This Saturday night on HBO, world middleweight champion Sergio Martinez takes to the ring for the second defense of his lineal crown, facing unbeaten junior middleweight Sergiy Dzinziruk. It may not be the high-profile main event that many would have wanted to see Martinez take right now, coming off of a pair of great 2010 wins, but don't kid yourself into thinking this is some pushover fight for the champ. He's in against a legitimate opponent who is skilled and has nothing to lose, a dangerous combination.
Martinez (46-2-2, 25 KO) shot up pound-for-pound lists last year when he defeated reigning 160-pound champ Kelly Pavlik in April and crushed rival Paul Williams inside of two rounds in November. Both fights were tall orders. Martinez, at 5'10", is really a junior middleweight himself. He fought for years at 154 pounds after starting his professional career in 1997 as a welterweight. Fighting in the rings of Argentina and later in Europe, Martinez lost just one fight in the formative years of his boxing career, against Antonio Margarito in 2000. Martinez was just 17 fights into his career going into the Margarito fight, and was stopped late in the seventh round in Las Vegas. Shortly after, he'd leave the welterweight division behind.
But major fights didn't come to him. Knowing what we know now, it's not hard to see why he might have had trouble getting the top stars of the division in the ring. He had a pretty record, and while it wasn't the strongest, as he didn't face any major names until 2009, what tape of him that was out there showcased a slickster with speed and a style that was made to frustrate opponents. After doing very well in the United Kingdom and Spain, Martinez came back to the States in 2007 and knocked out Saul Roman with a body shot. He spent a year patiently waiting for an alphabet title shot he'd earned with that victory, and finally was matched with Alex Bunema on HBO in October 2008. Martinez laid waste to Bunema in the opening bout of a televised triple-header focused on young boxing stars Yuriorkis Gamboa and Alfredo Angulo. Martinez, 33 at the time, didn't really fit the prospect mold of the show, but came away making the most waves.
His 2009 draw against Kermit Cintron was a gift to the Puerto Rican from the ringside judges, and his December 2009 loss to Williams only served to once again raise his profile. He made his shot against Pavlik count, and wowed the world with his Knockout of the Year in the rematch against Tall Paul four months ago.
Martinez is now 36 years old and has no great plans to fight forever, as he's already eyeballing the finish line for his career. Without a marquee name available at 160, and feeling he's simply too small for the 168-pound division, Martinez has been lined up against Dzinziruk (37-0, 23 KO), a regrettably unknown Ukrainian who left his European promoters and came to the United States in hopes of landing better fights. I would say that his new promoters Gary Shaw and Artie Pellulo have delivered.
Dzinziruk is also no spring chicken. He turned 35 last Tuesday, and much of his career was wasted against inferior competition. But no matter the opponent, he has mostly shined in his career. He defeated Daniel Santos back in 2005, when Santos was a legitimate top fighter, and has wins over Joel Julio, Sebastian Lujan, Daniel Dawson and Jimmy Colas, among others.
In 2008, Dzinziruk faced current European junior middleweight champ Lukas Konecny in Germany. Konecny gave Dzinziruk a great amount of trouble, and the Ukrainian left with a hotly-contested majority decision win. Since that was the hardest fight of Dzinziruk's career, it would be nice to look at it and wonder if there's much Martinez can glean from the fight, but Martinez and Konecny are about as different as two fighters can be. Konecny, a short, right-handed pressure fighter, was able to use his business to cause a lot of problems. Martinez is shorter than Dzinziruk, but taller than Konecny, is a southpaw, has long arms, and knows how to use the ring about as well as anyone in boxing today. He also probably has more power, despite a relatively low KO rate.
The biggest factor here, besides pure talent and the ability to fight well in a number of different ways, is going to be activity. Dzinziruk's last fight came 10 months ago, and Dawson wasn't exactly a cream of the crop opponent, though he did come in on short notice, it should be said. That fight may have shaken some of the rust that Dzinziruk acquired in his year and a half out of the ring following his win over Julio, but if he's going to combat what Sergio Martinez does in the ring, it's going to have to be something he can do through training. He's never faced a fighter quite like Martinez, and even though Santos was a very good fighter, he was probably never quite as good as Martinez has looked in his last few fights.
Martinez doesn't sound like he's taking Dzinziruk lightly, and that's good. Dzinziruk is a smart fighter, though a tad predictable. Like Felix Sturm or Andriy Kotelink, Dzinziruk can fit into a stereotype of a European-style fighter quite easily. He's a really good one, but he is what he is, and throwing curveballs is never a strength of that style of fundamentally sound, jab-heavy boxer. He doesn't have big power, he doesn't have great speed, but he doesn't make many mistakes. Unfortunately, I think you have to be a lot more than a very good meat-and-potatoes fighter to beat Sergio Martinez, or Dzinziruk will have to really surprise me and show something he never has before. At 35 and potentially still rusty, it doesn't seem a good bet at all to me. Martinez is the heavy favorite and deserves to be, because he's the better fighter. This is no cupcake, but in the end I think he uses his speed and what seems to be a wave of momentum to fluster and overall dominate the Ukrainian. I'm looking for him to slice and dice his way to a stoppage victory. Martinez TKO-10
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Lee, the 26-year-old Irishman trained by Emanuel Steward, has been on a run of "easier" fights since his 2008 upset loss at the hands of the rugged Brian Vera in front of a national TV audience on ESPN2's Friday Night Fights. Though he's won nine straight fights, the opposition has been less than stellar. Those wins have come over the likes of Willie Gibbs, Michael Walker, Troy Lowry, Affif Belghecham, and Mamadou Thiam, who was fined his entire purse for quitting after two rounds, claiming a back injury.
The argument going around is whether Steward has been trying to fine-tune his fighter or hide him. Lee has not fought on American TV since the Vera bout, and the opposition has been exclusively gatekeepers and journeymen. There was talk of Lee fighting Martinez, which seemed to many to be a cash-in idea as much as anything, but HBO turned that down. They did approve Lee facing fellow Irish star John Duddy, but Duddy pulled out of the fight when he decided to retire from the sport.
In place of Duddy stepped McEwan, a 28-year-old southpaw from Edinburgh, Scotland, now based in Hollywood, where he trains at the Wild Card Gym under Freddie Roach. His southpaw stance will not give him an edge here, as Lee is also a lefty, and he'll be giving up an inch of height to the Irishman.
Both fighters are probably best described as guys with C potential. It's tough to see either becoming a star for any reason other than national pride in their home countries, because the fact is that neither of them really open your eyes as prospects, and never have. Lee got a lot of hype mostly because of his background and his association with the world-famous Steward. I quite hilariously bought into the hype myself right before he lost to Vera. It's documented. As for McEwan, even training under Roach the Scotsman has failed to garner much significant attention. His best win came against Vera, a 2009 unanimous decision, and then he returned to lesser competition.
Unfortunately, Lee-McEwan could be serving as essentially an eliminator bout to face Martinez next. Martinez-Lee was scoffed at when the idea first came into play, and HBO didn't think the fight was good enough. Apparently, they must think that Martinez against the winner of this will then be worthwhile, though I just don't see it that way. Hopefully, and this is not meant as disrespect to Lee and McEwan, there will be someone better for Martinez to fight should he defeat Dzinziruk. The Lee-McEwan victor would be a step back, and no better than Kelly Pavlik's universally panned 2008 middleweight championship defense against the woefully overmatched Gary Lockett. It's simply not a good fight, and there are a ton of better options out there, if only one of them would take the shot.
As for a winner in this fight, I won't even hazard a guess. I think they're pretty evenly matched and in that respect, it's a good fight. Given that I do believe Lee is a better fighter than Vera and was simply suckered into the exact wrong fight against the tough Texan, my guess is that McEwan is fighting the best opponent of his career, and the same may be true on the other side. You don't always need two really good or great fighters to have a good fight, and this could be a solid sleeper fight if they're both coming to look impressive on HBO. My gut favors Andy Lee, but not by much.
We'll have previews for the Cotto-Mayorga Showtime PPV card coming tomorrow.