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The Uncertain Future of Sergio Martinez

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Last Saturday night, Top Rank and HBO combined to crown their middleweight champion, WBC titleholder Julio Cesar Chavez Jr., at Staples Center in Los Angeles, CA. From the dramatic ring entrance led by his father to the scores of 116-112 and 115-113 to seal the majority decision over German-born Sebastian Zbik, the win felt preordained for the son of the legend. The fight itself was in fact a close one that had Zbik doing well in the early round yet fading under the constant body attack of the limited Chavez. Zbik, who was outweighed on fight night (according to HBO’s unofficial scales), 180 pounds to 165, seemed to throw and land more, according to the official punch count system. When the punch stats were counted, Zbik had thrown 834 punches, connecting with 391 (47%) to Chavez Jr.’s 796 thrown and 256 landed (32%). However, many of the blows Chavez Jr. landed (the majority of which appeared to be body shots that wilted Zbik over the course of 12 rounds) appeared to be heavier shots as opposed to Zbik’s (who has ten knockouts in 31 fights) clean but light-looking punches. In the end, HBO, Top Rank and the 6-7,000 in attendance- with many of the $50 seats upgraded to the $150 section- got what they wanted. Chavez Jr. showed how limited he still is after 45 fights- and he was crowned anyway.


There is one problem. That WBC belt was stripped from lineal titleholder Sergio Martinez, who beat the brakes off of Top Rank-promoted Kelly Pavlik in April of last year. Zbik, whose mandatory challenge was due back in March, was awarded the title when HBO decided that Zbik was not an acceptable opponent to be shown on their airwaves against “Maravilla.” Martinez’s promoter, Lou DiBella, decided not do an independent pay-per-view or find another way to put the fight that would have allowed his fighter to keep a relevant title. Consequently, the WBC awarded Zbik the belt and elevated Chavez Jr.. who had not fought a top ten middleweight in his three fights at the weight, to number one contender status. Martinez was given the titles of “WBC Champion Emeritus” and “Ambassador of Good Will” despite the fact that he is in fact an active fighter. According to Martinez’s adviser Sampson Lewkowicz, the status came with the promise that it would be his right to challenge for the WBC title any time he wanted after the Chavez-Zbik fight.

 

It was an odd scene on Saturday at Staples. There was Junior, standing on the turnbuckle, wearing his brand new green belt and facing the crowd, arms up in triumph. Below him at ringside in the fifth or sixth row, was Martinez, staring up at the newly-crowned titleholder wearing his belt.

 

“It makes me feel like going up there to look for it,” Martinez would tell me as he stared up into the ring. “And let’s hope that fight materializes. I don’t want anything in the world more than to recover that belt.”

 

When asked for his assessment of the fight he answered, “I think Chavez won well. He did things better than Zbik and is a fair champion. Tonight, he is a fair champion.”

 

In his HBO post-fight interview, Chavez Jr. was asked about facing the man whose belt he wears and he responded, eyes wide, while his father’s jaw dropped open at the question from HBO’s Max Kellerman, “As a champion, I reject no one. If Bob Arum pays me the money, I will fight whomever.”

 

More than a few people remarked to me that Chavez Jr. looked either surprised or a bit scared when he was asked about fighting Martinez. Martinez did not agree but did throw down a challenge.

 

“No, No. Chavez is a professional,” Martinez answered. “Surely, as Mexican, as a Mexican man, he will want to defend against me. As a man that he is, he will have to defend against me. Based on world history, I do not see…I do not imagine a Mexican running away from another boxer. If he is a champion, he has to defend it against the best and nowadays, I am the best. I repeat; if he is a man, he has to face me if he is truly a man.”

 

Arum was asked at the post-fight presser about a future fight between the two men and had a typically different spin on it.

 

“HBO pays more money than anybody else for a fight but that money is still limited. The only way the fighters can really be compensated is in a pay-per-view. Sergio Martinez has never been in a pay-per-view fight. That means the cable operators [and] satellite providers don’t know who the hell he is. You writers do; your media does but they don’t know and they’re not going to get behind it with advertising dollars. [Antonio] Margarito, they know. [Miguel] Cotto, they know. So if we put Chavez in with Cotto, Cotto has an unbelievable track record as a pay-per-view attraction, that that fights going to sell. Same with Margarito. Sergio Martinez does not have that background. Now, that’s not my fault; I’m not his promoter. Sergio’s promoter should get off his ass and build him as a pay-per-view attraction; it’s really simple. It’s really simple. People say, ‘Well, Top Rank only wants its fighters to fight its other fighters.’ Well, we want our fighters to fight pay-per-view attractions and if they all come from Top Rank, that’s the way it is."

 

Recently, Martinez was awarded “Fighter of the Year” honors by the Boxing Writers Association of America. In his speech, he thanked WBC President for Life Jose Sulaiman and dedicated the award to him. Martinez has held two WBC belts, the 154-pound belt and the 160-pound belt. He vacated the 154-pound belt when he won the WBC and WBO middleweight titles. Now, after the Zbik debacle and the Chavez win, Martinez is a lineal champ with no belt to use as leverage at the negotiating table. All he brings is a tough style, a lineal belt and the chance for anyone to challenge for the right to be called the best middleweight in the world. So why dedicate an award to Sulaiman? Why remain so loyal to someone who has treated Martinez less than loyally?

 

“Because I trust that he will give me the possibility again to recover the belt, the championship,” Martinez answered.

 

What he refers to is the promise made by Sulaiman that Martinez would be given the right, as “Champion Emeritus,” to fight for his former belt. Whether that is true or will be upheld remains to be seen.

 

When Maxboxing.com’s Steve Kim asked at the post-fight presser about the mandatory status of the lineal champion, Arum responded, "Well, show me the rule that says that, number one, that there is a mandatory without having an optional defense and number two, that somebody who is not even an interim champion or the number one contender suddenly becomes the mandatory. There still has to be rules. Sampson Lewkowicz can say whatever the rules are that he wants them to be but that doesn’t make them so. You can’t make up rules.”

 

Lewkowicz told me after the fight that he was not making up rules.  

 

“It’s all up to Chavez to defend, to fight Martinez and fight for, defend his title in a mandatory way that Jose Sulaiman promised that when [Martinez] gave up the title; [Chavez is] supposed to fight him,” said Lewkowicz after the fight. “But now we leave it in the hands of Mr. Sulaiman, the decision.”

 

On Monday, Lewkowicz told me that Team Martinez’s decision to exercise its right will not be made immediately.

 

“That decision will take part next week,” Lewkowicz told me. “Now let Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. enjoy his title and next week we will find out what will be the best for Junior, what will be the best for Sergio Martinez and what will be the best for our beloved sport. So it is not only about two champions but it’s about the sport. So the decision is made rational. Now is too hot to make any decision. We have a week’s time to come down and make a rational for the good of the boxing industry and for each one of the positions.”

 

“We are going to assert that right,” Martinez’s promoter Lou DiBella told me on Monday, “but watch; it won’t matter.”

 

Belt politics aside, what we have here are two very different types of fighters in Martinez and Chavez Jr.

 

Like his Golden Boy counterpart, Saul Alvarez (who won the vacant WBC 154-pound belt in a 150-pound catchweight bout against a welterweight), Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. is a fighter greener than the belt he wears. He has virtually no amateur background and has learned on the job. He has a following because he has been promoted heavily by Arum over the years on small independent pay-per-views and Mexican TV. At the same time, Chavez Jr. is lacking the skills requisite to be a champion able- never mind willing- to take on all comers as a champion is expected to.

 

Sergio Martinez came up the hard way. He turned pro at age 22 after a short amateur career. After losing in his 14th fight, his first in the US to a Top Rank fighter named Antonio Margarito, Martinez embarked to Europe where he spent years honing his craft without benefit of a promoter. In 2007, with Lewkowicz as his adviser, Martinez fought on a Top Rank card against Saul Roman and knocked him out in four rounds. Lewkowicz offered Martinez’s services to Top Rank and they passed. Now, four years later, he is the middleweight champion of the world. Unlike Chavez Jr., Martinez has the skills to take on all comers but no following to make himself the financial man to beat in the division.

 

This brings up the idea of a good fighter vs. a well-promoted fighter. Why should Bob Arum want to risk his 25-year-old cash cow against a veteran champion who would wreck him like Martinez? Arum has spent a lot of his own money investing in this kid. He has gotten him the top trainer in the sport, Freddie Roach, put him on small pay-per-view shows, and spared no expense in the hopes that the kid lives up to even a fraction of what his father was.

 

On the other side, while DiBella has not developed Martinez into a household name, he has moved him to three titles in two divisions and has seen this unknown fighter, who came to the States in his 30s, become a popular figure among hardcore boxing fans.

 

Lewkowicz was upset by Arum’s comments on Monday and had this to say regarding them.

 

“I am very disappointed in [Arum’s] comments,” said Lewkowicz. “He needs to have more respect for his colleagues. Martinez’s second fight in America was against Saul Roman in a Top Rank show. And after he finished his man, I offered Top Rank Martinez and [Arum] told me he was not interested. This is the second time. Bob Arum said no to Manny Pacquiao in 2001. So he got Manny Pacquiao when he was peaking and maybe what he wants now is Sergio Martinez but this cannot be because Sergio Martinez has integrity and loyalty and if [Arum’s] actions were for that, it would be a shame.

 

“Bob Arum, by the way, is the smartest promoter ever in boxing,” Lewkowicz continued. “I include everyone A-Z. He is the best. So he is trying to bring down a commodity for him to take profit in this fighter because he does not belong to him. So one of the ways to minimize the payday for Martinez if he fights any one of his fighters is to say what he says and sacrifices a good man like Lou DiBella, and an excellent promoter because he did an excellent job with Martinez.”

 

Lou DiBella was less political or kind.

 

“Three-and-a-half years ago, nobody knew who Sergio Martinez was,” DiBella told me, Sunday evening. “Bob Arum passed on him. Now [Martinez] is universally recognized as, pound-for-pound, the best fighter in the world and he is a millionaire. So if that angry, mean, old man wants to make personal attacks on me, let him. Someday, we all face reality and the truth, and he will die someday a multi-hundred millionaire and he will have been one of the great businessmen in the history of boxing and a great ‘promoter,’ knowing he will have left the rotting corpse of the sport that he spent his whole life in that was still one of biggest sports in America when he got involved.”

 

As for the questions raised by Arum about how DiBella has promoted Martinez or not, Lewkowicz said, “When Lou DiBella and I started to work with Martinez, nobody gave a sh*t for him. He was totally insignificant until we got a shot at the title, thanks to the WBC. And thanks to the WBC and the hard work of Lou DiBella, today [Martinez] is very significant in our industry and for the sport of boxing. I strongly believe that Sergio Martinez has more interviews than Mr. Cotto and Julio Cesar Chavez together and the cheater Margarito. If you do a poll on your website and said, ‘Who has more interviews and who the people care more about?’ you would see that Martinez would come out on top because he is a champion inside and outside the ring and Mr. Cotto cannot say that. Chavez is too young. I will not go against him. He has a lot to learn and to sacrifice because he is the champion for the pedigree of the father and for the name of the father. He is there for the name of the father, Junior. Martinez, he earned [his distinctions] by himself. Sergio Martinez’s father is not Julio Cesar Chavez, so nobody can deny that Lou DiBella did an excellent job. The other thing is talking.”

 

What DiBella referred to is what many feel about the state of boxing. While it is true Arum is the best promoter in North America, arguably the world, his biggest events leave a lot to be desired inside the ring. Time and again, fans shell out $50-$60 to see one-sided Manny Pacquiao fights against opponents old or recently knocked out. While it can be argued, “Hey, Bob is footing the bill to develop these big draws” and the spectacles he puts on at Cowboys Stadium, Yankee Stadium and in Vegas, the counter to that is, in this writer’s opinion, crap in Cowboys Stadium with a big JumboTron is still crap. Fights with preordained outcomes, even if they are shown in front of 50,000 people and millions at home, are not necessarily great for the sport. Good fights held in tiny ballrooms aren’t great for the sport either but perhaps a happy medium is what we need. Better yet, competitive fights to go with those gaudy locations and productions. Even better, why not have more promoters build up attractions near their home bases from the ground up?

 

It is interesting to note that Chavez Jr. made $600,000 for his fight Saturday night. Martinez made close to $2,000,000 for his fight last March against Sergiy Dzinziruk. Right now, the two aren’t making Mayweather-Pacquiao money yet Arum, when asked about Martinez, immediately turned the conversation to one about pay-per-views rather than outright saying, “Look. Martinez would kill this kid. Why would I make this fight when I just got Chavez Jr. this title?” That seems a much clearer, honest and understandable point.

 

To DiBella, the reasons are multitude why Arum won’t let the fight happen. DiBella suggested that Arum look to his own house before pointing the finger in the direction of any other.

 

“I don’t know why he is sitting there attacking my fighter and myself,” said DiBella, “but you know why the fight is a PPV fight for Arum? Because I have [Martinez] and he can’t win against one of my cash cows. And also, Arum has done such a wonderful job. Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. hasn’t fought a live body and frankly, barely won [Saturday] against a fighter HBO said they would never put on television. Here is another thing: [Arum] moves Manny Pacquiao [to Showtime] and by intimidation, gets HBO to use Chavez in an HBO main event, where they said they had no interest in [Chavez Jr.] because of his limited skill level against a champion [Zbik] that- they were on the record- they caused Sergio Martinez to be stripped. In reliance of their statements that Zbik was terrible and would never get on HBO but now, with HBO executives in the room, when Arum raises about how Chavez has PPV potential and his great triumvirate of Chavez, who can’t fight, ‘Margocheato’ [Antonio Margarito, who lost his license in California when caught with illegal hand wraps prior to his fight with Shane Mosley], who has no right for being a pay-per-view fighter any longer, and Miguel Cotto, who is a great fighter but aging. And by the way, shame on them that they will throw Miguel Cotto under a bus and let him a fight a guy [Chavez] who weighed 180 pounds in the ring in a middleweight fight. And [Top Rank] will encourage Miguel Cotto to do something which should be so against Miguel Cotto’s principles to give another payday to a guy who has nothing left and shouldn’t even be fighting, to give the guy another payday who tried to kill him [Writer’s note: it has never been proven, only speculated, that Antonio Margarito used illegal hand wraps in his knockout win over Cotto.]. And I have to sit here and listen to the pontifications of Bob Arum and watch HBO subjugate themselves to this kind of behavior because Bob Arum moved Manny Pacquiao to another network.

 

“And by the way,” DiBella continued, “Arum is sitting there with Chavez and HBO executives in the room and castigating me for not promoting Sergio enough, in effect castigating me for fighting the biggest possible fight Sergio Martinez could have fought on HBO during that period, fighting the biggest possible fights on HBO. And he says, ‘Don’t let HBO promote your fighter.’ Well guess what? HBO’s not. They’re not promoting my fighter. They caused my fighter to lose his title and then used that title that was stolen to elevate Julio Cesar Chavez into some kind of pay-per-view attraction that they believe they are going to have.”

 

To be fair to HBO, DiBella could have found another way to put Martinez-Zbik on. Arum has done off-network pay-per-views before that did not include Chavez Jr. At this prospect, DiBella said that he preferred putting something of quality on rather than a pay-per-view for the sake of proving a point. After all, Zbik was not a marquee fight but one necessary to keep that coveted and important belt. A fighter with a belt has leverage in negotiations; he can get TV dates because of it and is generally regarded as someone that has something other fighters want.

 

“I’m sick of people’s horsesh*t,” said DiBella at the notion. “Sergio Martinez and Sebastian Zbik [on pay-per-view]? I refuse to throw sh*t in an arena and call it a pay-per-view event. Sergio Martinez and Zbik was not a pay-per-view fight. It’s easy for that old man, who is worth hundreds of millions of dollars, that has ripped off the dying carcass of boxing, to sit there and say, ‘Why don’t I lose millions of dollars to make a pay-per-view?’ Well guess what? I drive a 2005 BMW. I’m not pleading poverty because I’m in a lot better shape than the average American. I drive a 2005 BMW and I fly only in coach, so I am not in a position to spend millions of dollars to make a point or piss in someone’s face. Nor do believe that Sergio Martinez vs. Zbik on pay-per-view would do any business. And by the way, Chavez hasn’t been a pay-per-view attraction so far. He hasn’t sold sh*t on pay-per-view. Arum is a liar. Yesterday, he was a liar. Today he is a liar and tomorrow, he will be a liar.”

 

In DiBella’s opinion, putting on mismatch pay-per-view fights is a big reason why our sport has gone from the penthouse to the outhouse when it comes to mainstream media attention.

 

“Shame on Bob Arum,” said DiBella. “You know what? One day, he will be remembered as a great promoter. He is going to leave his grandchildren and his kids and his progeny a sh*tload of money and he’s going to be the guy that will look over the course of his career in boxing to realize that his great success was marked by the destruction of one of the great sports in America. If Bob Arum had a conscience- which he doesn’t- he’d wake up, turn around and say, ‘This sport was great to me and my family and made me a gazillionaire and you know what? I’m going to be better to it.’”

 

Why not do independent shows? What more could be done to promote Martinez into a position where he has leverage? Many fans on the internet, writers too, speculate how this could be done. They spend a lot of time, myself included, trying to play fantasy promoter and tell the actual promoters how to do their jobs, whether it is on Twitter or in internet articles or message boards. DiBella feels they should worry about another problem instead.

 

“[What fans and writers should worry about] is the marginalization of our industry day-by-day-by-day to the point where fewer and fewer people care,” said DiBella. “People don’t care about my argument with Bob Arum. People don’t care whether Showtime or HBO is stronger. People care about good fights and they care about whoever they want to see. Right now, they don’t know a good fight from a bad fight. The public certainly doesn’t know who anyone is. There are no stars any longer and [boxing is] relegated on Yahoo or any of these websites…the majority of these websites have us in the portal under the category of ‘Other Sports.’ This used to be the sport of kings. Wake up and smell the roses and that goes to everyone involved in the sport.”

 

While it is clear that Chavez Jr. vs. Martinez won’t be happening any time soon, one thing is certain; Martinez will fight on October 1 against an opponent to be named soon. Where and on what network the fight takes place remains to be seen.

 

“I don’t know,” said DiBella of his fighter’s next opponent. “Obviously, Chavez is not taking the fight. We are going to assert our rights with the WBC but I don’t expect to be successful. The honest answer is I don’t know. He’ll be fighting October 1 one way or the other, no matter what network he fights on.”

 

As for the notion that Martinez is not a pay-per-view fighter, Lewkowicz is confident that will change as early as next year.

 

“Who says Martinez is not a pay-per-view fighter because he has never been? There is always a first time like there was for Cotto and Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. with the difference [for Martinez] that it took much hard work. But next year, Martinez will be a pay-per-view fighter. That much I guarantee. After October, the next fight for Martinez will be a pay-per-view.”

 

Lewkowicz feels that his fighter’s following is growing and not only that, Martinez has shown himself to be fan-friendly, socially conscious and extremely accessible, not just a great fighter in the ring but a man who has defined what a champion is outside the ring.

 

“It was almost sold out in Connecticut,” said Lewkowicz. “Wherever he goes, you see the people follow him. Not only the Latinos but the Anglos. He did more contribution to society than Cotto in his whole career and including Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. [Cotto] didn’t go to so many hospitals. He didn’t fight against domestic abuse, the violence against women. He didn’t fight for schools. He didn’t do nothing like that, Mr. Cotto [Writer’s note: Incidentally, Miguel Cotto has a charity, Fundacion El Angel, that fights obesity in children, helping them learn about nutrition, exercise, and how to overcome the cruelty of others who exploit their condition. Cotto pays out-of-pocket for nutritional experts to give advice to children and their families and coordinates activities involving exercises all supervised by certified trainers.].

 

“HBO took a B fighter that nobody knows to an A fighter that today Martinez is, so I want to say thank you to HBO,” continued Lewkowicz. “And HBO will open their eyes because they will have nobody next year that can do a pay-per-view besides Sergio Martinez.”

 

With Saul Alvarez and Chavez Jr. looking to be the next pay-per-view stars on the network, each with a belt and a growing following, it will be interesting to see just how that plays out for Martinez, who owns only a ceremonial belt and a small but loyal following that may nor may not equal large ticket sales. One telling sign of how HBO feels about Martinez, beyond moving him off his promised summer date, was revealed by DiBella.

 

“HBO had tickets that they gave to Martinez for the Zbik-Chavez fight that were in the last row of the ringside,” said DiBella. “This is a fight that barely sold tickets. He had to be moved up. I sat there and I am being criticized by Bob Arum and your cohorts that don’t have the balls to take them on, for fighting Dzinziruk when he was the only option given us by HBO. I am being criticized for the kid not fighting enough? He was supposed to fight over the summer but HBO didn’t have a date for him until October. We’ve asked for activity from HBO. He should be the hottest fighter on the network but what do they think of him? Enough to stick him in the last row of the ringside. That’s what they think of him.”

 

It was clear from talking to DiBella that he has had enough of doing what HBO has asked of him with Martinez. The Dzinziruk fight was not one they wanted but was instead forced on them if they wanted to be on the network. The Paul Williams rematch was held at a catchweight of 158 pounds at Team Williams’ behest, the financial deal favored the challenger and was enforced in the same take-it-or-leave-it deal as the Dzinziruk fight. The future is uncertain but the way HBO has treated Team Martinez is clear, in this writer’s opinion. Yes, Martinez is the middleweight champion of the world but as a network investing in the future, regardless of the quality of the fighter, HBO does not seem to care.

 

“What I get [for doing as HBO says] is HBO’s assistance in attempting to hurt me with my fighter and hurt my fighter’s standing in the industry,” said DiBella. “That’s the gratitude I’ve gotten for everything Sergio has done on HBO and for my being a good soldier and a good partner.”

 

It is hard to say what Team Martinez should do going forward and what they are entitled to, if anything. A network is not a promoter. Sometimes they act like one, true, but it is on the actual promoter to build his fighter into a draw and to make fights and dates for his fighter. Martinez, however, is a rare exception. He is like Roy Hobbs in the movie “The Natural,” an older fighter who no one knew when he came on the scene and just happened to be the best fighter from 154 to 160 pounds. How he could have been moved to the title in little over four years in the US while also being built into a draw, I will leave to the promoters and fantasy promoters to decide. The reality is that now that Martinez is in this position; time is wasting; moves have to be made fast and the future, however uncertain, is now. 

 

You can email Gabriel at maxgmontoya@gmail.com, follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/gabriel_montoya and catch him on each Monday’s episode of “The Next Round” with Steve Kim. You can also tune in to hear him and co-host David Duenez live on the BlogTalk radio show Leave-It-In-The-Ring.com, Thursdays at 5-8 PM PST. Gabriel is a full member of the Boxing Writers Association of America.



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