He was just short of his 23rd birthday when he began his boxing career as a pro with no amateur experience, and the rise of Sergio Martinez from poverty in Argentina has followed a long, torturous path from that country to Spain and finally to America in the past three years. At the age of 35, Martinez suddenly is an overnight success after dismantling Kelly Pavlik Saturday night at Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City to capture the WBC and WBO middleweight titles.
Since Martinez (45-2-2, 24 KOs) already had the WBC light middleweight title, he now owns the territory from 154 pounds up to 160, where Pavlik (36-2, 32 KOs) was undefeated, having suffered his only previous loss to Bernard Hopkins at a 170-pound catchweight. It wasn't the upset that was surprising as much as the way it happened.
Martinez was knocked down in the seventh and was trailing on two of three cards after eight rounds, but he put on an incredible finishing kick over the final four rounds. According to CompuBox Inc., he landed 112 punches to 51 for Pavlik in that span, and he had Pavlik bleeding heavily from cuts under his right eye and over his left eye so that he couldn't see the punches coming by the end.
Trying to explain his sudden burst of energy, Martinez said, "It's the passion. If you want to be a champion, you must finish like a great champion."
Growing up in one of the poorest sections of Buenos Aires, Martinez at first became a pro soccer player and a cyclist. But he eventually chose boxing because he thought that was his best chance for financial success. His athleticism proved too much for the slower Pavlik to handle.
"Being in boxing is a chance to dream of a day like today," Martinez said through an interpreter after the fight. "Today, I accomplished my dream. I never stopped dreaming of being a world champion."
Martinez came out of the gate fast to dominate the first four rounds with his speed and boxing ability, opening a tiny cut over Pavlik's left eye in the second round. But Pavlik's size and strength began to tell in the middle four rounds. Both men made the weight at 159 1/2 pounds on Friday, but just before fight time, Pavlik was all the way up to 178 compared to 167 for Martinez.
It appeared Pavlik decided he could walk through Martinez' punches. In the fifth round, Martinez was circling away from Pavlik's right hand when he walked into a hard left. Then, in the seventh, Pavlik landed a short right that sent Martinez to the canvas, and the champion continued to score with heavy punches in the eighth, which ended with him leading on two of three cards and even on the other.
"At the beginning, we didn't get frustrated the first three rounds, and that was the game plan," said Jack Loew, Pavlik's trainer. "Stay patient and we're going to start catching him. And we were. Things were changing in our favor. For some ungodly reason, we just stopped punching nine through 12. I told Kelly, 'We don't have to knock this kid out. Just continue doing what you're doing.' I don't have the answer. He just lost the fight."
Immediately after the fight, Pavlik said he couldn't see the punches coming because of the blood in his eyes, and the volume of punches was too tough to overcome. He did not appear at the post-fight news conference because he went to the hospital to have both cuts stitched.
The contract gives Pavlik a rematch clause. As Martinez's promoter, Lou DiBella said, "If they want it, obviously, they have it. And if they want it next, they have it next." But DiBella basically encouraged Pavlik to move up to super middleweight at 168, where he would retain his power, have an easier time making weight and not have to face the kind of speed and quickness he saw from Martinez, who often hot-dogged by dropping his hands, shimmying his shoulders and winding up for bolo punches.
The turning point came in the ninth round when Martinez seemed as if he might be wearing down. The southpaw came out with a fiery flurry of punches that took away Pavlik's aggressiveness. A left ripped a deep gash under Pavlik's right eye. His corner had done a good job of controlling the first cut, but this one opened up every time Martinez touched it. His counterpunches in the 10th round left Pavlik bleeding from both eyes, and in the 12th, Martinez left no doubt by ripping a left hand to Pavlik's right eye to unleash a torrent of blood.
Asked about his success moving inside to score with his left, Martinez said, "It was planned. It wasn't something by mistake. It was planned."
At times in this fight, Martinez looked like Sugar Ray Leonard with the way he mugged and clowned in dominating his rematch with an overweight Roberto Duran. DiBella said Martinez' hands down style was reminiscent of a young Roy Jones Jr. To top it off, he borrowed his nickname -- "Marvilla," which is Spanish for "marvelous" -- from Marvelous Marvin Hagler, the last truly great middleweight champion.
Clearly, Martinez is intent on making the most of his hard-fought climb to the top of the middleweight division, and his showmanship is part of the entertainment package. Asked about carrying his hands so low, Martinez smiled and said, "If I don't put them down, I would not be 'Marvelous.'…Nothing is casual. It's all premeditated."
If Pavlik wants a rematch at 160, Martinez will defend those belts. If not, he might drop back to 154, where there are many inviting opponents. One is Antonio Margarito, who stopped Martinez in seven rounds way back in 2000 and is coming back from a suspension on May 8 against Roberto Garcia. Promoter Bob Arum talked of possibly matching Margarito and Martinez in a fight at Cowboys Stadium in Dallas.
Other potential opponents include Kermit Cintron, who lost a majority draw to Martinez, Paul Williams, who won a controversial majority decision against Martinez in a non-title bout in December and up-and-coming Alfredo Angulo. For Martinez, who has worked so hard to reach this point, it's a veritable buffet of riches, which is "marvilla" indeed.