By Ryan Songalia, photo by Damien Acevedo
Home Box Office, the premier television force in American professional boxing, has middleweight marvel Sergio Martinez on its airwaves, with Saturday night's title defense against Englishman Darren Barker being his seventh consecutive appearance on the premium cable network.
What HBO doesn't have are attractive opponents to match "Maravilla" against, opponents that won't evince outrage and apathy the way the selection of Barker has, despite Barker's unbeaten 23-0 (14 KO) record heading into their 12-round bout at the Boardwalk Hall.
As the world comes to terms with the realization that the 36-year-old Martinez (47-2-2, 26 KO) will probably never get his dream matchups with lighter superstars Floyd Mayweather Jr., Manny Pacquiao and Miguel Cotto, promoter Lou Dibella and HBO programming execs are hinging their hopes on Andy Lee, who faces Brian Vera in a rematch of Lee's only defeat in the co-featured bout.
"After I beat him, I'm going to take a ringside seat," said Lee at the event's final press conference Wednesday afternoon at The Palm West Side Steakhouse in New York City. "Sergio and Darren, with all due respect, I want to fight the winner of you."
"This is his opportunity to not only erase his loss, but to establish himself as a natural opponent for 'Maravilla' if he gets past Darren Barker," said Dibella, who also floated out the possibility of an all-Irish matchup with Lee and Macklin, provided Lee defeats Vera.
The 27-year-old Lee of Limerick, Ireland is 26-1 (19 KO) as a professional, with the lone blemish on his record coming from the seventh round TKO loss to the 29-year-old Vera of Austin, Tex., who enters the rematch with a record of 19-5 (12 KO).
Lee, a 2004 Irish Olympian, was once among the top five prospects in the sport, but has since lived in the shadow of that defeat. Now he takes a big leap towards righting his ship back on course.
"I'm ready to perform and get my sweet revenge," said Lee.
Lee, a slender southpaw with a 6-feet-2 frame, has won 11 straight since the loss to Vera, a stocky, 5-feet-11 banger with a thick Texas accent that could have been pulled from a cowboy film.
Vera, on the other hand, has won three and lost four since the Lee fight, but to far superior opposition than Lee has been facing.
Vera's ship ran aground following the victory over Lee, losing three straight beginning with an eighth round knockout loss to James Kirkland on HBO, then consecutive decision losses to Craig McEwan and Isaac Rodrigues. After losing to the unbeaten but uncelebrated Rodrigues, Vera said he made changes to his lifestyle for the betterment of his career.
"I've changed the way I do things," said Vera, a late arrival to the press conference due to New York traffic, which he describes as "chaotic."
Vera said that he has ceased his late-night hangout sessions and "doing things that I was doing in the past," and has re-dedicated himself to the sport. Vera's dedication includes remaining in the gym between fights, which he claims he didn't do prior to the Kirkland defeat and cost him dearly.
Vera is now on a two fight win streak, which includes an upset victory over former junior middleweight titlist and fellow alum of The Contender reality series Sergio Mora earlier this year.
But to understand the rematch, you must examine the first fight, which took place at the Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Conn., on March 21, 2008.
Lee, unbeaten at 15-0, had nary lost a round to that point in his career. ESPN2 Friday Night Fights commentator Teddy Atlas summed up the expectations of the bout when early in the first round he bluntly stated, "I think he's (Vera) made-to-order for the style of Lee."
Lee's style was all wrong for Vera in the first round as he boxed and countered Vera from range with his long 1-2 combinations that stunned and knocked his opponent down. But towards the end of the second round, Vera landed a strong right hand that affected the legs of Lee, who stirred on by the large contingent of Irish fans on hand, began to match Vera's bravado to his detriment.
"The fight will be as tough as I make it," said Mr. Lee succinctly. "If I want to stand there and slug with him, it'll be a tough fight. If I want to box, it can be an easy fight."
Lee has the mental edge of having knocked out Vera-conqueror McEwan earlier this year in his HBO debut, which he followed up by defeating fringe contender Alex Bunema by unanimous decision in May. He also weighed in 4 1/3 more pounds on Friday afternoon than he did before before the first fight at 163. Lee lamented having weighed in too light for the first encounter. Vera weighed in the same at 163 pounds.
"In my eyes it's going to be the same, I'm just going to look better doing it," said Vera of the rematch. "I'm the stronger guy. He'd have to be on point to beat me. He has to be boxing to his perfect ability and make no mistakes, and I don't think that can happen. The kind of shape I'm in to be able to put the pressure on him, he's not going to be able to get away from me.
"He fought Craig McEwan pretty good at the end, but he was losing that fight," continued Vera. "And Bunema, they took the fight off YouTube because they thought he was getting hit too much. I saw it, but they took it off for a reason. You don't take a fight off YouTube unless you made a mistake or something. I'm not too impressed with it. I do respect him though, so I prepared well."
Emmanuel Steward, Lee's trainer/manager since he turned professional in 2006, said this camp has been very different than the first one.
"I think this fight Andy has had a little better preparation because we have more respect for Brian," said Steward, who trained Lee at the KRONK gym in Detroit. "I'm not just saying Andy, I'm saying all of us in the camp. We have more respect for him than before.
For this fight Lee has sparred with IBF junior middleweight champ Cornelius "K-9" Bundrage, as well as Carlos Molina and Angel Hernandez who were charged with reenacting Vera's pressure cooker style in camp. Javon "Sugar" Hill, Steward's nephew and understudy who has worked with Lee since day one, said he was pleased with the work done in camp.
Lee cited poor sparring, as well as a cut heading into the fight, among his regrets during preparation for the first fight.
"Those guys that Andy was boxing, they were a bit faster than Brian Vera, so it's more of a faster pressure than a slow pressure that Brian Vera brings," said Hill. "Those guys are more slick fighters versus just straight pressure, so they gave Andy different looks in camp. It makes him a more well-rounded fighter for this fight."
Lee isn't the only middleweight challenger HBO is investing in; American nomad "Kid Chocolate" Peter Quillin (25-0, 19 KO), who was raised in Grand Rapids, Mich., lives in New York City and trains in Los Angeles, will be showcased on November 5 against Craig McEwan in Mexico.
WBO titlist Dmitriy Pirog (19-0, 15 KO) will be at ringside to challenge the Martinez-Barker winner immediately after.
Steward liked the idea of Lee-Martinez, but stopped short of proclaiming Lee the middleweight heir the way he did prior to the first Vera fight, when he was telling everyone in ear shot that Lee would be the man to end Kelly Pavlik's middleweight championship reign.
"Andy's been here in America now for about 5-6 years and he's had nearly 30 fights. He's no longer a prospect; he's a seasoned fighter. His goal is to fight for the championship of the world.
"I think he's ready now. If he isn't now, I don't think he ever will be. But after this fight, if he looks good, I think he should definitely be fighting Sergio Martinez, who is the best middleweight in the world."
Ryan Songalia is a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America (BWAA) and contributes to GMA News and the Filipino Reporter newspaper in New York City. He can be reached at [email protected] . An archive of his work can be found at www.ryansongalia.com . Follow him on Twitter: @RyanSongalia.