By Thomas Gerbasi
It was a bad night for the blue corner. Of nine fights on last Saturday night’s Top Rank event at the WaMu Theater in New York City, the blue corner lost eight of them.
That’s no surprise really, with the names Juan Manuel Lopez, Yuriorkis Gamboa, John Duddy, and Omar Chavez occupying the opposite real estate across the ring.
Yonkers’ Michael Torres, a hot prospect with a 13-0 record, was in the red corner that night, expected to make it 14-0 with a win in the night’s opening bout.
In the blue corner was Toledo’s Martin Tucker, owner of a 6-4 record that basically marked him as cannon fodder for the Top Rank prospect.
“They took him as an opponent,” said Tucker’s trainer Tom Urbina, who had no intention of letting his charge simply show up for a paycheck and a fifth loss.
Easier said than done, but Tucker showed from the opening bell that he wasn’t the stereotypical Midwest fighter sent in to lose to East or West Coast prospects.
He could fight. But could he win?
It didn’t look so early on, as he ate a right hand from Torres that visibly shook him.
Round one to Torres.
“I came to terms with being from a little city with not many fight shows. The life I live is against the grain, so I know when I fight it’s gonna be against the grain. Luckily, I’m used to it, so I just go out there and do what I know.” – Martin Tucker
Toledo, Ohio is far from a hotbed for boxing. The biggest fight news out of the city recently came last November, when the boxing ring at the Glass City Boxing Gym was stolen.
Glass City is the gym that has produced Tucker, as well as the two biggest names fighting there now, 2004 US Olympian Devin Vargas and his brother Dallas. The Vargas boys’ father, Ray, was in Tucker’s corner on October 10th, but was drowned out by Urbino, who has been with the 30-year old lightweight for the last 12 years.
Urbino made it clear to Tucker from the outset what life as a Toledo fighter would be like.
“We have grown this kid to know one thing – you are a road warrior,” said Urbino. “You can’t expect the fights to come to you; we have to go get it. And when we go get it, we can’t play games or second-guess. We have to do what he have to do.”
In round two, Tucker began to figure out how to deal with Torres’ four-inch height advantage, and he started to tag his foe, eventually cutting him over the right eye with less than 30 seconds left. By the time the bell rang, Martin Tucker had committed the cardinal sin of an ‘opponent’ – he won a round.
“He can give it, but can’t take it – you’re the man tonight.” Tom Urbina after round two.
For better or worse, word travels fast in boxing circles. If a guy hasn’t been training for a particular fight, someone will let that nugget of information slip out. If a fighter has been going through sparring partners like a knife through butter, same thing.
So when Tucker’s trainers Urbina and Vargas were in New York on September 30th for Devin Vargas’ eight round win over Terrell Nelson, they heard an interesting scouting report on Torres, a three-time New Jersey Golden Gloves champion who had a pretty smooth ride in the pro ranks up to this point.
“They said ‘the boy can punch, he’s fast and he’s sharp, but he can’t take a punch,” recalled Urbina, who sent his charge in not to outpoint Torres, but to hurt him.
No problem, said Tucker.
“I’m not going in there just to hug you,” the fighter smiled. “I’m gonna beat you up.”
In round three, it was clear that Tucker’s punches were getting to Torres.
“I didn’t really scout this guy, but I knew he was a good fighter,” said Tucker. “I also knew that I was stronger than him and that if I could knock him down or catch him with good shots, then he would start to go.”
And for Urbina, who saw Torres weigh in at 134 pounds on Friday (the lightest ever for the former junior welterweight), the plan was clear – attack the body.
“I was hurting him to the body,” said Tucker. “Every time I touched him to the body, he was ‘unnhh, unnhh.’”
However, Tucker wasn’t going downstairs enough. Torres, aware that he was now in a fight, roared back, much to the dismay of Urbina, who had seen this scenario before.
“It’s desperation time,” screamed the trainer from ringside. “He’s gonna try everything.”
And Torres did. Unfortunately Tucker seemed to be stuck in neutral as his faster and rangier opponent looked to take control of the bout.
“The third round for me has always been a problem,” said Tucker. “I always peak right there and then I hit the wall every time. I try to coast now instead of fighting through it, and that’s what happened there. I gotta break through it. I don’t know how, but I gotta do it.”
Round three goes to Torres.
“You gotta pick it up this round, pick it up. He’s running from ya. All he wants to do is run.” Tom Urbina to Martin Tucker between rounds three and four.
Round four. This is the time when guys with 6-4 records could decide to pack it in, take the loss, pick up a paycheck, and go home. Hey, they came to fight, put on a good show, but now it’s clear that the other guy is better, so why get hurt any worse than you need to?
Martin Tucker isn’t your average 6-4 fighter though.
In fact, when boxing manager Pat Nelson told Urbina that Tucker “is the best 6-4 fighter in the whole United States,” no one batted an eye. And if you look at the record, you’ll see bouts with two unbeaten opponents, a win over well-regarded prospect Rashad Holloway, a majority decision loss, a split decision loss, and a two fight winning streak.
But what you’ll also see is a two-year layoff from August of 2007 until last Saturday night. When asked why he was out for so long, he replies in an almost apologetic tone.
“I actually went against the doctors and I didn’t tell my trainers either, but I fought with a broken leg,” said Tucker. “I got called for a fight and slipped on my front steps in the winter and broke my leg three days before the contract was supposed to come. They told me two years, but seven and a half months later I fought with a broken leg. I didn’t listen to the doctors, I cut my cast off and started running with pain.”
Tucker won that fight over Dezi Ford on August 16, 2007, dropping Ford five times before ending matters in the sixth. A week later he re-fractured the leg and was forced back to the sidelines. Add in a change in his domestic situation as he took custody of two of his four children, and two years can go by pretty fast.
“I became a full-time parent, but I stayed in training, I kept running, and my heart is here – this is what I want to do. And when I got back to the gym, it didn’t take but a couple of weeks and I was ready to fight.”
He showed it for the two minutes of round four against Torres, but in the final 60 seconds, Torres made his presence known again with a hard right uppercut and a series of quick combinations that rocked Tucker.
As the fighter made it back to his corner with a look of fatigue and discouragement, Urbina was already there.
“Look at his face, Martin,” he said.
Round four was even.
“I’m only 5 foot 7. I’m always the little guy wherever I go, and it’s always uphill with me. I deal with it all right and it kinda pushes me too. I like the way that feels, with the crowd, with him. When he does something, they ooh and aah, but when I do something, there’s silence, which means ‘shut your mouth because I’m doing something.’ (Laughs) I like that and I thrive on it.” Martin Tucker.
When talking about his expectations for this fight, Tucker was under no illusions. He had a 6-4 record, was fighting in his unbeaten opponent’s backyard, and another loss – if not the nail in the coffin, certainly would have the hammers out and the holes drilled.
Then it would be back to Toledo and an uncertain future in an uncertain economy. And while he gets by, life would undoubtedly be better with a big win in the biggest city in the world that would give his boxing career a much needed boost.
“I do all right for myself,” said Tucker of life in Toledo. “My dad has a mechanic’s shop, so I fix cars. Plus I cut hair. But in Toledo, I ain’t gonna lie, there ain’t no jobs. I’ve worked everywhere already and everybody’s laying off and hiring felons and stuff, and I’m not a felon. So it’s hard to get a job, but I do what I can just to keep my kids and myself all right.”
And he keeps on pushing – not just for himself, but also for his kids. It’s something he picked up from his mother.
“In a way, I watch my mom,” he said. “She stayed on a constant with one thing and she kept it going. Now she’s the head of where she works; it took some time, but she got there. Just like me, it’s gonna take some time, some pain, and some sacrifice, but I’m gonna get there.”
First he had to overcome Michael Torres.
Despite the fact that ‘Sweet T’ had gotten himself in a dogfight with a fighter that on paper he was supposed to walk through, the New Yorker wasn’t about to let his “0” go that easily. As he cut Tucker over the left eye and started to land his 1-2’s with more frequency, it seemed like the favorite was going to get things off on the right foot for the red corner.
Then, with 20 seconds left in the fifth round, Tucker drilled Torres with a right hand and put him on the canvas.
“He dropped him with a right hand, but he’s a converted southpaw,” smiled Vargas. “If he would have hit him with the left, it would have been over.”
Torres rose from the deck but was rocked by a left hook just before the bell.
10-8 round for Tucker.
“This is your fight – don’t let up now.” Tom Urbina to Martin Tucker before round six
In boxing, whether you win or lose, your true character is revealed.
For Martin Tucker and Michael Torres, their six-round lightweight bout wasn’t fought in front of a full house in the big room at Madison Square Garden, but they fought like it was as a handful of fans cheered them on.
Now three minutes would determine a winner, but at the moment, despite his knockdown in round five, Tucker trailed 48-47 on all three scorecards. If he won the final round, he would earn a draw.
But that wouldn’t be good enough; the days of moral victories had passed, and Urbina knew it as he screamed himself hoarse in the final round.
“Take it to him.”
“Jump on him.”
“Martin, don’t stop, please!”
Tucker followed those instructions to a tee, and with 2:10 remaining in the fight, a right hand put Torres down a second time, basically sealing the upset victory. But Torres had one last charge left in him, and as he tried to turn the tide, Urbina’s calls from the corner changed.
As the seconds ticked down, Tucker was able to elude any danger, and when the bell rang, the winner and loser of the fight was evident just by the looks on the combatants’ faces.
“You beat his ass,” said an ecstatic Urbina, who knew that even the specter of a hometown decision wasn’t going to dampen his fighter’s moment of glory.
For the winner, by unanimous decision, Martin Tucker.
“This kid’s got heart beyond heart,” said Urbina as he watched Tucker get stitched up in the locker room. “I knew there was something special about him.”
“One of the best compliments I can give this kid is that he’s gonna be a good coach,” added Vargas. “He’s been helping out the other kids, even when he was an amateur. He’s a good mentor and when somebody like that stops and tells them something, they listen.”
As for the man of the hour, he just wanted to get back to the hotel, shower, change clothes and get back to the WaMu Theater to check out the rest of the card, bask in the glory of his biggest pro win, and get ready for what he hopes is a new day in his career.
“I’ve been contemplating, welling up, worrying, feeling pressure, but when I got in the ring, it all left,” he smiled, and then paused before continuing. “I fought killers from the jump. Hopefully I can groom myself now, which is something I never had the chance to do.”
Here’s one for the blue corner.