The sacrifices Sergio Martinez has had to make by leaving his native land of Argentina and adopted country of Spain to pursue his dreams in the U.S. have paid off in a big way. Photo / Emily Harney-FightWireImages.
From Buenos Aires, Argentina to Sydney, Australia and everywhere in between, young fighters dream the same dream: Go to America, make a name for yourself, become a star.
These young men have a problem; their countries are too small for their ambitions. Unlike boxers from Europe and America, they have no opportunity to make big money or fight for world titles at home. So they're forced to emigrate, away from their families and friends, in search of riches and recognition.
Usually, they set out for America. While boxing might not be what it once was in the U.S., the level of boxing activity, the number of TV dates available and the amount of money to be made are powerful lures.
It's a long standing practice and in some countries, it's almost a rite of passage for top prospects. Australians still accuse Americans of poisoning their middleweight hero, Les Darcy, shortly after he arrived stateside, all the way back in 1917.
Today, some of boxing's top tier are men who've left their countries in search of fame and fortune. THE RING's No. 1 contender at lightweight is Australian Michael Katsidis, who recently found out just how difficult living away from home can be; his brother died recently and he couldn't attend the funeral.
Even more successful is Argentina's Sergio Martinez, who is currently the middleweight champion of the world.
Coming to the U.S. from Buenos Aires by way of Spain, Martinez had a tough road to the championship. He says that his hard headed determination to become a champion is what helped him survive.
“My dreams kept me alive — my desire of becoming a world champion and being the best fighter in the world. I had to stay strong mentally and I have a great attitude and great outlook in life,” he said.
Martinez, who is preparing for a rematch with Paul Williams on Nov. 20, believes that Argentina was simply too small for him.
“I came to the U.S. because this is the mecca of boxing and the best in the world are here,” he said. “It would have been hard for me to do this in Argentina and have the same successes I have today.”
On the other side of the coin is Australia's Robbie 'Bomber' Peden, who left his Brisbane home and his family behind in 1996 to try and make a name for himself.
“It was hard, but life's not always meant to be easy is it?” said the former junior lightweight titleholder. “Sometimes you have to go and challenge yourself to become better. I was actually alone basically. It was lonely.”
Peden, who retired in 2007, credits making friends with gym mates and other immigrant fighters like David Tua, as one of the things that got him through the loneliness of his new life in America.
“I wasn't a guy that wanted to sit back and be a big fish in a little pond,” he said. “I wanted to swim with the sharks.”
And swim with the sharks he did. Peden twice beat Nate Campbell – once for a title – before anybody realized just how good 'The Galaxxy Warrior' was. He fought Juan Manuel Marquez when the Mexican was at the top of his game but lost, stopped vomiting on his stool. In his first title defense, Peden went the distance with Marco Antonio Barrera but lost a unanimous decision.
Despite fighting on HBO and making more money than he would have back home, Peden never managed to make a name for himself as an attraction in America. He was always the B-side. Many foreign fighters have had the same experience.
So why do some skilled international fighters become B-sides while others become box office stars?
Obviously, some become fan favorites because of their entertaining styles. Argentina's Marcos Maidana got invited back onto HBO after beating Victor Ortiz and proving that he practically has tasers for hands.
Sampson Lewkowicz, Martinez's manager and a noted international talent spotter, believes that fighters from abroad succeed for different reasons.
“The first thing is the talent,” he said. “To be with me you need to be a good kid. I will not accept anybody with habits of alcohol, drugs or whatever it is. A good sportsman is what I'm looking for from my fighters.”
But according to Lewkowicz, even less-talented fighters like Katsidis and less-entertaining boxers like Chris John of Indonesia (both of whom he manages) can make it in America. He said Martinez deliberately tried to be more of a puncher since coming to States, in part to become more marketable.
Often adding to the difficulty for boxers choosing to set themselves up in the U.S. is the lack of recognition of their achievements at home.
Katsidis, who has chosen to fight the best internationally, could easily walk down a Sydney street without being recognized, while his lower-ranked countrymen Danny Green and Anthony Mundine would be spotted instantly.
Lewkowicz describes Australia as “a third world country” when it comes to supporting its boxers internationally.
Martinez is of the same frame of mind: “It would have been harder to continue my career in Argentina due to lack of resources and help. Boxing is not big in Argentina.”
Boxing may have become a fringe sport in America, but it's even more marginalized in many other countries. As long as the United States’ huge population ensures a large talent pool and a steady flow of money and TV dates, boxers will take the risk of moving here in the hope of making it big. American fans can count themselves lucky.
Alex McClintock is a free-lance writer based in Australia