Sergio Martinez has had anything but the typical path to the top, where he currently resides as the consensus middleweight champion of the world despite not possessing a single sanctioning body’s belt.
But now, at the age of 37, Martinez is trying to make the most of his time in the limelight of the sport before the inevitable effects of age force him to hang up his gloves.
Starting boxing at the age of 20 and turning pro at 22, Martinez learned his craft on the job. Beginning in Argentina and then going to Spain, Martinez got by on incredible physical talent while he learned the finer points of boxing. Even now, when Martinez fights it is clear he is not a classical boxer. The lightning-fast southpaw, who spent his early years cycling and playing soccer, often has his hands at his side, circles to his own left instead of the preferred right for a southpaw, and jumps in and out hitting opponents without getting hit because of the pure physical advantages he has over virtually anyone at 160 pounds.
Despite a lack of experience, Martinez started out his career 16-0-1, facing lesser competition in his homeland of Argentina. Then on Feb. 19, 2000, he got his first opportunity for a big fight, taking on the future welterweight champ Antonio Margarito, who was 20-3 at the time, in Las Vegas. Margarito had far more experience against better competition and wore Martinez down in a seventh-round stoppage, handing him his first loss.
Martinez regrouped and won his next eight fights back home in Argentina. But for Martinez, something was missing. He had the belief that he could be a champion, and to build his skills and his name he chose to leave his homeland, traveling to Spain in search of better opportunities. It was there that he linked up with Gabriel Sarmiento, who still trains Martinez today and has received a great deal of credit for his success.
Martinez won his first four fights in Spain against poor opposition and then entered into a fight with Richard Williams on eight days’ notice in England, where he was considered an underdog. Martinez beat Williams by decision and later, in a rematch, stopped him in seven rounds.
After several more fights against lesser opposition and a move from welterweight to junior middleweight, Martinez got his first big opportunity since the Margarito fight. At the time of the Margarito fight, Martinez was not ready for that level of competition, but this time he was prepared for the challenge. Martinez faced Alex Bunema in October 2008 for the interim WBC 154-pound title in an HBO-televised fight. Martinez dominated Bunema in impressive fashion for an eighth-round stoppage to announce his arrival on the international stage.
His next fight, also on HBO, was against Kermit Cintron, who was 30-2 at the time. He seemed to have knocked Cintron out in the seventh round, but the referee ruled it a head butt after counting Cintron out. Then the fight was ruled a draw, despite most believing Martinez had clearly won a decision.
Win or draw, Martinez had begun making a name for himself. When Kelly Pavlik dropped out of his fight with Paul Williams scheduled for Dec. 5, 2009, it was Martinez who got the call on short notice to fill in against the man known as “The Punisher.”
Williams and Martinez provided what many would call the "fight of the year” in an incredible slugfest in the ballroom at the Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City. Each fighter scored knockdowns in Round 1 to set the tone for what would become a vicious back-and-forth war that was fought at a high skill level with neither man willing to give in.
When all was said and done, Martinez was on the wrong end of a majority decision in a fight that could have gone either way but went to Williams by respectable scores of 114-114, 115-113, and a ridiculous 119-110 from judge Pierre Benoist.
But once again, despite not winning on the cards, Martinez’s performance brought opportunity knocking. Pavlik, the middleweight champion, was continuing to rebound from his first loss to the ageless Bernard Hopkins. Pavlik had gone north 10 pounds to fight Hopkins and now was returning to continue his reign at 160. He lined up Martinez for an April 17, 2010, bout at Boardwalk Hall. This time Martinez would not be denied.
Martinez started fast, dominating the first several rounds and befuddling the champion with his awkward style, speed and movement. Pavlik got into a groove in Round 5, scored a knockdown in Round 7 and took the middle rounds. But Martinez’s superior stamina and conditioning picked up late. Martinez utterly dominated Pavlik in Rounds 9 through 12, opening cuts over both the champ’s eyes, landing at will and even showboating with windmills that produced heavy straight left-hand connects — making his point that on this night he was the superior boxer. Martinez walked away the consensus champ at 160 with the WBC, WBO and Ring belts.
After the Pavlik fight, it was time to settle unfinished business with Williams. The rematch on Nov. 20, 2010, was supposed to be another long war. Instead Martinez, who by this point had physically grown into being a middleweight, landed a monster left hand in Round 2, knocking Williams out cold. The punch received knockout of the year. Martinez solidified his claim on the division, hit the No. 3 spot on most pound-for-pound lists and seemed to be an emerging star.
And certainly he had the qualifications to be a star: Good looks, an exciting style that was producing more and more knockouts and an upstanding reputation outside the ring. Martinez was gaining more and more notoriety for his work in the community, including being a champion of rights for battered women and for children who are victims of bullies. But his performances inside the ring may have been too good. Martinez was far too dangerous and not popular enough to bring the top-money fighters such as Floyd Mayweather or Manny Pacquiao into the ring.
So he settled for what was left. Martinez put on a clinic, destroying Sergei Dzinziruk for an eighth-round TKO. In his last fight, Martinez looked somewhat human for the first time in a while but eventually did what he was supposed to do in stopping Darren Barker in 11 rounds.
But even with wins in the ring, Martinez lost his WBC and WBO titles to boxing politics. The WBC made a well-publicized move when it took Martinez’s title and gifted it to Julio Cesar Chavez Jr., which has been a sore spot for Martinez. He campaigned to get Chavez into the ring and eventually verbally blasted WBC president Jose Sulaiman for the Chavez fiasco and several other topics.
When Martinez (48-2-2, 27 KOs) steps into the ring Saturday for a St. Patrick’s Day showdown in NYC with Ireland’s Matthew Macklin, he will do so with no official belts (although he has retained the Ring 160-pound title) but as the unofficially recognized "middleweight champ.” He is expected to beat Macklin, but the tough Irishman should provide a stern test.
Macklin (28-3, 19 KOs) is a full-sized middleweight and certainly will come to fight. But unless Martinez has lost a step to age, it is widely expected his speed and skill will be too much for the challenger. A crowd expected to be largely pro-Macklin will need more than the luck of the Irish to avoid going home disappointed.
The question for Martinez, assuming he beats Macklin, is where to go from there. Martinez has all the intangibles to become a money-making star in the sport but is missing several outside factors to make this a reality. A lack of depth in the current middleweight division has left Martinez without an opponent who brings the ability to test him and the name recognition to draw the interest of casual fans.
A showdown with Chavez would bring attention and crowds but not a true physical test, as Martinez likely would dominate the young WBC belt-holder. Not to mention the obvious, that Chavez’s promoter seems perfectly fine with not bringing his money-making machine anywhere near Martinez. Fights with young guns such as Dmitry Pirog, Gennady Golovkin or Daniel Geale might bring a true physical test for Martinez, but those fighters don’t have the name recognition to excite anyone other than the hardcore fan.
With the clock ticking for Martinez in his late 30s, he has precious little time to get the fights and exposure to cement himself in the history books. Martinez shares similar traits with Bernard Hopkins (because Martinez also is known as being a 365-days-a-year gym rat and conditioning workhorse), so if Father Time is good to him, he may have several more years to get fights that will allow him to make his mark on the fight game and go down as one of the great middleweights.
But if time costs the athletic fighter just a bit of his natural gifts, it could spell a sudden end to his reign. While Martinez shares Hopkins’ work ethic, he wins in a different fashion. Hopkins, even in his prime. relied more on boxing IQ than athletic ability, allowing him to fight into his 40s despite losing a step athletically. Martinez is a smart boxer but largely relies on freakish athletic talent. If he loses a step, it may spell his end.
But as long as Martinez keeps his skills and talent, he has all the makings of a fighter who can rule the storied middleweight division and grow into one of boxing’s brighter stars.