Pausing, thinking of an answer to the final question, Sergio Martinez (51-3-2, 28 KOs) tells Boxing Social, “I want to be remembered as a good champion, a good person, honest in and out of the ring. All I have done and all I am going to do is for the history of boxing, for my country and for my fans.”
It seems fitting to begin at the end.
Over six years since losing decisively to Puerto Rico’s Miguel Cotto in his last professional outing (RTD10), the silence of ordinary life has become deafening. The self-made promotional company and other business interests have kept 45-year old Maravilla’s (Wonderful) heart warm, but they have never quite filled the gaping hole sliced open during his ongoing struggle with retirement.
When fighters discuss comebacks, money is often mooted as their primary motivation, but Martinez has more than he’d ever envisaged. This wasn’t Riddick Bowe hunting millions fighting as a circus act, chasing the biggest and baddest on the planet. It was for peace of mind.
And in striking up a debate about his anticipated return to boxing, former WBC and WBO middleweight champion Martinez (accompanied by his translator Óscar Zardain) explains it is win or bust on August 21st in Torrelavega, Spain – for good this time.
“I’m very happy because I will finally be in the ring once again, on August 21st in Torrelavega,” explains an excitable Martinez. “My opponent is a strong Spanish fighter named José Miguel Fandino, a good fighter, honest and tough. He is a real test and it’s what I need to check myself. If I make it a good fight, I will continue fighting, but if not… bye-bye.
“This is not about money or ego, it is deeper than that. I need to be at peace with boxing. The last two fights of my career, because of injuries and problems with my trainers I ended up feeling disgusted with boxing.”
Fandino, age 36 and with six losses on his ledger, already has a fight lined up after Sergio Martinez. He’s set to face Nelson Altamirano, a boxer with 35 losses and four disappointing trips to the United Kingdom in the past 15 months (losing to Shakiel Thompson, Gino Kanters, Nathan Heaney and Caoimhin Agyarko). Martinez’s opponent is operating several levels below the elite he used to gaze at from across the ring, but he will serve his purpose. He’s active.
In bowing out after the Cotto loss, Martinez was hurting. Physically, his body had started giving up on him, but the toll that the defeat had taken on him emotionally left additional scar tissue, still unhealed.
His journey, from the rugged streets of Quilmes, Argentina, travelling through Europe in search of an opportunity, was certainly movie-worthy. In fact, watching the critically acclaimed documentary ‘Maravilla’ allows you a glimpse into Sergio’s career – defying the odds time after time. The bullied son of working-class parents, he would become king of the world without either an education or regal bloodline. Football and cycling acted as distractions and potential careers within sport, but boxing prevailed as it often does for kids brought up tough.
“I was the second [eldest] of three brothers. My mum is Susana, she was a homemaker, and my father Hugo is a metal worker,” explained Martinez. “We were a poor family, living in a very small house in Quilmes at the time. I left the school at 14 to help my father with his work. Boxing was just always around my family. My uncle Rubén Paniagua has a boxing gym in Quilmes and he was a pro in the eighties. We were good boxing fans, but I was playing football instead.
He continued, “I started [boxing] when I was 20 years old, but only to improve my physical condition. I felt since that first moment [in the gym] that I was born to be a boxing champion. As an amateur, I compiled a record of 39-2 and I won the National Championship in 1997. After that, I travelled to Budapest for the World Championships fighting for the National Team. I lost in the second fight by decision against Adrian Diaconu.”
Martinez debuted in 1997 and fought 17 times professionally in his native Argentina, establishing a fan base, before taking the plunge beyond its borders. Called up as an opponent for Mexican mauler, Antonio Margarito, it was the opportunity that he and his team had waited for, featuring on the Erik Morales vs Marco Antonio Barrera I undercard at the Mandalay Bay, Las Vegas. The Quilmes man was vastly inexperienced and Margarito emerged victorious after only seven rounds of clubbing action.
Back to the drawing board, and back to the land of unity and freedom.
“Myself and Margarito’s fight was the key [for my career],” Martinez tells Boxing Social, reflecting on is progression to world titles. “That loss taught me that I was not ready to fight at the top level and I needed to improve a lot of things: my physical condition, my team and also my management. He was the better fighter that night and he was better prepared than I was. I have no regrets and it was early in my career; I had to become a better fighter because of it. In addition, I think that loss was good; it helped to make the first fight against Richard Williams possible, that’s my favourite fight.
“That fight against Richard Williams is my favourite fight because I was in a very bad situation and they called me by phone only nine days before the bout. The match [itself] was a hard experience; he broke my nose, my jaw on the left side, four teeth, and also, he cracked two of my ribs. He knocked me down in the 3rd and 11th rounds. But I won the fight. Those three UK fights [Martinez later stopped Adrian Stone and Williams in a rematch] hold a special place in my memory.”
Those fights in the UK allowed Sergio the opportunity to link up with Lou DiBella stateside, after an introduction from long-time advisor, Sampson Lewkowicz. DiBella was reportedly blown away by footage of the Argentine and the three men formed a loyal bond that accompanied Martinez into the biggest fights of his career. He became a world champion, a lauded fighter of his decade and a national icon.
Martinez became known for devastating power and his slick, unconventional style. Viciously shattering Paul Williams’ dreams in their winter rematch of 2010, he swiftly cemented himself as a fans’ favourite and carried that form into continuously tricky fights – only losing his WBC crown in his last ever fight. Well, maybe not ever.
“Kelly Pavlik and Paul Williams, they were very tough guys, big middleweights, and top-level fighters [Martinez would beat Pavlik and split victories with Williams]. My fight against Julio Cesar Chávez Jr. was amazing because of the entire story behind us, all the political shit in boxing. And the Martin Murray fight was my dream night, fighting in front of a crowd of 50,000 in Argentina after 11 years.”
For Paul Williams – tragically paralyzed aged 30 in a motorbike accident, while scheduled to tackle Saul ‘Canelo’ Alvarez – Martinez had nothing but praise, despite losing touch, “To be honest, I don’t have any close contact with him [Paul Williams]. I know that he is fine and we have friends in common, I follow him on social media and I have great memories of him as a person; he was always very polite and humble with me and my team.”
Humility has always been a strength of Sergio Martinez, a man of the people, and it’s one that follows him into this next fight. It’s win or “bye-bye” – he knows that now. When surrendering his title to Cotto, his permanent disappearance from boxing wasn’t a sure thing. Injuries had plagued him; including damage to his knees and resulting infections picked up from surgeries. He says that he lost 1.5cm of his right leg (in length), suffering excruciating pain even throughout that final training camp.
But it’s not an excuse that Martinez is fumbling for. It’s just something to keep the door open.
Maravilla claims that those injuries have been healed after years spent purely on his own health, but thanked one unconventional treatment, in particular. “Around three years ago I was in Argentina and I visited thermal waters in the region of Catamarca. I started to feel better and better, and then the pain disappeared. I started to train again and now we are ready to fight. These waters killed the bacteria,” he said.
It could be true. It could be a comfort blanket, allowing Martinez one last roll of the dice.
In just over a month, he will slip between the ropes an older man, maybe slower and more methodical than he used to be. He will throw punches, perhaps with less velocity and slower in speed, but punches with intention nonetheless. Martinez will slip and slide, probably receiving punches he’d previously have laughed off, but it’s all part of the process. This is for peace, not for payment. This is for pride, not for popularity.
One thing is certain, whether dressed in his plastic, golden crown fighting for 50,000 Argentines or battling a club fighter for a few hundred dollars – the heart will never leave him. Could he once again be king for a day?
Main Image: Chris Small. Twitter @ChrisSmallArt