by David P. Greisman
Let’s get this out of the way first: Sergio Martinez looked good when he needed to look good — but what wasn’t so good is when he needed to.
The best fighters are able to do what Martinez did Saturday night. Pick a cliché, and he did it: He dug deep, turned it up a notch, came from behind, and did exactly what he needed to do to come out with the win.
The best fighters shouldn’t have to do what Martinez had to do.
This is the armchair analysis that ensues after every performance, particularly when a favored fighter is seen as underwhelming against a perceived underdog. For all of the training that goes into a bout, and for all of the qualities a man must show once he is one-on-one in the ring, the one obstacle a boxer can never truly conquer is expectations.
The list of people he must please include fans, networks, promoters and even himself.
This is the difference between the individual combat sports and the mainstream team sports. Players’ pay is still tied to performance, but the bottom line tied to that bottom line is winning. That’s not the lone criteria in boxing, though even the less entertaining fighters can nevertheless dominate and be paid millions of dollars to do so.
A team can win ugly, or even lose, and still come back the next game and the next, guaranteed the set schedule of a season. A fighter’s connection with a network, a promoter and the fans can shift, however, on the basis of one performance.
And so as Sergio Martinez’s fight with Matthew Macklin approached the final four rounds, there was an air of desperation. He might not have known that he was behind on the scorecards, that two judges had him down by one point and the third judge had him down by five. But he must have known that he was not winning clearly, and that that needed to change.
Martinez’s performance in the ninth, 10th and 11th rounds made up for his performance in the initial eight, his increased activity and incredibly accuracy breaking Macklin down, then knocking Macklin down, then forcing Macklin’s corner to stop the fight.
It was what we expected Martinez to be able to do.
There’s that word again.
Forget, for a moment, what the odds were. Those are designed but to elicit betting action on both sides of the equation, not necessarily to reflect what a fighter’s actual chances of winning are. Macklin was indeed the underdog. Martinez was indeed favored to win. Yet Macklin was considered a respectable contender, the victim of what many considered to be a robbery loss in a middleweight title bout last year against Felix Sturm.
Few beyond Macklin’s faithful, and those deliriously drunk on a St. Patrick’s Day fight night, expected the Irish boxer to be ahead down the stretch against the middleweight champion.
Once more, that word.
Lou DiBella, who promotes both Martinez and Macklin, had selected this challenger for his champion not just because both men were in his stable, and not just because of Macklin’s ethnicity on this holiday. He brought in a fighter who was thought to be aggressive enough to put forth an entertaining effort, and in turn to make the counter-punching Martinez work, helping him look good. The network and fans had followed this line of logic.
It still did not surprise that the bout began slowly. Martinez is the studious sort, observing his opponent’s doings and calculating what will be his opponent’s undoing. Macklin, meanwhile, was in with a smart, skilled and gifted opponent. Though some fighters opt to overwhelm better boxers, Macklin presented a picture of patience.
Through two rounds, neither had landed in double digits. Macklin had gone 6 of 35 in the first and 9 of 43 in the second. Martinez was even less active, credited with landing 7 of 24 in the first, 9 of 22 in the second.
That pace barely changed in rounds three and four, though. While Martinez threw more, he still wasn’t landing much, going 13 of 31 and 11 of 43. His landed power punches remained rare: three in the first, five in the second, three in the third and four in the fourth.
Martinez often circled to his left, an enticement to Macklin’s powerful right hand, which would in theory open up a counter shot from Martinez’s strong southpaw cross. That angle scarcely presented itself. One left hand from Martinez in the second sent Macklin stumbling backward to the ropes, as much a product of the shot and the timing as it was the tangling of their feet. A left uppercut in the fourth was also eye-catching.
Martinez had set his own expectations, predicting a 10th-round knockout, an uncharacteristic prognostication. It was as if he had begun to feel the burden of what others expected him to do, and his early game plan made it seem as if he’d begun to believe his own press clippings.
Gone was the activity that he’d used against Sergiy Dzinziruk and Darren Barker, opponents who’d presented defensive puzzles that his handiwork solved. Rather, he resorted to single shots, well-timed and well-placed, the punches that he’d used to floor and stop Dzinziruk and Barker — though only after he’d put forth the work to ready them for takedown.
Through four rounds, two judges had the fight tied. The other had Macklin ahead, three rounds to one.
Macklin had been landing more power punches, taking advantage of there being lesser return fire. And so Martinez stopped allowing Macklin to come to him — the cat had been trying to lure the mouse into a trap but wasn’t swatting at its prey. Martinez sought to minimize Macklin’s effectiveness, not with Martinez turning to more defense, but to more offense.
He worked from in front, sending out shots and setting up counters, just as he had done against other foes. Macklin obliged, landing more in the fifth, which he won on all three scorecards, but not in the sixth, which he lost.
Then Martinez’s output dropped again in the seventh — and he got dropped himself, on a right hand that came as Martinez was tripping backward over Macklin’s left leg. Martinez’s right glove touched the canvas, a technical knockdown that Martinez didn’t need to recover from physically but sought to rally back from on the scorecards. He landed a pair of solid left hands, yet not enough in those remaining seconds to make the tallies read anything other than “10-8” for Macklin.
What had been a majority draw after six was, three minutes later, a bout that Macklin was winning.
Two years ago, Kelly Pavlik had won the middle rounds against Martinez by using timing to compensate for Martinez’s superior speed, sending out jabs and then waiting for Martinez to move into the path of his right hand. Macklin, too, was able to time Martinez, both with right hands after the jab and with punches thrown in the middle of Martinez’s own volleys.
Two years ago, Martinez seized control back with an increased pace and clean, hard shots, punches he consistently lands with power even in the final rounds of fights.
Martinez hit Macklin with a few in the eighth, then poured on the punishment in the ninth, 10th and 11th. He studies his opponents, learns what it will take — and still has what it takes when other fighters tend to get weaker. Martinez, with his background in soccer and bicycling, wasn’t getting weaker. Macklin was, however, and Martinez was helping make him even more so.
The angle that wasn’t there for Martinez earlier was there now, more left hands hitting Macklin flush in the face. The single shots more often turned into combinations, left crosses followed by right hooks. Martinez knocked Macklin’s mouthpiece out in the final seconds of the 10th round. Macklin turned, retreating toward the ropes, Martinez closing in.
That was the situation on the scorecards, too. With that round, two judges had Martinez taking a one-point lead. The third judge still dissented, a tally finding him three points behind.
Macklin had been winning largely because of what Martinez wasn’t doing. Now he was losing because of what Martinez was doing to him.
Pick a cliché, and that’s what Macklin tried to do in the 11th: He sought to change the fight’s momentum, to finish strong, take the bout back over and score the upset victory.
Tired, slowed and aggressive, he played right into Martinez’s hands.
With about 20 seconds to go in the round, Macklin threw a left hook but was hit first with Martinez’s straight left cross, falling backward to the canvas. He got up before the count of five but needed to pull himself up with the ropes. With just seconds left in the stanza, Martinez closed in with a flurry. Macklin threw out another hook to try to get Martinez off, but that punch only allowed another hard left hand to land, putting him down once again. He made it to his corner, where his trainer chose to keep him.
Martinez threw 171 punches in rounds nine, 10 and 11 — just 95 fewer than the 266 punches he’d thrown in total in rounds one through eight. He landed 75 shots in those final rounds (he’d landed 108 in the first eight), including 56 power punches (more than the 53 he’d landed in rounds one through eight).
He looked great late after not looking his best earlier, just as he’d done against Barker in October. He rallied when he needed to rally, and even scored the knockout to keep the bout from going to the scorecards.
The best fighters don’t always dominate an entire bout en route to winning. They will lose rounds. On rare occasions, they might be losing a fight. The best fighters are nevertheless able to overcome deficits and damage, delivering themselves to victory.
Sergio Martinez shouldn’t have had to do this, but he did — and so he did.
The 10 Count will return next week.
David P. Greisman is a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America. His weekly column, “Fighting Words,” appears every Monday on BoxingScene.com.
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