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28 AUGUST 2014

 

Martinez-Williams II: The Punch


Sergio Martinez: Naoki Fukuda/WBC
Sergio Martinez: Naoki Fukuda/WBC

By Thomas Hauser

Boxing is a hunger sport.

All fighters start at the bottom. A rare few make it to the top.

Sergio Martinez was born into poverty. Sports were his way out of the Argentinean ghetto. He was a talented soccer player and cyclist (his first two chosen sports). But his skills in those disciplines were short of world-class. At age twenty, he decided that boxing offered the most promising opportunity to lift himself to a higher socio-economic level. That’s late in life to begin learning the sweet science. “But I started at the right time for me,” Martinez says. “Too many fighters are pushed into boxing. When I began, I could make the decision to box as an adult.”

Martinez turned pro in 1997 and fought 24 of his first 25 fights in Buenos Aires. In 2002, he moved to Spain, where he met Gabriel Sarmiento (his current trainer). Sampson Lewkowicz became his co-manager in 2007 and brought him to the United States. He now lives in Oxnard, California, and is promoted by Lou DiBella.

Martinez is 35 years old with 25 knockouts and a 46-2-2 record. His first loss was a seventh-round knockout at the hands of Antonio Margarito ten years ago.

“The loss to Margarito doesn’t bother me as much as people think it might,” Sergio says. “I had very little experience at the time and ran out of gas. I was much more bothered when I beat Richard Williams [for the IBO 154-pound title in 2003]. After that fight, I looked in the mirror and I couldn’t recognize my face. I thought then about giving up boxing. But I didn’t know whether it was something I had done wrong in the fight that I could correct or that I just wasn’t good enough. So I fought Williams again ten months later and won much more easily. I knew then that I should stay in boxing.”

Martinez’s only other loss occurred last year in an action-packed fight against Paul Williams. Pierre Benoist turned in a ridiculous 119-110 pro-Williams card. Julie Lederman scored the bout even. Lynne Carter cast the deciding vote 115-113 in Williams’s favor.

Four months later, Martinez rebounded with a 116-111, 115-111, 115-112 triumph over Kelly Pavlik to capture the WBC and WBO middleweight titles.

Martinez’s ring skills and personal grace transcend the language barrier. There’s dignity in his bearing and an elegance about him. He has charismatic good looks. One can imagine him formally attired, dancing the Argentinean tango (although he says that the dance is not in his repertoire). His face has the features of a man who has come through hard times. But there’s warmth in his smile. He has maintained his humanity.

“I want to be remembered first as a good person and a man of integrity,” Sergio says. “After that, if people remember me as a good fighter, that would be nice.”

He has other priorities as well. Given his sports history, would Martinez rather win the Tour de France or be the undisputed middleweight champion of the world?

“Middleweight champion,” he answers.

Next question. Would he rather be the undisputed middleweight champion of the world or score the winning goal for Argentina in the World Cup?

Sergio smiles: “Every Argentinean dreams to be Maradona.”

Martinez is a good fighter in the wrong era. There was a time when the middleweight champion of the world was in high demand. Now the public has no idea who the real champions are, and there are few legitimate world championship fights. Instead, boxers compete for belts pursuant to rules made by sanctioning body officials who run their organizations for personal aggrandizement and their own financial gain.

Martinez is a legitimate world champion. He earned the title by beating Kelly Pavlik. But once Pavlik chose to not exercise a rematch clause, Sergio found himself without a dance partner.

A second fight against Paul Williams was the natural next step. But Williams’s support team (trainer George Peterson, manager Al Haymon, and promoter Dan Goossen) seemed reluctant to take the bout. HBO leaned on them. Then it leaned on the Martinez camp insofar as contract terms were concerned.

Ultimately, at the request of Team Williams, the fight was contracted for 158 pounds (two pounds below the division limit). Martinez was middleweight champion, but the challenger would be announced last in the ring (a prerogative normally reserved for the champion). The US$3,000,000 HBO license fee would be split evenly between the two camps. But Goossen would control the promotion of the fight and keep whatever profit was left from the live gate and sponsorships after expenses. Control of the promotion also gave Team Williams the inside track on the appointment of officials.

The fight shaped up as a good one. Williams is one of the few elite American fighters in boxing today. He’s 29 years old, 6-feet-2-inches tall, and would be entering the ring with a 39-and-1 record. The most notable victories on his ledger were his earlier triumph against Martinez and unanimous-decision wins over Antonio Margarito and Winky Wright. The sole blemish (a loss by decision to Carlos Quintana) was avenged on a first-round knockout four months later.

Williams is an action fighter. Like Martinez, he relishes combat and brings enthusiasm to his craft. The consensus opinion leading up to the bout was that Martinez-Williams embodied everything that boxing should be. A boxer who can punch against a puncher who can box. Two elite fighters with engaging personalities and exciting styles squaring off in a bout with no clear betting favorite.

Each fighter treated the other with respect. Before their first encounter, Williams had told the media, “It’s gonna be a pig roast, and I’ll stick the apple in his mouth.” This time, there was no trash-talking, although both men expressed confidence.

“Martinez is a good fighter, but I’ve fought him before and I have more time now to prepare for his style,” Williams said. “I’m going to do what I do best and put a real beating on him. You’ll see even more action and more punches than before, but it won’t be that close.”

“I will fight him and I will box him,” Martinez countered. “I learned things from our first fight that will help me this time. The weight, who is announced first; that sort of thing doesn’t bother me. This fight will be hard like the last one. But the last one took more out of Williams than it took out of me. I think I will knock him out.”

On November 20th, Martinez arrived in dressing room #119 at Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City shortly before 8:30 PM. He’d been assigned to the same room the night he dethroned Kelly Pavlik and had requested those quarters again.

Usually, a fighter who’s readying to fight during the second half of an HBO telecast has a twenty-minute window during which he must be prepared to leave for the ring. The time of departure depends on how long the first fight goes. But tonight’s World Championship Boxing show would begin with a tape of the November 13th bout between Manny Pacquiao and Antonio Margarito. Thus, Martinez knew that he would walk at 11:05 PM.

Sergio removed his “Team Maravilla” warm-up jacket, opened a bottle of water, and took several sips.

Gabriel Sarmiento set up a lap-top computer with two small Sony speakers on a table near the door. Spanish-language music - rock alternating with rap - filtered through the air.

“The day of a fight is a holiday for me,” Martinez has said. “I enjoy every moment of it.” He seemed relaxed and happy to be where he was. He sent some text messages; then began stretching his legs, whistling from time to time.

Dr. Dominic Coletta of the New Jersey Board of Athletic Control administered a brief physical examination.

Over the next half hour, Martinez walked back and forth across the room to the beat of the music, sat on a folding cushioned chair, sipped from the bottle of water, texted some more, stretched occasionally, and engaged in casual conversation with Sarmiento, Sampson Lewkowicz, co-manager Ricardo Sanchez Atocha, and cornerman Cecilio Flores. At one point, he nibbled on nuts and toasted bread chips that he’d brought in a small plastic bag.

At 9:20, referee Earl Morton came into the room with Aaron Davis (executive director of the New Jersey State Athletic Control Board) to give Martinez his pre-fight instructions. Lewkowicz translated into Spanish.

When Morton was done, Sampson asked, “In the first fight, when Williams was hurt, he was hugging like a love story. What will be done about that?”

“There is no holding in my ring,” Morton assured him. “When I say break, I expect both fighters to break clean.”

Then things got complicated. Sarmiento, who frequently wears a Gray fedora, likes to wear a Los Angeles Dodgers baseball cap in the corner when he works Sergio’s fights.

Davis informed Team Maravilla that no one would be allowed to wear a hat in the corner.

“But Gabriel wears this charming hat,” Lewkowicz explained. “It should not be a problem.”

Davis said it was a problem.

Sampson translated into Spanish.

Sarmiento started screaming.

Davis listened for a while; then decided that discretion would be the better part of valor. “Look,” he told Lewkowicz, “I’m not the hat police. I’ve got more important things to worry about.”

Sampson translated.

Sarmiento kept screaming.

“I said I’m not the hat police,” Davis repeated. “Tell him to read between the lines. It’s not allowed, but it won’t be a problem.”

Again, Sampson translated.

Sarmiento calmed down.

Davis breathed a sigh of relief and left the dressing room.

Pacquiao-Margarito came on the television monitor. Sergio watched for about a minute, then told Lewkowicz, “It was an execution. But the one who should have been executed was Roberto Garcia. As a boxer, you never want the fight to be stopped, but the corner has a responsibility.”

Chuck Williams (the WBC on-site supervisor for the fight) entered. Williams is a genial man who takes his responsibilities to the WBC and WBC president Jose Sulaiman seriously.

“Who’s carrying the belt into the ring?” Williams asked.

Cecilio Flores identified the belt carriers for both the WBC and Ring Magazine belts.

“The WBC requests that you only bring the WBC belt into the ring,” Williams told him. “Jose Sulaiman will be watching in Mexico. I hope you won’t make him unhappy.”

The request did not sit well with Team Maravilla. Undaunted, Williams pressed on.

“After the fight, I’ll give the winner a WBC T-shirt that I want him to put on in the ring before the post-fight television interview. I’ll also place the WBC belt over the winner’s shoulder and across his chest so it’s fully visible for the camera. Then I’ll come back to the dressing room and collect the handwraps, which will be sent to WBC headquarters in Mexico.”

Sulaiman maintains that the transfer of handwraps after a championship fight is necessary to ensure that they haven’t been illegally tampered with prior to the bout. Critics note that this procedure destroys the chain of custody that would be essential to any court or governmental administrative proceeding.

Joe Dwyer (NABF president and a member of the WBC board of governors) often acts as a supervisor at WBC fights. Dwyer is a former New York City police detective, so he knows something about wrongdoing and the preservation of evidence. Dwyer examines handwraps after fights on behalf of the WBC and NABF but does not take them from the fighters. “If I don’t find anything wrong with the handwraps, there’s no reason to take them,” he says.

And if he did find something wrong?

“I’d report the irregularity to the WBC because it could effect the WBC’s recognition of the winner of the fight,” Dwyer answers. “But the right place for the handwraps would be with the district attorney’s office or the police in the jurisdiction where the fight took place.”

If WBC officials want to make themselves useful at title fights, they should bring a championship belt with them. Right now, unless a title is vacant, the on-site supervisor doesn’t bother to bring a belt. If the championship changes hands, the new champion has to wait weeks for a belt to be given to him.

WBC on-site officials might also be more conscientious in following the Professional Boxing Safety Act (also known as “The Ali Act”). That federal law provides in part, “A sanctioning organization shall not be entitled to receive any compensation directly or indirectly in connection with a boxing match until it provides to the boxing commission responsible for regulating the match a statement of (1) all charges, fees, and costs the organization will assess any boxer participating in that match; (2) all payments, benefits, complimentary benefits, and fees the organization will receive for its affiliation with the event from the promoter, host of the event, and all other sources.”

Deputy commissioner Sylvester Cuyler of the New Jersey State Athletic Control Board says that no such statement has been filed by the WBC in conjunction with several recent championship fights.

Meanwhile, one can be forgiven for wondering how many handwraps from WBC championship fights have found their way into memorabilia collections in Mexico.

After Chuck Williams left the dressing room, Martinez resumed texting. At ten o’clock, Ricardo Sanchez Atocha started wrapping his hands. When the taping was done, Sergio shadow-boxed in the center of the room for three minutes. Then he lay on a rubdown table while Cecilio Flores stretched and massaged his legs. Upper-body work followed.

At 10:30, Martinez put on his trunks, moved to the center of the room, and began shadow-boxing in earnest. Sarmiento took a 4-by-6-inch notepad from his pocket and moved to Sergio’s side. The trainer had scripted his instructions for the fight, breaking them down into five points.

“The mistakes of the last fight will not be repeated,” Sarmiento began. “Trabajo de amague y golpe con la mano adelantada haciendo pasos laterales hacia nuestra derecha sin entrar lejos de su distancia o fuera de ella.”

Martinez continued shadow-boxing. Periodically, he answered, “Entiendo [I understand] . . . Okay . . . Si.”

The reading lasted for three minutes.

“What I tell him is very important,” Sarmiento explained afterward. “That is why I write everything down, so there is nothing that I forget.”

Ricardo Sanchez Atocha greased Martinez down.

Sarmiento gloved Sergio up and worked the pads with him. Pad work alternated with shadow-boxing. At 11:02, the warm-up ended.

If Martinez won, he would be poised for stardom. If he lost, his championship would be gone and the big pay-days he dreamed of would slide beyond his reach. In a matter of minutes, his economic future and physical wellbeing would be on the line.

When the moment of reckoning came, Williams entered the ring wearing fluorescent lime-green trunks with black trim. Martinez followed, dressed in black with red trim. Both the WBC and Ring belts were held high as Sergio stepped onto the canvas. Sarmiento was wearing his Los Angeles Dodgers baseball cap.

Martinez-Williams II picked up where their first encounter left off; with evenly-fought, fast-paced, dramatic action. Williams came out hard at the opening bell and Martinez engaged him. Sergio was out-landed 23-to-18, but came on strong at the end of the stanza.

Round two was more of the same. Both fighters were throwing bombs.

“Paul Williams is an excellent fighter,” Martinez had said before the fight. “But I have learned from our first fight and found the errors in what he does.”

One of the things Martinez had learned was that Williams gives away his height. He doesn’t “fight tall.” Also, Paul’s defense is in his non-stop offense. He doesn’t give opponents time to punch. But he doesn’t protect himself particularly well when he’s punching. He’s a confident fighter; perhaps too confident. At the highest levels of boxing, a fighter needs more than non-stop aggression to defend himself.

One minute into round two, Martinez and Williams each launched a left-hand with everything he could put on it. Both punches had knockout power. But Williams is flawed in the delivery of his straight left. He cocks his arm before he punches. He punches a bit wide. And he’s inclined to raise his chin and extend it forward as his punch nears its target. He does it all quickly, but a fast well-timed counter can beat him to the punch.

Martinez delivered his blow – an overhand left - more quickly. His fist landed flush against Williams’s jaw. Sergio cannot hit a man any harder than he hit Williams. Paul plummeted face-first to the canvas. He was unconscious before he hit the floor.

The moment that Williams hit the canvas, Martinez raised his arm in triumph. The fight was over, and everyone in the arena knew it (except Williams, who didn’t know much of anything at that point).

It was a classic, highlight-reel, one-punch knockout. Boxing had a new star.

After the bout, Williams called the blow a “lucky” punch. But when a fighter aims for another man’s jaw, throws a perfectly-leveraged punch, lands flush, and knocks his opponent out, it’s not “luck.” As James Corbett noted a century ago, “There is nothing haphazard about it when two trained athletes meet in the ring. Each knows what the other is trying to do to him, and it is his business to take care of himself. It is folly to talk about chance blows.”

The knockout sent shockwaves through the boxing industry. It gave Lou DiBella, who has been struggling as of late, new life. Dan Goossen will have to work a lot harder to make money on Williams’s next fight. But no one should write Paul off. He’s a very good, very exciting fighter.

Al Haymon (William’s manager) lost some of his leverage. Haymon’s high-profile fighters haven’t performed particularly well lately. Chris Arreola fizzled out against Vitali Klitschko and Tomasz Adamek. Andre Dirrell withdrew from Showtime’s “Super Six” tournament under a cloud of suspicion. Antonio Tarver is forty-two years old with his only victory in the past thirty-two months coming against Nagy Aguilera. Jermain Taylor has been sidelined since losing four of five fights (including three brutal knockout losses). Danny Jacobs was starched by Dmitry Pirog. Sakio Bika is coming off consecutive losses. Andre Berto is undefeated but has yet to prove himself. That leaves some good young (but untested) fighters on Haymon’s roster. And then there’s Floyd Mayweather Jr, whose possibilities for 2011 run the gamut from fighting Manny Pacquiao for US$40,000,000 to spending time in prison.

Martinez’s victory also brought Sampson Lewkowicz into the spotlight. Boxing insiders first took note of Lewkowicz in 2001, when he brought an unknown fighter named Manny Pacquiao to the United States. In addition to Martinez, Sampson currently advises four fighters who hold world championship belts: Chris John, Krzysztof Wlodarczyk, Celestino Caballero, and Donnie Nietes. Other fighters in his stable include Lucas Matthysse, Michael Katsidis, Victor Cayo, Gabriel Campillo, and Hugo Ruiz.

Lewkowicz will turn sixty in January. “I love boxing,” he says. “I work twenty-four-seven and never get tired because I love what I do. When I grow up, I want to be like Al Haymon.”

But the most important consequence of Martinez-Williams II is that it gives boxing a new star.

Prior to November 20th, neither Martinez or Williams had been able to develop a significant fan base. At the September 23rd kick-off press conference in New York, Dan Goossen told the media that fifty percent of the people polled in Times Square that morning were “familiar with” Paul Williams and knew that the fight was going to take place. That was a stretch. In truth, although the fighters were battling for boxing’s #3 pound-for-pound ranking and the middleweight championship of the world, public support for the bout was lukewarm. On fight night, Boardwalk Hall (which accommodates 12,500 for boxing) was configured for 6,800 and there were a lot of empty seats.

With one punch, the story-line of the fight changed from “Martinez-Williams” to “Martinez.”

“Latecomers to boxing aren’t supposed to be this good,” Michael Rosenthal wrote afterward. “He’s a natural if there ever was one.”

Bart Barry added, “If there is a downside to having as boxing’s middleweight champion of the world a Latino who both looks and fights better than Oscar De La Hoya, it doesn’t spring to mind.”

Stardom came late to Martinez. Even the best fighters have only a short time on center stage. He has come to this peak in his career at age thirty-five, so there is little room for error in his quest to make big money. Sergio will do what he has to do. He will go in tough. He will go down to 154 pounds if the price is right. He will fight as many times a year as need be.

How good is he?

“I watch Martinez fight and I see Pacquiao,” says Freddie Roach. “There are a lot of similarities in what they do. Speed, quickness, the way they feint, their use of angles. Martinez is a very good fighter.”

Sergio Martinez is like a rose that grew out of asphalt. He is a reminder of what boxing can be.

“I could not dream to be in this place where I am today,” Martinez says. “I am very happy.”


Thomas Hauser can be reached by email at thauser@rcn.com. His most recent book (“Waiting For Carver Boyd”) was published by JR Books and can be purchased at http://www.amazon.co.uk/ or http://www.abebooks.com.
Hauser says that Waiting for Carver Boyd is “the best pure boxing writing I’ve ever done.”


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