Darren Barker did not look like a 26-1 underdog as he effectively boxed Sergio Martinez on nearly even terms through 10 rounds of their middleweight title bout in Atlantic City, N.J., on Saturday.
The middleweight champ, rated No. 3 pound for pound by THE RING and Yahoo! Sports, had won more rounds going into the final six minutes of the HBO-televised bout but he did not look like an elite fighter as he gradually wore down the game British challenger with the sheer volume of his punches.
Martinez knocked Barker out with a cuffing right hook to the ear mid-way through the 11th round but he didn’t appear that special prior to closing the show in style, which might actually be a good thing for the 36-year-old veteran.
Martinez (48-2-2, 27 knockouts) spoke more of his desire to fight one of the two super stars of the sport, Manny Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather, than he did of Barker in the weeks leading into their title bout at Boardwalk Hall.
He told the boxing media that he was willing to boil his muscular 5-foot-11 frame down to 150 pounds in order to entice the two fighters rated ahead of him on pound-for-pound lists to challenge him, but most discounted this talk as wishful thinking.
Martinez had looked too damn formidable in recent fights for even first-ballot hall of famers like Mayweather and Pacquiao, who currently sit atop the welterweight division, to risk a climb in weight to fight him.
Martinez, THE RING's fighter of the year for 2010, appeared to be the total package. He showed championship heart getting up from a knockdown to outclass and out-point Kelly Pavlik over 12 rounds to claim the middleweight title last April. He displayed chilling power with this one-punch KO of Paul Williams in their rematch last November. He exhibited speed and savvy while imposing his athletic southpaw style on Sergei Dzinziruk, a skilled veteran titleholder, en route to a dominating eighth-round stoppage in March.
Martinez looked unbeatable at 160 pounds, until Saturday.
Barker (23-1, 14 KOs), a 6-foot-tall middleweight with good fundamentals, made the Argentine veteran look human through 10 rounds. The 29-year-old Londoner competed with Martinez with basic boxing.
He patiently walked Martinez down with a long-range jab and well-timed right hands, which bloodied the sticking-and-moving champ’s nose in the fourth round. He paced himself well and blocked many of Martinez’s one-two combinations with his high guard.
Barker did everything right except let his hands go. Martinez led by official scores of 99-91, 97-93 and 96-94 after 10 rounds for one reason: he was busier and he took more chances.
Some will say that Barker’s lack of aggression meant he didn‘t come to win on Saturday, as HBO commentator Larry Merchant seemed to insinuate. Nonsense. He did the best he could.
Opening up against a fighter as dynamic as Martinez is suicide, even for a skilled boxer like Barker, unless one possesses world-class speed.
Barker does not possess world-class speed. Pacquiao and Mayweather, however, do. And after watching Martinez struggle to beat an unheralded, relatively inexperienced fighter with average hand and foot speed, maybe — just maybe — they will be more inclined to consider a future showdown with the middleweight champ.
In the meantime, Martinez’s promoter, Lou DiBella, intends to keep his champ busy against capable middleweights, including Andy Lee, who avenged his only pro loss with a 10-round decision over Brian Vera on the Martinez-Barker undercard, and THE RING’s Nos. 1- and 3-rated contenders Felix Sturm and Matthew Macklin.
DiBella, who promotes both Lee and Macklin, told RingTV.com that he was interested in matching the fighters, both of whom are from Ireland, in a main event at Madison Square Garden next St. Patrick’s Day with the winner earning a shot at Martinez.
He also said he would be interested in making a fight with Antonio Margarito if the former welterweight titleholder, who stopped Martinez back in 2000, wins his rematch with Miguel Cotto on Dec. 3.
Whoever winds up facing Martinez next, it’s a sure bet he won’t be listed as a 26-1 underdog, which is a good thing for the middleweight champ. There will likely be more interest in his next few fights.
And perhaps Pacquiao and Mayweather will be among the interested observers.
Photo / Marty Rosengarten-Ringsidephotos.com