By Ryan Songalia
Boardwalk Hall, Atlantic City, N.J. - It was not the quick blowout victory that has come to typify bouts featuring unknown European challengers on HBO - it was a "bloody" good middleweight championship fight.
With all of the belts circulating around these days, Sergio Martinez proved why he is the only fighter at 160 pounds worthy of being called champion. In the eleventh round of a hard-fought bout at the Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City, N.J., Sergio Martinez landed a cuffing right hand blow to Englishman Darren Barker that sent the man who had caused him so much difficulty down for the count. Martinez, now 48-2-2 (27 KO), has often complained that no one wants to fight him, but after tonight, maybe that changes.
Scores at the time of stoppage were all in favor of Martinez, 99-91, 96-94 and 97-94.
Barker, now 23-1 (14 KO) of Barnet, London, England, was a 13-1 underdog by some accounts, but didn't appear so as he pressured Martinez - a native of Buenos Aires, Argentina now residing in Oxnard, Calif. - with straight punches behind a high guard. Still, Martinez was the busier fighter, landing to the body effectively as Barker landed the cleaner shots upstairs.
The fight seemed to be slipping away from Martinez, to the shock of everyone save for Barker and his promoter Eddie Hearn, in the fourth round. Barker landed a series of hard right crosses that turned Martinez's nose into a leaking faucet and elicited a worried expression from Martinez's promoter Lou Dibella.
"That was a good shot," said Martinez, 36, with a laugh.
"I wasn't worried, but I knew that it Darren Barker was good fighter," said Dibella, as much a winner tonight as was Martinez. When a fighter breaks his nose early in a fight, it doesn't make you feel great. I wasn't sitting there laughing."
Martinez, though streaming blood from the nose that evoked memories of Juan Manuel Marquez's first fight with Manny Pacquiao, continued to land more punches than Barker. Barker was successful in exposing Martinez's technical flaws, if not outlanding his foe.
Martinez took complete control of the fight in the tenth round when he stunned Barker with a right hook towards the end of the round. Barker survived, but looked like a finished fighter as he wobbled to the corner. The finishing blow, which appeared to be a clubbing shot to the back of Barker's head, appeared inauspicious, yet Barker collapsed face-first and fell back down after a gallant effort to rise up.
"Every challenger is a strong challenger and has their own way," said Martinez afterwards.
Dibella, as well as Martinez's adviser Sampson Lewkowicz, were vindicated by Barker's effort after dealing with criticism from the press about the unknown Barker's validity as a challenger.
"I knew Darren Barker was a good fighter, and I told you so," Dibella directed at this writer, though he could have been speaking to the entire world.
Martinez, wearing dark sunglasses to conceal his battle wounds, confronted the media in an empty arena afterwards. "I knew it would be this kind of fight, I planned for this."
When pressed about whether Martinez would ascend in weight to chase bigger fights, Lewkowicz shot the idea down. "I don't care what he says, I will not let him go up to 168 pounds or 170," said Lewkowicz, shutting down HBO commentator Larry Merchant and his on-air inquiry about fighting the winner between Bernard Hopkins and Chad Dawson later this month.
While Martinez continues to strive for fights with Manny Pacquiao, Floyd Mayweather Jr., and Miguel Cotto that are unlikely to happen, Dibella already seems to be lining up his two Irish contenders Matthew Macklin and Andy Lee. "You could make a case that Macklin is the second best middleweight in the world after what happened in his fight with Felix Sturm," said Dibella of Macklin's controversial split decision loss to the WBA titlist. "You can see Macklin is licking his chops."
Macklin, 28-3-1 (19 KO), was seated at ringside calling the fights alongside Jim Watt for British broadcasting giant Sky Sports, was very adamant about his desire to face Martinez next.
"I thought before this fight that I had what it takes to beat him," said Macklin, who is now fighting out of New York City.
Lee, 27-1 (19 KO) of Limerick, Ireland, who avenged his lone career defeat to Brian Vera by 10-round decision in the co-featured bout, only gave himself a "seven out of ten" for his performance, but said he would raise his game for a Martinez bout.
"Basic boxing would give Martinez problems because there's a lot of illusion to what he does. He does a lot of feints. 'Shake, shake, shake,' then he explodes. If you're not lulled into him, you can keep him off balance in breaks. I have my plan, I won't say too much. I know how I'd fight him if I had the chance."
Emanuel Steward, Lee's trainer and manager, felt that Lee was ready right now to face the middleweight kingpin. "I'd give him an eight out of ten, but I wouldn't give Martinez much higher," assessed Steward. "In the middleweight division, there is no one out there besides Martinez and Lee. Martinez is a top contender now and he has almost 30 fights. Most of my fighters are world champions after 21 fights."
Sometimes being too good is a curse, and Darren Barker may have solved Martinez's biggest issue.