sergio wanted this fight. Sergio doesn’t shy away from any challenge and Martin Murray presents a real meaningful challenge.”
Martinez returns to Argentina far removed from the man who lost everything save the number of his former trainer, Gabriel Sarmiento when he first arrived in Spain. Martinez was simply a young man with a dream of being a champion when he left. Returning, he is a champion who has worked hard in recent years, taking the short end of the stick to get his title shot and making the most of it when he got there. He is the longshot success story personified; “The Natural” as Argentine little guy boxer raging against the big-time boxing machine and winning. His success has spawned business ventures overseas and helped Martinez bring attention to his anti-violence against women campaign. While in the U.S. he is starting to breakthrough. In Argentina, Martinez is a true star.
“It’s been amazing, the best that you can imagine possible, landing [in Argentina] and then having the people cheering you. Just the love is very overwhelming and how everyone is treating me right now,” said Martinez.
“For me, it’s been a little bit freaky,” said DiBella of experiencing how big of a star Martinez is in Argentina. “I mean, I got off an airplane and the room to get through customs, there was like 5,000 people in it and a couple of thousand recognized me, but I haven’t been here since I was a kid, so it just shows you the star power of Sergio Martinez and what he means in this country. Like from my cab to the airport to the hotel, I passed I don’t know how many billboards, how many trucks, how many buses that had Sergio’s image on it. He really is like a rock star here right now and the atmosphere is charged and everyone knows about the fight.”
Maravilla returns with Pablo Sarmiento, brother to Gabriel and replacement as head trainer following Gaby’s incarceration for an assault back in Spain. The moment when Williams was out cold and Sarmiento crowned Martinez the middleweight king in the ring, is a distant memory. The relationship with Gaby is in some disarray for both men to hear the former tell it in a recent interview.
Success is not without its roadblocks and pitfalls. No doubt the relationship’s turmoil, kept within the inner circle, may or may not work itself out. It is not our story to tell at the moment.
For now, the focus is on Martinez, the second of two great middleweight champions from Argentina returning home to finally get the recognition he deserves.
“You’re getting the chance to a see in my mind, one of the greatest middleweights who has ever lived and one of the two great middleweights in the history of Argentina,” said DiBella. “You can mention them in the same breath at this point. You could mention Sergio Martinez in the same sentence as Carlos Monzon and you’re not doing any injustice to Monzon. That’s how great Sergio is. I think that among the people who know, they know they’re getting the chance to see an all-time great fighter and a future Hall-of-Famer. Does he get the credit he’s due? Maybe not, but it’s coming more and more, and Saturday night in his homeland, there will be 40,000 plus people filling the stadium to show him the love and respect that he deserves.”
I’ll leave that debate to historians. From what I have observed of Martinez, he is a self-reliant man of action up to the task. I have rarely seen him falter in the time he has spent in the upper echelons of the sport. His draw with Kermit Cintron and the loss to Paul Williams are debatable. The rematch with Williams, a stunning second round knockout, is one of the most emphatic middleweight title fight wins in history.
But in the midst of this homecoming parade, there will be a fight. For a man in Murray’s position, having been jobbed in Germany and now heading to Argentina for the christening of Martinez, the decision to use this as fuel or folly must be made.
“The Felix Sturm fight was a learning experience for me,” said Murray. “I learned loads in that fight, loads of things I learned in that fight, that I will be bringing into this fight. The fact that it’s such a big challenge, I know that a performance on Saturday is going to have to be the best performance for me, but it’s a performance that I’m more than capable of doing, and the fact that it’s against such a great fighter and he’s got me up for it. I like doing the type of fights now where I can do it again, and I will be doing it again on Saturday. Like I said, I’ll be looking forward to putting all of the training to producing and coming out victorious.”
“I’ve seen a change in Martin this week, to be honest with you,” said Hatton who either saw a change in Murray or is figuring out this promoter thing. Now if he can only get Scott Quigg a fight. “He knows if he would have just took the bull by the horns a little bit against Felix Sturm, he may be able to come away with a win. He’s put that light to his game and I’ve seen a nasty Martin Murray this week. He’s come over to Argentina, he’s not overawed by the occasion like you would expect in Argentina when you’re fighting someone as high of a name as Sergio Martinez. He’s reaming with confidence, he’s never looked as sharp and inspired, and he’s got a real nasty streak about him.”
In Martinez, Murray has a puzzle that is obviously not easy to solve. Martinez fights in his own rhythm and style. Hands down, shoulders shrugging at you, inviting you in to throw something that can be countered. Spin, counter, rinse, repeat. Combined with superior conditioning, Martinez can generally do that all night long. After the knee injury, at age 38, we’ll see.
“Obviously, I’ve never fought anybody like Sergio’s style before, but I know all different types of style. That was hard to get an exact guy with Sergio’s style with it being so unique, but we got plenty of different styles of sparring partners, who all did the things that we needed. We’ve had a good training cap. As well as that, I’ve got a great trainer who is always coming up with the right game, has the right tactics. We just think and we know that we’ve got what it takes to beat Martinez.”
Martinez is a simple guy. He loves to train. He loves to box. He cares about his cause and he enjoys travel. That’s about it. So you wonder how he will handle the stress of fighting at home. How will the rain of love from his countrymen affect his focus? It’s hard to say. Is he ripe for the picking or peaking at the right time? Murray won’t be lying down. He didn’t come to lose. He came to do the extra things he didn’t against Felix Sturm.
“Statistics are just, you know, those are just numbers and what peoples’ opinions are, but this is going to be a very tough fight. I am fully aware of that and I would never take any of that for granted,” said Martinez. “I know how people can predict, but when you get in the ring, it’s a fight. This guy, he deserves to be in the ring with me and I don’t look at any of that stuff, so I’m prepared for a very, very, very tough fight.”
“He’s obviously going to win best, just like me, but he’s a very smart fighter. Everything he’s done has worked for months and I can’t see him changing, but he’s, you know, he said he’s going to knock me out, so maybe he’s just trying a bit too hard and he could end up in trouble, but I plan for there to be 12 hard rounds and that’s what I think the fight is going to be,” said Murray, who may have a point.
“When you come home and you’ve worked hard, people show love and appreciate and I have felt that and that receptiveness from the fans and the people, but that has not distracted me whatsoever,” said Martinez. “The eight weeks of camp have been wonderful, including this last week that we have moved camp here. Everything has been great, no distractions. I’m ready to go.”
For all involved, this is the biggest event Argentina has seen in some time. It’s an interesting moment in boxing history that could garner Martinez leverage in the increasingly dangerous and lucrative lands known as the 154 and 160 divisions. Or it could christen a new player who, like Martinez when he left for Spain, had to invade a country all by himself to get his crown. Like all great match-ups, the beauty is in the possibilities.