Remembering The Marvel, Sergio Martinez

Martin Murray sat beside compatriot Darren Barker in the Sky Sports Studio as a smile grew across his face. A sturdy, thick-necked middleweight with a history of violent crime, he listened incredulously as Birmingham-born Matthew Macklin boasted proudly of his exploits, both domestically and abroad. Calling in from his gym on the south coast of Andalusia, Macklin reminded his domestic rivals that he’d headlined on HBO, sold out Madison Square Garden, and given the best in the division a run for his money. “I showed I’m a fairly complete fighter,” he insisted. “I pushed him very close.”

“At the end of the day you got beat,” Murray replied coldly. “As soon as Martinez stepped it up you was out of your depth.”

As is usually the case in boxing, the reality was somewhere in between. Murray’s assertion may have contained an element of truth, but that is no real slight on his British rival. You could have copied and pasted the name of any top middleweight between 2010 and 2013 and the statement would have rung equally true. Barker, like Macklin, had been knocked out by Sergio Martinez, the lineal middleweight champion who reigned with distinction from April 2010 to June 2014. At the time of filming Murray was yet to fight him, but a few weeks later he would join his countrymen in defeat, united as members of an utterly thankless club.

Murray travelled to Buenos Aires in April of 2013 and did sufficiently well as to give Martinez a tough night’s work, dropping him in the 8th round and exposing the frailties that had taken root in his 38 year old bones. Though he was victorious, and extended his run at the top of the sport into a fourth successive year, fighting men 10 years his junior appeared to have finally caught up with the Argentine star; something that would become violently confirmed in June 2014, when the diminutive Miguel Cotto dropped him three times in the first round and took his belt barely 30 minutes later. Eleven months on and with no return in sight, Martinez would declare that his knee had been “shattered”; that he was old and losing his hair; that his beautiful face had become plagued by wrinkles; that he had made up his mind.

If the end was inglorious, unbecoming of a champion who was near impossibly great in his prime, it was taken with all his customary grace. This was a man, after all, with a heightened sense of perspective, unthinkable amidst the bravado and flash of the sport’s biggest names. Rejected by his own country, Martinez had been fed to the wolves in Las Vegas in only his 18th fight, before he was forced to relocate to Spain and accept fringe title bouts on barely a week’s notice. Unwilling to meekly accept his lot, however, he defied the powers that be by embarking on a nine-year undefeated streak following his first professional loss in 2000, clawing his way back into contention, both for world titles and prime American TV dates.

His redemption would be sealed in 2010 with a dominant win over great white hope Kelly Pavlik, dicing the skin above both his opponent’s eyes and claiming the lineal middleweight championship of the world. Such was the sensational nature of the performance that Pavlik chose to waive the rematch clause in the contract, remaining inactive for over a year before returning against a significantly lower level of opposition. He had been the next big thing in boxing at one time, yet would later retire, aged just 30, having never breathed another word about again wanting to face the man who took his crown.

But Martinez was just getting started, and followed up his schooling of Pavlik with the Knockout of the Year against the man widely considered the most avoided fighter in the sport. Paul Williams, known as The Punisher, averaged close to 100 punches thrown per round, and was considered tricky enough that neither Floyd Mayweather nor the aforementioned Cotto showed any inclination to share a ring with him. Given Williams’s relentless style and extraordinary conditioning, as well as the fact that their earlier meeting had gone to a disputed decision, Martinez was expected to have his work cut out. Yet he needed less than four minutes to put his opponent to sleep, landing an overhand left that reverberated around Boardwalk Hall like a gunshot, removing Williams from consciousness while still on his feet, before allowing his body to crumple cinematically to the canvas.

A string of sensational performances came after, during which time Martinez saw his stock rise to the point where he was widely considered, behind Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao, the best pound for pound fighter in the sport. Having laid waste to the British scene, he reclaimed the WBC middleweight belt that had been inexplicably stripped from him and placed around the waist of the president’s godson, Julio Cesar Chavez, Jr. He even made it to pay-per-view for two of his three final fights, fulfilling a gnawing personal ambition and cementing his status as a star, both in the boxing world and at home in his native Argentina.

Given his athletic style and advanced age, it was no great surprise that the end would prove to be sudden. A former footballer and passionate cyclist, he had developed a strength in his legs rarely seen in boxing, granting him the ability to dart in and out of range with his hands down, safe in the knowledge that his feet were sufficiently swift as to get him out of trouble. Once the legs went, he was left with little else. His extraordinarily late start in the sport, which he took up only at age 20, had denied him the fundamentals developed by others who begin as children or in their teens.

Last summer, following the conclusion of the 9th round against Cotto, as he hobbled back to his corner having been knocked down for the fourth time, Martinez’s body had given up. Pablo Sarmiento, his trainer, recognised this, and took the fighter’s head in his hands. “Your knees are not working, Sergio,” he cried. “It’s my responsibility.” Martinez frowned and asked for water, but Sarmiento, who had been with him since his days as a part-time dishwasher in La Mancha, was insistent. “You’ll always be my champion,” he bellowed repeatedly above the raucous crowd.

Though it felt to observers like the most wretched of ends, there was still time for Martinez’s class to shine through when, draped in the flag of his beloved Argentina, he looked to the crowd, to his people, and commended the man who had taken his place.

“If nothing else, I can only say congratulations. You’ve got to know how to win, and know how to lose.”

Though politics dictates he may never make it to Canastota and the Hall of Fame, it was fitting that his final words from the summit of the sport were a statement to which its occupants would wholeheartedly subscribe. In a world as transparently self-serving as boxing, where nothing is on the record and every utterance must be taken with a pinch of salt, Martinez spoke not merely as a great champion, but as a great man.

(Photo: Miguel Cotto trainer Freddie Roach greets Sergio Martinez after Cotto defeated Martinez in 2014 at Madison Square Garden in New York City; credit: Rich Schultz/Getty Images)