Middleweight champion of the world Sergio "Maravilla" Martinez returns to action on Saturday night at New York City's Theater at Madison Square Garden, facing half-Irish contender Matthew Macklin on St. Patrick's Day in a fight that will hopefully light a fire in what was once -- but no longer is -- the center of American prizefighting.
The more one thinks about it, the more remarkable Martinez's rise in the last few years seems. Let's take a look back at the emergence of Sergio Martinez.
Martinez, 37, turned pro in 1997, and toiled in relative obscurity for years. In 2000, still a welterweight, he was beaten down by Antonio Margarito, after which he went on a tear, winning 27 straight fights before he finally got a shot on HBO in October 2008, facing Alex Bunema.
To say he hit HBO with a splash would be an understatement. Bunema was no top contender, but a quality fighter, and the slick southpaw Martinez made mincemeat of him. Here's what I said at the time:
I've seen Martinez fight a fair amount of times before last night, and he never impressed me. I thought Bunema had a great shot at beating him, because Martinez seemed to be a creation -- a guy with a great-looking record in black-and-white terms, but without much in the way of good wins.
... Martinez was sensational in a one-sided beatdown of Bunema. At age 33, he looks like he's peaking. ... Martinez had Bunema totally off-balance all night, beating him to the punch with ease, popping his jab out at will, and essentially doing whatever he wanted, whenever he wanted. He was exceptionally loose in the ring, confident and even cocky at times, holding his hands low, and Bunema could do nothing about it.
It was a star-making performance. Martinez isn't about to headline his own big card or anything, and nobody likes fighting a slick southpaw, but they'll be looking for the biggest possible fights. And with this performance, Martinez deserves it. I've gone from doubter to fan in one fight.
The honeymoon was over just one fight after, when Martinez met former welterweight titlist Kermit Cintron on the Nate Campbell-Ali Fuenka undercard in Florida:
Sergio Martinez and Kermit Cintron went to a majority draw in a fight I thought Martinez clearly won. The fight was plagued by a strange seventh round incident. Cintron went down from a left hand he genuinely believed he was a headbutt, and referee Frank Santore counted him out, and appeared to have called the fight off. Replays showed that Cintron had made it to his feet before the count of ten, and he was incensed that it was (1) called a knockdown, and he was wrong there, and (2) that he appeared to have been counted out, which he was right about.
The fight, which had been an ugly clash of styles before the incident, picked up after it was surprisingly restarted. The draw, I feel, robs Martinez of a win, but neither man exactly made an entertaining fight. Bad Left Hook scored it 117-109 for Martinez. The official judges' scores were 113-113 twice and 116-110 for Martinez.
Though Martinez deserved a win (two, actually), the star quality wasn't there from him on that night. But that was a blip.
Eight months later, Martinez was in his first HBO main event, substituting for middleweight champ Kelly Pavlik, who fell out of a handful of dates with Paul Williams, leaving Williams with no choice but to find a late replacement opponent. It was a marvelous fight, with Martinez going up to 160 for the first time and immediately engaging in a war with "The Punisher":
On paper, it would be a tactical, lefty-versus-lefty affair, probably not very explosive, but a good substitute fight for sure.
It took less than a round for this to turn into a stunningly savage bout. Williams clipped Martinez for a knockdown in the opening round, but just before the end of the frame, Martinez drilled Williams and put him on the canvas. Williams was hurt.
And Williams seemed to fight much of the rest of the bout hurt, too. By the end of it (a decision win for Tall Paul), he seemed to be going purely on instinct. Martinez was able to neutralize Williams with a right hook early that landed at will, and later a straight left hand that kept getting through. But Williams was there, and at some points, he dominated the fight, making exceptional mid-fight changes in his gameplan and going toe-to-toe with Martinez.
It was a fight we just didn't expect to see, and a reminder that a great, great fight can happen when nobody sees one coming. Both of them upped their stock greatly with this outstanding brawl, a must-see fight that turned very good boxers into pure warriors, at least for one night.
Staying at middleweight for his next fight, Martinez was called upon by Pavlik, still the middleweight champ, to be his next challenger. Martinez had physical disadvantages going in -- name, Pavlik was taller and just plain bigger than him, a proven middleweight, even with his then-recent troubles. We know now that Pavlik had done his first rehab stint just before facing Martinez, but both fought well, and Sergio was simply the better fighter.
It was a terrific tactical fight, with some great back-and-forth momentum. Martinez dominated the early portion of the fight, but Pavlik (36-2, 32 KO) charged back in the middle rounds, knocking down Martinez and taking a lead on our card through eight rounds.
But then, it was the Sergio Martinez show. Martinez cut Pavlik up, had him bleeding profusely, and took the fight for the rest of the time left, winning what I felt was a clear and solid decision.
... The times changed tonight, folks. New middleweight champion of the world: Sergio Martinez.
Seven months later, Martinez repaid the favor that Paul Williams did for him the year before, giving him a shot at the middleweight championship. The rematch was highly anticipated. And though it lasted all of four minutes and 10 seconds, no one was disappointed.
This raises Martinez's stock even more. He said that Williams left himself open enough, and that the fight went how he expected it would. Both fighters were throwing punches again, coming out aggressively, though there was more holding in this one than last year.
If only there was much more to say about this one, but there really isn't. After all, not much to report. But it's a can't-miss knockout, and Sergio Martinez is legit as the middleweight champ.
That ended the rise, though: In 2011, Martinez fought Serhiy Dzinziruk and Darren Barker, winning handily both times out. But the division's lack of recognizable names willing to fight Sergio started to become glaringly obvious. Boxing being as fickle as it is, there are a few mumbles now that maybe Martinez, while very good, isn't quite great, isn't quite what he's cracked up to be, and that a determined challenger like Matthew Macklin just might be geared for an upset on Saturday night.