Maybe it's because middleweight, as the name implies, is an in-between place in boxing, neither associated with the speed and quickness of welterweight, nor the unmatched power of heavyweight. Maybe it's the names he's beaten: Paul Williams, Kelly Pavlik, and Matthew Macklin are undeniably excellent fighters, but they are not wins that would stand out to the casual boxing fan. Whatever the reason, Sergio Martinez just hasn't been able to get over with many fans in the same way that his upcoming opponent Miguel Cotto has, and that's a shame, because Sergio Martinez is among the best boxers in the world today.
Or at the very least, he was. Martinez's most publicized fight was probably his second to last one, a bout against Julio Cesar Chavez Jr, who bears a name and a legacy more intriguing to the general public than any of Martinez's five previous title defenses. Finally, Martinez seemed to be on the cusp of real mainstream recognition, but cracks were starting to show. Despite a largely impressive unanimous decision win, Martinez was nearly knocked out by Chavez in the 12th round and suffered numerous injuries, the same injuries which would recur after his surprisingly challenging last opponent, Martin Murray. Two knee surgeries, a twice-broken left hand, and 13 months later, Martinez is slated to fight Miguel Cotto in a bout that will draw more viewers than he has ever known, and it may be too late.
Whether or not Martinez is still in his prime is not the question; after two worrying performances, it's quite clear that his best years are behind him. But his opponent has seen better days himself, and is moving up at least two weight classes past his optimal weight. These extenuating circumstances are really impossible to predict, so it's best to focus on an overlooked aspect of this fight, which is the style matchup.
Cotto is a puncher who can box, while Martinez is a boxer who can fight. Both men are versatile and skilled, and both have plenty of experience against very tough opposition. Today we'll be taking a look at some of the tricks and skills that make Martinez great, particularly the ones that will help him to, as his agent Sampson Lewkowicz predicted, knock Miguel Cotto out.
SOFT LEFT HAND
Martinez is a boxer who likes to be in vulnerable positions. We'll delve further into why a bit later, but for now suffice it to say that Martinez often fights with his hands down, and his weight forward. From this position, it's very difficult to generate meaningful power with the rear hand. This is because a powerful cross requires either strong core rotation, significant weight transfer, or both. In other words, one needs to twist the hips and shoulders into the strike, a la George Foreman (GIF), or bring the weight of the body from the back foot to the front, a la Joe Louis (GIF).
With his weight already on the front foot and his shoulders somewhat squared, Martinez is not in a position to do either. His opponents tend to recognize this, and that's precisely why Martinez adopts this position before throwing the cross.
This is called a "soft" left hand, and it's very hard to read. As I mentioned above, to his opponents Martinez makes himself appear incapable of throwing a hard left hand. They expect the right hook or uppercut, or the sneakily stiff up-jab that Martinez likes to throw, and then all of a sudden Martinez throws the left hand anyway. As the name implies, this "soft" punch isn't a power shot, but from Martinez's dominant hand with some momentum behind it, it certainly carries enough force to sting, and more importantly, it keeps the opponent flinchy and uncertain. It is essentially a jab from a different angle, and Martinez uses it as such, to keep his adversary off-balance and to find angles.
The Ringcraft of Miguel Cotto
BE's striking specialist Connor Ruebusch delves into the surprisingly deep bag of tricks possessed by Miguel Cotto, who faces Sergio Martinez this Saturday on HBO pay-per-view.
Another advantage of the soft left is that, unlike a dedicated power punch, it can be easily thrown while moving, making it a useful way to take angles on the opponent. In the above GIF, Martinez throws two soft left hands. For the first one, he steps to the outside of Chavez's left foot as he positions himself, and then hop-steps farther in that direction as he uncoils the punch, taking an outside angle and forcing Chavez to turn to face him. In the second sequence, Martinez throws the left and, as his weight is fully transferred to his lead foot, steps his back foot to the left, taking an inside angle. This is one of Martinez's favorite maneuvers, as he is very fond of attacking orthodox fighters from the inside as they keep trying in vain to step to the outside.
TOUCH AND TURN
The soft left is a great weapon for a mover like Martinez, whose greatest defense is his footwork. Along with a surprising up-jab and a pivot right hook, Martinez uses the soft left to momentarily pin his opponents in place so he can skip around them. Here's a particularly showy example from the Chavez Jr. fight.
Every time that Chavez sets his feet to punch, Sergio touches him with a punch. Most of these are not hard blows, though some have enough snap to bloody Chavez's nose or pop his head back. Even the ones that don't land, however, occupy Chavez's mind and eyes just long enough for Martinez to change directions and get out of the bigger man's line of fire. Cotto won't have Chavez's build, but he'll have enough punching power and, if Freddie Roach is to be believed, raw aggression to keep Martinez on his toes. Martinez will need to constantly touch Cotto with his long-range punches if he hopes to stay on the outside and avoid the Puerto Rican's close-range, rib-cracking salvos.
In discussing the soft left hand, I mentioned that Martinez is comfortable in positions of vulnerability. He is the picture of comfort fighting with his hands at his hips, or his face thrust toward his opponent. That's because Martinez, a potent counter puncher, operates best in a state of controlled risk. In order to land counters, Martinez needs his opponent to throw strikes at him, and it's a rare fighter who can resist taking a swing at a seemingly unprotected chin. Thus, by giving certain, select targets to his opponent, Martinez has a degree of control over his opponent's actions. He knows what they'll attack with, and where they'll attack, making it a comparatively easy thing to avoid their strikes and land counters.
Martinez is excellent at using upper body movement to draw and smother strikes from his opponents. Watch how he adjusts the range below.
First, Martinez has his head forward. As Chavez feints his jab, Martinez changes levels, slipping his head under the actual jab when it comes. Immediately, he steps a few inches back with his left foot, and then pulls himself upright. Chavez, already moving forward to throw his right hand after the jab, is forced to lunge in to catch Martinez who, at this great a distance, easily picks off the punch with his gloves. Because Chavez was made to reach and fall into his punch, he ends up too close to Martinez, and the Argentine ties him up before he can back up and throw any more punches.
This kind of movement is completely baffling from the opponent's perspective. Martinez's head goes from being close enough to uppercut to far enough away that even an overextended cross doesn't land, and he only moves his feet back about six inches. This is a perfect example of the aforementioned controlled risk. If Martinez lean forward and make his head a target, he wouldn't be able to pull back far enough to avoid Chavez's punch, and it's specifically because he was leaning forward that Chavez threw the punch in the first place. It's as close to mind control as you can get without advanced sci-fi technology.
Another example of distance manipulation:
Here, Martinez is looking for counters, but Chavez is coming in relatively low with his guard tight. Martinez feints trying to draw something out, and backs up as Chavez moves forward. He tries for a jab, and a left hand to the body, but nothing gets through, and Chavez is too tentative to throw anything, which means no opportunities to counter. Martinez decides it would be best to reset and try again with some more pot shots.
Instead of backing all the way into the ropes and trying to circle away from the former cruiserweight, Martinez lowers his base and moves toward his stalker, driving his shoulder up into Chavez's chest, and pivoting to his left, easily escaping back to center ring. The quick and subtle change of direction causes Chavez to smother himself, as he walks harmlessly into the man he was dead set on hitting a moment before. Just to assure the safety of his escape route, Martinez holds the back of Chavez's right arm with his left hand, pinning it to Chavez's body and keeping him from turning around until Martinez is completely out of range.
There aren't many fighters with the confidence to draw dangerous opponents in like this, and it's this diverse skillset that makes Martinez such a pleasure to watch. Tomorrow, Martinez may defeat Cotto in unimpressive fashion, or he may defy the odds once again and dominate a seasoned opponent, or he may lose, doubtlessly marking the end of his long and successful career as a prizefighter. No matter what happens, though, Sergio Martinez deserves recognition for his unparalleled artistry in the ring.
For more analysis like this as well as interviews with trainers and fighters of every sort, check out Heavy Hands, the only podcast dedicated to the finer points of face punching. This week's episode: an interview with BE's Pat Wyman, who has scouted opponent's for fighters such as Fabricio Werdum and Rafael Dos Anjos. Seriously, it's coming out this week. I SWEAR.