Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Opinions and Observations: Cotto-Martinez

During the Roman Empire, a bestiarius was a man who went into combat against a wild animal. This contest would occur in an amphitheater in front of thousands of spectators. There were two types of bestiarii. A venatio was a volunteer bestiarius, one who fought for glory or money. But more common was the bestiarius who was damnatio ad bestias, condemned to death. This second type of bestiarius would be thrown into the ring without any form of armor, weaponry or protection; death was a certainty. 

Sergio Martinez entered the lion's den of Madison Square Garden on Saturday against Miguel Cotto believing that he was a venatio (apologies if you're offended by the mixing of ancient metaphors). He had trained for combat. He was allowed weapons to defend himself and given compensation. But he was incorrect in his assumptions. Within minutes, he realized that he was the second type of bestiariusdamnatio ad bestias by Miguel Cotto's ferocious left hooks and feral aggression. 

Down Martinez went within the opening moments of the first round from a left hook to the temple. His weapons and forms of protection failed to materialize. He was naked in the ring, just like those damnatio ad bestias from ancient times. He hit the canvas twice more in the round from Cotto's relentless follow up attack. Only by referee Michael Griffin's beneficence did Martinez survive the first round; he was so close to being tiger meat. 

He never got into the fight. Cotto's footwork and hand speed were as good as they had ever been. Moving wonderfully to his right, Cotto was able to cut off the ring effectively and fire left hooks to the head and body, jabs and straight right hands. Perhaps more important was his attitude. Like any quality beast, he was there to rip flesh from bone. Much has been mentioned about his improvement under trainer Freddie Roach, and while his punches have been sharper and his movements more fluid, his temperament of going for the kill under Roach has been most refreshing. 

Martinez found opportunities to fire back with a jab or a straight left hand but it seemed as if every Cotto shot hurt him. Martinez couldn't establish any rhythm or change the tenor of the fight with a big shot. He was knocked down again in the ninth (perhaps a dubious call) and his trainer Pablo Sarmiento called the fight after the round. All that remained of Sergio Martinez after the ninth was his soul. His corporeal being was ravaged by Cotto's hard shots, past injuries and old age. Sarmiento's stoppage showed grace and compassion, a model of how a trainer should protect his fighter. 

Flash forward a few minutes and the HBO crew caught Cotto walking in the tunnels of the arena with tears streaming down his eyes. Cotto's emotional display was a rare glimpse of the fighter in an unguarded state. Stoic almost to a fault, Cotto has been averse to histrionics or theatrics in his career. His significant offensive skills and no-bullshit approach have led to tremendous popularity around the boxing globe. 

Cotto has received criticism from some over the years for not displaying enough personality, a characteristic that is almost anathema to the boisterous and prideful Puerto Rican boxing culture. It's a running game within boxing circles to detect instances of a Cotto smile or laugh, a sense of humanity. However, in the bowels of Madison Square Garden, his stoicism vaporized under the enormity of the moment. Not only was he the middleweight champion of the world, he was the first Puerto Rican to have won titles in four weight classes – now he would forever be associated with the greats of the island: Ortiz, Gomez and Trinidad. 

Despite an illustrious career, Cotto lacked a signature win prior to Martinez. Now that criticism can be buried along with Saturday's bestiarius. 

It gives me no pleasure to have witnessed Sergio Martinez's demise. Clearly fighting as a shell of himself, Martinez scarcely resembled one of the top boxers in the world, a rarefied status that he had maintained throughout his middleweight title run. After multiple surgeries on his knees and hands, he lacked the athleticism to dart in and out. His right plant knee didn't have the proper structural integrity for him to throw hard shots. He couldn't defend himself well and he was down to one shot at a time. It wasn't a pretty sight watching him slowly drag around his unwilling right knee while circling. Here's a scouting report of his performance: the power, gone; the speed, lost; the body, uncooperative; the confidence, shot.

In 2009, I had the pleasure of seeing Martinez live in one of his finest moments against Paul Williams at Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City. It was a wonderful give-and-take battle between two fighters who were at their best. Both boxers exchanged knockdowns in the first round and went toe-to-toe throughout the fight in a beautiful display of athleticism, determination, skill and power. Martinez was the tough-luck loser of a majority decision but many thought that he had won.

Martinez's style was as singular as that of Joe Calzaghe; you would never teach it to an aspiring fighter but it worked for him. A swashbuckler, a daredevil, he was an athletically gifted, high-volume southpaw power puncher with enough defensive flaws to give opponents a shot. How many of those do we see in the sport? He had unconventional footwork, refused to keep his hands up on defense but had a wonderful ability to escape danger by mere inches. In addition, he didn't mind taking a shot. He was both a gentlemen and a destroyer. He had American flash, European etiquette and the perseverance of poor kid trying to escape the barrio.  

In 2010, I attended the Williams rematch and to this day I have never seen a faster knockout punch than that devastating left hand he delivered in the second round. Everyone in my section missed it. The way that Williams toppled over, we had thought that it was a body shot. Only by replay did we realize how fast, quick and perfect that left hand to the chin was; I was hooked. 

As a boxing enthusiast, I tend to be most interested in the happenings within the squared circle and the preparations made for big fights. Although not immune to aspects of personality, upbringing and comportment, those attributes play subsidiary considerations in my overall love affair with the sport. However, it's impossible to cover boxing and not become moved by some of the harrowing and astonishing life stories and backgrounds of the fighters. 

Martinez, like Hopkins and Pacquiao, was one of those guys for me. His story is almost too unlikely to be true. Growing up poor in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Martinez didn't even take to boxing until he was 20, a very advanced age for a novice. Now what would the odds be for a 20-year-old with no experience to become one of the top-five boxers in the world?  1,000-1? 1,000,000-1? 

But the odds get even longer. Martinez failed to establish himself in Argentina. An early knockout loss to Antonio Margarito ruined whatever early momentum he had. With barely any money, he left for Madrid in hopes of getting better training. For years he toiled and toiled. At age 32, he was still fighting four-rounders in Spain. Think about that. What are the odds of a 32-year-old, four-round fighter becoming a world champion? But he kept winning. Eventually two people of worth noticed: Sampson Lewkowicz and Lou DiBella.  

Ten years into his career, Martinez was finally starting to get TV recognition. After 13 years and a third continent as a base for his fights, he got a title shot (again, think about how few fighters would tread this path before giving up). At the age of 35, he won a belt, and not just a paper title, but the lineal middleweight championship of the world. 

Martinez became easy to root for. Without any of the grand designs from the major boxing powers, he forced himself into the discussion as one of the top fighters in the sport, and he did it at an age when most fighters start fading away. He had flash and panache but he never lost the humility of a man who had worked hard for everything that he had earned. 

And he provided many wonderful moments in the ring. I'm not sure that he was ever better than that night in 2011 when he destroyed the undefeated Serhiy Dzinziruk, knocking him down five times with every punch in the book. Who could forget that left cross which was so fast that both Kermit Cintron and ref Frank Santore believed that it had been a head butt? Or what about his first 10 rounds of masterful boxing against Julio Cesar Chavez Jr.? 

But there should have been more. Much more. I've always had a sense of regret when thinking about Martinez. Slaving away in the clubs of Madrid in his early 30s making nothing, he should have been here earlier. Top promoters passed on him. Big TV showed little interest. Boxing fans were deprived of many of Sergio's peak years because of bad luck and the failure of imagination. Fortunately, Lewkowicz and DiBella rescued an enormous talent from anonymity, but boxing failed Martinez for many years. 

Thus, it is with great sadness that I reflect upon the professional demise of one of the great talents of this era. He still may have had a Hall of Fame career but had boxing done its job, he should have been in against greats like Hopkins and Wright, and maybe he would have won.  

Cotto did his job on Saturday and did it magnificently. He forced Martinez into helplessness and made it abundantly clear that this once great fighter was finished as a major factor in the sport.

But I'll always remember Martinez's cheesy Burger King-style crown that he proudly wore after victories, Lou DiBella running around the ring like an ecstatic little boy after the Williams knockout and those blindingly fast left hands. Sergio Martinez was a great and improbable champ, a star who sadly spent most of his career star-crossed. 

Adam Abramowitz is the head writer and founder of saturdaynightboxing.com.
He is also a member of the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board.
Contact Adam at saturdaynightboxing@hotmail.com 
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