Saturday, February 26, 2011

The Stealth Ascendency of Argentine Boxers

I have to admit: I don't have boots on the ground in Argentina.  Although I visited the country once, I didn't take a tour of the local boxing scene in Buenos Aires.  I don't know if Argentina has invested significant resources into their amateur program.  I am unaware if there has been a building boom of boxing gyms in the country.  I don't have any first-hand knowledge if there have been significant investments by Argentine television networks in boxing.  However, what I am quite sure of is that there has been an explosion of boxing talent from Argentina over the last decade.   

Over the last two years, Sergio Martinez and Marcos Maidana have become household names in boxing circles.  Martinez defeated pound-for-pound entrant Paul Williams and middleweight champ Kelly Pavlik.  Maidana upended fast rising prospect Victor Ortiz and lost to titleholder Amir Khan in an excellent match.  Another Argentine, Lucas Matthysse, lost a debatable decision to Zab Judah in his hometown and is in talks to fight top-5, 140-pounder Devon Alexander.  

These three fighters are perhaps most familiar to boxing fans but there are other excellent Argentine pugilists at or nearing the highest ranks of the sport.  Omar Narvaez, a current junior bantamweight titleholder was an Olympian in 1996 and 2000.  He has amateur wins over Joan Guzman, Steve Molitor and Jose Navarro.  He has defended his title 15 times.  Narvaez has one of his toughest fights coming up against undefeated Puerto Rican Cesar Seda in April.  

Jonathan Barros rebounded from his loss to Yuriorkis Gamboa and picked up a vacant featherweight title in 2010.  He may fight Celestino Caballero later this year.  Luis Lazarte is a junior flyweight titleholder--although not an altogether impressive one.   Juan Carlos Reveco is an interim titleholder in the same division. 

Luis Abregu hooked up with American promoter Gary Shaw and beat some fine welterweight prospects before running into Timothy Bradley.  Jorge Barrios and Hugo Garay, both former titleholders, may still have some good boxing left in them. 

Beyond the obvious -- that there are a lot of world-class boxers from Argentina -- not many trends are readily apparent.  Boxers both big (Garay, Martinez) and small (Reveco, Narvaez) have had success.  These boxers hail from different parts of the country and  Sergio Martinez even left Argentina to seek opportunities in Spain. 

Stylistically, they vary as well, from the boxer-puncher quickness of Sergio Martinez to the seek-and-destroy methods of Maidana and Matthysse to the technical discipline of Narvaez.  Many of these boxers have fought around the world; some have stayed in Argentina.

The current wave of Argentine fighters have enriched the sport.  Martinez and Maidana are colorful characters and have unique and pleasing styles.  Matthysse could win a title before his run is through.  Jorge Barrios was in a number of slugfests in his day.   I'm sure there will be other great fights to come from this group in the future. 

It's quite clear that Gabriel Sarmiento has emerged as an elite trainer with Martinez.  The game plans that he devised for Pavlik, Cintron and the Williams rematch were excellent.  In watching the Williams rematch, it is obvious that the straight right hand that felled Paul the Punisher was practiced to the art of perfection.  With Martinez, Sarmiento is working with someone who is athletically gifted, can fight going forwards and backwards (perhaps not terribly dissimilar to Joe Calzaghe) and is mentally strong.  Sarmiento's cerebral approach to boxing and Martinez's varied offensive arsenal make a fascinating team. 

However, Sarmiento did not have a perfect year in 2010.  The game plan for Lucas Matthysse did not fully succeed.  Although, Judah eventually did fade, the Argentine's corner (which included Sarmiento) did not encourage its fighter to press the action fast enough.  Nevertheless, it's very possible that had the fight been in a different location, Matthysse would have won.

One interesting observation about the sudden prominence of elite Argentine boxers is that the country is not new to the sport; however, there was a large period of boxing dormancy prior to this current wave.   Argentina has had a rich boxing tradition.  Carlos Monzon was one of the most famous middleweight stars in the history of the sport.  Victor Galindez was another great Argentine champion in the '70s.  Miguel Castellini was also a world titleholder in that era.  Yet, from that period to this current era, the boxing scene was practically devoid of world-class talents.

With everything above so noted, I have no grand sociological statement to make about what has spurred these latest developments, other than to acknowledge the trend.  Argentine boxing is on the rise again.   

2010 was a great year for Argentine fighters.  Martinez became a household name in boxing circles.  Maidaina is must-watch TV.  This year could even surpass last year's achievement, with big fights expected for Martinez, Maidana, Matthysse, Narvaez and Jonathan Barros.

With all of the hype that usually surrounds the boxing world, the relative lack of attention to what has emerged in Argentina has been surprising.  It's time to shed some additional light. 

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