PORT HUENEME, Calif. – Sergio Martinez exchanged punches in a light sparring session with Lucas Matthysse, a junior welterweight contender who is a good 25 pounds lighter and presumably faster than the muscular middleweight champion.
Martinez was the more athletic and quicker of the two, though, moving about the ring with unusual grace while snapping punches that would impress Floyd Mayweather Jr. And his timing was remarkably good given that he is only beginning serious training for his rematch with Paul Williams on Nov. 20.
To witness him work in the ring, either here at World Crown Sports gym in this coastal town north of Los Angeles or in his fights, and then consider that he started boxing at 20 years old leaves you scratching your head.
Latecomers to boxing aren’t supposed to be this good, particularly when they’re 35. He’s a natural if there ever was one. Martinez never doubted he’d find success but, indeed, he must acknowledge that he took an unusual and sometimes-difficult route.
“It’s been an incredible journey,” he said as he sat sweating on a stool after his evening workout, speaking through a translator.
Martinez is from Quilmes, a town of roughly 500,000 people about 10 miles south of Buenos Aires in Argentina.
He wasn’t a pugnacious kid even though he had two uncles who dabbled in boxing, he said. Far from it. “I was the kid the bullies picked on. I was an altar boy at the church. Honest,” he said with a smile.
He also was very athletic, succeeding in every sport he tried. Tennis. Cycling. Soccer. And finally boxing.
Every kid in Argentina dreams about playing for the soccer-crazy country’s national team. Martinez was no exception. He played organized soccer since childhood and reached the semi-pro level by the time he was a teenager.
Looking back, he doubts that he would’ve found great success in the sport considering the depth of talent –- “I was fit, strong but not the best player,” he said –- but held onto to his dreams until the age of 20.
That was when he was preparing for a tryout to move up to the next level of competition. Someone mentioned that he might try boxing as a way to improve his fitness level and WHOOSH! — like an arrow through his heart — he fell in love.
A month later, believe it or not, he participated in his first amateur fight. And he caught on quickly.
“It was May 2, 1995, the day I found boxing,” said Martinez, who has a knack for remember dates. “I had uncles who were boxers. One was a pro, an OK fighter. I never boxed until I was 20, though, never had any fights. I had a lot of good results early in my (amateur) career, though. I competed almost every weekend. In about a year and half I had 41 amateur fights.
“I was very busy so I learned quickly. Once I made the switch I was very committed.”
Martinez said more than once that boxing was less physically demanding than soccer, which he believes is a lot rougher than people realize. Boxing, he said, “is easy.”
One reason it's easy is that he was and remains a fitness fanatic, which includes living a very clean life. He gets up at 5 in the morning every day to run, cycle or lift weights, rests most of the day after that and then trains in the gym every evening. “I don’t think he even knows he’s 35,” said Adam Flores, a former fighter and co-owner of the gym.
But what about taking punches in the beginning? That had to be shock for someone who had never experienced such punishment.
“No, not really,” he said, “From the first day of my amateur career up until the (Antonio) Margarito fight (in 2000), I never really got hit. I was so athletic that I would always hit hit hit and not get hit. That was my style from the beginning.”
Martinez took some shots outside the ring, though.
He quickly became an amateur champion in Argentina and considered pursuing a position on his country’s Olympic team in 2000 but, in late 1997, that was still 2½ years away. He reckoned he was too old to wait and turned pro that December.
Martinez went 16-0-1 in his first 17 fights, all in the Buenos Aires area, but then the transition to his beloved sport suddenly became more difficult than he ever imagined.
First, the southpaw injured his left hand in mid-1998, forcing him to fight infrequently until it healed sufficiently. And then came the disaster against Margarito on the undercard of Erik Morales-Marco Antonio Barrera I in Las Vegas and a horrible year for him all around.
Margarito, still a rising contender but already a bull at the time, stopped Martinez in seven rounds by physically overwhelming him. That night, Martinez admitted, he was discouraged for the first time since he took up boxing but that soon passed.
He was asked what happened that night. He hesitated to respond, obviously not wanting to make excuses, but then he explained what preceded the fight.
“I was still working at that time,” he said. “My dad was a welder. I worked with him to make money until that fight. I would go to work and then workout in the evenings. My dad would let me go a little early. So I’d go to work at 5, 6 in the morning, work all day and then train at night. … Then about three weeks before the fight the boxing federation in Argentina left me with no sparring. So I really didn’t train. I trained myself. Margarito had a team, the resources to train properly. I didn’t.
“Now? I would knock him out. But that was his night back then.”
What followed was even worse: Martinez said he was completely abandoned by his handlers, Argentine boxing officials and his financial backers after the setback. Or, as he put it, “They were finished with me.” Only his family stood by his side.
“I learned a lot about life because of that,” he said.
On top that, Martinez re-injured his hand later that year and had difficulty recovering. To this day it appears he’s missing one knuckle. A doctor, he said, suggested at the time that he pursue another profession.
Instead, he went with a bitter taste in his mouth to Spain, where he hoped to get a fresh start. He planned to work –- ultimately washing dishes, serving food, acting as a bouncer at various establishments, anything to earn a few Euros –- and resume his boxing career.
Things didn’t go well immediately. Shortly after he arrived, thieves stole almost all his belongs. That included all of his contact information for Argentine boxers and trainers based in the Madrid area he had hoped would help him get restarted there.
The only number remaining was on a piece of paper he had absently crammed into his shoe, that of boxer Pablo Sarmiento, whose brother, Gabriel, remains his primary trainer.
His luck had turned.
“I met Pablo in Argentina when we had a misunderstanding over something,” Martinez said. “I told him off, he told me off and we went our separate ways. I never really expected to talk to him again. I had his number, though. And I needed help. So I swallowed my pride and called him.
“Pablo didn’t even remember me but he helped me.”
Martinez fell in love with Spain, which he now considers his primary home. That’s where he continued to work on his skill set under Gabriel Sarmiento and built his reputation until finally following the Sarmientos in 2007 to the United States, the ideal location to realize his goal: to become the best fighter in the world.
Martinez, now promoted by Lou DiBella, finally received the breaks in 2008 he would need to become a star. He also received a double dose of frustration.
He fought Kermit Cintron and Williams back to back on HBO last year –- the two biggest fights of his career to that point — and arguably won both of them. However, Cintron, who benefited from the referee’s decision to reverse an apparent KO, somehow was awarded a draw and Williams took a close decision.
Again, Martinez was disappointed but his faith in himself never wavered.
“I’m from Argentina and then Spain. I was still trying to win this country over,” he said, implying that Cintron and Williams might’ve had a slight advantage because they're American. “My steps are always the hardest. I accept it.
“I still knew in my heart that I would be a champion.”
Enter Kelly Pavlik, the powerful RING magazine 160-pound champion. The two agreed to fight on April 17 in Atlantic City, N.J., which would turn out to be the greatest night of Martinez’s life.
The challenger put it all together, proving to be too fast, too athletic and much too good for the tough but limited champion and won a clear unanimous decision and the championship.
He had his moment.
“It’s impossible to put into words,” he said of his feelings about the victory. “All I know is it will always stay with me. It was the highest point of my career. All the hard work, all the disappointments, it was all worth it that night.
“That victory erased everything that came before.”
Martinez is taking on the monstrous challenge of fighting Williams again in part, he said, because he loves challenges but also because the clock is ticking.
He expects to fight two, maybe three more years before retiring. He wants to get as many big fights as possible, even if that means going to hell and back against a warrior like Williams.
This time, feeling stronger than ever because of an intensified fitness-training regimen, he said he will score a knockout. And he hopes that will set up even bigger fights.
His wildest dream? To fight Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao in back to back fights, which would allow him the opportunity to prove exactly how good he is and set himself up for life financially.
And he’s dead serious about becoming the No. 1 fighter in the world. His perpetual smile disappeared when he made his point.
“My goal is to become pound for pound the best fighter in the world,” he said very deliberately, to emphasize his words. “The age doesn’t matter. That’s my goal. And I plan to achieve it.”
And if that happens? Not bad for a soccer player who got off to a late start.