By Thomas Gerbasi
The alarms went off immediately, but there would be no inquest requiring Matthew Macklin to prove his Irish heritage. At first, you would expect that any professional fighter whose parents hailed from the Emerald Isle would have competed at least once on St. Patrick’s Day, but that isn’t the case with the British-born Macklin. Thankfully though, he redeemed himself with a little tidbit of information from the days before his pro debut in 2001.
“I had my first ever amateur fight when I was 11 years old on St. Patrick’s Day back in 1994,” revealed Macklin, who will enter the ring on March 17th for the second time in a little over two months when he takes on the accepted (yet beltless) middleweight champion Sergio Martinez at The Theater at Madison Square Garden. Needless to say, this one’s a little extra special.
“I think that whole weekend, everyone’s celebrating being Irish or having Irish roots, so it is a special time for the Irish,” he said. “In New York they celebrate it big with a huge parade, and to fight on it (St. Patrick’s Day), especially with a fight of this magnitude against Sergio Martinez, and Andy Lee being on the undercard with the anticipation of me and Andy fighting each other so long as I win and so long as he wins, I think it’s all gonna add to the occasion and I’m expecting a pretty special atmosphere.”
If anyone deserves to have that type of atmosphere for the biggest fight of career, it’s the 29-year old Macklin (28-3, 19 KOs), who has had more than his share of ups and downs over the course of his decade-long pro career, one that many believed would have resulted in more than one championship belt by now.
“When I turned professional there was a big kinda hype, and I was kind of the top amateur coming out at the time,” he said. “There was (former heavyweight champion) David Haye and (former super middleweight champion) Carl Froch, and I turned pro before both of those guys, but they were older than me. So because of my age and the way I won the ABA and was stopping everyone, I looked like the more natural professional fighter and big things were expected. But in hindsight, I was young, there injuries, there was a lot of hype, and it took a while for me to get where I expected myself to get to. The main thing is, I’m here now, and if anything, all the things that happened – the losses, the change in promoters and training and different things - it shapes your life, it shapes your career, and it makes you who you are.”
Who Macklin is right now is a rugged battler who has survived some wars, continues to move forward, and continues to impress in the ring. He’s not flashy and he’s not going to take opponents out with a single blow, but he’ll wear you down, beat you down, and have the fans cheering the entire way. It’s the recipe for huge success in this game, and while it’s taken some time, he may finally be on the verge of becoming a 10-year overnight success, at least here in the United States.
The way most fans and pundits see it, that process should have started last June, when he traveled to Cologne, Germany to face longtime WBA middleweight champion Felix Sturm and seemingly did enough to win the fight and the belt. It didn’t happen though, as Sturm retained his title via split decision, a verdict which provoked outrage in the boxing community.
“I thought I won the fight and I thought I won it clearly enough that I was beyond being robbed,” said Macklin. “It was a good fight and it was competitive, but I didn’t really feel it was a close, close fight. I thought I won it clearly. So when I heard split decision, I thought ‘don’t tell me I’m getting ripped off here.’ And lo and behold, that’s what happened.”
Luckily though, there were plenty of worldwide witnesses thanks to the power of television and the internet, and Macklin believes this is the only reason he was able to parlay this negative into a positive within weeks.
“It (the Sturm fight) was on the world stage and it was televised here in America and on Sky Sports back in the UK and Ireland, and everyone kinda seen it for themselves,” he said. “Had it just been on German television, it would have been hard trying to come back and trying to say ‘I got robbed.’ People would be like ‘yeah, yeah, yeah.’ I was very disappointed and a bit disgusted with the decision, but within a week or two I was over here speaking with HBO and talking to (promoter) Lou DiBella about doing a deal. So things looked bright straight away and I wasn’t left on the shelf or forgotten about. I didn’t get the decision, I wasn’t world champion like I should be, but I proved that I belonged at the very highest level, so it wasn’t as bad as maybe it could have been.”
Subsequently, there were no regrets about not continuing his law studies at Coventry University.
“I never had any burning ambition or desire to be a lawyer; I was just furthering my education.”
He’s gotten a PhD in the sweet science though, working through losses, injuries, training and promotional changes, and even a relocation from the UK to New York City to make it to where he is today. And like former contender John Duddy before him, he’s loving life in the Big Apple.
“I’ve been here many times over the years and really liked it,” said Macklin. “I done the deal with DiBella, it was a long-term deal, and I’m not married, I don’t have a girlfriend, and I’ve got no kids, so there’s nothing really preventing me from relocating. To promote myself and build myself properly, it makes sense to be here, and there are many worse places you can go than New York.”
New York, which has a strong Irish community, is likely to embrace the Birmingham native, and not just because he’s one of their own, but because he comes to fight every time the bell rings. Will that be enough to beat Martinez, a member of the pound for pound list who is sporting a four fight winning streak over opponents that owned a combined 135-2 record? Macklin believes it will be.
“He’s a really good fighter, he’s paid his dues, and he’s traveled and beat fighters in their own backyard,” said Macklin of Argentina’s Martinez. “He got his opportunity to be where he is now after the close loss to Paul Williams, and I know he was champion at 154, but it was the fight with Williams (in 2009) and the win over Pavlik that kinda catapulted him. Then he had the knockout over Williams in the rematch, and the momentum in his career and the hype from the media was really important. The media can build you into a monster. You get a few good wins back to back, a couple of knockouts, and all of a sudden you’re built into this fighter, but no one’s invincible. It was almost like people were saying what round is Manny Pacquiao going to beat (Juan Manuel) Marquez in (in their third bout last November). Marquez is kinda unassuming, he’s not spectacular, and he doesn’t knock people spark out, where Pacquiao almost looked inhuman bashing up (Antonio) Margarito, and in all these fights he had the momentum, the hype and the frenzy going in. But that doesn’t matter once the bell goes, and Sergio Martinez is a great fighter, no doubt. But unbeatable, certainly not.”
Macklin knows that this is his chance of a lifetime, and that on March 17th, all the trials and tribulations of the last 10 years could have a miraculous way of disappearing. But he doesn’t want to forget them, because if he does become the middleweight champion on St. Patrick’s Day, it will be due to those struggles turning him from a talented boxer into a fighter.
“I think those tough periods and those things that happen out of your control that are setbacks, they deepen your hunger and they improve your focus and make you want it even more,” he said. “I think they make you mentally tougher as well. Everything comes easy when you’re at the top. You never really appreciate where you are, but if you’ve had to kinda go the long way around and you had the downs as well as the ups, when you are up then, you appreciate them, and they’re definitely all the more sweeter.”