By Ryan Songalia
Earlier this year, a British High Court judge commended Darren Barker, calling the unbeaten middleweight contender "a brave man who acted when many others would not have done." No, he wasn't referring to Barker's challenge of middleweight kingpin Sergio "Maravilla" Martinez, whom he faces this Saturday, October 1 at the Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City, N.J., which will be broadcast live by HBO in America and on SkySports in the United Kingdom.
Judge John Plumstead was instead referring to an incident when Barker stepped in on behalf of a man outnumbered 7-1 by threatening soccer hooligans in London. Barker was ambushed and left unconscious following the attack, but the man being harassed escaped unharmed.
"It was just a matter of me trying to help a fellow human out," said Barnet, London, England's Barker, 23-0 (14 KO), of the incident. "I have to be careful, because there's no room for heroes in this world we live in now. They could have been carrying guns, knives, anything, you don't know. It could have been worse off for me. But it was nice to be commended for what I'd done."
The 47-2-2 (26 KO) Martinez who now resides in Oxnard, Calif., is also an anti-bullying advocate, having recently teamed up with the "It Gets Better" campaign to shoot a testimonial and selecting bullying victim Monique McClain to walk him out to the ring.
These are two boxers who, through their actions outside of the ring, have helped to clean up boxing's "Red Light District of Sports" image ever so slightly.
Still, Martinez's advisor Sampson Lewkowicz was up in arms at claims by some in the press that the reigning BWAA "Fighter of the Year" Martinez was engaging in bullying by facing someone who is a 9-1 underdog in Barker.
"Most of the press want to be a matchmaker," said Lewkowicz at a press conference at The Palm West Side Steakhouse in Manhattan on Wednesday afternoon.
"When Martinez fought Paul Williams, nobody gave him a chance. The second time, nobody gave him a chance. With Kelly Pavlik the same thing. Every time, the press makes their own judgments, and they're far from correct. It doesn't give credit when credit is due. This guy Darren Barker is an undefeated European champion, and by far the best pound-for-pound middleweight in Europe at 160. What else do you want?"
You'd be forgiven if you were in America and hadn't previously heard of Barker or his recent opponents, like Domenico Spada (33-4, 17 KO) of Italy, whose only losses came to former champ Sebastian Zbik and world title challenger Mahir Oral. Or French southpaw Affif Belghecham, who was 19-4-1 (4 KO) heading into their fight in 2010. Or Danny Butler, you know where I'm going with this.
Still, some have a hard time looking past Barker's long stretch of inactivity - the Spada fight in April was his only bout in 17 months, while Martinez has beaten a veritable Murderer's Row of Kelly Pavlik, Paul Williams and Serhiy Dzinziruk during that stretch.
"I understand it," said the self-assured Barker of the media's dismissiveness towards his challenge of Ring Magazine's Pound for Pound number three fighter, who Barker describes as "just a man."
"I'm enjoying the underdog status, no one knows who I am," continues Barker. "It's a nice feeling; there's no expectations on my shoulders other than my own. This is what I've dedicated my life for for 17 years, a moment like this. I look forward to proving these people wrong."
Barker said his plan wasn't going to be out-physical Martinez the way Williams and Pavlik tried to do in their fights with Martinez. "I'm a thinking boxer, and the plan is to out-think Martinez and not make a reckless mistake like Williams did," said Barker.
Lewkowicz's ire was not limited to the media, however. Eddie Hearn - Barker's promoter and one of British boxing's most influential figures - took shots at Martinez's recent accomplishments, perhaps in an attempt to further humanize Martinez before his fighter.
"When you look back at his opponents, Darren in our opinion is on a different league to Dzinziruk," said Hearn. "Paul Williams, who really is a welterweight who came up to light middleweight and beat Sergio. I know Kelly Pavlik was a washed-up fighter at times struggling to make weight, so we feel this is gonna be the toughest test for Sergio that he's had."
"Concerning Mr. Hearn, I'm very disappointed," started Lewkowicz, a native of Uruguay now residing in Las Vegas, Nev. "He doesn't give credit to a champion. Who the hell you are to say that it's a washed-up Kelly Pavlik? I'm very upset with you. You have no respect, the same way that the press has no respect for your own fighter. So you gotta pay your dues."
The Argentina-native Martinez's limited understanding of English was probably an asset during that exchange.
"It's not too much to say it, but a lot to do it in the ring," said Martinez through Lewkowicz.
"They got a little bit rattled, but listen, they're under pressure because this is a fight that many people think they shouldn't be taking," Hearn said afterward. "Therefore Sergio Martinez has got to look devastating against Darren Barker, and I don't think that's gonna happen. Darren Barker is hugely overlooked in this fight, and we believe for the wrong reasons."
If Barker and Hearn were searching for people who believe in them, they found them in the form of the estimated 300-400 fans that flew over from England to back their countryman. This will only be Barker's second fight outside of England, but he's sure to have the most vocal contingent on hand.
Tickets were still available at Boardwalk Hall, which had been scaled down to fit a maximum of 5500 fans. Caesars Atlantic City consultant Ken Condon tried to allay fears that ticket sales weren't doing well, stating that he expects 5000 to be on hand in the venue.
When searching for Barker's advantages, one immediately pops up: He's 29 years old, while Martinez is 36. In light of Bernard Hopkins' conquests of Jean Pascal and Floyd Mayweather Jr.'s of Victor Ortiz, perhaps age doesn't mean what it did 10 or 20 years ago.
But Barker possesses a self-belief that borders on a disconnection from reality, and as crazy as it sounds, that may be what makes Barker most dangerous for Martinez.
Ryan Songalia is a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America (BWAA) and contributes to GMA News and the Filipino Reporter newspaper in New York City. He can be reached at [email protected] . An archive of his work can be found at www.ryansongalia.com . Follow him on Twitter: @RyanSongalia.