Darren Barker isn’t well known outside of the UK but the 29-year-old middleweight is more capable than odds makers have made him out to be going into his title challenge against RING champ Sergio Martinez on Saturday.
Barker (23-0, 14 knockouts) brings more than just a nice record to the big dance. The native of London, England, is a smart, 6-foot boxer who utilizes his height well with solid technique, smart footwork and good timing.
Barker is young, hungry and undefeated, the kind of opponent Martinez (47-2-2, 26 KOs) says he enjoys fighting. However, the middleweight champ’s HBO-televised title defense from the Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City, N. J., is not the caliber of fight he wants at this stage of his career.
Martinez, the 2010 Fighter of the Year, wants a fight worthy of his elite status in the sport. His main targets are the only two fighters rated above him in both THE RING and Yahoo! Sports pound-for-pound rankings, Manny Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather.
Unfortunately for Martinez, both future hall of famers fight two divisions below him in the 147-pound weight class and neither seem interested in leaving welterweight to test their mettle against a fighter as talented as the 160-pound champ.
However, Martinez has made it very public that he’s willing to come down in weight — way down — in order to make those two dream fights happen.
“I‘ll go back down to junior middleweight to get a fight with Mayweather or Pacquiao,” the former WBC 154-pound titleholder told RingTV.com through gym mate Roger Romo after his final workout in Oxnard, Calif., last Saturday.
“I can still make the weight. I’m not sure if I can comfortably make it, but that’s a sacrifice I’m willing to make for these fights to happen.
“I know it will be impossible for these fights to happen if I don’t go down in weight. They won’t come up in weight to fight me, which I understand. I respect that they are smaller fighters. That’s why I’m willing to go all the way down 150 pounds to make these great fights for the fans and for me, it’s my biggest wish.”
Martinez vs. Mayweather, Pacquiao or another veteran star, such as WBA 154-pound titleholder Miguel Cotto, is also the wish of the middleweight champ’s promoter, Lou DiBella.
But the New York City-based promoter isn’t giving into wishful thinking.
“I’ve got to face reality, Miguel Cotto wants no part of Sergio,” DiBella told RingTV.com. “I think he knows where he stands at this stage of his career, and my guy is not in his plans. Nobody at Top Rank is going to let Manny Pacquiao get near Sergio. That fight won’t happen, and I can see why given how small Manny is.
“Mayweather is probably Sergio’s best chance for a super fight, because he’s not that much smaller and I don’t believe he’s a coward. I think Floyd will fight anyone, but Sergio won’t be his next fight.”
So where does that leave Martinez? The veteran southpaw seemed poised for big fight following his breakout 2010, when he crashed pound-for-pound lists with his middleweight title-winning decision over Kelly Pavlik and chilling second-round of Paul Williams.
However, his first bout following the 2010 Knockout of the Year of Williams was an HBO-televised title defense against Sergei Dzinziruk. Martinez dominated the undefeated 154-pound beltholder to an eighth-round stoppage but outside of the hardcore boxing nerds who knew who the skilled Ukrainian southpaw was, few were impressed or even bothered to take notice.
DiBella realizes Martinez’s career is in jeopardy of its momentum and he has already put plans into motion to create marketable future events for his fighter, although he says he hates to look past Barker.
“Barker can fight,” DiBella said. “I think he’s been treated unfairly by odds makers and the U.S. media, who tend to criticize who they don’t know. This guy’s a big middleweight with a good jab. He had an excellent amateur career and he’s held every British title you can win.
“Sergio tells me not to worry about anything but I always get worried when my guy, who’s got everything to lose, is fighting a guy who has nothing to lose. A guy like Barker is dangerous if underestimated.”
Martinez says he’s not overlooking Barker.
“I like to fight undefeated boxers, I like difficult fights,” said Martinez, who sported a slight shiner on his left eye from quality sparring sessions with slick super middleweight Dyah Davis and junior middleweight prospect Steven Martinez late in his camp.
“I’m calm and confident going into this fight. It doesn’t matter to me that Barker is unknown in America. I still have a job to do and I’m going to win in devastating fashion. I’m going to win by knockout.”
If Martinez makes good on his promise, as most expect, his next opponent could be entertaining Irish southpaw Andy Lee, who faces Bryan Vera in a rematch that opens the HBO broadcast on Saturday, or another DiBella-signed middleweight standout.
In his last HBO appearance, on the Martinez-Dzinziruk undercard, Lee defeated Craig McEwan with a come-from-behind knockout. One doesn’t have to be a boxing expert to see that DiBella is grooming the 27-year-old boxer-puncher for a shot at the champ.
“Lee stole the show against McEwan and he might do it again on Saturday because Vera has improved a lot since they last fought,” said DiBella, who recently signed Vera, the only fighter to have beaten Lee. “It’s an even fight. If Lee’s balls are too big and he stands and trades with Bryan, he can lose.
“But if Lee beats Vera and looks good doing it, Martinez vs. Lee is a fight that can be made for Madison Square Garden next St. Patrick’s Day.”
It’s a fight that would probably sell well, but it isn’t the only option for DiBella, who recently signed THE RING’s No. 3-rated middleweight Matthew Macklin, a 29-year-old Brit of Irish descent who lost a controversial split-decision to WBA beltholder Felix Strum in June.
“Lee vs. Macklin at the Garden on St. Patrick’s Day could be a hell of a fight,” DiBella said. “The winner would fight Sergio.
“I’ve also got Peter Manfredo Jr., who is very live against Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. Don’t count Peter out in that fight. If he beats Junior, he’s a candidate for Sergio.”
DiBella admits that Martinez vs. Macklin, Lee and Manfredo aren’t mega-fights. However, they’re bigger fights than Saturday’s matchup and will keep Martinez busy and in the public eye as he waits for the stars of the sport to climb in weight for a real challenge; not unlike former middleweight champ Marvin Hagler bid his time until his showdowns with Roberto Duran, Thomas Hearns and Sugar Ray Leonard eventually materialized.
“In a different time, such as the era of Hagler and Leonard, I think Sergio would have already got the big fight,” DiBella said. “He will get that opportunity, he just has to wait for it.”
Doug Fischer can be emailed at email@example.com