Shading And Definition: Paul Williams – Sergio Martinez Preview And Prediction

ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. — Saturday night might have been the defining fight Paul Williams needed, had he gotten middleweight champion Kelly Pavlik in the ring as originally schedule and beaten him. The replacement opponent, Sergio Martinez, won’t give that to him, but he very well might tell us one very important thing about Williams. As big as his reputation is for being such a feared fighter, as much as people think he would be the sole fighter who could beat both Manny Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather, there is still that old lingering doubt: Are clever, quick southpaws his Achilles’ heel, considering his only loss to just such a fighter? Because in taking Martinez on short notice after readying himself for a right-handed brawler, Williams is ripe for the picking if he doesn’t know at some level what to do with that kind of foe.

Martinez knows, for his part, that this is the most important fight of his career. He’s not a pound-for-pound top-5 boxer like Williams; instead, he’s among the handful of best junior middleweights in the world. But he craves recognition as one of the best in any weight class, like the kind Williams has. It’s hard to imagine anyone preparing for a fighter like Williams, because of how unique he is. But the Martinez camp never believed Pavlik really wanted to fight Williams, so they scheduled a fight with a tall southpaw like Williams and trained for a fighter like that, so that when the moment came for them to step in, they were as ready as they could get. Emotionally, stylistically, circumstantially, there is a view many in boxing hold that Martinez is a more difficult opponent for Williams than Pavlik.

So Williams may not become a household name by beating Martinez, as he hoped beating Pavlik would do for him. But we’ll learn something valuable about Williams Saturday on HBO, one way or the other, and if it’s the other, we’ll also have to consider whether Martinez is himself an elite boxer.

The nightmarish qualities of Williams are well-known to the hardcore fan. Nobody likes fighting southpaws. Williams is a lefty. Nobody likes fighting significantly taller fighters. Williams is beyond significantly tall — he’s got an 82″ reach that exceeds that of heavyweight champion Wladimir Klitschko. Nobody likes fighting anyone who can average 100 punches per round from the first round to the last. Williams does that and compounds it by throwing punches from unexpected angles that often appear to get on his opponents’ nerves, like they’re thinking, “On top of all this, I have to watch out for a punch that comes from there?” Take in some less unique but quite dangerous qualities — solid power, the kind that can deliver 1st round knockouts against very good opponents; a tremendous ability to shrug off punches that you land on him; ever-improving defense; the flexibility to fight equally well on the inside or outside; incredible determination; underrated speed — and you’ve got a mighty fine fighting machine.

Williams has beaten Antonio Margarito, Winky Wright, Verno Phillips, Carlos Quintana and — wait, we’ve got to stop on Quintana. Williams did beat Quintana, but not before Quintana beat him first. And Quintana, in that first fight, gave Martinez his game plan. How do you blunt crazy punch volume? Lateral movement and sharp counters. Williams can take his arms that look like they’re on stilts and throw them all over the place, but if his opponent is always moving, we’re talking about a long time to reset for the next place his opponent is. And he’ll think twice about doing it at all if his opponent makes him pay with quick, hard punches. Quintana did both of those things beautifully to give Williams his only loss. That Williams beat Quintana by 1st round KO in the rematch doesn’t necessarily prove Williams figured Quintana out. Knockouts like that, they sometimes are flukes, not true demonstrations of one boxer’s superiority. It’s not like Williams just has one vulnerability, by the way — he’s still very easy to hit and gets out of position a ton, for instance. But vis-a-vis the specific puzzle Martinez poses, Quintana gave us a version of it, and Martinez is bigger and arguably better than Quintana.

I say “arguably better” because I’ve been watching some footage today and I’m not convinced. I’ve sort of revised down my opinion of Martinez. Don’t get me wrong, Martinez is a really good fighter. He’s very quick. He’s very crafty. He’s left-handed, which, as I said, nobody likes. He’s awkward and unpredictable. He has only one defeat, much earlier in his career against the aforementioned Margarito in 2000. When he fought Kermit Cintron, a noted power punching artist, he stood up to Cintron’s power quite well, so perhaps it’s true that his punch resistance is better above welterweight where Margarito beat him up and knocked him out. I don’t think he’s as technically sound or accurate a puncher as Quintana, but he’s probably got a better chin and his unconventional qualities both help him and hurt him. He’s definitely bigger than Quintana, and he’ll be bigger weight-wise than Williams on fight night, despite moving up to a weight class where Williams would seem to have the size advantage by virtue of being a proven commodity at middleweight.

There is one particular reason to doubt, though, that Martinez presents more of a challenge to Williams than Quintana. It’s that his level of competition has been fairly lackluster. From his loss in 2000 to 2008, when he KO’d Alex Bunema, a top-10 junior middle, I’m not sure who the best guy he beat was. Saul Roman? Archak TerMeliksetian? He absolutely looked like the goods against Bunema, but I suspect that was in part the result of a favorable style match-up; and Bunema’s run coming into that fight, frankly, was a little bit of an OK fighter catching fire after previously demonstrating very little by way of suggesting he was top-class. Against Cintron, a much better fighter than Bunema but a fighter not in Williams’ league, Martinez wasn’t nearly as scintillating. I think he deserved the knockout win as a result of that strange sequence in round seven, and after the first couple rounds he began to dial in his offense, and I believe he finished strongly. But Martinez was flummoxed a good deal by Cintron early in that fight and in some of the late rounds he lost his composure. The draw was a bad call, absolutely, but it’s not like Martinez looked like the same world-beater against Cintron that he did against Bunema. So if against the three best opponents of his career, Margarito, Bunema and Cintron, Martinez gets his ass kicked, kicks an ass and looks good but not great, respectively, do we really know who Martinez is?

Because Martinez gets how important this fight is, I expect he’ll be at his peak, so we’ll find out. And it’s possible Williams won’t be at his peak, coming off an emotional letdown because he’s not fighting Pavlik. I tend to believe the Williams camp — they’re motivated because they’re frustrated, and they want to take it out on somebody. That’s not as powerful a motive as the career-best win that Martinez is aiming for, but it ought to guard Williams against being deflated. What’s more, I really do think Williams won’t ever again have an “off night” like he says he did against Quintana in the first fight. At least, not for a long time. Not Saturday.

So that goes back to the central question: Can P-Will hang with a crafty, quick southpaw, or can’t he? I say he can. Because everything happened so quickly in Williams-Quintana II, I’d forgotten until I reviewed the fight how Williams already looked like he’d adjusted his game for the rematch. In the first fight, Williams walked in standing straight up far too often, making himself an easy target. In the rematch, he was walking in from angles and moving his head. As Williams said this week, “As long as I keep my head on a swivel, I’m good.” That Williams sparred with Quintana for this fight only has to help, and that Cintron’s length and own head movement gave Martinez some trouble means I expect Williams’ exaggerated versions of both will do the same. So that answers how I think Williams will handle Martinez’ style. The secondary question is how Martinez will handle Williams’. CompuBox had an analysis this week where they noted Martinez’ punch output tends to be low, and as Margarito applied pressure on him years ago, his output dropped with each round.

So I like Williams to win, possibly with some early trouble and likely with a knockout in the end as the pressure accumulates. That’s my call.

I’m cautious about the notion that, because I like Williams as much as I do, I may be a little biased. But I like to think my affection has a different effect: I see the fighter for who he is even better than usual. I say this because I’ve shown something of a knack in recent years for calling Juan Manuel Marquez fights, my favorite for a long while. I’d studied him very closely, so I saw both his strengths and his weaknesses. I predicted the precise way in which Marquez would beat Juan Diaz, but I didn’t give Marquez a chance in hell against Floyd Mayweather, the way some did. And I’m not as convinced as some that Williams is the most dangerous opponent for Mayweather or Pacquiao, or that Williams would have made easy work of Pavlik. But with this Williams-Martinez call, while I recognize that Martinez is a very live underdog, I’m pretty confident I’ve offset the bias with attention.

There are fighters out there who beat Williams. It might be Martinez. But I don’t think it is.

About Tim Starks

Tim is the founder of The Queensberry Rules and co-founder of The Transnational Boxing Rankings Board ( He lives in Washington, D.C. He has written for the Guardian, Economist, New Republic, Chicago Tribune and more.