The climactic boxing match of 2012 arrives this Saturday when lineal middleweight champion Sergio Martinez faces Julio Cesar Chavez, Jr. on HBO pay-per-view. Nothing — no Floyd Mayweather return, no Manny Pacquiao rematch — is likely to top Martinez-Chavez as a complete fight, a bout that has bad blood, a champion against arguably his top contender, a style match-up that figures to produce action and flair, and boffo box office.
Martinez’s job is to supply much of the flair: He is the deft, expert, agile swordsman. Chavez’s job is to supply much of the action: He is King Kong, all brute force and size. Or, at least, those are the basic archetypes. With his considerable knockout power and adventurous forays into harm’s way, Martinez has been known to supply some action, while the beastly Chavez has added some subtlety to his attack in recent years.
They each give fans ammunition to root for and against — Chavez was born with a silver spoon in his mouth thanks to his famous father, but has a touch of the common man appeal because of his straightforward brawling style, while Martinez is the “good guy” who champions bullying victims yet is so pretty and and such a good dancer that he’s simply too “face,” in wrestling parlance, to be embraced by everyone.
The competing Showtime card is the more complete product. But you won’t find a single fight that gives fans more than Martinez-Chavez, on a card that is already a sellout in Vegas with nearly 20,000 tickets sold and a main event that is one of the most significant middleweight fights of the past decade or so, rivaling or surpassing the likes of Bernard Hopkins-Felix Trinidad, Kelly Pavlik-Jermain Taylor or Martinez-Paul Williams II. The fight’s offerings include an ambiguous outcome, unthinkable more than a year ago when Martinez began agitating for a fight against Chavez.
The root of the dispute lies not with the lineal middleweight championship but a mere alphabet gang strap: The WBC took Martinez’s title when he passed on a mandatory challenge from Sebastian Zbik in order to make more money in an HBO clash against Serhiy Dzinziruk. Chavez fought Zbik for the belt that Martinez abandoned, and because of that, and because Chavez is a huge ratings and gate draw, Martinez has been trying to get the belt back ever since. And despite repeated promises that he’d get a chance at it, the Mexican-favoring WBC kept fending it off and fending it off. All the while, Martinez would take verbal swipes at Chavez, and Chavez’s promoter Top Rank wisely avoided matching their cash cow with a dangerous, experienced foe, but Chavez clearly was eager to shut up Martinez. Now he’ll get his chance.
Where Chavez has improved over that time frame isn’t so much in his defense, like fellow Freddie Roach pupil Amir Khan showed for a few fights, or in almost an entire makeover, as Roach did in turning Manny Pacquiao from a one-handed, one-direction fighter into a two-handed, in-and-out/side-to-side one. Chavez’s main weapon is the same dual-headed weapon he had before: He’s freaking enormous, prone to coming into the ring 20 pounds above the weight limit the day after the weigh-in, and he’s totally impervious to all punches.
Rather, Chavez is more fluid now, less mechanical. He can counter if need be, too, whereas once he would simply take turns hitting and getting hit. And he throws pretty much every punch now with maximum leverage, also. The kinds of punches have hardly changed: It’s all hooking shots with either hand, to the head and body, with the left hook to the body and right hand to the head the best of the four punches. He’ll mix in an effective uppercut every now and then, and paw with a jab because someone told him he ought to but he doesn’t really believe it’s worth throwing. Tall fighters ought to have nice jabs, but Chavez seems to think the prototype is stupid because he wants every punch to be shooting for the knockout. Defense, too, is something he tries at every now and then, but it’s like a dense football player squinting at a math story problem — he just wants to throw the football, man! That’s what he knows!
That mixture of power, no defense and absolute belief in his ability to take a punch was at first fun against journeymen like Matt Vanda (who nearly defeated Chavez), and then fun and effective against authentic against contenders like Andy Lee (whom Chavez defeated in his last fight like he was wadding up a napkin and tossing it over his shoulder). It’s not that there don’t remain questions about Chavez, despite his progress. He is the most hittable top-level fighter in the sport, and someday that might not pay off for him, maybe as soon as Saturday. There are reasonable doubts that he has acquired his physical abilities naturally, as he has been busted with banned substances in his body once and suspected more than once. And whatever passion he shows in the ring, his work habits outside it are lackluster at best, with a tendency to skip training or blow off Roach.
That, too, could bring the chickens home to roost against Martinez. Martinez routinely beats guys like Lee, Chavez’s best opponent, and then better guys on top of it — Kelly Pavlik, Williams, Dzinziruk. And while Chavez wrecks people with absurd strength, Martinez produces highlight reel knockouts with speed, unexpected angles and perfect placement. He’s the better all-around fighter, by far, with quicker hands, quicker feet, better defense and more varied offense, all from a tricky southpaw stance. Martinez does have a jab, and knows how to mix up his shots rather than just throwing the kitchen sink at everyone and pressing forward at the same slow pace all the time.
There are two things working against Martinez for this fight. One is that Chavez is a giant. Martinez has matured into a full-boned middleweight, but he’s not an enormous one like Chavez. Martinez still could move down to 154 pounds if he wanted to, probably. And the last huge 160-pounder Martinez faced, Pavlik, gave Martinez his share of drama. Pavlik is an instructive example, in that he, like Chavez, is a fairly basic, slower fighter, but until Martinez cut him late in the fight, it was a pretty even affair. The other is that Martinez might have slowed down since his 2010 Fighter of the Year campaign. He’s been dropped by Matthew Macklin and struggled with Darren Barker, both mid-tier middleweight contenders, although he ended up stopping both of them.
I don’t think the Pavlik example is too instructive, though. Pavlik is very conventional for a tall fighter, capable of jabbing someone like Martinez to steady him and stifle his movement, a trait Chavez doesn’t possess. Moreover, I don’t think Martinez was ever really hurt by the knockdown he suffered at Pavlik’s hands, nor any knockdown he’s suffered at the hands of Williams or Macklin or whoever in recent years. Martinez has a funky balance thing going, and he sometimes gets knocked off his high wire. Nor am I completely convinced that Martinez has faded all that badly — more like that his Fighter of the Year campaign was him overachieving, and people “figuring him out” a bit since. He’s 37, sure, but he is still fast and he doesn’t have trouble pulling the trigger or struggle with stamina. Macklin and Barker had some success against Martinez’s style by forcing him to initiate and countering him, something that Chavez won’t be doing and couldn’t do as well even if he tried.
So here’s how I see the fight going: Martinez wins the early rounds easily, Chavez does some damage in the middle rounds by getting super-aggressive, and Martinez reestablishes himself late and has Chavez woozy by the final bell. I could also see a fight with a lot of close rounds that go to Chavez because he’ll have the fans on his side and that will influence the judges, but I see Martinez hitting Chavez more than he usually gets hit, and cleaner, and dodging more of Chavez’s return punches than the defensively-challenged fighters Chavez has been fighting in his hot streak. The middle rounds are when Chavez might begin to impose his will, but he’ll still be getting hit a lot, and Martinez is sturdier than Lee or Peter Manfredo, probably more on par with Marco Antonio Rubio and Zbik, whom Chavez did not stop. Plus, when it comes down to a close call, I’m going to go with the guy who is preparing like it’s the fight of his life, as Martinez is, over the guy who is waking up at 6 p.m. and parading around eating cereal in pink underwear, like Chavez did on the most recent episode of HBO’s 24/7. But I can’t wait to find out if I’m wrong.