Boxing champ Martinez on incredible rise at age 35

Sergio Martinez was a good enough athlete in his native

Argentina that he played competitive football and tennis, and even

became an accomplished cyclist.

He didn’t turn to boxing until he was 20, ancient for a sport

that rewards youth and wearies quickly of aging stars. He stepped

into the ring for the first time 15 years ago for the same reason

as thousands before him: to escape from the drugs and violence that

ruled the streets of his hometown of Quilmes, in the province of

Buenos Aires.

”You cannot dream to be in my place today,” Martinez said in

the early hours Sunday morning, after the shock of his incredible

knockout victory over Paul Williams had worn off.

”I’m very happy, and I’m very happy with myself, with all my

life,” he said humbly. ”This is a very happy day, everybody knows

what I’m coming from.”

The road to stardom has not been easy for Martinez, nor paved in

dollar bills.

His emphatic defense of his middleweight title at Boardwalk Hall

is almost certain to be the Knockout of the Year, if not the

decade. Yet he earned a little more than $1 million for the fight,

far less than Williams, even though it was Martinez who was

defending his title.

The second-class status that Martinez has been burdened with for

far too long was also evident in the moments before the fight, when

he was moved to the blue corner that had been reserved for the

challenger all night. It forced him to pass through the Williams

camp occupying the opposite corner and across the ring to reach his

own team before introductions.

Martinez promoter Lou DiBella bristled at the slight, but told a

few reporters seated ringside that the corner wouldn’t matter when

Martinez put Williams flat on his back.

DiBella proved prophetic, just not about putting him on his

back.

Martinez was quicker to the punch in the opening round and hurt

Williams against the ropes midway through it, but it was early in

the second that the drama happened. Williams was setting up for a

hook when Martinez literally beat him to the punch, catching him

flush on the chin and sending him to the canvas – face first – for

a brutally efficient knockout.

”He kept saying it wouldn’t go seven rounds,” DiBella said.

”He told me he’d catch him with one of those punches. He must have

said it a 1,000 times. You know me, I worried like a maniac and he

was calming me down. He said, ‘Don’t worry, because I’m knocking

him out.”’

Afterward, Martinez’s trainer, Gabriel Sarmiento, said he awoke

in the middle of the night thinking of a mistake that he had

noticed Williams making, in which he seemed to lunge forward on his

lead leg after throwing a jab. Sarmiento knew that Martinez would

be able to connect when Williams was vulnerable, and even predicted

a second-round knockout.

”I knew if Paul made those same mistakes again, Sergio would

take advantage of them and he did,” Sarmiento said, displaying a

piece of hotel stationary on which he wrote his prediction.

The fight was a rematch of one of last year’s epic matchups,

when two of the best boxers in the world traded first-round

knockdowns before spending the next 11 rounds punishing each

other.

Williams won that meeting last December by majority decision,

and had argued all along that he would have won more easily had he

more time to prepare. Martinez became his opponent just a few weeks

before that fight, after a much ballyhooed match with Kelly Pavlik

fell through.

Martinez also took the fight on short notice, though, filling in

for Pavlik so that he would finally get an opportunity on the

sport’s grandest stage. This time, he too had more time to prepare

– more time to spar against a fellow left-hander, more time to bulk

up to middleweight, and more time to uncover Williams’ fateful

flaw.

”It was very simple. I’m a boxer without excuses,” Martinez

said. ”I said that in the final press conference, I was tired of

the excuses from Paul Williams, and I did my job.”

And he did it with aplomb, stamping himself as one of the best

fighters in the world, behind perhaps only Manny Pacquiao and Floyd

Mayweather Jr.

Martinez said he wants to fight three or four more times before

calling it a career, just a few more big paydays before retirement.

The only problem is that his destruction of Williams could make it

difficult to find fights against boxing’s upper echelon.

After seeing him send Williams into another world, who would

want to face him?

”He’s the greatest fighter I’ve had the opportunity to

promote,” DiBella said. ”He’s going to get the opportunity to

fight. How many people are going to run from him? They’ll run from

him, but he’ll get the opportunity to fight.”