The line that separates a sanctioned prizefight from a carnival freak show is an embarrassingly thin one, and the only presence keeping those of us on both sides of it from being marks are the in-ring officials. These are men with names like Russell Mora, Laurence Cole and Ian John-Lewis, and it’s up to them to protect the fighters, mete out justice and, hopefully, ensure a higher standard of propriety than a milk bottle pyramid. On Saturday night in Leeds, England, that man was Marcus McDonnell.
So it fell to McDonnell when things between Kiko Martinez and Josh Warrington turned rough in their rematch at First Direct Arena — which is to say, almost immediately. It did not go well. Whether McDonnell was influenced by a clamorous pro-Warrington hometown crowd or simply failed to meet the moment, his decision not to discipline the Brit for repeatedly (and in some cases literally) leaning into questionable tactics inarguably played into the outcome — a seventh-round stoppage for Warrington that left Martinez slashed and bloodied, yet also soundly beaten.
And that’s the kicker: Based on the limited action before the bloodletting, Warrington (31-1-1, 8 KO) appeared more than capable of boxing circles around Martinez (43-11-2, 30 KO). The Leeds Man came into the night winless since 2019, having shockingly lost to and then drawn with Mauricio Lara in the interim. But Warrington had already bested Martinez once, in 2017, during both of the fighters’ primes. Meanwhile, Martinez, despite coming off a stunning upset of Kid Galahad last November, is just 8-4-2 in his previous 13 fights. On Saturday, at age 36, he seemed a touch stiffer and less active than in the first fight against Warrington, whose youth (31), length and raw-lunged Leeds supporters stood in his favor.
After sizing up Martinez with his jab in the opening minute, Warrington flipped a switch, aggressively pushing forward and letting his hands go at all angles. His charge was interrupted only by a brief warning from McDonnell when Warrington shoulder-shirked Martinez out of a clinch. The Brit then drove the Spaniard against the ropes, firing off more than a dozen unanswered punches from short range, and landing most of them.
Martinez wasn’t hurt — just tenderized. But Warrington’s eagerness to plunge into the pocket and fight head to head would define the fight. He ripped off crisp, arcing shots — hooks, crosses and uppercuts — that were accentuated by his length, rather than serving to smother it. That willingness to come forward at close range almost immediately led to a bang-bang sequence in which Warrington stepped in, clashed heads and opened a gash across Martinez’s left brow, then plastered the Spaniard’s right temple with a follow-up hook. The fighters touched gloves, Warrington again put his foot on the gas, and moments later landed a blistering right cross that ripped at Martinez’s cut and dropped him to the canvas. If the Spaniard had seen the punch, it may have been his last clear view of the night. He pawed at the open wound over his eye, and the blood began to flow.
At that point, another fighter might have been finished. But Martinez, a tatted fireplug of sinew, bone and balls, is a tough little bastard. He has fought in too many opponents’ backyards, taken the short end of too many questionable decisions and simply been around too long to have any fucks left to give. Politics, at this stage, are pointless. It’s the reason Martinez made Saturday’s fight in the first place, taking on a younger, dangerous foe in the hometown where he had already once lost to the Brit: He’s a prizefighter, period.
Immediately bouncing up from the knockdown, Martinez was swarmed by Warrington — and appeared to be in trouble. On the ropes again, Martinez was taking heavy fire — from Warrington’s hands, but also his shoulder and perhaps (again) his head. Frustrated, the Spaniard smacked Warrington while McDonnell was separating them. After the ref sent both men to neutral corners, he made a point of demonstratively scolding Martinez for his indiscretion while the fighter stood there bleeding.
Thus began a series of breaks between rounds during which Martinez’s corner performed like a pit crew on the eye. The Spaniard held on through the first round, got himself cleaned up between bells, then quickly had his face run red again as Warrington lashed him from the outside then burrowed in to bully him at close range. The Brit was finally warned by McDonnell after a stretch of excessive contact that drove Martinez into the ropes — but even that corrective moment felt empty. After Warrington ducked and then reared back his head to clip Martinez on a butt that would have been 100-percent Victor Ortiz-approved, the ref pulled the Brit aside to warn him about the careless use of … his shoulder.
Martinez fought back, lacing Warrington with a left hook to the body here, a crunching straight right hand there. He picked up his pace in the third, becoming the aggressor, but Warrington’s five-years-younger legs made pinning down the Brit difficult. On the rare occasions Martinez was able to close the distance, Warrington blasted him or clinched, with McDonnell even stepping in to deliver a “watch the head” admonishment — to Martinez, of course.
In the fourth, McDonnell gave Warrington a quick warning without stopping the action, after the Brit had banged Martinez around on the inside. Again, no consequences. Warrington was on the back foot more often now, but anytime Martinez closed distance, he ran the risk of being sliced open yet again. By the end of the sixth, his cornermen found themselves frantically working on not only the left eye, but also a cut on the forehead and a much more problematic gash across the upper right eyelid. Martinez was a mess.
Chipped away in the first minute of the seventh, Warrington opened up Martinez’s face again, likely obscuring his vision. The shots were coming heavier and in more frequent bursts now, and after Martinez emptied the chamber to land a final thudding right hand, Warrington shook it off and attacked. He swarmed the Spaniard, never letting Martinez come up for air, let alone get off the ropes or attempt a counter shot. With Warrington unloading on Martinez, shelled up and face covered in crimson, McDonnell finally stepped in to call it at 2:12 of the round — his timing and judgment on the money at least once Saturday night.
Was the fix in? Is Warrington a dirty fighter? McDonnell on the take? Look, we’re talking about boxing, which means the only black-and-white satisfaction to be had resembles a cesspool swirl of gray. But here’s one perspective, for what it’s worth: McDonnell had a shit night. Warrington took all the rope the ref would give him. Martinez got hosed in the deal. It happens.
Yet it seems to happen far too often in this sport, in which wins, losses, reputations and livelihoods aren’t even the highest stakes involved. Warrington fought well enough to win, and he’ll have a shot at several big fights at 126 pounds. (A matchup with countryman Leigh Wood, a Lara trilogy or a showdown with top featherweight Emanuel Navarrete each holds promise). As for Martinez? It would be foolish to count him out now. But if this turns out to have been Kiko’s last stand, it’s fair to say he deserved better.
(Photo by Mark Robinson)