“Joe Frazier said (to me), ‘You got three strikes against you. One, you’re a southpaw. Two, you’re good. And three, you’re black.’”
There is such a thing as being too good in boxing. Unlike other individual or team based sports, boxing doesn’t operate on a schedule. There’s no season, no divisional playoffs, no major tournaments. The matchups are made when they are made. The fights happen when they happen. Promoters and managers work out the logistics, and the fighters show up and do their jobs. They might call each other out, but in the end, the fighters themselves have very little say.
Most of the fighters we hear about are the fighters everyone wants (or wanted) to fight: Muhammad Ali, Joe Louis, Sugar Ray Leonard, Manny Pacquiao, and so on. Great fighters become targets for other boxers, and this is usually a good thing. In fight negotiations, one side always has more leverage than the other. One fighter has greater name recognition and will draw a bigger crowd. One fighter has a title, and the other one doesn’t. The leverage belongs to the fighter who can generate more attention, because that means more money and more prestige if the challenger pulls the upset. People might tell you that everyone was afraid of Mike Tyson, and that may be true. But everyone wanted a crack at him anyway.
There’s a parallel to this that has always existed in boxing. For every fighter everyone wants to challenge, there is a fighter nobody wants a piece of. There will always be fighters out there that nobody, or at least nobody with a big name, wants to fight. To say it’s because these fighters are “too good” is too simplistic, although that is certainly part of it. Fighters like Tyson and Louis were considered “too good” as well, but that didn’t stop the offers from coming. Those fighters represented, to the challengers, a high-risk high-reward proposition. And frankly, that’s what any title fight should be.
The fighters I’m talking about here are the fighters who are high-risk, low-reward propositions. They are fighters who are enormously talented, but who don’t bring enough to the table in other areas to convince big name fighters to take a chance on them. This usually applies to contenders, and that makes sense. After all, if you’re the champion, and you see a guy out there who has a real good chance of beating you, do you really want to risk your title when you could be getting a big payday fighting someone you know you can beat? There’s always another fighter out there to fight, and there’s always an excuse to avoid the one you’re afraid of. The champ will keep making money no matter who he fights, so negotiations can keep “breaking down.”
But the lack of a title belt is not the only reason to avoid a fighter. Some fighters become champions and still can’t get the recognition they deserve and, therefore, the fights they really want. These fighters are the truly snakebit of the boxing world. A title belt doesn’t mean as much as it used to, with all the additional divisions and separate commissions. The real challenge for these fighters is not to win their division, but to generate big money and big attention by fighting the biggest names out there. This is where certain fighters run into a wall. They become champions, they compile increasingly impressive records, and they hit the ceiling because the bigger attractions won’t let them in the door.
Perhaps no fighter in the last fifty years ran into this more than Marvelous Marvin Hagler. If ever there was an example of a fighter who was too good for his time, Halger was it. He had a fearsome, attacking style. He had an iron chin, with only one knockdown against him in sixty-seven pro fights (and that one “knockdown”—against Juan Roldan—was obviously because he slipped). He was strong, tactical, efficient, and nearly impossible to beat. Unfortunately for Hagler, he didn’t have the Hollywood style backing of the boxing industry (see: Sugar Ray Leonard), a loyal, multinational fan base (see: Roberto Duran), or the flash and pop of a big time star with a big time entourage (see: Thomas Hearns). Hagler was a brooding, menacing presence who inspired fear, but not terror. Who was admired, but not celebrated. As such, he was an easy fighter to avoid.
I’ve been thinking about Hagler quite a bit in the wake of Saturday night’s fight between Sergio Martinez and Paul Williams. Every generation has its fighter nobody wants to face, and up until Saturday night, that crown rested squarely on the head of Paul Williams. Williams reminds me a lot of Tommy Hearns. He has an extraordinarily long reach for a fighter his size. He is tall, wiry, and packs a shocking amount of power into his punches. Before Manny Pacquiao came up in weight, it was said that if there was one fighter out there who could beat Floyd Mayweather, Paul Williams was it.
Last year, Williams won a majority decision over an Argentine fighter named Sergio Martinez, who was rapidly becoming the most avoided fighter other than Williams. The fight could have gone either way, and was picked by Ring Magazine as their Fight of the Year for 2009.
Then, in the rematch on Saturday night, this happened:
That’s as impressive a knockout as you will ever see, particularly because of the level of the fighter it happened to. You could argue that it’s deceiving, that even a great fighter can get tagged by a lucky punch (see: Lennox Lewis and Hasim Rahman), but that is not the case here. Sergio Martinez is as good a boxer as there is in the world right now. He’s fast, strong, incredibly disciplined. He’s also left-handed.
In many ways, Martinez reminds me of Marvin Hagler. And it’s not just the nicknames (Hagler was “Marvelous”; Martinez is “Maravilla”). It’s not just the defensive style and strong chin. It’s not just that they are both southpaws. Perhaps the greatest thing Sergio Martinez has in common with Marvin Hagler is that he has reached the plateau just below the summit of the mountain, and now finds his options to get higher limited.
There is nobody in the middleweight division who can hold a candle to Martinez right now, and there are no big names who will draw better than him. He is a relatively new commodity in this country, and doesn’t have the rabid national support of other foreign fighters like Manny Pacquiao or Juan Manuel Marquez. Martinez is from Argentina, a country with a great history of fighters (Carlos Monzon, Luis Angel Firpo), but he has spent the last several years living in Spain, where boxing garners far less attention. Worst of all, he’s running out of time. At thirty-five years old, and with fifty fights already under his belt, his window of opportunity for legend-making fights is closing quickly.
Had Martinez beaten Pavlik two years ago, it would have made more headlines. But with Pavlik’s frequent health issues, his star had lost a lot of its shine by the time Martinez beat him. The two biggest names in boxing right now are Manny Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather, but both are from lighter weight divisions. A fight with Pacquiao might be possible at a catch weight, and Pacquiao has had no problem jumping weight classes to fight bigger and bigger fighters. But Martinez might finally be too big, and Pacquiao, who is still attempting to land a megafight with Mayweather, and who was recently elected to the Philippine Congress, is probably not going to be moving up in weight again. He’ll fight a few more times and retire as the best pound-for-pound fighter of his generation.
As I see it, Martinez has a few options, none of which involve Floyd Mayweather, who will never come up in weight to fight a bigger, stronger fighter. A fight with Pacquiao is a possibility, but not anytime soon. Martinez is going to have to wait, and while he’s waiting, he has a couple things he can do.
1) Unify the middleweight title.
I think this option might be the best one for Martinez. Not since Bernard Hopkins has the middleweight belt been unified, and doing it would garner Martinez a lot of publicity. None of the fighters would present much of a challenge to Martinez. Sebastian Sylvester, Dmitry Pirog, and Felix Sturm are all lower-tier fighters. But by the time Martinez is done mopping them up, he’ll have gained a lot more exposure without risking a whole lot in the process. A unified middleweight title belt might be enough to lure Pacquiao into jumping weight classes one more time.
2) Exact revenge.
One of the things I’ve always respected about Marvin Hagler is that he went back and beat the fighters who had put blemishes on his record. He avenged losses to Willie “The Worm” Monroe and Bobby “Boogaloo” Watts, as well as draws to Vito Antuofermo and Sugar Ray Seales, knocking all four fighters out in later contests. It could even be argued that the Watts and Seales fights weren’t necessary, but Hagler gave them another crack anyway. The only fight he didn’t avenge was the controversial loss to Sugar Ray Leonard, and that’s because Leonard wouldn’t give him a rematch.
Martinez has suffered two losses and two draws, and avenged one of each (a draw in his third career fight, and the loss in the first contest against Paul Williams). He suffered an extremely controversial draw to Kermit Cintron last year (a fight where the ref originally ruled that Martinez won by knockout, then changed his mind), and a knockout loss to Antonio Margarito in 2000. Both Cintron and Margarito are still names, although well past their prime. But Margarito just fought Pacquiao, and Martinez taking the time to go back and beat both fighters would send a message that he serious about leaving a lasting legacy. While neither fight would be that impressive, they would almost certainly generate more interest than a fight against any of the other middleweight title holders.
3) Move up in weight class.
While Showtime’s Super Six tournament has been riddled with problems (fighters dropping out due to injury, and so on), it has also been enormously successful at highlighting the top contenders in the super middleweight division. Carl Froch, Arthur Abraham, and Andre Ward (who are all still in the tournament) are enjoying greater name recognition than ever before. Even those on the fringe of tournament, like late arrivals Sakio Bika and Glen Johnson, as well as Mikkel Kessler and Andre Dirrell (who both dropped out), could also make for interesting contests. For all its problems, the Super Six Tournament has at least made the super middleweight division feel like the place to be. Adding Martinez to the mix would generate a lot of interest. But Martinez just moved up to middleweight last year, and risking another jump this late in his career might not be worth it, not least of all because it would deep six any chance of a future meeting with Pacquiao.
Of course, Martinez could always fight Paul Williams again, but I think that would be a mistake. He has nothing left to prove there. The first fight went to Williams on a majority decision, but many people thought Martinez deserved it, and even more thought it was a draw. As for the second fight, there wasn’t much doubt there.
Obviously, none of the options I’m presenting are as interesting to Martinez as fighting Mayweather or Pacquiao, but Martinez and his camp need to accept that neither fight is likely to happen. There’s a slim chance of the Pacquiao fight, but only if Martinez stays in his same weight class and does something to gain himself greater notoriety. Unifying the belts and/or beating Margarito and Cintron would do that, but Martinez needs to act quickly.
Martinez has a lot going for him. He’s an extremely talented, charismatic fighter with an unusual style (he generally keeps both hands hanging down until he moves in), movie-star good looks, a title belt on his mantle, and likely Knockout of the Year and Fighter of the Year honors coming his way soon. He could be a bankable star in the sport. But that may means he has to fight smaller fights for a while that will, when considered cumulatively, be greater than the sum of the parts. Like Hagler, Martinez has to play a waiting game even as he fights. Hagler was eventually rewarded for this, with highly publicized fights against Duran, Hearns, and Leonard. But Martinez may not have that much time. He is thirty-five years old, and he may never get a crack at the biggest names in the sport. His best bet is to forget Pacuiao and Mayweather for now, and start thinking about the legacy he wants to leave behind, even if that legacy is that that of a truly great fighter who came along at the wrong time. The legacy of the fighter nobody wanted to face.