LOS ANGELES – A year ago the potential middleweight matchup between Sergio Martinez and Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. was considered a joke by most boxing fans.
Chavez, the son of the Mexican legend, earned the WBC middleweight title with a narrow points win over unheralded Sebastian Zbik last June but he was still viewed as a built-up prospect with a belt.
Few considered Chavez to be a real player in the 160-pound division; nobody thought he was in the class of Martinez, who won the RING title by outpointing lineal champ Kelly Pavlik in 2010 and defended it with a chilling second-round KO of Paul Williams in November of that year. The dynamic southpaw boxer-puncher is not only thought of as “the man” at 160 pounds but one of the pound-for-pound elite fighters in the sport.
However, perceptions have changed in the last 13 months, so much so, that few laughed when it was announced that Chavez would face Martinez in the main event of an HBO Pay-Per-View broadcast from Las Vegas on Sept. 15.
Many of the same fans and boxing writers who thought Martinez would annihilate Chavez now believe the 26-year-old pressure fighter has a legitimate shot against THE RING champ. Martinez begs to differ, but his manager, Sampson Lewkowicz, is glad public opinion has changed because more people will pay to see the two middleweights settle the debate in the ring.
Lewkowicz credited Chavez’s hall-of-fame promoter Bob Arum for knowing when to make the fight happen.
“Three fights ago none of you gave Chavez a chance to beat Sergio,” Lewkowicz told the media at Tuesday’s kick-off press conference held at the Millennium Biltmore Hotel. “But today you are split as to who you think will win, and many of you think it could be the fight of the year. So thank you Bob for developing your fighter.”
Since his majority decision over Zbik, Chavez (46-0-1, 32 knockouts) has indeed developed while notching three successful title defenses against experienced fringe contenders Peter Manfredo Jr., Marco Antonio Rubio and Andy Lee.
He overwhelmed both Manfredo and Lee to mid-rounds stoppages and outworked Rubio to a comfortable decision. Chavez showed improved technique against Manfredo and proved that he inherited his father’s world-class whiskers by taking the best shots that Rubio and Lee – both known for their power – could deliver.
Meanwhile, Martinez (49-2-2, 28 KOs), looked less-than-spectacular scoring late-rounds stoppages against Darren Barker (KO 11) and Matthew Macklin (RTD 11). Both Britain-born challengers had their moments against Martinez. Barker made him miss and bloodied his nose. Macklin was slightly ahead on the scorecards after seven rounds.
Boxing pundits wondered what happened to monster that beat Pavlik, iced Williams and dropped undefeated 154-pound beltholder Sergei Dzinziruk five times en route to an eighth-round stoppage?
Is he not big enough to dominate modern-sized middleweights? Was it his age? The Argentine veteran is 37. If he is slowing down with age, will he be able to hold off a volume puncher as big as Chavez, who routinely weighs as much as 180 pounds by fight night?
And if he can’t stop the iron-chinned youngster, can he win a decision against a busy fighter who happens to have Mexico’s most famous name on Mexican Independence Day weekend?
A group of boxing reporters bombarded Martinez with these questions before the start of Tuesday’s presser. The confident champion, who seemed a bit amused by their concerns, calmly answered each query.
They asked if he thought Chavez has improved during the past year.
“Yes,” Martinez replied through an interpreter, “with each bout he’s gotten better, and I think being a champion has helped his confidence. He has more experience now, which will be a positive for him, but it won’t be enough.”
They asked how he would deal with Chavez’s chin and pressure-fighting style.
“I’m going to hurt him,” Martinez said. “I’m going to punch a lot and I’m going to knock him out.”
They asked if he might be fading given his tougher-than-expected fights against huge underdogs, Barker and Macklin.
“I didn’t see any problems with my last two fights,” Martinez said. “I did hurt my hand during the Barker fight, but I thought my last two fights were two of the best performances of my career.”
They asked if his age is a factor in the matchup.
“Age is a factor in this fight but it’s an asset for me,” Martinez said. “My experience will be fundamental in beating Chavez. I’m better now than I was five years ago.”
They asked if he’s worried about fighting in a small ring.
“No, it’s less room for him to run.”
They asked is he’s leery of the 20 pounds Chavez will add to his large frame after the weighin.
“I’ll have more body to punch,” he said.
They asked if he might be intimidated by the big fight atmosphere of his first-pay-per-view event and the 18,000 (mostly Mexican) fans that will fill the Thomas & Mack Center.
“That only motivates me,” Martinez said.
They asked if he’s concerned about being robbed by the official judges.
“No,” he said. “My judges are my right hand and my left hand.”
The roundtable of writers and videographers began to chuckle, finally realizing that there isn’t a shred of doubt in Martinez’s mind about the outcome of this fight.
“Is there anything challenging about fighting Chavez?” one writer blurted out.
“No,” Martinez said. “Losing is not in my vocabulary. Chavez is bigger and younger than I am, but so were Kelly Pavlik and Paul Williams. This will be the best fight of my career. I will knock him out before the 10th round.”
Photos / Chris Farina-Top Rank