Photos by Will Hart and Ed Mulholland
By Diego Morilla
On March 17, 2010, Sergio Martinez scored the biggest win in his career and one of the biggest boxing achievements in his country’s history when he became the undisputed middleweight champion of the world after defeating Kelly Pavlik at the Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City, New Jersey.
If you lived in Martinez’s native country of Argentina back then, however, you probably didn’t know much about it unless you read the back pages of the newspaper, because that’s how much attention Martinez was capturing back in those days.
Fast forward four years to June 2014, and there is no escaping him. He is greeting you from a jeans ad on the side of a bus. He is shaking his bon-bon on the local version of "Dancing with the Stars." His interviews with some the country’s top talk shows, in which he describes his life of hardship and his self-made transformation into a prizefighter, capture the attention of millions of people, and are the subject of endless water cooler conversations on the next day. Thanks to Sergio, boxing gym memberships are skyrocketing, and new gyms are opening in every town. Wedding planners check the schedule tabs of boxing websites almost daily, under strict orders from cranky brides to avoid scheduling their wedding parties on the day of a Martinez fight.
Very few other athletes have lived through such a monumental transformation from nonentity to larger-than-life superstar in such a short span of time. But Sergio Martinez walked that path as if on a mission from a higher power, a man of destiny waiting to take his country by storm and to use his fame for the noblest purposes, all while becoming one of the most revered boxers of his generation.
And now, Martinez (51-3-2, 28 KO) has just embarked on the final leg of his trip towards those goals and much more, as he decided to announce his retirement from boxing this past Saturday, June 13th. The announcement followed a year of inactivity marked by his struggle with a nagging knee injury that never healed properly and ended up costing him his last defeat and his title with it.
His chosen venue for the delivering the news was the Banquet of Champions during the induction week of the International Boxing Hall of Fame in Canastota, New York, where he had visited before to soak up the environment of a place he clearly hopes to inhabit one day. And even though boxing is hardly a stats game, his case can be argued quite successfully in numbers alone.
In his last nine fights, his eight opponents had an impressive combined record of record of 272-9-1 (he faced Paul Williams twice). Four of those eight fighters were unbeaten at the time they faced Martinez, and two more had only one defeat in their records. Five of those opponents were current or former world champions.
It took some time for those acheivements to receive the proper recognition in his homeland. No member of the Argentine press corps was in attendance the night he took the crown from the undisputed lineal middleweight champion after campaigning almost his entire career at lower weights. Facing a considerably larger man – Pavlik would never fight again as a middleweight after that bout – in the champion’s backyard and coming off an undeserved loss against Paul Williams in his prior bout were reasons enough for local TV networks to pass on broadcasting his title bout in his homeland. But the man they called “Maravilla” was determined to begin his own marvelous championship run with a bang, with or without his countrymen watching.
On that historic day, the Argentine boxing writing community was largely ringside in the city of Rosario watching a terrific local scrap between Oscar Pereyra and Patricio Pedrero, in the lavish facilities of the town’s brand new casino. Soon enough, the catering was served in the balcony and there we were, munching on sandwiches and canapés, until this scribe had the notion of testing the local internet connection by logging in to an illegal website (sorry, HBO!) to try and catch a glimpse of Martinez’s likely failure.
With the corner of our eyes first, and with our growing attention later, we all gathered around the tiny computer screen to watch in disbelief as Martinez progressively dismantled, manhandled, injured and ultimately dominated Kelly Pavlik to win the title held by Monzon almost 40 years earlier. And in the same fashion, Martinez progressively crept into the consciousness of the Argentine public until he became the most recognizable face in the country.
At that time, his story became known to all – his childhood in poverty in blue-collar Quilmes in the outskirts of Buenos Aires, his initiation as a boxer under the guidance of his uncle as a way to fend off schoolyard bullies, his first few fights in the local boxing federation in which he often climbed into the ring with his hair dyed unusual colors, his loss against Antonio Margarito in his first trip overseas in which he was paid the equivalent of a ringside ticket for a scheduled 10-rounder fight against a proven contender, his exodus to Spain amid the 2000 economic crisis that crippled his homeland, his tribulations in Europe as a bartender-dancer-construction worker-bouncer and all the while building a 27-0 record against all comers, and capping his nine-year unbeaten streak with a title belt of sorts when he defeated Alex Bunema to grab the interim WBC junior middleweight crown.
After having his title validated as a regular championship due to the inactivity of Vernon Forrest, Martinez slowly began to gain a reputation as a fighter to watch. And he made the case for himself in every chance he got. It wasn’t hard to find Martinez in those days: he would be sitting smack in the middle of every press room of every big fight in Las Vegas with his legs stretched blocking the path, forcing himself to be noticed.
And noticed he was. Soon after his highly dubious defeat at the hands of the most feared fighter in the world in Paul Williams, Martinez became boxing’s new media darling, progressively climbing the mythical pound-for-pound rankings with his unusual style: face sticking out, shoulders dropped, hands below the waist, ready to counterpunch and move out of harm’s way with the speed of a flyweight and comeback with the stinging power of a full-blown middleweight.
Slowly, he came to embody the very best virtues of his country’s best fighters in one single package. The foot speed of Pascual Perez, the cocky elusiveness of Nicolino Locche, the deadly one-two of Carlos Monzon, the awkward southpaw stance of Juan Coggi, coupled with the unusual handful of punch combinations that only a man of his unique creativity and imagination could devise and topped with the right amount of arrogance and excessive swagger that other Latin American countries often ascribe to Argentines.
Soon enough, his hard work would pay off in convincing fashion, and his career would dramatically soar to great heights. He demolished Williams in the rematch, scoring what would be named the “KO of the year” when he dropped the game's most avoided boxer with a single left hand to the chin. Williams’ face-first dive onto the canvas would soon become the centerpiece of Martinez’s highlight reel, and earn him consideration as one of the best fighters on the planet right behind Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao, a notion cemented by three spectacular title defenses against three solid contenders, two of them unbeaten at the time.
His savvy within the ring spilled outside of it as he made a brilliant use of the WBC’s shameful political decision of handing over the middleweight belt to a less-deserving Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. Martinez worked tirelessly to turn that minor humiliation into an epic struggle for vindication with the sole purpose of cornering Chavez Jr. into a relatively easy lucrative bout. And he achieved his goal, dominating Chavez for 11 and a half rounds before getting caught by a few punches that turned an otherwise one-sided drubbing into a heart-stopper with an uncertain ending that raised just the right amount of doubts to keep his career interesting.
After the Chavez fight, he had his long-awaited homecoming bout, a night in which he struggled to defeat an unbeaten contender in Martin Murray in front of a very vocal crowd of 50,000 people under a freezing drizzle. That night he climbed the ladder into the ring to the roar of the crowd, with his face glowing with a mix of pride and disbelief. But that’s where his health began to fail him.
After a year of uncertainties, a few failed negotiations for bigger fights, and a surgery to repair the extensive damage in his right knee, Martinez succumbed ingloriously to Miguel Cotto at New York’s Madison Square Garden in what would prove to be his last appearance in a boxing ring. His story as a prizefighter came to a screeching halt after an eventful championship run, and the decision to hang up the gloves was already taken by his body. His mind and his heart took an extra year to agree with it.
There is a story, however, that precedes and supersedes Martinez’s career as a prizefighter. His determination to fight bullying, a task he imposed upon himself as soon as he became a celebrity. His support towards battered women and children. His new career as a comedian, writer and actor. A story that may, one day, again capture the attention of his countrymen.
His boxing years, however, already have a page waiting for him in the history books.