For eleven rounds on Saturday night, Sergio Martinez touched perfection. "Maravilla" -- as the Argentine is wont to be known -- was dazzling, beautiful even, moving his overawed opponent about the ring at ease, while never relenting on his earlier promise to inflict grave damage on the current bearer of the Chavez name. With his hands slung low and his chin exposed, Martinez -- clearly smaller than his sizable companion -- appeared locked in a perpetual flirtation with disaster, yet at the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas, he betrayed not even the slightest doubt in his perilous style. This was an artist in complete control of his medium. This was prizefighting of the most bold condition.
That Julio Cesar Chavez Jr was able to survive those eleven rounds is to his eternal credit, yet the subdued, lacklustre effort he put forward appeared to legitimise the chorus of disapproval which has followed Chavez for his entire career. Here, the privileged son of a legend-cum-coddled champion appeared content to trundle after his opponent in his own somnambulant death march, either unable or unwilling to create sustained periods of pressure. Where Chavez seemed limited to the dullest of palettes, Martinez' was infinitely more variable and imaginative. Left hands arrived on the point of the chin from any number of trajectories, while snaking right jabs were interlaced with whipped right hooks. Having suffered for eighteen months as the unwitting victim of boxing's crunching bureaucracy, Martinez unloaded his anger in the most dazzling fashion.
Indeed, for those eleven rounds, this was yet another interpretation of the age-old dance of the slickster and the yokel. Martinez moved with the exquisite elegance of a ballet dancer -- an elegance which Chavez seemed loathe to reciprocate -- while never allowing style to dominate substance. His body a ceaseless continuum of rapid rhythmic action, "Maravilla" led his opponent about the ring like a blind puppy, as Chavez negated the rudimentary action of cutting off the ring and instead followed Martinez as if in a trance. Not even the sheer weight of numbers could snap Julio from his slumber and -- as Martinez beat him to the punch time after time while piling up the points through the middle rounds -- Chavez seemed resigned to a predictable fate, rendered clumsy and inaccurate by his superior opponent. The disparity in class was dramatic, with the fluidity of Martinez' movement leaving the mechanical Chavez trailing in his wake. The protagonists, it seemed, were performing in separate time zones.
As the twelfth round approached, the veritable Freddie Roach admitted as much to Max Kellerman of HBO. "His speed is too much," confessed a disappointed Roach, as his fighter's face -- now bearing an increasingly sizable welt beneath the left eye to accompany a bloody nose and mouth -- continued to bear the brunt of the Martinez attack. Yet as the eleventh round developed, it became apparent that Martinez -- though not dramatically -- was beginning to wilt; that the sizable gap in speed had begun to close; that the time difference had been breached.
Somewhere in between a state neither of dreaming nor of waking -- and with the aid of marijuana and Louis Armstrong's "What Did I Do to Be So Black and Blue" -- the protagonist of Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man tells his story of the slickster and the yokel. "Once," writes Ellison, "I saw a prizefighter boxing a yokel. The fighting was swift and amazingly scientific... he hit the yokel a hundred times while the yokel held up his arms in stunned surprise. But suddenly the yokel, rolling about in the gale of boxing gloves, struck one blow and knocked science, speed and footwork as cold as a well-digger's posterior. The smart money hit the canvas... The yokel had stepped inside of his opponent's sense of time."
With barely two minutes to go before the final bell, Julio Cesar Chavez Jr did exactly that, invading Martinez' carefully constructed sense of time and delivering a thumping right hand, followed by a series of left hooks, to reduce "Maravilla" to a sea of flailing limbs. The illusion of invincibility which Martinez had so elegantly conveyed was instantly shattered, as an exhausted Chavez sought to secure the shocking finish which would have earned him victory.
That he didn't owed much to the punishment dished out by Martinez over the preceding stanzas. Having assumed the role of gauche stalker -- and having obeyed the mantra of withstanding punishment to inflict the ultimate blow -- Chavez finally discovered that his violent act of defiance could effect no lasting change in the result. Though Martinez' faculties were so badly shaken that he could not even grab hold of his opponent, Chavez was unable to capitalise on his glorious opportunity and secure victory. Instead, the final twenty seconds dripped to a close, with the now-former middleweight titlist flailing after a limp Martinez.
In this modern interpretation of an age-old dance, Martinez had won. Despite a prelude filled with promotional and bureaucratic politicking, the two fighters delivered a resounding show. On a night of the most violently oscillating poetry -- from the beauty of "Maravilla", to the brutal response of Chavez -- boxing triumphed, with a finish to live long in the memory.