Sergio Martinez entered his dressing room at the MGM Grand Theater at Foxwoods Resort Casino in Mashantucket, Conn., at 9:15 on the night of March 12.
A gray Formica star with a plexiglass slot designed to accommodate a nameplate was attached to the door. The slot was empty. A sheet of paper with the instructions, “Red Corner – Sergio Martinez – Ready by 10:50,” was taped above the star.
The room was long and narrow with beige carpeting and cream-colored walls. Its most distinguishing feature was an L-shaped Formica counter that stretched the length of two adjacent walls. Ten vanity mirrors were set above the counter. Each one was bordered by 13 lights matched with a black swivel chair and had its own make-up drawer. Ten boxes of tissues offered further proof that, on gentler nights, this was a chorus girls’ dressing room. A sign by the door warned, “The lighting of candles in the dressing room is strictly prohibited. We appreciate your cooperation.”
The room was a reminder that, for thousands of years, women have sold their bodies for the entertainment of others. When Jimmy Cannon called boxing “the red light district of professional sports,” he was referring to the unsavory business aspects of the fight game. Boxing at its core is the sale of a fighter’s body for entertainment, a particularly brutal form of skin trade.
Martinez is one of boxing’s most talented practitioners. He was born into poverty in Argentina. “Life sometimes takes you through a path where the lighter thing is boxing,” he said not long ago.
That says all one needs to know about the circumstances of Sergio’s life when he was young. He began boxing in 1995 at age 20. Two years later, he turned pro. In the 14 years since then, he has lost twice in 51 fights.
The first loss came in 2000 at the hands of Antonio Margarito. “I was trained but I was not prepared,” Martinez has said of that fight. “I started well, but it was impossible for me to win that night. He was a professional boxer, a great champion. And at that moment, I was a boxer who, three or four years before, was working on roofs. I was playing soccer with my friends when Margarito had already been a professional boxer for six or seven years. What had to happen happened. In terms of spirits, I never was down after that defeat.”
The second loss was a majority-decision verdict in a bout against Paul Williams in 2009. Martinez rebounded from that setback by dethroning middleweight champion Kelly Pavlik on April 17 of last year and knocking Williams unconscious with a single punch in the second round of their Nov.20 rematch. Those victories earned him recognition from the Boxing Writers Association of America as its 2010 “Fighter of the Year.”
March 12 at Foxwoods was the next test for Martinez. As is often the case in boxing, considerable sturm und drang accompanied the making of the fight
Martinez (the WBC middleweight champion) had hoped to face the sanctioning body’s mandatory challenger (Sebastian Zbik). But HBO demanded that he face Sergei Dzinziruk (the WBO 154-pound beltholder) instead.
That didn’t sit well with Team Martinez. The Ukrainian-born Dzinziruk had a 37-0 record and is nicknamed “Razor” because of his cutting jab. Worse, he was considered all but impossible to “look good” against because of his cautious counterpunching style.
Also, failing to fight Zbik meant that Martinez would be stripped of his belt, since WBC president Jose Sulaiman was believed to be eager to install a less-formidable champion in the hope of giving Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. (one of his favorite fighters) a realistic chance of winning the title.
In the end, Team Martinez opted for HBO’s dollars (a $2,600,000 license fee less $850,000 for the Dzinziruk camp). The WBC happily relieved Sergio of his title and declared that it was elevating Zbik from “interim” to “undisputed” middleweight champion. Then, proving once again that he has less shame than one might expect in a noble public servant, Sulaiman announced that Martinez had been designated the WBC “middleweight champion emeritus.”
The dictionary defines “emeritus” as “retired or honorably discharged from active professional duty, but retaining the title of one’s office or position.” That’s a poor fit with Sergio’s active status.
Undeterred, Sulaiman then announced that Martinez-Dzinziruk would be contested for the WBC’s “diamond belt.” That allowed him to charge a sanctioning fee for the fight plus $45,000 for the belt itself. On casual inspection of the bauble, $45,000 appeared to be a mark-up of astronomical proportions.
In his dressing room on fight night, Sergio made himself comfortable in one of the swivel chairs and read text messages from friends. Abraham Lopez and David Sanchez were with him. Martinez and Sanchez became friendly after Sergio moved from Argentina to Spain in 2002. Lopez joined Sergio’s circle when the fighter relocated to Oxnard, Calif., several years ago.
One person conspicuous by his absence was trainer Gabriel Sarmiento. Two days earlier, it had been announced that, for “personal reasons,” Gabriel wouldn’t attend the fight. Pablo Sarmiento (a member of Martinez’s training staff, who has worked Sergio’s corner in recent outings) would be the chief second in his brother’s absence.
“It’s private, so there’s not much I can say about it,” Lou DiBella (Martinez’s promoter) told the media at the final pre-fight press conference. “Gabriel was with Sergio in training camp all the way, so they’ve worked on everything together. We’re comfortable with Pablo.”
Still, this was the first time in eight years that Gabriel wouldn’t be in Sergio’s corner.
When he finished texting, Sergio turned his attention to a flat-screen television monitor mounted high on the wall in a corner of the room. Javier Fortuna vs. Derrick Wilson (the fifth fight of the evening) was about to begin.
Martinez and Fortuna are stablemates. That was a problem. Pablo Sarmiento and the rest of Martinez’s cornermen were at ringside with Javier. The HBO telecast was slated to begin at 10:30 with a bout between Andy Lee and Craig McEwan. If Lee-McEwan ended in the first round, Martinez would be expected to walk at 10:50. But if Fortuna-Wilson went the distance, Martinez’s cornermen wouldn’t be back in the dressing room until 10:25. That wouldn’t leave enough time for Martinez to have his hands wrapped, warm up and be ready to fight.
At 9:55, Buddy McGirt (who was working Dzinziruk’s corner) came in.
“We’re going to wrap now,” McGirt said. “Are you sending someone over to watch?”
Neither Lopez nor Sanchez had the requisite expertise. Lopez went down to ringside to see if he could pull Adam Flores out of Fortuna’s corner.
Ten o’clock came and went. The inspector assigned to Martinez’s dressing room was getting edgy.
“We’re on the clock here, guys. You’ve got to start getting ready.”
“I’m sorry,” Martinez told him. “My corner is not here yet.
Fortuna stopped Wilson in the eighth round. At 10:07, Sarmiento, Ricardo Sanchez-Atocha (who co-manages Martinez withSampson Lewkowicz), and cornerman Cicilio Flores [Adam’s brother] entered the dressing room.
Martinez put on his trunks, laced up his shoes and did some light stretching exercises.
At 10:18, Sanchez-Atocha began wrapping Sergio’s hands, left hand first. Eighteen minutes later, the job was done.
Lee-McEwan began at 10:40. HBO production coordinator Tami Cotel entered the room and announced to all concerned, “You have 10 minutes from the end of this fight.”
Martinez needed at least 25 minutes to get ready. He hadn’t gloved up, warmed up or done any pad work.
“Don’t worry,” he was told. “Whatever happens, you don’t go to the ring until you’re ready. They can’t start the fight without you.”
Cecilio Flores began stretching Martinez’s legs … Sanchez-Atocha gloved him up … Martinez began shadow-boxing in three-minute segments … Sanchez-Atocha greased him down.
At 11:01, Martinez began hitting the pads with Sarmiento. Pablo is quieter and less demonstrative than his brother. He gave instructions in a soft voice that everyone in the room except Martinez strained to hear.
Ten minutes later, the time crisis was over. Martinez had broken a sweat and was sharp. Lee-McEwen was only in the eighth round. Whatever Martinez did from this point on would be designed simply to maintain his readiness.
There was more stretching and another round of pad work. Then it was time.
Martinez put on his robe and hugged everyone in the room. There was joy in his eyes. “This is a night of celebration,” he said.
Martinez was a 5-to-1 betting favorite. Each fighter had weighed in a day earlier at 158.8 pounds. Both men were southpaws. At 6 feet even (183cm), Dzinziruk was two inches taller and had a clear reach advantage.
Eight rounds of intense fighting at a high skill level followed.
The first two rounds belonged to Martinez. Dzinziruk has a punishing jab. But he doesn’t double up on it, and he doesn’t move his head enough. A good jab is about timing. In the early going, Martinez got off first, nullifying Dzinziruk’s jab with single and double jabs of his own. When Martinez let his hands go, Dzinziruk didn’t. When Martinez paused, Dzinziruk was quick to fire.
In round three, the action evened out a bit. Martinez seemed to be expending more energy than his opponent. Whenever Martinez stopped moving, Dzinziruk popped him with a sharp stinging jab of his own.
Eighteen seconds into round four,Martinez landed a glancing overhand left to the top of the head and Dzinziruk went down to the extent that his knee touched the canvas. It was the first time in his career that he suffered a knockdown. Later in the stanza, Dzinziruk landed some good straight lefts that got Martinez’s attention. But the knockdown made it a 10-8 round.
Round five belonged to Dzinziruk until the 2:51 mark when another left (again, to the top of the head) put him on the canvas for the second time.
After five rounds, Martinez was seven points ahead on each of the judges’ scorecards.
But round six, which could have been scored either way, was cause for concern. Martinez’s face was puffing up, particularly around his eyes, and he appeared to be tiring.
Round seven was the second round in a row in which Dzinziruk had a statistical edge in the number of punches landed. Martinez was digging deep to keep the fight on even terms and eating more leather than he would have liked. Worse, he was having trouble seeing out of his left eye (which had a slice on the eyelid) and overreaching a bit with his left hand.
Sarmiento was slow to leave the ring at the end of the one-minute break following round seven. And Martinez was slow leaving his corner. He was starting to look his age.
Not to worry.
Sixty-five seconds into round eight, Martinez landed a straight left flush on the jaw over a Dzinziruk jab. The first two knockdowns of the fight had scored points but neither blow had done much damage. This one did damage. Dzinziruk went down and was wobbly when he rose. Two more knockdowns (Nos. 4 and 5 for the fight) followed. Referee Arthur Mercante Jr. halted the action at the 1:43 mark of the round.
Over the course of the fight, Martinez outlanded Dzinziruk 226 to 161, according to CompuBox statistics. To the surprise of many, he also outjabbed the jabber. He rose to the occasion, dug deep, and did what he had to do to win. He outfought Dzinziruk; he outthought Dzinziruk. He fought creatively and was mentally strong as well.
How good is Martinez?
Let’s start with the fact that he’sa superb athlete and a complete fighter. He has good footwork and good balance. Quickness and speed are two different things. Martinez has fast hands and he pulls the trigger quickly. Put him in against a style that’s different from what he has seen before and he deals with it. Becoming a world champion seems to have made him a more-confident fighter. He can whack and he’s setting down on his punches more now than he did before.
Martinez is thought of as a small middleweight. But his body is solid and his torso is remarkably thick for someone who moves with as much grace as he does. There’s nothing fragile about him. In the ring, for all his personal charm, he’s a tough SOB.
One of the most remarkable things about Martinez is that, almost without exception, fighters with the best natural instincts started young. Martinez didn’t take up boxing until age 20. Sixteen years of hard work and discipline have made him the fighter he is today. But he also has the instincts of a fighter. There are times when he seems to be playing chess in the ring against his opponent.
It’s rare for a fighter to improve in his mid-30s. But Martinez is doing just that. And he does things with speed and timing that a 36-year-old man isn’t supposed to possess.
As for what comes next; the middleweight division is short on credible challengers. And not many name fighters at 154 or 160 pounds appear eager to step into the ring with “Maravilla.” Martinez said recently, “I’m not thinking of going up to 168 because I’d be too small physically. I would give up too much of an advantage to 168-pounders.”
Thus, it will be hard to find a big-money super-fight for him.
Meanwhile, let it be said that Martinez brings elegance and grace to a brutal trade. He has a high level of self-respect and the vanity of a great performer. But as boxing writer Bart Barry notes, “There are no silly press-conference antics; no vitriolic conference calls; no made-for-infomercial hand-pad tricks; no ring entrance on a swing; no posse of buffoons wrestling Michael Buffer for the camera during introductions. Just a good-looking athlete wearing championship belts and bowing to those gathered in his name, followed by an artistry of motion rarely seen in boxing.”
Four years ago, when Martinez was fighting club-fight opponents in out-of-the-spotlight venues for a few thousand dollars, he told an interviewer, “I believe I was born to be a champion. It is a road that is already made. I only have to walk it.”
He is at his destination now.
Thomas Hauser can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. His most recent book (“Waiting for Carver Boyd”) was published by JR Books and can be purchased athttp://www.amazon.com or http://www.abebooks.com.