There is a certain space in boxing, inhabited only by the most transcendent talents, where the interest of fans dims in any match-up that these pugilists can feasibly make in their own division because the fights are seen as total wipe outs. That is the lonely, tormented zone in which middleweight champion Sergio Martinez resides today. His opponent for Saturday on HBO, Darren Barker, is approximately a 9/1 underdog, and it’s no fault of Barker’s. Having studied Barker a bit this week, I’m convinced he’d fight on pretty even terms with or beat every current top 10 middleweight. Martinez simply has that next-level quality, the kind where you can feasibly argue that he’s the best fighter in the world, period.
That’s not to say that Martinez is totally lonely, nor that there haven’t been missteps in handling his career. He has repeatedly proven to do good ratings on HBO, which shows he is not without fans. They are not, however, the kind of fans who will apparently buy tickets for his shows. In recent weeks, promoter Lou DiBella — who’s often rightly accused of not going the extra mile to promote his stable — has resorted to a series of increasingly desperate and surreal measures to put asses in the seats in Atlantic City, first offering discounts for policemen and firefighters, then offering discounts when Showtime’s Super Six finale fell through for later in the month in AC, then offering a pair of tickets to anyone who spent $20 at Modell’s for an in-store Martinez appearance complete with a cameo from porn star Lisa Ann. The apparent lag in ticket sales comes despite the presence of popular Irish middleweight Andy Lee on the undercard against Brian Vera, suggesting that what tickets have sold have been because of that fight, not the main event.
Given how dangerous Martinez is, he hasn’t been able to lure bigger names like Manny Pacquiao, Floyd Mayweather, Jr., Miguel Cotto or Julio Cesar Chavez, Jr. into the ring with him, because the only thing he brings — network money — is something they can get any time they want. It’s not that Martinez doesn’t have some potential to be a superstar: He’s exciting; he’s said to be well-spoken in his native Spanish and is learning English; he’s handsome; he’s got world-class talent; and he’s clearly been willing for the most part to face the best opposition at 160 pounds or below. Yet he also has some limits on that potential: At 36, he only appeared on the world stage three years ago, and it can take years and years more to build someone into a superstar; he’s from Argentina, a country which has no discernible transplanted U.S. boxing fan base; and DiBella doesn’t quite seem to know what to do with him, alternating between hyping him as a boxer who could become popular with women and then having him hang out with a porn star, as if that would do anything but turn off most women. Until (and if) his name can be built up significantly more somehow, or until he takes some of the edge off the risk he presents — he has recently offered to move up to 164 lbs. for a fight against one of the top fighters at super middleweight, or all the way down to 150 lbs. for Pacquiao or Mayweather, where he would be drained by efforts to make the limit — all he can do is get busy, get some HBO paychecks and fight the best available middleweights willing to fight him, hoping that does the trick.
That brings us back to Barker. He very nearly fits that definition of “best available middleweight willing to fight him.” Very nearly. Dmitry Pirog would’ve been a better option (forget about DiBella’s claim that the Russian Pirog can’t sell tickets in the United States, because the British Barker clearly can’t either) and Pirog is going to be seated ringside for Martinez-Barker, as a way of potentially hyping up a clash with Martinez. So what will Pirog see?
He’ll see Barker, of course, who’s kind of been an afterthought in this fight. The odds aren’t as bad for him as have previously been made out (I myself once accidentally parroted an incorrect figure that had been circulating on the Internet), but depending on where you bet, he’s anywhere from a 12/1 or 6/1 underdog. I had noticed that various British fans and commentators think Barker had been written off unfairly, and that he was more of a live ‘dog than thought here in the United States.
And while he is a wholly unspectacular fighter, he is not without his merits. He’s good at everything — speed, power, versatility, defense, movement, intelligence, accuracy, punch resistance — but excellent at absolutely nothing. He hasn’t beaten anyone of any real significance, although in his most recent fight he more easily handled Domenico Spada than did the current #5 Ring-rated middleweight, Sebastian Zbik. Don’t let the close scorecards fool you: Nobody who watched Barker-Spada thought it was anything but a landslide victory for Barker. Granted, he slowed down at the end, and some have taken that as a sign of him having a permanent stamina problem, since he did the same in his previous fight, a legitimately and surprisingly difficult win over Affif Belghecham. He says he was rusty for those two fights, recovering from a hip injury, and that diminished stamina is now behind him. Barker has, in fact, had to recover from a number of things, both more trying than his hip: In 2006, his brother was killed in a car accident, after which he took a break from the sport; and earlier this year, he got beaten up by as many as 10 attackers while trying to stop them from assaulting another man.
The argument from Barker’s side is that, at 29, he’s the younger and fresher of the two, with Martinez seven years older. He’s naturally bigger, taller by a couple inches at 6’0″, and Martinez has only fought one true middleweight, a faded and weight-drained Kelly Pavlik, with Serhiy Dzinziruk and Paul Williams having moved up in weight to battle Martinez. Barker’s side says Martinez isn’t as good as people think he is: He has some flaws that others have yet to take advantage of that Barker thinks he can exploit. And with Martinez lobbying for a fight with others, he could be looking past Barker.
As respectable a fighter as Barker is, and as respectable as some of the arguments are for his chances, they don’t account for one thing: the dynamism of Martinez. This is as much combined power and speed as you can nearly find in the whole damn sport. Even some of the Brits arguing Barker’s case aren’t saying he’ll win; they’re just saying that he’s not the pushover he’s been made out to be.
Let’s answer the arguments. Martinez might not be a huge middleweight, but he’s shown serious power at 160, smashing Pavlik’s face to bits and obliterating two fighters in Dzinziruk and Williams whose chins had never shown dings before — and while not natural middleweights themselves, it’s not like those two were little junior middleweights. He can take whatever power comes back from a naturally bigger man, as he showed against Pavlik, a big puncher even if he was drained for their fight. At 36, he only has been getting better from one fight to the next, with a late start to the sport helping keep him fresher than his age would hint. While Martinez does have some flaws like a tendency to lunge in and fight with his hands down, it really hasn’t stopped him from beating fighters a lot better than Barker. And I doubt that Martinez has slacked off in training or overlooked Barker, because it’s not something he’s ever shown any signs of doing before.
Simply put, Martinez is better in every conceivable way compared to Barker, besides size. He’s beaten better fighters, he’s faster, he’s… he’s just better. And that’s the case for Martinez and every current middleweight. That Barker would be at least competitive with everyone in the top 10 and is such a heavy underdog is at least partially indicative of the biggest gulf in talent between a champion and his contenders outside of perhaps Wladimir Klitschko’s dominion of the heavyweights.
That said, I do think Barker will last a little longer than Dzinziruk. Dzinziruk had never been down before as a pro; Barker has, at least once, but that was a flash knockdown whereupon he promptly knocked out his opponent on the next punch thrown. Barker is bigger than Dzinziruk, and as technically astute as Dzinziruk sizes up next to Barker, I think Barker will not go for the gusto against Martinez as uncharacteristically as Dzinziruk did, so he won’t be so reckless. Barker very well could be blown out in one round. But my sense is that he’ll give a decent account of himself, maybe steal a round or two, but be gone by the 9th either from a clean knockout or someone — corner, ref — stopping the fight.
In the end, it is neither as “Marvelous” as Martinez’ nickname nor as “Dazzling” as Barker’s, but I don’t think the fight is as bad as do some others.
And after it’s all over, it’s back to the waiting room for a big-money fight and/or competitive fight for one of boxing’s finest, with no way obvious way out of it.