Back in September 2007, Kelly Pavlik came off the canvas in a great fight to score a dramatic knockout of Jermain Taylor, winning the world middleweight championship from the man who had dethroned Bernard Hopkins.
Upon the finish of the fight, HBO's Jim Lampley made the call: "There's a new middleweight champion of the world! He's from Youngstown, Ohio!"
Now, there's a new new middleweight champion of the world. He's from Quilmes, Argentina, lived and fought out of Madrid, Spain for most of his career, and now resides in California.
His name is Sergio Martinez, and he's traveled the long road to stardom.
Martinez's hands down, seemingly-arrogant style is good for TV if you only consider that. But then you watch him fight -- he's a cutie. He's in and out, he doesn't often engage in firefights, and his power, while respectable, is hardly jump-out-of-your-seat stuff. Then you consider even further. He will engage in a firefight if he has to, he takes a good shot, and when he's in a rhythm, he's hard to hang with.
Last night's win over Kelly Pavlik was, I thought, a very entertaining fight, full of momentum swings and some great tactical boxing from Martinez's corner. Pavlik, too, fought bravely. After four rounds, he appeared flustered and on the verge of defeat. But then the now-former champion stormed back into the fight, even scoring a seventh round knockdown. After eight rounds, I had Pavlik ahead 76-75, with the tide having turned.
Martinez adapted again. He had cut Pavlik early, and then opened a far worse gash on the other side of Pavlik's face. And like a top-tier fighter, he knew what to do. He zeroed in on the blood, and made it worse and worse, until Pavlik couldn't even see what was coming at him. No longer could Pavlik do the things that had turned the fight for him in the middle rounds. Now, it was Sergio Martinez proving his considerable worth. And in the end, it was Sergio Martinez with his hand rightly raised, the new 160-pound champion of the world. The new man who beat the man. The new king at middleweight.
I admire Kelly Pavlik's performance from last night, but obviously the story is not about him. It's about Sergio Martinez, who has now become a star, when just two years ago I never would have expected that. Since coming onto the HBO airwaves, Martinez has gotten better in each fight. He thrashed Alex Bunema, deserved two wins over Kermit Cintron and left with a draw in a bizarre but entertaining fight, and then lost a nail-biter decision to Paul Williams last December in a Fight of the Year candidate that left both men with a higher profile.
By beating Pavlik, Martinez and promoter Lou DiBella no longer have to hope that Sergio can "get" a good fight. The good fights are coming through him at 160 now. Martinez fought Cintron because they both needed it. He fought Williams on short notice when Pavlik pulled out for a second time. And he fought Pavlik in part because Williams and Pavlik couldn't come to an agreement, leaving Martinez as the only viable option, really, to get Kelly back on HBO, where he needed to be after spending all of 2009 on small Top Rank PPVs and losing some favor with the big network.
Sergio Martinez is now in the driver's seat, and he's earned it. He fought his way here. He has continually surprised people, first with his skill, and lately with his toughness. There aren't many things he does poorly in the ring, and at 35 and having proven how dangerous a fighter he can be, last night really may have been a "now or never" for him. Had he lost a close decision (or been robbed) against Pavlik, who do you think was going to fight this guy? A slick lefty who can make you look bad and isn't a big draw isn't exactly what most promoters are looking to match their fighters against.
Kelly Pavlik is at a fragile place in his career right now. The wrong move could lead to disaster. A safe comeback fight could lead to further criticism, which he really can't afford from a PR perspective. Pavlik has a rematch clause, and I'm going to bet he really does intend to exercise it. Pavlik is still a good fighter, and he's got pride.
He's been on the other side of this before, too. When Pavlik beat Jermain Taylor, Taylor's career had been taking shots left and right. Many still didn't believe that he beat Hopkins in either of their fights, and then he drew Winky Wright, and followed that up with fights against Kassim Ouma and Cory Spinks, neither of which thrilled anyone. He fought Pavlik and lost, then exercised his rematch clause immediately. He lost again to Pavlik, beat Jeff Lacy to finish his HBO deal, and then lost to Carl Froch and Arthur Abraham. Now, Taylor's career is up in the air.
Jermain Taylor had been given the keys to the HBO Golden Boy car, and so seemingly had Pavlik. It turned out that both of them, while good fighters, were not untouchable, which is an unrealistic thing to put onto any fighter. Pavlik was taken apart by Bernard Hopkins, and now has lost clearly to Martinez. How does his career project from here on out?
The truth is, the Martinez rematch is the only thing he can do right now, I believe. He can't afford a "tune-up" or "bounce-back" fight. It won't do him any good. He's got a chance to beat the man who knocked him off his perch, the way Taylor did. I still feel as though Taylor showed a lot of guts and admirable quality by immediately fighting Pavlik again. I would think the same of Pavlik for fighting Martinez again in his next fight.
If Pavlik doesn't do that, Martinez himself doesn't have a world of options either. A rematch with Paul Williams, should Williams beat Kermit Cintron on May 8, would make sense. It was a great fight, a disputed decision, and they brought out the warrior in one another. Past the triangle of Martinez, Williams and Pavlik, there's just not much by way of name value at 160 in America. The rest of the best fighters in the class (Sturm, Gevor, Sylvester, Geale, Mundine, Macklin, Barker, Zbik, Golovkin, etc.) all have no name in the States, except perhaps Sturm, who is remembered for his debated loss to Oscar de la Hoya years ago. And I don't think Sergio Martinez has much desire to take anything but the best challenges, and I'm sure he'd love to avenge the loss to Williams, too.
We'll see how it all shakes out, of course. The division is still pretty weak overall, but last night officially added a top-class fighter to the mix. It might not be the deepest pool, but things are getting more interesting at least.