By Thomas Gerbasi
There’s something fitting about Sergio Martinez fighting at Madison Square Garden on Saturday night. He’s 39 years old, the B-side in a fight against Miguel Cotto in which he holds the world championship belt the Puerto Rican star is trying to win, the one hoping that a body that has betrayed him over the last few years will hold up for 12 more rounds.
It’s almost as if Martinez making it to the ring is the equivalent of New York Knicks captain Willis Reed limping out of the tunnel for Game Seven of the NBA Finals against the LA Lakers on May 8, 1970 to inspire his team and get them off to the start they needed to win the game and the title.
It’s got that feel, that buzz, that for one more night, a great champion can be great. At the same time, this is no basketball game. Martinez can’t hit two baskets, go back to the bench, and leave his teammates to finish the work he started like Reed did. This is a fight, 12 rounds with the best fighter Martinez has ever been in with. 36 minutes of wear and tear, physical and mental warfare that can break lesser men.
Martinez is no lesser man. If anything, he should be the ideal for prizefighters these days. There’s a dignity and class to the Argentinean, one that doesn’t dilute his intensity or competitive spirit. Outside the ring he donates his efforts to charitable works and meets the Pope; inside it, he has a mean to him that could best be described as assassin-like.
At this point, such an intriguing Jekyll and Hyde mix – and let’s not forget the Hollywood looks that make the ladies swoon – should have made him a megastar. Don’t take that as a snub, because he is a star in the boxing world and at home in Argentina, but he isn’t as big as he should be.
Saturday night’s result won’t change that, which is unfortunate, and it’s why in the lead-up to the bout, the focus has been on what Cotto demanded to make the fight happen, everything from the contracted weight (159 pounds instead of the middleweight limit of 160), to being introduced last in his home away from home in New York City the night before the Puerto Rican Day Parade.
Martinez took the slights, accepted the terms of the deal Cotto demanded, and signed the contract. In his world, the fight is what mattered, and whatever insults he felt he received will be addressed on Saturday night. It’s an old school approach to boxing from a fighter who hopes he won’t be old when the bell rings.
That’s a concern for any fighter north of 35 and closing in on 40, especially at this level. Yet while Martinez’ ailments have nothing to do with too much mileage from ring wars, they have everything to do with being 39 in a young man’s game (the success of Bernard Hopkins notwithstanding).
His knees, hands, joints and shoulder have taken enough abuse to last a lifetime, but Martinez passed his MRIs with flying colors leading up to the fight, the only reminders being protective sleeves on his knees that he will wear in the ring on Saturday.
But he is more than a year removed from his last fight, a harder than expected defeat of Martin Murray in April of 2013, and after suffering knockdowns in each of his last three bouts against Murray, Julio Cesar Chavez Jr., and Matthew Macklin, the perception is that he is on the tail end of a great career, a sacrificial lamb for Cotto’s ninth Garden appearance, a possibly history-making one should he dethrone Martinez and become the first Puerto Rican fighter to win world titles in four weight classes.
The recipe is there for a crushing defeat…or a resounding victory. With the smarts that only come after two decades with gloves on, Martinez can turn back time, even for just one night. Add in his accurate power punches from often undetectable angles, Cotto’s porous defense, and the determination to silence a crowd screaming for his head, and a man who has not been treated properly by the boxing establishment can have something every fighter fights for: to have the last word.
It’s why underdogs accept seemingly unwinnable fights, why the B-side takes unpleasing terms just to get a fight, or why every insult – real or perceived – doesn’t necessarily receive a response but is instead filed away for future reference. It’s because when the bell rings, all that matters is the fight. And if you do what you trained to do, bite down on your mouthpiece and win that fight, your destiny is no longer controlled by others.
How intoxicating a feeling that must be, knowing that all it takes is 36 minutes or less to send an unforgettable message to everyone that ever doubted you. In less than an hour this weekend, Martinez can watch an arena go silent. In that moment, all the pain goes away, and whether it comes back on Sunday morning or in a week from now, he will always have that moment.
Willis Reed knows this better than anyone because for all he did before and after May 8, 1970, he will always be remembered for his walk out to the court for Game Seven.
Saturday night is Sergio Martinez’ Game Seven.