Javier Martinez: Rare hope in Milwaukee

Being eight-years old on the south side streets of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, can age a child in dog years.  

The colourful murals painted on the building exteriors distract from what’s happening behind some closed, unlocked doors. Children are left fending for themselves, exposed to a range of things even men shouldn’t have to see. But in darkness, there always remains the hopeful search for light.  

“Growing up was kinda tough being where I’m from, you know,” mutters Top Rank’s middleweight prospect, Javier Martinez (3-0, 1 KO). He’s described to me as quiet, unassuming, but with a story to tell. It turns out there’s a few. His real reason for turning professional is a story of amateur boxing’s unashamed political undercurrent, but he’s going to get to that.  

First, Martinez tells Boxing Social about early life in the south side: “My brothers were doing the wrong things, [hanging] around the wrong people. It felt like I was a product of my environment, so I was living that lifestyle. I started doing stuff that I shouldn’t have been doing. I was eight-years old when my brother got incarcerated and before that, the house I lived in, I would see all kinds of stuff: people doing drugs, random people just coming in and out, prostitution, all kinds of crazy stuff that an eight-year-old should never be exposed to.  

“It’s crazy because my city is a small city. We have under a million people here, but I feel like everybody knows everybody. There’s a lot of hate in this city. Every time I leave the city, that’s a great thing for me. I had to become a man real quick – it was tough. I felt like once I had my first kid at 16 years old, that kind of humbled me. It made me think, ‘What do I really wanna do? End up in jail? On the streets? Or do I want to make something of myself?’ I feel like once that happened, I put my all into boxing and I became number one in the country two years in a row and won the Olympic trials. Now, I’m signed to Top Rank and I’m in one of the best camps in the world.” 

Boxing, as it always does when unwinding clichéd stories, acted as Martinez’s escape. Despite drifting momentarily when following in his elder brother’s footsteps, he was a celebrated international amateur, travelling the world and picking up impressive wins on enemy territory. Memories of life in Milwaukee’s tougher neighbourhoods had shaped his behaviour though, and Martinez explained that his Team USA coaches couldn’t see past some minor, historical indiscretions.  

It started just after he’d been called up to the national squad four years prior, and then came to a head in preparation for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games. Martinez now competes as a professional as the ashes of an American elite tick over, waiting for the delayed tournament to kick off – but signing professional papers was not initially through choice. 

“I never really spoke about this to nobody, but I was in that team for four years. Now, I wasn’t a perfect person; I got in some trouble, overseas sometimes, I got in trouble in camp sometimes, but I grew in those four years. I went to the Olympic trials, and I beat the guy two times in the same tournament. This guy had no international experience; he went overseas one time and lost that fight, he almost got stopped, and you’re gonna pick that person over me?  

“I’ve been in that team for four years and this guy hasn’t even got… I don’t know, man,” he continues, catching his breath and remaining cool, while remembering those nights spent staring at the ceiling, his body aching from multiple sessions, torn from his family in pursuit of what ultimately became nothing.  

“I feel like they were trying to get rid of me from the beginning. The first year I was in the camp, they kicked me out. Ever since, it was all a bad vibe. I never really got along with the coaches, and I feel like I should have gone pro earlier. They tried every excuse in the book; they said I was a bad role model, I was this and that, but it’s tough. It’s tough to speak about it. When they called me and gave me the news that they’d picked somebody else, I was in shock. I just felt like the world had come down on me.  

“How you gonna do that to me, man? I could have been pro four years earlier. Four years. Four years away from my son, just to make that happen. Just so a person like that can rip it away from me. Every time I’d come home, I’d see my kid and he always looked bigger. That just brought tears to my eyes. I’m away from my kid for so long – just trying to make a better life for him – and they do that to me.” 

Team USA’s loss has proved to be Split-T Management and Bob Arum’s Top Rank Promotions’ gain, as the Wisconsin-native prepares for his fourth professional outing on May 22. He’s set to face another test on a massive, undisputed 140lbs bill. In preparation for the next step of his own journey, he’s been working – and bonding – with half of the show’s main event, unified WBC and WBO world champion, Jose Ramirez. 

Former amateur star Martinez (left) hopes to bring pro glory to Milwaukee.
Photo: Mikey Williams/Top Rank.

Martinez joined forces with renowned trainer of champions, Robert Garcia, at his RGBA facility and hasn’t looked back since. He told Boxing Social of his relationship with Ramirez, who squares off against Scotland’s IBF and WBA Super champion, Josh Taylor: “My body’s a little tired right now; it’s been a long weekend and it’s the last sparring today. I’ve been sparring Jose Ramirez. That’s going pretty good. He’s a real family man and he offered to bring me out here for a week, which motivates me more than anything else, you know. 

“I’m here in his camp right now at his [Garcia’s] house where the boxers stay. There’s six of us here now and the gym is right behind us. The relationship with Robert is great. He’s a Mexican just like me, he talks his shit, just like me. I feel like we’ve all come from the same background – from the streets. What makes this more serious is being out here away from my family. I gotta take advantage of it. I don’t have the luxury of grabbing a car and hanging out with a friend; I can’t go and see my kid. Every time I’m out here I gotta give it 100% and make these days count so that when I fight, they know I’m doing what I gotta do.” 

Gotta do, the 25-year-old stresses, seeing boxing as his only option. It must work. In linking up with Brendan Segalas, David McWater and Split-T, Martinez has positioned himself with one of the sport’s growing managerial powerhouses, giving himself a greater chance of success and unlimiting his exposure. Segalas told me that underneath his cold, dark demeanour, the young father from Milwaukee is hilarious. But for now, it’s all business. 

“The main, main thing, if I’m being really honest it’s to make money and to make a comfortable life for my family, my kid. I know once I become a world champ, I can achieve those things. My main focus is to take my family out of those south side streets. I’ve been there my whole life, 25 years, the same house, and everything. I’m working with great guys now; Brendan is my guy, he takes really good care of me, organising my flights and some transport, you know. They have a lot of great fighters in their company, like Teofimo [Lopez], Ivan Baranchyk, so I feel like I’m in the right place. The sky’s the limit now, man.” 

Martinez is a middleweight on a mission.
Photo: Mikey Williams/Top Rank.

Boxing is, as it always was, beset with obstacles and opportunities to escape through the side exit. Escaping life back at home would be deemed success in Martinez’s eyes, but it’s a long way down the road. I often wonder if those fighters with an affinity for fast cash and comfortable living have enough fuel to complete the journey if they’re unfairly or unfortunately re-routed. 

“I left that old life behind me already,” the unbeaten 160lbs prospect confirms. “I’m fully locked in to become the best version of myself; I often talk to god and tell him to remove bad distractions from my path. With him in my corner, I will never go back to the person I was a few years ago. I’m fully committed to becoming a world champion. Coming from my background and from my city where nobody makes it, it would be one of the biggest things. I know I’d make my city proud if I did that.” 

He’s right. Boxing isn’t thriving in Milwaukee, but in a strange degree of separation, it was the birthplace and home to the sport’s inaugural, professional, light-welterweight world champion. Perhaps Martinez can share that bit of trivia with the reigning, unified 140lbs champion sleeping two doors down – Pinky Mitchell (1899 – 1976), the first boxing pride of Wisconsin. 

As we bring our conversation to a close, Martinez tells me that his son is still at home, on the south side streets of Milwaukee. At home, safe, but living in the same area that aged him rapidly, from boy to man without choice or explanation. The things he had to accept as ‘normal’ aren’t taking place anymore; he’s made sure of that. But funnily enough, Martinez Jr. is eight-years old, just as his father was when stepping over hazy intruders, avoiding drug paraphernalia, and covering his ears to drown out sounds from paying guests.

His son is starting out with a chance, but you’d assume he still has a bit of dog in him. 

“I want to become a legend in my city,” he said. “Not a lot of people make it from where I’m from. I want generations to say, ‘Look, there’s three-time or four-time world champion, Javier Martinez from Milwaukee.’ That’s what I want. That’s the legacy I want to leave behind for him.”  

Main image and all photos: Mikey Williams/Top Rank.