By Cliff Rold
On April 17, 2010, Sergio Martinez rose from the floor to bloody and best Kelly Pavlik to wrest away history’s championship at 160 lbs.
On September 15, 2012, Martinez became everyone’s Middleweight Champion of the World.
Avid fight followers didn’t need the latter date. The rest of the world did. As good as Sergio Martinez was in defeating Pavlik, in avenging defeat versus Paul Williams, in making four straight title defenses by knockout, he remained the hunter.
It’s one thing to be the man inside the ring. It’s another to command that respect outside of it. When Martinez won almost all of the first eleven, and survived the twelfth, against big drawing progeny Julio Cesar Chavez Jr., he had truly arrived.
A pay-per-view buyrate of approximately 475,000, on a night when Saul Alvarez was headlining a free-to-subscribers card on Showtime was one big positive. So was a highlight reel on ESPN Sports Center that played in heavy rotation. Chavez entered the bigger start and, based on his near dramatic rescue left with some wind still beneath his sails.
But it was Martinez’s night, and his introduction to an even wider audience.
The whole affair was the sort of strange inversion of reality that can only happen in boxing. Despite being the recognized champion of the division, Martinez had spent the better part of a couple years trying to get the undefeated Chavez into the ring. Network and sanctioning body politics had shorn Martinez of a WBC belt.
He was playing both champion and challenger. Being the Fighter of the Year for 2010, holding the lineal claim to the crown, and sitting in a lofty spot in the pound-for-pound ratings all proved of far less worth than a the last name of a legend and the ability to put butts in seats.
Shocking? Not really.
Boxing isn’t just about being good. It never has been. Those lessons were there in the Middleweight division’s past for Martinez all along. Marvin Hagler needed Roberto Duran and Tommy Hearns to go from respected fighter to Right Guard pitchman. Bernard Hopkins needed Felix Trinidad and Oscar De La Hoya to escape the shadow of Roy Jones.
Sergio Martinez had it easier. He just had to beat Chavez. Now, at 38, he gets his reward. Saturday night, Martinez faces legitimate top ten contender Martin Murray (25-0-1, 11 KO) inside the 50,000 seat Club Atlético Vélez Sarsfield in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
Martinez gets to play the superstar. Martinez gets the chance to truly be feted as the king of his domain.
Murray will do his best to upset the applecart. Martinez is already 38 and suffered knee damage in the Chavez fight. For a fighter whose feet are often as important as his fists, it could potentially make for good theatre. Murray doesn’t bring a lot of special effects to the table, but he’s sturdy.
While not possessing a depth of world-class experience, he’s shown he can handle playing the road underdog. In December 2011, Murray traveled to Germany and managed a draw against then-reigning WBA titlist Felix Sturm. It’s on the basis on that performance that Murray earned regard as a top ten Middleweight. It’s on the strength of that showing that he likely passed the respectability barometer for this shot.
Murray in some ways resembles another Martinez challenger, and that could be a good omen. Matthew Macklin lost a debated decision to Sturm prior to challenging Martinez in March 2012. In a solid fight, Macklin gave Martinez a healthy challenge before succumbing in the later rounds. If Murray can produce a similar effort, and Martinez can produce a similar finish, he could exit the ring a genuine idol of his homeland.
They’ll surely be in his corner when the fight begins. Given an HBO audience (8:30 PM EST), they could further elevate him by night’s end. There’s nothing like a huge, rabid crowd to further the idea that a notable champion is also a big deal.
What happens after a Murray win, if there is a Murray win, will go a long way towards aligning history with public recognition. Now that everyone will remember he was the champion, Martinez will define how he is remembered as a champion.
One of the casualties of the Chavez chase was that Martinez might have been a wee bit more selective about opponents than he might otherwise have been. When Russian Dmitry Pirog knocked out Danny Jacobs and briefly emerged as a legitimate threat, winning a WBO belt that had been stripped from Martinez, Pirog made clear he wanted Martinez.
Martinez and his team looked elsewhere. Pirog never garnered the extra US exposure he needed to build a challenge in this market and has since been sidelined with injuries.
So far, the emergence of Gennady Golovkin as an increasingly recognized threat is getting the soft play from Team Martinez as well. There remains the possibility of a Chavez rematch to consider, no matter Chavez’s pitiful performance for much of their fight and his lack of professionalism in preparation. Other bigger dollars could emerge as well.
Right now, Golovkin isn’t bank and he’s dangerous. HBO is high on him and he’s getting more eyes with every knockout. If he keeps winning, the public pressure may get strong enough to force a showdown. Boxing politics could prevent a test from rising contender Peter Quillin but, if Quillin continues to win, he merits strong consideration as well.
Hagler fought all comers when he was king. Hopkins defeated almost everyone who mattered in his era.
How will Martinez define his time as champion now that, finally, he has proven to the world that he is the only man currently worthy of the claim at Middleweight?
Cliff Rold is the Managing Editor of BoxingScene, a founding member of the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board, and a member the Yahoo Pound for Pound voting panel, and the Boxing Writers Association of America. He can be reached at [email protected]