By Jake Donovan
Kiko Martinez turned a potentially disastrous 2013 campaign into a year to remember. The reigning 122 lb. titlist ended the year with a bang, scoring a 9th round stoppage over former champ Jeffrey Mathebula in his first title defense Saturday evening in Elche, Spain.
Mathebula was as ready as he could hope to be for what figures to be his last crack at a major title. However, Father Time had a say in how long the 34-year old gets to spend in the title fray.
Martinez was made to look like a boxing genius from the opening bell, remarkably causing Mathebula to frequently fall well short despite a six-inch disadvantage in both height and reach. Ring activity and power punching were all in favor of the defending titlist, much to the delight of his countrymen in attendance.
Threatening to become a rout, Mathebula punched his way back into the fight with a strong showing in round six. It was the first - if not only - frame that featured two-way action and also any semblance of an effective offense from the former titlist, though by no means suggesting a turning of the tide.
Martinez regained his bearings in round seven, also a close round but one that saw the home country favorite repeatedly assert himself. The transition led to a dominant round eight before a left hook in round nine proved to forever dispel Mathebula's chances of reclaiming past glory.
The win advances Martinez' record to 30-4-1 (22KO), while also living up to a pre-fight promise. The Spaniard guaranteed to beat Mathebula in similar fashion to his title-winning performance, when he tore through previously unbeaten Jhonatan Romero en route to a one-sided 6th round knockout this past August on HBO.
Saturday's performance didn't feature quite the same level of dominance, but still emphatic enough to remind Mathebula that boxing is a young man's sport.
The 34-year old suffers his second loss in his past three fights, falling to 27-5-2 (14KO) overall. His lone success at the title stage came in a March '12 points win over countryman Takalani Ndlovu. The win avenged a prior controversial loss, repeating the feat this past March to earn the title shot versus Martinez.
Any tales of a triumphant return to prime time, however, reside strictly with Martinez. His year began with a brave showing in defeat, suffering a 9th round stoppage at the hands of unbeaten Carl Frampton, who has emerged as the most feared super bantamweight contender in the world today. Martinez was written off as perhaps just another best-of-the-rest type, not quite fit for the championship stage.
Three knockout wins later, the boxing world has changed its tune on the 27-year old. Once known solely for his shocking 1st round knockout of then-unbeaten and highly touted contender Bernard Dunne, little else has since gone right in Martinez' career.
Losses to Rendall Munroe (twice) and Ndlovu spoke to his believed place in the boxing world, befitting of a divisional gatekeeper and perhaps a steppingstone to the top players.
Martinez has definitively changed that perception, to where a rematch with Frampton would not only be welcomed, but whose outcome can no longer be assumed as pre-written. The same can be said for any other matchup for Martinez in the super bantamweight division, thanks to a brilliant bounceback 2013 campaign.
A minor upset took place in the evening's chief support, as 30-year old ring novice Mustafa Chadlioui scored a 10-round majority decision over Ibrahim Lopez.
Foreshadowing of the evening's shocker came in the form of their first fight this past July. The pair of Spanish cruiserweights, both of whom are promoted by reigning lineal middleweight king Sergio Martinez, fought to an eight-round draw in a bout that saw Lopez dropped for the first time in his career. Chadlioui, now all of four fights into his pro career, was as game for the cause on Saturday as was the case when facing the rising prospect over the summer.
By all accounts, their sequel was another nailbiting affair, but Lopez, 32, unable to solve the riddle of his promotional and managerial stable mate. Chadlioui was leaping way up in class when he fought Lopez in July, but looked like a prime time player in Saturday's affair.
Scores were a bit all over the place. One judge had it knotted at 95-95, while tallies of 97-93 and a far too wide 99-91 landed in favor of Chadliou, who advances to 3-0-1 (2KO).
Lopez is now winless in his past two fights and 0-1-1 versus Chadlioui. His overall record falls to 9-1-1 (6KO).
French cruiserweight prospect Youri Kalenga picked up his second consecutive win, scoring an 8th round knockout over Hari Miles in preliminary action. The 25-year old suffered his first pro loss in a major upset just three months ago, dropping a 10-round points win to upside down club fighter Arturs Kulikauskis on the road in Latvia.
Leaving nothing to chance, the Congo-born cruiserweight has rediscovered his home run swing. The normally durable Miles was lit up in the eighth round of their scheduled 10-round affair.
Kalenga, managed by Gary Hyde - who also guides the careers of World 122 lb. king Guillermo Rigondeaux and former middleweight titlist Hassan N'Jam N'Dikam - improves to 17-1 (11KO). The knockout marks his second straight, in the span of just seven weeks.
Jake Donovan is the Managing Editor of Boxingscene.com, as well as a member of the Transnational Boxing Ratings Board, Yahoo Boxing Ratings Panel and the Boxing Writers Association of America. Twitter: @JakeNDaBox