By Jake Donovan
Barring another impromptu conference call, it’s safe to say that we can finally move on from Floyd Mayweather-Victor Ortiz overload.
The lack of any major fights available beyond the Spanish-network circuit in this corner of the world made the replay of the aforementioned super fight the major topic of discussion for a few extra days longer than should’ve been the case. Arguments that should have run their natural course have instead been rehashed to the point of exhaustion (although Monday’s conference call with Team Ortiz was certainly a fun new way to discuss old news).
That problem goes away this weekend, with significant fights on both coasts in the United States.
Sergio Martinez - reigning middleweight king and 2010 Fighter of the Year – faces his second undefeated opponent in as many fights when he defends against Darren Barker in their HBO-televised main event live from Atlantic City.
Three time zones to the left, Rafael Marquez aims for one more shot at resurrecting his borderline Hall-of-Fame career as he faces super bantamweight titlist Toshiaki Nishioka, who fights in the United States for the first time in five years and just the third time in his career (all three taking place in Las Vegas). The bout airs live from the MGM Grand in Las Vegas on Fox Deportes.
Somewhere between the two, there has to be something worth talking about besides what has already taken place, with the majority of attention most likely spent on the HBO-televised portion of the evening.
For Martinez, the discussion continues to center around just how good he is compared to the very best in the sport today, and why that hasn’t quite translated to box office appeal.
Handsome, humble and a hell of a fighter, Martinez (47-2-2, 26KO) gives the appearance of everything that is right about boxing. The transplanted Argentinean southpaw continues to enjoy an incredible surge in what would normally represent the twilight of anyone else’s career. Wins over Kelly Pavlik and Paul Williams last year earned Martinez the level of respect his hard luck career had long ago deserved.
The knockout over Williams in particular sent Martinez’ career to new heights, as would generally become the case when one punch lands you Fighter of the Year and Knockout of the Year honors. The win came 11 months after he traded knockdowns with the same fighter, only to come up short in a controversial decision to a fight that was high among the year’s very best.
Wedged in between the bouts with Williams was what at the time served as a career-defining win over Pavlik to restore respect and honor into the middleweight division, or at least at the championship level.
With the wins and pound-for-pound accolades, things continue to fall into place for Martinez.
The only thing missing – are the fans.
Like far too many fighters today, Martinez has fallen into the trap of being viewed as a fighter better admired on screen than in person. In fact, he’s perhaps the best fighter today among such a group, considering that the only fighters ranked ahead are two of the few that can still regularly draw a crowd in the U.S. – Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao (their rankings not necessarily in that order).
That statistic appears to hold true heading into this weekend’s bout against the untested Barker, who travels from jolly old England in what serves as his first ever championship bout as well as his first fight on this side of the Atlantic.
The lack of a formidable B-side – odds are as high as 26-1 on some sites – hasn’t helped Martinez’ cause, though the fight is the best that he can do if the objective is to stay busy. He and his team – namely his outspoken promoter Lou DiBella – have offered for the current middleweight king to move down in weight if meant securing big money fights with the likes of Pacquiao, Mayweather or Miguel Cotto.
None of the fights have materialized, with barely a response coming from the aforementioned trio of true boxing superstars, perhaps for the reason that – they are among the few true superstars around today and have the luxury of picking and choosing whom they want to fight (rightfully so or otherwise).
A swing and a miss in efforts to get Cotto in the ring earlier this year led to Martinez being forced to square off against undefeated Sergei Dzinziruk, viewed as tough as nails but largely anonymous beyond the sport’s most hardcore fan base.
Fittingly enough, Cotto fought on the very same evening, taking on Ricardo Mayorga on Showtime pay-per-view while Martinez extended his stretch of impressive performances against stellar opposition. Five knockdowns led to a dominant knockout win against a longtime titlist whom had never tasted defeat or the canvas prior to facing the far-too-talented Martinez.
It was enough to enhance his credentials as a top pound-for-pound fighter and also create that much more space between himself and the rest of a depleted middleweight division. But without it coming against a Pavlik or a Williams, the performance itself was viewed as just another day in the office. It’s an unfair assessment, but unfortunately the way it is in the sport.
Not helping his cause at all is the fact that not a single objective observer believes this weekend’s HBO headliner will be competitive, much less containing any chance of an upset. Barker takes a massive leap in competition, and doesn’t seem to bring anything to the table to suggest that – barring an off night – Martinez is danger of suddenly falling from grace or enhancing his marketability.
What could help the night along from the perspective of drama and intrigue is the scheduled co-feature and its potential implications.
Andy Lee continues to piece together a career once destined (or at least rumored) for stardom but one that will now gladly settle for recognition as a contender. The man singlehandedly responsible for derailing that train stands in the opposite corner this weekend, as Brian Vera guns for his third straight win amidst a streak that also includes an upset over Sergio Mora earlier this year, easily his biggest win since scoring the shocker over Lee more than three years ago.
There were talks of Lee being advanced straight to a title fight with Martinez, an idea was already shot down once by HBO but a rejection that has at least come with the consolation prize of the two now appearing on the same televised card twice in a row. The pairing at least provides some sort of momentum for if and when they eventually fight, assuming both win this weekend.
Despite suffering a knockout loss to Vera when they met on ESPN2 in March ’08, Lee remains a favorite to add to his current 10-fight win streak. Among the lot is a late rally-fueled knockout of previously unbeaten Craig McEwan on HBO this past March. Lee scored timely knockdowns in each of the bout’s final two rounds, the first knockdown pulling him even on two scorecards and the latter forcing the end to the fight with just two minutes left.
Vera’s career hasn’t been quite as smooth. His career-best win over Lee – in which he had to recover from a first round knockdown – was followed up with a one-sided knockout loss to then-unbeaten James Kirkland on HBO, and defeats to three more prospects who were undefeated at the time.
If there’s a fight on the card that could leave boxing fans talking, it would potentially be this bout. Such buzz can only be good for the winner, who stands that much more of a chance of landing a title shot against Martinez sometime early next year. If not, there is always Dmitry Pirog, the undefeated alphabet titlist fresh off of a title defense last weekend and whom plans to be in attendance for this weekend’s bout.
As long as everyone – especially Martinez, who can’t just win but absolutely make a(nother) statement in doing so – does their job this weekend, boxing should be left with plenty to talk about besides a topic in which there is truly nothing left to discuss.
BUT IF THAT DOESN’T WHET YOUR APPETTITE…
For those with no interest whatsoever in HBO’s card, there’s always the Fox Deportes telecast, whose main event is far less predictable – other than the probability of it being violently bloody and not lasting very long.
Streaking super bantamweight titlist Nishioka (38-4-3, 24KO) makes the seventh defense of a belt he acquired just over three years ago. Like Martinez, the 35-year old southpaw enjoys an incredible run at an improbable stage of his career, especially for a lower weight fighter.
At stake along with his title is a winning streak that stretches back seven years and 15 fights. In fact, his only non-winning performances over the past 14 years have all come against Veeraphol Sahaprom, going 0-2-2 against the excellent former bantamweight king.
His best win among his current streak came two years ago, rising from an early knockdown to score a third round knockout over Jhonny Gonzalez, who has since rallied back to claim a portion of the featherweight crown.
Standing in the opposite corner, 36-year old Marquez (40-6, 36KO) remains in search of one last great achievement in an already incredible career.
The all-action Mexican tried as hard as he could to turn the trick last November in his thrilling slugfest with then-unbeaten Juan Manuel Lopez. The bout was just his third in a comeback that included a revenge win over longtime rival – though by that point badly faded - Israel Vazquez to even their score at two wins apiece.
Marquez held his own for about five or so rounds before Lopez took over for good. A shoulder injury forced Marquez to remain on his stool prior to the ninth round, bringing a crashing halt to his Cinderella run.
A rehab win over Eduardo Becerelli represents his only action in 2011, a bout that came on the undercard of a show headlined by older brother Juan Manuel Marquez. The evening marked the first time the Marquez brothers ever appeared on the same card in their native Mexico.
Fighters like Gonzalez and Lopez have been floated as possible options for the winner of this bout, as does featherweight titlists Orlando Salido – who stopped Lopez in eight rounds just five months after Marquez fell short – and the superb Yuriorkis Gamboa.
Also in the mix, though perhaps longshots, are fighters on the opposite ends of the spectrum. Nonito Donaire announced that next month’s title defense against Omar Narvaez will be his last ever at bantamweight, while resurging titlist Jorge Arce is fresh off of a revenge-fueled fourth round knockout of Simphiwe Nongqayi.
Such options exist due to the thrilling styles of both Nishioka and Marquez, neither of whom are very capable of delivering a disappointing performance. As long as that’s the case, there will always be something to talk about during and well after their fights – and even more so when facing each other.
Adding to the card is junior flyweight knockout artist Roman Gonzalez, who could be in for a tougher-than-expected challenge against the naturally larger Omar Soto, who comes down from flyweight to challenge for the 108 lb. alphabet belt at stake in their televised co-feature.
Jake Donovan is the Managing Editor of Boxingscene.com. Follow Jake on Twitter at twitter.com/JakeNDaBox or submit questions/comments to [email protected] .