Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Sergio Martinez's Dangerous Game

By anyone's measure, Sergio Martinez is one of the elite fighters in boxing. He knocked out a pound-for-pound boxer in Paul Williams and defeated the lineal middleweight king, Kelly Pavlik. Martinez's athleticism, daring, power, willingness to take on all comers, fighting spirit and matinee looks have made him a mainstay of HBO Boxing.  He has additionally earned the respect of the boxing media and his fellow fighters. Although he lacks a natural ethnic or geographical base of support, boxing fans certainly recognize Martinez's ability and talent. 

However, Martinez has failed to win over one crucial constituency in the sport: boxing judges.

On the world-class level, Martinez has won only a single decision on the scorecards – just one. In his nine fights against top competition – I am using his last eight HBO appearances and his earlier defeat against Antonio Margarito – Martinez has stopped five opponents within the distance, won a decision against Kelly Pavlik, lost a tight battle with Paul Williams, drew with Kermit Cintron and was knocked out by Margarito (in 2000). Within this subset of fights, he's just 1-1-1 in bouts that were determined by the judges. 

However, these three fights don't even encapsulate the entire scope of Martinez's troubles on the scorecards. Against Darren Barker, he was, at least according to the judges, in a very competitive fight prior to scoring an 11th round knockout. Last weekend against Matthew Macklin, before the 11th round, he was up by only a single point on two scorecards and he trailed on the third.

In short, Martinez's style has not made him a favorite among boxing judges, and this is a multi-jurisdictional issue for him. He was robbed against Cintron in Florida. The tight scorecards against Barker and Macklin were in New Jersey and New York, respectively. He also lost a close decision to Williams in New Jersey. Ten different judges determined these four fights. Julie Lederman and Lynne Carter both judged two of these bouts. 

Lederman had Williams-Martinez I a draw and had Martinez losing to Macklin prior to the 11th round.  Carter believed that Williams beat Martinez and only had Barker down two points before the 11th round. (If I'm Martinez, I don't accept Carter as a judge anytime soon.) 

To my eyes, Martinez had far less trouble in these fights than were the determinations of the judges. Discounting the fact that Martinez legitimately knocked out Cintron (which was botched by referee Frank Santore Jr.), Martinez boxed rings around Cintron. Tommy Kaczmarek's 116-110 card seemed right to me. The fight against Williams was close, despite the egregiously bad 119-110 card turned in by Pierre Benoist in favor of Williams.  Neither Lederman nor Lynne's scoring was implausible, but two different judges could have selected Martinez as the victor. I scored the fight 115-113 for Martinez.

Against Barker, I had Martinez up eight rounds to two, or 98-92, going into the 11th round, a score which was wider than the tallies of two of the judges.  For the Macklin fight, I had Martinez up 96-93 after 10 rounds (seven rounds to three, with one point off for Macklin's knockdown), which was wider in favor of Martinez than the scorecards of any of the three judges.

Although Martinez has been a victim of bad judging – I strongly disagreed with two of the judges in the Cintron bout, Benoist in the Williams fight and Lederman last weekend (she had an off night) – more often, competent arbiters don't award him close rounds. But why is this the case?    

Clearly, Martinez has been the "A-side" in most of these fights; he is the bigger name. His punches are flashy and they cause damage. He has excellent ring generalship, moving wonderfully, controlling the pace and fighting in his style. You would think that with many of these winning attributes that Martinez would score better with judges. But alas, Martinez commits the cardinal sin of a fighter on American soil: he's a counterpuncher. 

As has been discussed many times on these pages, American judges love the aggressor.  When it doubt, with close rounds, Yankee judges go for the one who leads and throws more punches. Lederman, the daughter of Harold Lederman (HBO's unofficial ringside scorer and a former boxing judge), abides by her father's love of the more aggressive fighter. 

Last weekend, Macklin threw more punches in each of the first five rounds of the fight. In boxing parlance, he was "making the fight." Martinez may have landed the more powerful shots and caused more damage, but to Lederman and the judges of her ilk, the more active fighter is the one who wins the rounds. 

By now, Martinez should be aware of this tendency of American judges, yet his punch output against Macklin was abominable. He threw 31 or fewer punches in 4 of the 11 rounds. This would be an alarmingly low number for a heavyweight, let alone a middleweight; the middleweight average number of punches per round according to CompuBox is 58.6!  As solid as some of his connects may have been in these rounds, following the late-career model of Bernard Hopkins is not a surefire way to win favor with the judges. (Hopkins lost three disputed decisions; his dearth of activity was a significant factor in these defeats.) Some judges just won't award rounds to fighters with such a low punch output.

Personally, I don't agree with that position, but I understand it. When judging close rounds, I almost always side with the fighter who lands the more significant shots. I realize that I tend to prefer counterpunchers more than many American judges do. Prime Bernard Hopkins and Winky Wright never seemed to lose on my scorecards. It's a personal preference and all judges have them. Unfortunately for Martinez, many American judges are disinclined to give counterpunchers the benefit of the doubt in close rounds.   

Martinez's current hot streak can be attributed to his flashy knockouts. He clearly loves his counter left hand and his power is special; three of his recent knockout victims (Williams, Serhiy Dzinziruk and Barker) had never been stopped previously. Martinez has formulated his recent game plans with the expectation of these late knockouts. On one level, his execution has been riveting to watch: He grinds opponents down. He studies them, looking for weaknesses. He feints. He dances. He picks the precise moments to trade and counter. It's high-speed chess in a 20-foot ring.

He's also playing with fire. Against Macklin, he gave away rounds, unable to let his hands go. In the Barker fight, he had periods of sluggishness and uncertainty. Some credit must be given to Macklin and Barker, who had smart game plans that centered on limited engagement and quick combinations.  However, Martinez insisted on being too fine. He was content to wait for perfect opportunities to land power shots. He seemed unwilling or unable to create his own offense.

As Martinez looks for mega-fights or bouts against more difficult opponents, the certainty of knockouts would seem likely to decrease. In addition, at 37, Martinez's power should start to recede soon. It may not happen for his next fight or even in 2012, but that day will be here sooner than later.  

Martinez's ring style is predicated on knockouts. If or when they don't come, he doesn't fight in a style that will necessarily prevail on the judges’ scorecards. Only a few years ago, he seemed very comfortable leading with his jab, his right hook or his straight left hand. Now, he just waits.  

In my estimation, Martinez's current ring identity – a counterpuncher who has fallen in love with his power – is a recipe for future defeats. He's had a great run over the last three years but with his style, his current streak of success will end soon. The knockouts won't always be there and if Martinez continues with low punch outputs and periods of passivity, he can expect future disappointment in the form of the judges' scorecards.

Martinez has already felt the heartache of disputed losses or draws, but he insists on traveling this perilous path, where only a few, well-placed punches will be his saving grace. It's a dangerous game that Martinez is playing and, without making further adaptations, one that I expect him to lose. 

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