By Thomas Gerbasi, photo by Damien Acevedo
A stranger in a foreign country, fighting in the world’s greatest arena. An icon on the verge of stardom. A champion in the eyes of the world, but not particular sanctioning bodies.
Sounds like the story of middleweight champion Sergio Martinez as he heads into Saturday night’s title fight against Matthew Macklin. And it is. But he’s not the first man from his homeland of Argentina to live it. Nearly 37 years ago, it was middleweight great Carlos Monzon doing the same thing in Madison Square Garden, making his debut in the Mecca of boxing against Tony Licata on June 30, 1975.
At the time, anyone who knew anything about boxing knew that Monzon was the king of the 160-pound weight class. Well, everyone except the WBC, which stripped the Argentinean of his crown, leaving Colombia’s Rodrigo Valdez and Philadelphia’s Bennie Briscoe to battle for the vacant title in 1974.
Valdez stopped “Bad Bennie” in seven rounds, and Monzon went about his business, knocking out Tony Mundine before making his lone United States appearance against Licata. He would stop his game foe in the tenth round, and eventually take care of matters with Valdez with two hard-fought 15-round decisions that capped his career.
A month after the second win over Valdez in July of 1977, Monzon retired at the age of 35, leaving a fistic legacy few could hope to match.
“For me, Monzon was a great inspiration,” said Martinez through translator Marcelo Crudele. And like his countryman, he will now make his first Garden appearance in the building’s Theater as a champion to the world, but not to the sanctioning bodies that currently call (depending who you follow) Julio Cesar Chavez Jr., Felix Sturm, Gennady Golovkin, Daniel Geale, and Dimitry Pirog the champion at 160 pounds. But at this point, it really doesn’t matter to Buenos Aires’ Martinez, who knows who he is, where he’s at, and what he’s going to be doing on Saturday night. “I’m looking forward to doing this and I’m very excited to be in Madison Square Garden. It’s my first time here and it’s a great opportunity and one of my dreams coming true. Hopefully there will be more fights there.”
There probably will be. Despite fighting an opponent of Irish descent on St. Patrick’s Day, Martinez has been embraced by the city during his media appearances leading up to the bout, and it’s not just because he’s one of the top-ranking members of the pound-for-pound fraternity. It’s probably due to the fact that he is, in many ways, the anti-Monzon. The Hall of Famer from Santa Fe was feared for his temper, and no one took the brunt of that short fuse more than the women in his life. Most tragically, in 1988, after strangling his common law wife, Alicia Muniz, Monzon threw her off a balcony, killing her.
Monzon would spend the rest of his life in prison, with the exception of a weekend furlough in 1995 that saw him killed in an automobile accident at the age of 52.
Martinez, still hoping to reach the heights of Monzon in the ring, has far surpassed his predecessor in more important matters. A tireless advocate in the fight against bullying and domestic violence against women, Martinez has used his platform to transform lives with more than just an autograph or photo op. And his statements, such as wearing the name of former champion Edwin Valero’s wife, Jennifer Carolina, on his trunks after she was murdered by the Venezuelan, make him almost a transcendent figure in a sport in need of role models. So it’s almost a loaded question to ask him why he is one of the rare figures in boxing to appeal beyond the usual fight game demographic. Not surprisingly, he fields it well.
“The main thing with boxing is not only to appeal to guys or boxing fans,” he said. “It’s to appeal to everybody with the heart I bring inside the ring, the way I look, and the way I practice what I preach.”
As for the sanctioning bodies’ shenanigans?
“I know who the real champion is,” he said. “It’s me, and I’m gonna prove it this Saturday once again.”
So if you haven’t already been taken in by Martinez’ maverick stance, his confident (but not cocky) swagger, and his willingness to battle the powers that be in the sport in public, there’s always the reality that the southpaw can flat out fight. Unbeaten in four bouts since a controversial decision loss to Paul Williams in 2009 (one later avenged by a frightening second round knockout a year later), Martinez’ unique yet entertaining style has made him a tough puzzle for the middleweight division to figure out. Yet despite three consecutive knockout wins over Williams, Sergey Dzinziruk, and Darren Barker, Martinez showed enough vulnerability in brief instances for some to suggest that the 37-year old may be getting a knock on the door from Father Time.
And who better to take advantage than 29-year old Birmingham native Macklin, who said earlier this year of the champion, “He’s a really good fighter, he’s paid his dues, and he’s traveled and beat fighters in their own backyard. 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, like Martinez, has paid his dues, and with the exception of a one point decision loss to Andrew Facey in 2003, and a 10th round knockout defeat at the hands of Jamie Moore in 2006, he’s passed all his tests. Even his most recent bout, a points loss to WBA titlist Sturm in Germany last June was widely considered to be one of the worst – if not the worst – decisions of 2011. Add in what is expected to be a partisan packed house on Saturday cheering his every move, and Macklin may still be an underdog, but he’s a live one. Then again, Martinez kinda likes wearing the black hat on fight night.
“In this case, it’s more inspirational for me,” said Martinez. “I get more aggressive when there are a lot of people cheering against me. I’m going to bring everything into the ring and you guys will see it for sure.”
And if getting top billing in the greatest city in the world means a few boos here and there, so be it. Especially if an impressive win in the HBO-televised bout is the catalyst for Martinez getting some big names to sign on the dotted line later in 2012. But he’s not concerned about that now. He knows that he’s doing his part, and he’s hopeful that the world sees that.
“I wouldn’t say I’m frustrated,” he said when asked about the “big” fights not materializing at the rate they should. “But I am concerned why the bigger names don’t want to fight me. I think what happens is that these fighters are thinking more about the money and the percentages. They’re not like Tommy Hearns or (Roberto) Duran, who were fighting against the best of the best. In this case, those fighters don’t want to fight me because they know at this time I’m the best of the best, pound for pound. They’re afraid and their excuse is that there’s not that much money.”
Couldn’t have said it better myself. It’s just another reason why Martinez is almost a throwback to the Monzon era, when the best fought the best and made their legends not on Twitter, but in the ring. During an open media workout in New York for the Licata fight, Monzon was told by a spectator that Valdez said the Argentinean was afraid to fight him. Monzon shouted back that the Colombian was afraid of him. A year later, Monzon having made his point on the international stage, faced Valdez in Monte Carlo. Simple as that. The top two 160-pounders in the world get into a jawing match and then settle things in the ring.
Sergio Martinez hopes to have the same kind of good fortune in the next year, starting on Saturday night, where he will make his statement to a nation that has already adopted him as the best 160-pounder in the world.
“You can be a European champ and nobody knows you, especially in the United States,” he said. “You can be the champ in Argentina, but when you come here to the United States, nobody knows you. So to be a champ here and to have people know you and say you’re a great fighter, we need to show it in pure fights who is the best, pound for pound. It’s more motivation to keep training hard, to keep working hard, and sooner or later those fighters need to step up, and they will.”