Photo: Will Hart
By Kieran Mulvaney
The middleweight champion of the world is sorry.
Sergio Martinez apologizes to his guests for the state of his hotel room, which has not yet been cleaned – although the housekeeping crew has been circling in the hallway, waiting for the opportunity to enter for the last half-hour or so. Ah yes, the wait. Sorry about that, too, he says, because his visitors have also been tarrying awhile outside while Martinez received a massage. He doesn’t like to keep people waiting, he explains, but one event ran late this morning, and that made another thing late, and …
It is often thus during fight week, particularly for a major pay-per-view event like Martinez’s defense this Saturday of his middleweight crown against Miguel Cotto. The day previously, Martinez and Cotto staged a photo shoot and media availability atop the Empire State Building; shortly after that, Martinez worked out in public at a sporting goods store near Times Square; subsequently, Cotto worked out in Hoboken, New Jersey. Add to that an abundance of events both private and public, and yet somehow, amid it all, the principals have to rest, train, and focus on the task in hand: the fact that, a few days hence, they will enter the ring and attempt to inflict severe and sanctioned damage on one another.
Martinez does not, he says, like to look back or dwell in the past, only to peer forward and seek to improve, but it does not require looking very far back in time to appreciate the swift and improbable journey that has brought him to this point. The Buenos Aires native did not turn professional until he was almost 25, and he spent the bulk of the first eight years of his career fighting in Argentina, England and Spain, with just one appearance – an early points loss to a young Antonio Margarito – in the US. Not until 2007, when he was aged 33, did he sign with promoter Lou DiBella; late the following year, he was raising eyebrows and opening eyes with a comprehensive win over Alex Bunema on HBO.
In February 2009, he knocked down Kermit Cintron with a punch so fast that Cintron did not see it, and so hard that Cintron, having apparently been counted out, protested vociferously to referee Frank Santore that it must have been a head butt. He suffered an agonizingly close defeat to Paul Williams in a fight-of-the-year candidate, then in the rematch flattened him with a right hand. He was named the fighter of the Year in 2010. He dominated Julio Cesar Chavez (apart from a fraught final three minutes), and in his most recent outing won a rain-lashed decision over Martin Murray in a soccer stadium in his home country, in front of 50,000 adoring fans.
He was injured entering that fight, was injured anew during it, and has not fought since as he has rehabbed a shoulder, a left hand, a twice-surgically-operated right knee. If there is a question mark over his chances on Saturday, it is centered on that knee, the extent to which it will limit his mobility, the degree to which it has hindered his training. Whisper it, but one word used by some observers of “Maravilla’s” normally pinup-worthy physique following his aforementioned public workout was “soft.”
He evades the question of whether, in the aching aftermath of his win over Murray, he had contemplated retirement. He instead opines philosophically that we all get old, that our bodies change, that after a while those bodies are not what they used to be, but that such changes can be more than compensated for by the mental strength and knowledge that comes with age and experience.
Any suggestion that those thoughts might indicate a concession, maybe even a slight diminishment of confidence, is soon enough dispelled by an assertion that it is not just a fuzzy goal to knock out Miguel Cotto on Saturday night – not some vague hope that if everything comes together, hopefully the knockout will come. The plan, the strategy, everything about the Martinez approach to Saturday night, is centered on a knockout win. He says it matter-of-factly, without a sneer or sense of malice, but it is a confirmation of what has already been clear for a while: that Cotto has found a home under his opponent’s skin, and that ridding himself of this pest will bring Martinez far greater satisfaction than any victory – even those over Chavez or in front of his adoring home crowd – has so far brought him.
It is time to move on. He apologizes again for his earlier tardiness, thanks his visitors for their attention. They make their way out the door, swiftly pack away a camera; then, there is a friendly pat on the back and Martinez is passing them in the hallway, off to the next fight week assignment, waving a friendly goodbye as he turns left toward the elevators and is gone.