There is no more direct way to say it, and no need for flowery prose anyway: Fights like Saturday’s, a rematch between middleweight champion Sergio Martinez and Paul Williams on HBO, are why I am a boxing fan. Being a boxing fan is often a painful affliction, but not during electric moments like the one that should occur near the 11 p.m. hour in Atlantic City when two of the five or 10 best fighters in the world begin their ring walks for a sequel to what many thought was the best brawl of 2009. In moments like that, all of boxing’s ailments are drowned in an ocean of endorphins.
I don’t care much about the bout’s catchweight of 158 lbs, as a section of boxing fandom/writerdom does. It’s only two pounds, so I can’t get upset about it either way, and while it suggests the undue influence of manager Al Haymon that has been responsible for some of boxing’s other ills, this fight remains for one of boxing’s most coveted prizes nonetheless: the lineal middleweight title. I know some rematches don’t live up to the thrills of the original, but I’m not worried about that, either. Of all the Williams and Martinez fights I’ve ever seen, only two of them weren’t fantastic, and they were both bizarre, controversial bouts vs. Kermit Cintron, so that seems like the worst that it gets, only in a more meaningful affair.
Even those bearing reservations can’t help but look forward to this rematch. I can’t remember the last time such a significant bout had precisely identical odds of both men winning, but as of this writing, that’s where things are. The lineal championship. Two of the best fighters in the world. A virtual guarantee of pure action. A fight so perfectly calibrated as to be precisely even. And a chance for one man to definitively beat the other, something that didn’t happen the first time.
If only every Saturday could be like this one. It’s why I’m going to visit Boardwalk Hall in person, and, if possible, live blog the fight.
The first fight was a complex organism that evolved as though it were filmed by a time lapse camera. Williams knocked down Martinez in the 1st round. Martinez returned the favor in the very same round, hurting Williams more badly than Martinez had hurt him, then had his way with Williams for a while after. Williams took control by hurting Martinez a little bit later, and Martinez ran for a few rounds to regain his head. When Martinez recovered was done with that, he again found Williams at will with his counter right for a couple rounds, and the final rounds were a race to the finish between two exhausted men.
In the end, Williams got the majority decision. Estimating roughly, I’d say more fans thought Martinez deserved to win, but I gave the slight edge to Williams. The judge who had it wide for Williams tarnished what had otherwise been a close, exciting contest that spoke well of the sport.
Arranging a do-over wasn’t easy. Both men wanted to fight other opponents before doing a rematch, and did, and probably would have avoided it in perpetuity had HBO not dangled major cash for the fight and refused to allow anything else. Forget the power of Williams’ ultra-connected manager Haymon on this: They wanted other fights for Williams far more than they wanted this one. And, likewise, Martinez promoter Lou DiBella hoped to fight someone else other than Williams.
In their respective fights away from one another, it was Martinez who looked the better man, and by a wide margin.
Williams fought the aforementioned Cintron, whom Martinez had in 2008 fought to a controversial draw. Williams came out, seemingly tentative, but it was part of the game plan — in the corner, trainer George Peterson told Williams to wait and counter. Cintron offered him very little to counter in close, do-nothing rounds. In the 4th, Williams went at Cintron hard at Peterson’s command, and Cintron caught him with a hard shot that staggered Williams a bit; but Williams, undeterred, kept after Cintron only for their legs to get tangled and Cintron to fly out of the ring. The doctors wouldn’t allow it to continue, citing a potential Cintron injury, and Williams got a disputed technical decision.
Martinez, meanwhile, took on middleweight champion Kelly Pavlik, and early on, established a lead. Pavlik came on in the middle rounds to stagger Martinez and win the middle rounds, but Martinez surged back and bloodied, then dominated, Pavlik. He won an uncontroversial decision.
When this rematch was announced, I favored Martinez to win the do-over. He apparently had the right style: Volume punchers like Williams, no matter how pterodactyl-like in his reach nor difficult to fight from his southpaw stance, can be neutralized by slick counterpunchers. Williams had been neutralized once by a slick counterpuncher, Carlos Quintana, who, like Martinez, is also a southpaw.
Martinez not only has style and momentum — few expected him to give Williams such a hard fight; whereas Williams has arguably underachieved in his last two bouts, Martinez is on a hot streak — but he also appears more comfortable at the size. Williams’ team considers him a welterweight, despite his outrageous length (82″ of reach, more than heavyweight champion Wladimir Klitschko). He has to fight to keep on weight his slender, 6’1″ (listed, anyway; he’s probably more like 6’3″). Martinez’ team used to consider him a junior middleweight, but after his success against Williams and Pavlik, they now have no interest in getting down to 154 again.
But, then, maybe he got TOO comfortable at the size. After approximately five weeks in camp, Martinez weighed in at 176 pounds. Williams’ team estimated that means that Martinez probably got up to 200 pounds before entering camp, while Martinez’ team said, nah, weight isn’t an issue, he was wearing clothes on the day of the weigh in and was down to 169 a couple days later. But Martinez has surely dropped a lot of weight, and at age 35, despite a late start to the sport, that’s hard on a body.
Compounding that potential weight drain is that Martinez has showed signs of getting tired in fights. His days as a cyclist and soccer aficionado seemingly would prevent that from happening, but he disappeared for stretches against both Williams and Pavlik. Martinez’ team answers that it was deliberate against Pavlik, that they were conserving their energy for a late charge.
But the rematch isn’t all about what Martinez has going against him. It’s also about what Williams has going for him. Martinez was a late replacement last time around, and Martinez’ team said that they had been training to fight Williams because they fully expected they would get the offer as a late replacement. Martinez was ready for Williams, but Williams was not as ready for Martinez. And everyone remembers how Williams did in his last rematch: After losing to Quintana, Williams in the second bout knocked him out in the 1st round.
There’s no reason to expect such an easy revenge for Williams, though. Quintana was a nice little fighter, but Martinez is a bigger, faster, better version of Quintana.
Strategically, both sides have hinted at their approach for the rematch, and both Peterson and Martinez’ trainer Gabriel Sarmiento, are underrated tacticians. Williams has said he didn’t move his head enough and didn’t punch to Martinez’ body enough, both true. When Williams moves his head, he’s a different fighter. He said he stopped moving his head because his warrior impulse took over. Martinez said he will use different angles, and that it will be a completely different fight, which sounds like he hopes not to engage quite as much as Williams — who has vowed to throw more punches than ever — surely would prefer.
In a fight where so little differentiates these men, the slightest thing could make a difference: Martinez’ better size, Williams’ improved defense, anything. Ultimately, after Martinez’ potential weight issues surfaced, I switched from thinking Martinez would win — maybe even by knockout — to thinking Williams will — maybe even by knockout. But I am picking Williams to win by unanimous decision, one that will have its harrowing moments for both men but where the 29-year-old American wins a bit more definitively than he did the first time against the older Argentinian.
I hope that whoever wins gets the stardom he deserves, and whoever loses isn’t confined to boxing’s basement. If Martinez loses, there is no shame in it; Williams is ranked #3 pound-for-pound on my list and that of many others, higher than Martinez’ #6, so the more acclaimed fighter will have done what he was supposed to do. if Williams loses, he will surely return to lower weights, and can write off a Martinez defeat to size. But if Martinez wins, perhaps the most physically attractive male in boxing (hey, that’s what the ladies say) should take his skillful, but not boring, style into the mainstream, where his work on behalf of battered women should overcome his inability to speak English. And Williams’ all-action style, plus a humorous, quotable personality that has come out more as he has acclimated to the spotlight, deserves to be more beloved. Maybe a win over Martinez will bring it.
[TQBR Prediction Game 5.0 is in effect. Remember the rules, but due to the late hour of this preview, you have until noon Saturday to make a prediction.]