By Thomas Hauser
An athlete’s life is characterized by peaks and valleys.
When Sergio Martinez was seventeen years old, he played forward in the #7 slot for a team called Defensoris in a junior amateur football (soccer) league in the province of Buenos Aires.
“We were playing against a team called Sportman,” Sergio said, sitting in his suite at The Wynn Resort and Casino two days before his September 15th middleweight championship fight against Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. “It was a tournament that was important for me to play well in. There were a lot of professional scouts in the stands. If I did well, it could take me places.”
“I was very inspired that day,” Sergio reminisced. “We won 4-to-0, and I scored three goals. On the first goal, there was a free throw from one of my teammates and I lifted it in an arc with my right foot over the goalie. That put us ahead in the score. The next goal was my best of the game. I stopped the ball with my chest, dribbled it past four defenders, and scored on a finesse kick with my right foot. The third goal was at the end of the game. Their goalie was at midfield. I got the ball, dribbled all the way in, and scored on an empty net. After each goal, everyone was celebrating and hugging. It was an incredible feeling.”
“I wasn’t born with the instincts that a great football player has,” Sergio continued. “My technique wasn’t good, but I was fast and strong. My emotions were my Achilles heel. I was very emotional when I played football. The next game was for the championship. There was a tie and the game went to penalty kicks. If I make my kick, we play on. If I miss it, we lose.
“I placed the ball down in front of the goal,” Sergio recalled. “Then I got nervous. The goalie got bigger and bigger in my mind and the goal got smaller and smaller. I kicked the ball and it went slowly to the goalie, right to his hands. He didn’t even have to move to field it. I was humiliated and embarrassed. It was one of the worst moments of my life. Because of my failure, we lost the championship game. I was so devastated that I quit the team.”
Martinez has come a long way in the world of sports since then. Three years later, at age twenty, he walked into a boxing gym for the first time. He’s now thirty-seven years old with a record of 50 wins, 2 losses, and 2 draws. For the past two years, regardless of the games that sanctioning bodies play, he has been widely recognized as THE middleweight champion of the world. He won the crown on April 17, 2010, with a twelve-round decision over Kelly Pavlik and successfully defended it with knockout victories over Paul Williams, Sergeiy Dzinziruk, Darren Barker, and Matthew Macklin. With roots in Buenos Aires, Madrid, and California, he gives special meaning to the phrase “world” champion.
Boxing is blessed with a cadre of champions who are superb fighters and carry themselves with dignity and grace. Vitali and Wladimir Klitschko are on that list. So are men like Tim Bradley and Andre Ward. Martinez ranks among them.
Sergio has been hardened by his journey through life, but there’s a warmth about him. He’s comfortable in the spotlight but doesn’t seek it out. He’s an advocate for women who have been subjected to domestic violence and for children who’ve been the target of bullying in school.
“A world-class fighter doesn’t have to act like a thug,” Martinez says. “As a professional athlete who is in the public eye, I have a duty to speak out on behalf of people who need help and are not heard. When I was a boy, I had a pale face and was small. I always tried to do the right thing and stay out of trouble, so I was picked on a lot.”
Sergio also has a sense of humor. Recounting the many jobs he held as his ring career moved slowly forward, he notes, “Working on roofs helped a lot with my footwork. You have to be very careful not to fall off.”
Julio Cesar Chavez Jr has traveled a road very different from the one traveled by Martinez. He was born in Culican, Mexico, on February 16, 1986. His father, is widely regarded as Mexico’s greatest fighter. Julio Cesar Chavez Sr finished his career with championships in three weight divisions and 107 victories to his credit.
Julio Jr grew up wealthy, a child of privilege. As the “son of a legend,” he wasn’t held accountable for his actions to the same extent as his peers. But if life was a bed of roses, there were a lot of thorns. His parents divorced when he was young, which is difficult for any child. And his father, in addition to being a Mexican ring icon, became an alcoholic and a drug addict.
“I thought he was going to die,” Julio Jr said recently of his father’s substance abuse problems. “I was getting used to the idea. I was expecting that call any time.”
The development of a fighter is a marathon, not a sprint. Top Rank (which promotes Chavez in conjunction with Fernando Beltran) does it better than anyone.
Julio Jr turned pro in 2003 with no amateur experience on his ledger. His ring career was nurtured on weak opponents who were only marginally trained in the art of hurting. Sean Gibbons, who was hired by Beltran to facilitate matters in the Chavez camp, observes, “Julio’s real growth as a fighter began when he started working with Freddie Roach for the John Duddy fight [in 2010]. That was the turning point. Julio wasn’t sure if he could fight or not because so many people said he couldn’t. That’s when he got serious about training and conditioning. And at the same time, his father began dealing constructively with some of his own demons.”
By mid-2011, Chavez’s record stood at 42 victories and 1 draw in 43 fights. Then the powers that be engaged in an ugly sleight of hand.
Martinez was the WBC middleweight champion by virtue of his victory over Kelly Pavlik and a brutal one-punch knockout of Paul Williams. But Chavez is the godson of WBC president Jose Sulaiman, whose ego and love of sanctioning fees knows no bounds. In undue course, Martinez was stripped of his title and a WBC “world championship” bout was arranged between Chavez and Sebastian Zbik with the understanding that the winner would fight Martinez.
Except after Chavez beat Zbik, he refused to fight Martinez. Instead, he defended his belt in succession against Peter Manfredo Jr, Marco Antonio Rubio, and Andy Lee.
“Of course, Chavez was being protected,” Top Rank CEO Bob Arum acknowledges. “He didn’t know how to fight. I had an obligation to the young man. We weren’t going to make the fight until we knew he was capable of beating Martinez. If we had, it would have been like leading him to slaughter, and that’s not how we do things at Top Rank.”
By the time Martinez vs. Chavez was signed, the fight made far more sense economically than it had a year earlier. In the preceeding fifteen months, Julio had earned respect as a fighter and exceeded the expectations that many knowledgeable boxing people had for him. Martinez was the true middleweight champion, but Chavez had come to be viewed as a credible challenger.
That said; a lot of things stuck in Sergio’s craw. He was deeply resentful of the fact that his championship was unfairly taken from him and handed to Chavez. Then there were the economics of the promotion. Instead of worrying that Martinez doesn’t speak English, the powers that be might have pushed harder in the past to market him to boxing’s huge Spanish-speaking fan base. As it was, Chavez had averaged more than 1,600,000 viewers for his three previous fights on HBO, while Sergo had averaged slightly under 1,100,000. Chavez-Martinez was a pay-per-view promotion. That put Top Rank and Julio in the driver’s seat.
Chavez got top billing in the promotion. Worse; Martinez and his promoter, Lou DiBella, were on the short end of a 60-40 purse split.
Martinez is not a trash-talker. Over the years, he had steadfastly avoided demeaning opponents. The build-up to Chavez-Martinez was something different.
“I’ve known Sergio for a long time,” Sampson Lewkowicz (Sergio’s advisor) said. “I’ve never seen him this motivated or this angry. He has always treated his opponents with respect. But he feels that something was stolen from him and given to Chavez and that Chavez let it happen.”
The trash-talking began on the kick-off media tour. It continued on HBO’s Face Off and tele-conference calls to promote the fight. Among the thoughts that Martinez offered were:
* “Chavez has been hiding in the hen house. Now it’s time for the chicken to come out. The chicken will go out on its plate. I will take all the feathers off the skin of Chavez Jr.”
* “I do not respect Chavez as a champion. The only reason he is called a champion is because of his last name and who his father is. You have certain duties as a champion. You must defend your title against the best and never take the easy road. Chavez was supposed to fight me for two years, but he kept avoiding the fight. A victory for me would be justice because Chavez is a lie.”
* “Take a picture of him now because, after the fight, you will not recognize him. I will really beat him up. He won’t be eating solid food with the few teeth remaining after I get through with him. The judges can be present, but I won’t give them too much work to do.”
* "Some ask me why I antagonize Chavez Jr. I’m not insulting him. I’m just saying what will happen. I’m telling the truth.”
Then there were the direct verbal exchanges between the two men. Chavez was expected to enter the ring on fight night with a significant weight advantage:
Martinez: “If he weighs twenty pounds more than me, I’ll have a bigger target to hit.”
Chavez: “My size will be important. But I am not relying on my weight to win the fight. It will be my boxing and my intelligence.”
Martinez: “So you are lost, then. How are you going to catch me, Julio?”
Chavez: “The ring is a square like this [pointing to the table.] You can’t get out.”
Martinez: “Neither can you. I hope your corner protects you. I hope the referee protects you. I hope the doctor protects you. Because I am going to hurt you. I will probably make you retire from boxing because I’m going to beat you up. You’re living in a delusion based on your father. When will you start being your own person, not just the son of so and so?”
Chavez: “I will never stop being my father’s son.”
Martinez: “Of course not. But once you’re in the ring, it will be just you alone, and not with your father.”
Shortly before the July 12th press conference in New York, the fighters posed on the second floor of the Edison Ballroom for photographer David Drebin in conjunction with the pay-per-view promotional campaign. For almost an hour, they stood under bright lights, wearing only their shoes, socks, and boxing trunks. A championship belt was their sole prop. From time to time, a photographer’s assistant sprayed water on them to simulate perspiration and give them a glow. There were staredowns, fistic poses, smiles, and glares on command.
It’s natural time at a time like this for a fighter to measure his foe.
“What are you learning about Chavez?” Martinez was asked.
“I’m not learning anything,” Sergio answered. “I’m just having fun.”
Chavez was having less fun.
“He has been talking a lot of bullshit,” Julio told the media after the press conference began. “His ego is too big. On September 15th, all that bullshit he’s been talking, he’s going to have to eat it."
Later, in a more pensive mood, Chavez added, “It’s always the same story. They don’t give me credit. I will always be criticized for being seen as riding on my father’s coattails and I have learned to live with it. I will let my record speak for itself on whether I should be taken seriously or not. I’ve been sitting them down with the facts, one by one. He’s just the next one.”
There was a buzz in the media center at The Wynn in Las Vegas during fight week. Chavez-Martinez was a fight that fans wanted to see; not one that was being force-fed to them. There was no opponent that boxing aficionados preferred either man to fight. Stylistically, the match-up all but guaranteed excitement.
If there was a cloud on the horizon, it was a same-night Showtime telecast at the MGM Grand Hotel and Casino headlined by Canelo Alvarez vs. Josesito Lopez. Golden Boy was promoting that card, and HBO had raised the possibility of buying it for a Friday night telecast. That would have made for an extraordinary weekend of boxing with the two shows complementing each other. But Golden Boy CEO Richard Schaefer declined HBO’s overture on grounds that he’d planned a fight card for September 15th in Las Vegas before Top Rank slated Chavez-Martinez.
“This is pure evil and bad will from Bob Arum,” Schaefer told BoxingScene.com. “Typical Bob Arum bullshit. Why is he going to the same city? What is his excuse? He is just a miserable old guy who doesn’t give a shit. And I have to tell you, anybody who aligns themselves with him are being taken for a ride. And by the way, HBO knows, if they are going to go and play those games, going against us and supporting that kind of behavior, I’ll take notice of that.”
In the weeks leading up to Alvarez-Lopez, the MGM Grand was offering a package deal: two nights in the new Grand Tower, two tickets for the fight, and two VIP passes for the weigh-in; all for $499. That suggested weak ticket sales and Arum poured more fuel on the fire, maintaining that the MGM Grand had asked to buy tickets from Top Rank to accommodate its high rollers who wanted to see Chavez-Martinez, not Alvarez-Lopez.
By Tuesday of fight week, Chavez-Martinez had sold out, producing a live gate of $3,052,475. Press releases claimed a sell-out for Alvarez-Lopez, but one was hard-pressed to find a boxing insider who took that claim seriously. There was a widespread belief that Golden Boy had bought thousands of tickets from itself and paid the six-percent state ticket tax as a face-saving measure.
Martinez and Chavez each seemed confident and relaxed as fight week progressed. Julio sat through the obligatory media interviews and appeared to be on an even keel; concerned with the level of the challenge in front of him but ready to face it. Chavez-Martinez would be the first time in his career that he’d entered the ring as an underdog. But Freddie Roach (Julio’s trainer) said that the issue hadn’t come up in conversation between them.
Meanwhile, Martinez continued to be openly disdainful of his foe. Part of that was sincerely felt scorn and anger. Part of it was designed to get into Julio’s head and raise self-doubts by sending the message, “Don’t enter the ring with the confidence of a champion because you are not a champion.”
“I want to fight the best, not like Junior,” Martinez said. “He hasn’t fought anyone who ranks in the top one hundred pound-for-pound. He has shown progress in his fights since he won the belt. That will make our fight better, but I will still knock him out.”
Three days before the fight, at the final pre-fight press conference, Sergio threatened to “break Julio’s face in a thousand times.”
That brought an angry response from Chavez. Earlier in the week, Julio had declared, “Sergio says a lot of things about me that are not true. He is an ignorant person and a snob. He is underestimating me, both as a person and as a boxer. He will pay for it in the ring.”
Now, looking directly at his tormentor, “Chavez declared, “I’m going to send you into retirement on a stretcher.”
The following day, Martinez was in a reflective mood. He receives several hundred text messages a day. Sitting in his suite at The Wynn, he was answering them as he spoke.
“Chavez seems like a nice guy,” Sergio said. “I don’t hate him. Maybe, after the fight, we can be friends. But now there is animosity between us because he stood back and allowed a shameful thing to happen. I respect every fighter. It takes courage to enter a boxing ring. But I cannot respect Chavez as a champion because he didn’t earn his title. The belt was taken away from me and given to him outside the ring. I will take it back inside the ring. That is where a true champion gets his title.”
The odds favored Martinez by a 7-to-4 margin. The assumption was that his southpaw stance and feints would give Chavez trouble; that Julio had never been hit as hard as Sergio would hit him; that Chavez would be unable to adjust during the course of the fight from Plan A to Plan B; that Martinez was the hungrier fighter.
“Chavez is very strong and durable.” Sergio said as he texted. “He has become more mature as a fighter and learned how to control distances. But nothing about him as a fighter worries me. He has a good body shot, a good chin, and a lot of bad habits. He is taller than me, but that was true also of Kelly Pavlik, Paul Williams, and Sergeiy Dzinziruk. He can weigh whatever he wants on the night of the fight. Kelly Pavlik was much bigger than me. My speed, movement, and intelligence in the ring will be my advantage. I’m very patient. I will wait to do what I have to do, find the right distance, feel the tempo of the fight, and control him.”
Chavez’s training regimen was also a factor for those who thought that Martinez would win the fight.
Rather than train at Freddie Roach’s Wild Card Gym in Hollywood, Julio had insisted that he and Roach relocate to the Top Rank gym in Las Vegas. Freddie agreed. Then Julio upped the ante, demanding that they train at the hours he wanted and, after that, missing a half-dozen training sessions. There were also times when Roach was called upon to make “house calls” and train Chavez in the living room of the mansion that Top Rank had rented for him.
“We’ve had an unusual training camp,” Freddie conceded. “Julio works when he wants to. As long as we get the work done, I’m happy. Put me wherever and I’ll do my job. But it does bother me a bit.”
Two days before the fight, Roach elaborated on that “bit.” He was exhausted, having worked with Chavez from one until four o’clock that morning.
“The worst thing in the world for me is to wait, not knowing,” Freddie said. “Julio doesn’t want to train during the day, so we plan to do it at night. Eight o’clock . . . Nine o’clock . . . I’m waiting and he’s sleeping. And of course, the guys in camp won’t wake him up because they’re afraid he’ll fire them if they do. Then I get a call. Julio is on his way. Once I get the call, I’m fine. Until then, it drives me crazy. I sit there, thinking of the best way to kill myself.”
“Maybe he needs the sleep,” Roach continued. “I get more out of him in the gym when he’s rested. But we’re in the gym half the time, and half the time we’re in the living room of the house he’s staying in. We move the couches and we have imaginary ropes. There’s a reason fighters train in the gym and not in someone’s living room. For strategy, we have to be in the gym. It was different with Julio before he won a championship. Up until then, he did everything I asked him to.”
It’s axiomatic that, if a fighter doesn’t give one hundred percent in training, he won’t be at one hundred percent during a fight.
On January 22, 2012 (thirteen days before Chavez fought Marco Antonio Rubio), he’d been arrested in Los Angeles for driving while intoxicated. He entered into a plea deal pursuant to which he was placed on three years probation and ordered to attend thirty sessions of Alcoholics Anonymous. Six days after Chavez-Martinez, the Nevada State Athletic Commission would announce that drug tests had detected traces of marijuana in Julio’s’s urine.
“What would Eddie Futch [Roach’s mentor] do in this situation?” Freddie was asked two days before Chavez-Martinez.
“He’d quit. He wouldn’t put up with it.”
“Why do you stay?”
“The father and Top Rank asked me to,” Roach answered. “It’s partly out of respect for them. And it’s a different world today from the way things used to be. I can get Julio ready this way, but it’s harder for me to get him there. I don’t know. When this fight is over, I’ll have some thinking to do.”
Still, Roach was optimistic regarding his fighter’s chances on Saturday night.
“Sergio is a great athlete and his speed will be hard to deal with,” the trainer acknowledged. “He has faster feet and faster hands than Julio and will dictate whether it’s a war or a boxing match. But we’re just starting to see how good Julio can be. He fought the best fight of his life in his last fight [against Andy Lee] and he’s getting better all the time. The time is right now for him to fight Martinez. We’ll deal with whatever Sergio brings.”
Chavez echoed those thoughts, saying, “I’ve been working while Martinez has been talking. He said I wasn’t at his level. But I’ve worked very hard to get to his level.”
And Bob Arum put his two cents in, declaring, ”Martinez is going to take body shots like he never felt before.”
The biggest worry some Martinez partisans had was that Sergio’s disdain for Chavez was such that he wouldn’t fight smart and might take unnecessary chances in the ring.
Gene Tunney once posited, “There is nothing more dangerous for a boxer than to underestimate his opponent.” Lou DiBella sounded a comparable theme, referencing Sergio’s trashtalking and noting, “Whenever you see a guy act differently than he usually does, you worry a bit.”
More significantly, Martinez is thirty-seven years old with a lot of wear and tear on his body. There had been no “easy” fights for a long time. Throw out his perfect one-punch knockout of Paul Williams, and he has looked like a gifted but vulnerable fighter.
Chavez, clearly, had room for improvement over past performances. Moreover, despite his unconventional training schedule, he appeared to be in excellent condition. After struggling to make weight for recent fights, Julio weighed-in for his confrontation with Martinez at 158 pounds; two pounds under the middleweight limit and one pound less than Sergio.
A prizefight is about two men trying to beat each other up. Neutralize an opponent’s offensive arsenal; penetrate his defense to do damage; and protect yourself at all times. The greatest practitioners of the art of boxing are known as “champions.”
Chavez wanted recognition as a true champion. But wouldn’t get it unless and until he beat Martinez. Both men knew that.
* * *
Sergio Martinez arrived at his dressing room at the Thomas and Mack Center on the night of September 15th at 5:30 pm. Red-cushioned folding metal chairs ringed the room. The walls were cream-colored cinderblock. The three man and one woman who would be in Martinez’s corner were with him: trainer and chief second Pablo Sarmiento, Naazim Richardson, Dr. Roger Anderson (Sergio’s cutman), and physical therapist Raquel Bordons. Sebastian Martinez (Sergio’s brother), Miguel Depablos (a friend), and Nathan Lewkowicz (Sampson Lewkowicz’s son) rounded out the group.
At HBO’s request, Martinez went next-door to be weighed on “the unofficial HBO scale.” Chavez refused a similar request. Sergio had gained eight pounds since the weigh-in. The assumption was that Julio would enter the ring at close to 180.
Returning to his dressing room, Martinez took a smart phone from his pocket and began texting. Normally, he listens to music in the hours before a fight. But the speakers he’d brought with him weren’t working.
The next few hours were spent in conversation with members of team Martinez, communicating electronically with well-wishers, and tending to the rituals of boxing. For much of the time, Bordons massaged Sergio’s upper body.
Bordons is a doctor who teaches and practices physical therapy in Spain. She was in Martinez’s camp for the last few days prior to his victories over Darren Barker and Matthew Macklin. This time, she’d been summoned ten days before the fight and worked with Sergio multiple times each day. She had become an indispensable member of the team; so much so that she would be in Sergio’s corner.
Nathan Lewkowicz went next-door to wish Macklin well in his undercard fight against Joachim Alcine and returned with a prize. Matthew had offered his speakers to Team Martinez.
Soon, Latin rap sounded in Sergio’s dressing room.
Macklin and Alcine appeared on a large flat-screen television mounted on the wall at one end of the room. Their encounter was brief. Macklin stopped Alcine in the first round.
“I am happy for him,” Sergio said. “I like Matthew. Tonight he is my friend.”
Referee Tony Weeks came into the room to give Sergio his pre-fight instructions. The Martinez camp was comfortable with Weeks, who has a reputation for being even-handed and competent. That was particularly important here, since Chavez was perceived as “the house fighter.”
Macklin entered the dressing room, fresh from his ring triumph.
Sergio’s face lit up. “Matthew!” he exclaimed.
The two men embraced.
Macklin offered a quick “good luck” and left.
Martinez began moving slowly around the room in rhythm with the music. Then he lay down on the industrial gray carpet. Bordons stretched his legs and massaged his upper body. When she was done, Sergio rose and moved around the room again; this time, jabbing and shadow-boxing.
At eight o’clock, Sarmiento gloved Martinez up.
Sergio hit the pads with Pablo for the equivalent of three rounds with a minute between each segment.
Dr. Anderson greased Martinez down.
Bordons massaged Sergio’s upper body one last time.
Sarmiento helped the fighter into his ring jacket.
One consideration to be factored into determining whether a fighter will win or lose is whether he really wants to be in the ring that night.
Sergio had the fight he wanted for the largest payday of his career. There was no place on earth that he would rather be.
The atmosphere was electric inside the arena. It was a pro-Chavez crowd, but Martinez had his followers.
Prior to the bout, Roach had cautioned, “I’ve told Julio again and again, ‘You can’t just follow Martinez around the ring. If you do, you’ll walk into a left hand. You have to cut the ring off.’ Julio doesn’t miss a beat in the gym. In the gym, he has the strategy down perfectly based on the way Martinez moves. But the gym and the fight are two different places.”
“And another thing,” Roach continued, “We’ve watched the tape of Sergio’s fight against Pavlik a lot. He took some of the middle rounds off. Julio can’t let him rest. When Sergio tries to rest, Julio has to make him fight.”
Chavez had echoed that theme, saying, “I have to stay on top of him all night long; don’t give him room to move or time to think.”
But on fight night, those plans didn’t come to fruition.
Chavez fought cautiously in the early going, allowing Martinez to circle, dart in and out, and control the distance between them. Also, Sergio threw punches – a lot of punches, mostly jabs and straight lefts – that landed consistently. His jab, in particular, discouraged Julio from coming forward aggressively. When Chavez did manage to work his way inside, rather than tie him up. Martinez drove him off with punches or pushed him back with the superior strength of his legs and upper body.
In round three, a left uppercut opened a cut inside Chavez’s mouth. By round five, the skin around his left eye was discolored and swollen. Round six saw him bleeding from the nose.
Round after round, Martinez potshotted his opponent and rested when he wanted to. The only difference between one round and the next was that Chavez got beaten up more badly in some rounds than others. The fight had the look of a matador versus an overmatched bull.
There were times when Sergio chose to trade punches. Almost always on those occasions, he got the better of the action. Chavez showed a good chin but not much more. He might have made a greater effort to take the play away from Martinez. But that’s easier said than done when an adversary is getting off first and throwing seventy-five punches a round. Julio simply couldn’t solve the puzzle in front of him.
In the late going, Martinez was standing in the center of the ring at the start of each round, while Chavez was slow to get off his stool. After round nine, Roach threatened to stop the fight if his charge didn’t show him something in the next three minutes that indicated he could win.
But the boxing lesson continued with Martinez circling, jabbing, getting off first.
A clash of heads in round ten opened a gash on Sergio’s scalp to go with a cut above his left eye. But Chavez looked far worse for wear than Martinez.
In round eleven, Julio managed to corner his foe on several occasions. But each time, Sergio’s punches drove him off.
Going into the final round, Martinez had outlanded Chavez by a 314-to-141 margin. The fight was a shutout on two of the judges’ scorecards with Julio winning a solitary round on the third. Chavez could have won the last stanza 10-0 and it wouldn’t have mattered.
Then the matador got gored.
Chavez started slowly in round twelve, moving forward with his hands held high. His left eye was swollen shut. His right eye was ringed by abrasions and his lips were puffy.
Martinez kept circling, jabbing. Twenty-eight seconds elapsed before Julio threw his first punch of the round, a tentative stay-away-from-me right hand. Ten seconds later, he offered a meaningless jab. Both punches missed.
One minute into round twelve, Chavez had thrown three punches and landed none. Then he stepped up the pace and forced Martinez against the ropes. With 1:28 left, Julio scored with a sharp left hook up top that hurt Sergio. Two more hooks landed flush.
Suddenly, with 1:23 left in the fight, Martinez was on the canvas and in trouble.
There was pandemonium in the arena. For Martinez, that pandemonium translated in classic Greek to “the region of all demons.”
Getting up off the floor comes from pride and a fighter not wanting to go back to that place in his life where he came from.
Sergio crawled to the ropes and lifted himself up at the count of six.
Referee Tony Weeks beckoned Chavez in. Julio had seventy seconds to finish the job. Those seventy seconds showed why many people (this writer included) feel that boxing at its best is the greatest sport of all.
Chavez now loomed very large in front of Martinez, and the ring seemed very small.
Julio went for broke. Sergio, too dazed and weak to tie Chavez up and with his legs too unsteady to move out of danger, hurled punches back at his foe.
With one minute left in the fight, Martinez tried to clinch and Julio dismissively threw him to the canvas. Sergio staggered to his feet. Weeks, appropriately, chose not to give him extra time to recover and ordered that the action resume immediately without wiping Sergio’s gloves.
Fifty-two seconds remained. But now, Chavez too was exhausted.
At the final bell, both fighters knew that Martinez had won.
In the dressing room after the fight, Martinez and Raquel Bordons embraced; then broke down in tears. During the fight, she had worked on him in the corner after round four and again after round seven.
“Without you, this wouldn’t have been possible,” Sergio told her.
Martinez had bruises beneath each eye. Two staples would be needed to close the gash on his scalp. Five stitches were necessitated by the cut above his left eye. He’d also suffered a hairline fracture of his left hand (most likely in round four) and torn ligaments in his right knee (when knocked down in the final round).
Naazim Richardson stood in a corner of the dressing room, observing the scene.
“The thing that made Sergio win is the thing that made him almost lose,” Richardson offered. “When Chavez got in close, Sergio drove him off with punches instead of tieing him up. That slowed Chavez down, but it also meant that Sergio was more likely to get hit if Chavez punched with him.”
Naazim paused for a moment, then noted, “Probably, in the gym they aren’t allowed to hit Chavez too hard. So when Sergio hit him hard, it played with his mind and slowed him down.”
As for Chavez, regardless of what his critics said, he’d salvaged his honor in the final round.
“It is an important experience for my life,” Julio told the media at the post-fight press conference. “In life, you lose and you win. But I Iost with dignity and I tried my best.”
The unanswered question, of course, is, “Would Julio have won if he’d trained more diligently and fought more aggressively in the early rounds?”
A rematch to answer that question is in order. Chavez-Martinez caught fire as a promotion in the final two weeks. When the fight was signed, there was a projection of 300,000 pay-per-view buys. Based on early reports, that number is now 475,000.
Boxing has a new rivalry.
It should also be noted that Tony Weeks did an exemplary job of refereeing Chavez-Martinez. He let the fighters fight, cautioned them when appropriate, and most importantly, handled the situation correctly when Sergio went down.
During round twelve, a lot of people had flashbacks to March 17, 1990, when Julio Cesar Chavez Sr, trailing badly on the judges’ scorecards, scored an improbable twelfth-round stoppage over Meldrick Taylor. On that night in Las Vegas, referee Richard Steele halted the action after the first knockdown of the fight with the fighters on opposite sides of the ring and only two seconds left on the clock. A lot of people felt that Steele had a pro-Chavez agenda.
The only agenda that Weeks evinced in Chavez-Martinez was to do his job as fairly and competently as possible.
One might also reference Chavez Sr’s February 20, 1993, victory over Greg Haugen in front of a record 132,247 fans in Mexico City. Prior to that bout, Haugen derided Chavez’s 84-0 record as having been built against “Tijuana taxi drivers that my mom could whip.” After being knocked out in the fifth round, Haugen acknowledged, “They must have been very tough taxi drivers.”
At the July 12th kick-off press conference in New York, Chavez derided Martinez for appearing on the Argentinean version of Dancing with the Stars and proclaimed, “I think he has found his real profession as a ballerina.”
Martinez is one tough ballerina.
Thomas Hauser can be reached by email at email@example.com. His most recent book (And the New: An Inside Look at Another Year in Boxing) was published this month by the University of Arkansas Press.