Boxing champ Martinez on incredible rise at age 35

Published Nov. 21, 2010 8:51 p.m. ET

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.''