By Lyle Fitzsimmons
Vanes Martirosyan, as of today, is a 32-year-old man.
He’s been a pro fighter for 13 of those years, and was accomplished enough as an amateur to land a spot on the U.S. team that traveled to the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens, Greece.
But his career-defining moment – or at least the one that made all subsequent moments possible – came years earlier when he was just a 7-year-old kid starting to wonder what he’d gotten himself into.
“It was my first amateur fight ever, and I remember when I was sitting in the locker room I was nervous,” he said. “My dad came to me and said, ‘Son, what’s going on? You don’t look OK.’
“And I was like ‘Yeah, Dad, I’m nervous. I’m gonna fight.’”
What came next, said Martirosyan, now a parent himself, “would change everything.”
“This is when I got to know my father,” he said.
“There’s a lot of secrets fathers have that they don’t tell their kids. My dad pulled up his pants, both of his pant legs, and he showed me how many times he’s been shot. He pulled up his shirt from his stomach and he showed me how many times he’s been stabbed.”
Norik Martirosyan, incidentally, had also lost a hand in a grenade explosion.
“And he’s like, ‘Son, I went to war. There was no protection. We didn’t know if we were going to survive. You’ve got headgear, you’ve got gloves, you’ve got a cup on. There’s a guy in the ring who, if something happens, is going to stop the fight for you. What are you nervous about?’
“’Go out there and have fun.’”
The moment forged inner steel and fostered a hell-bent-for-leather ring persona, both of which he’ll lean on Saturday night when the latest career-defining moment arrives – in the form of a surprise title shot against an unbeaten and, some think, unbeatable middleweight champion Gennady Golovkin.
The two men will meet in Carson, California, in a hastily-arranged Cinco de Mayo replacement for Golovkin’s blockbuster Canelo Alvarez rematch in Las Vegas -- which was scuttled when the red-headed Mexican pulled out in advance of receiving a six-month suspension for a pair of failed drug tests.
The champion is a predictably huge favorite.
But his challenger, even with less than a month of prep time, is full of respect – but not fear.
“I’m gonna be fighting,” Martirosyan said. “I feel like everybody that fights him fights him scared. They don’t go all out because they’re scared of the power. I’m gonna come to fight. I’m not afraid to get hit. If I do get hit by a truck, I’ll give him his credit. But he better give me my credit when I hit him back.”
Just as the courage to stand and fight goes back to his father, the mettle to take on what most perceive as an impossible challenge also sets Martirosyan to reminiscing.
“I was 15 or 16 years old,” he said. “I used to watch (Andre) Berto because he was a couple years older than me. I saw him one time and he broke somebody’s elbow. He hit him so hard he broke his elbow in the fight. People were like, ‘Oh my god,’ and then when I got matched with Berto, people were like, ‘You’re fighting a monster, he hits really hard,’ and blah blah blah.
“So after round 1, I came to the corner, my trainer looked at me and he’s like, ‘He’s human, right? You see?’ And that’s what made me think about this guy, too. He’s f***ing human. If you start writing ‘This guy’s a monster, he’s a killer,’ about me, too, I’m pretty sure some fighters are gonna read that and say ‘Oh sh*t!’ It’s all mental.
For the record, Martirosyan not only beat Berto in the amateurs – but also two-division champ Timothy Bradley and, three times, ex-154-pound king Austin Trout.
He won 32 straight pro fights before a technical draw with Erislandy Lara in 2012, and has gone 4-3 since – including losses to Lara (UD 12) and Demetrius Andrade (SD 12) in failed title bids at 154, as well as a 10-round loss to future WBC super welterweight champ Jermell Charlo, two fights before his coronation.
He labels the Lara and Andrade fails as products of bad style mixes, and claims a nearly two-year stretch of ring inactivity is more about would-be fights falling through, rather than him not being ready to go.
“We were training for these fights,” he said. “When they told me about the Golovkin fight we were already in the gym. It’s not like I’m sitting on the couch and I’m like, ‘Oh, OK, I’ll take the fight, thank you.’ When they called me they asked me what my weight was. I was like, ‘What do you guys want me to be. They said 176. I said I’m 175 right now.’
“It wasn’t like I was trying to get down and kill myself, I’m in great shape, I’ve been sparring, we’re good. I don’t really like long camps, I get in shape quick, I’m athletic. I’m always doing something. Plus, I’m a fighter. I’ve been training since I was 7. You could wake me up from my sleep and I’ll be ready to fight.”
Still, the late-stage call from Team Golovkin did warrant some snap decisions.
Martirosyan said he and his cohorts immediately sought the services of sports scientist Victor Conte and his SNAC (Scientific Nutrition for Advanced Conditioning) training facility, where the mission statement is to improve a fighter’s explosive power and speed endurance in ways specific to boxing.
The gym is in San Carlos, California – about an hour from downtown San Francisco – and among the hypoxic paces Martirosyan was put through were battle ropes, heavy bag work and sprints on a treadmill while wearing a custom-made harness and mask connected to a high-altitude simulator.
“We got about 3½ weeks’ notice,” he said. “We went straight to SNAC. One week there is like one month of training because it’s so high tech, the stuff that we do. The hyperbaric chambers and all this scientific training, it’s amazing. Camp’s been going good. My trainer – Edmond Tarverdyan – we’ve got a good game plan together and we can’t wait.”
He almost didn’t need to.
Martirosyan claims a match with Golovkin nearly came six years ago – in September 2012 – when the then-IBO-only champion was preparing to make his U.S. and HBO debut at the Turning Stone Resort & Casino in Verona, New York.
“He fought a guy from Poland (Grzegorz Proksa). I got offered to fight him then,” Martirosyan said. “It was between me and that Polish guy. I accepted the fight, but he ended up picking the Polish guy instead of fighting me. Maybe styles make fights. Look back six, seven years, in some interviews they ask me who do you want? I say ‘Golovkin, I would like to fight him.’”
Golovkin stopped Proksa in five rounds in his second defense of the IBO title, then picked up the top-tier WBA belt two years later with a TKO of Daniel Geale. Recognition from the IBF came when Golovkin defeated David Lemieux (TKO 8) in 2015, and the WBC followed suit after Alvarez vacated its 160-pound throne in May 2016. Saturday’s fight will be defense No. 17 of the IBO championship.
“I got into this sport to fight the best,” Martirosyan said.
“At the end of the day you want to know how good you are. It’s not about paychecks. It’s about proving myself and trying to see where I belong. I just want to know where I belong in the sport. I go in there with guys like Lara and guys like Andrade. I want to fight those guys, but it’s hard to fight them when they don’t want to fight. They’re just moving and running. I just want to fight. I like to come forward. I don’t want to chase a guy.
“Finally, I got a style for me. Styles make fights. It’s gonna be fan friendly. The fans will love it. I’m trying to go forward. He’s trying to go forward. We’re gonna bump for sure.”
The final few pre-fight days will include the requisite strategy and stay-sharp sessions with Tarverdyan and Co., but as far as the mental zeroing-in goes, it’s all over but the strait jacket and padded room.
“I was eating tuna tartar two days ago,” Martirosyan said, “and the piece of fish, everything I eat and everything I see, I see his face. It’s so weird. I was eating a little piece of fish, a little square.
“And I was looking at it and I visualized the ring and I visualized him in the corner and I visualized the fight how it’s going to go. Whatever I look at I see him. We stay up at night, 1 a.m., 2 a.m., and we study the guy. Whatever we do throughout the day, when I’m walking on the street and I see something, I take a sidestep. Everything is focused on the fight.”
The Golovkin-Martirosyan fight will headline a two-bout card on HBO that also includes Cecilia Braekhus, the women’s IBF, IBO, WBA, WBC and WBO welterweight champion, defending her belts against former middleweight title claimant Kali Reis in Providence, Rhode Island.
It’s the first time HBO’s “World Championship Boxing” show will air a live women's bout.
And if the program ends with a similarly historic turn, the would-be upset winner has a fitting plan.
“My father dedicated his life to me. He dedicated it to me being a champion,” Martirosyan said.
“He saw something in me and everything I think about is winning the title belt and putting it on my dad. He deserves it more than anything. He deserves it more than me. So I have to thank him for dedicating his life to me, to make me a better person and a better man, and what better way to thank him by becoming the best fighter in the world.”
* * * * * * * * * *
This week’s title-fight schedule:
WBC minimum title – Nakhon Ratchasima, Thailand
Wanheng Menayothin (champion/No. 2 IWBR) vs. Leroy Estrada (No. 1 WBC/No. 7 IWBR)
Menayothin (49-0, 17 KO): Ninth title defense; Four straight decision wins in 12-rounders
Estrada (16-2, 6 KO): First title fight; First fight outside of Panama
Fitzbitz says: It’s up for debate whether Menayothin deserves the same level of acclaim at 49-0 as Mayweather did, but he’s surely got a more legit foe for win No. 50. Menayothin by decision
Vacant IBF bantamweight title – London, England
Emmanuel Rodriguez (No. 3 IBF/No. 12 IWBR) vs. Paul Butler (No. 4 IBF/Unranked IWBR)
Rodriguez (17-0, 12 KO): First title fight; Only one time beyond the eighth round (1-0, 0 KO)
Butler (26-1, 14 KO): Third title fight (1-1); Held IBF title at 118 pounds (2014, zero defenses)
Fitzbitz says: Butler’s only had one fight in the weight class since 2014, but he’s been closer to world class when he’s fought at 118 pounds. Add in home turf and it looks like he’s the pick. Butler by decision
IBF/IBO/WBA/WBC middleweight titles – Carson, California
Gennady Golovkin (champion/No. 1 IWBR) vs. Vanes Martirosyan (Unranked/Unranked IWBR)
Golovkin (37-0-1, 33 KO): Seventeenth IBO title defense; Fourth fight in California (3-0, 3 KO)
Martirosyan (36-3-1, 21 KO): Third title fight (0-2); Sixteen fights above 154 pounds (15-0, 10 KO)
Fitzbitz says: It’d be a super cool story if the late-replacement underdog plugged in and won the fight, but it’s more likely that rumbling head-on with GGG is an iffy proposition at best. Golovkin in 6
Last week's picks: 0-1 (LOSS: Magdaleno)
2018 picks record: 28-13 (68.2 percent)
Overall picks record: 949-317 (74.9 percent)
NOTE: Fights previewed are only those involving a sanctioning body's full-fledged title-holder – no interim, diamond, silver, etc. Fights for WBA "world championships" are only included if no "super champion" exists in the weight class.
Lyle Fitzsimmons has covered professional boxing since 1995 and written a weekly column for Boxing Scene since 2008. He is a full voting member of the Boxing Writers Association of America. Reach him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter – @fitzbitz.