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TSS Wayback Machine: Toledo on “Maravilla”

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This first ran in April 2012…

Sergio “Maravilla” Martinez is the middleweight king. Five other so-called champions sit on waiting room chairs in the offices of alphabet organizations —he sits on a throne. By defeating Kelly Pavlik, who defeated Jermain Taylor, who defeated Bernard Hopkins, who became king the moment he defeated the second-ranked Felix Trinidad, Martinez became the rightful successor to the alpha idol of his country, Carlos Monzon.

Martinez is a rare phenomenon, a fugitive from other sports. A natural athlete blessed with extraordinary coordination, speed, and stamina, he spent his teenage years cycling and playing soccer. Boxing was “like a religion” in the Martinez living room though its gods were small ones —images flashing to and fro on a television screen, cheered on by his father and uncles. Sergio preferred being outdoors. He was 20 when he began boxing and even then it was a means to another end: He wanted to get into shape for the soccer season. But there was something seductive in the staccato rhythm of speed bags and by the time he was offered a contract to play for Argentina’s Club Atletico’s Los Andes, a first division team, he turned it down. He had found a new love.

Whether his new love would love him was another question.

The ring is a jealous place and the gods that guard it are larger than they appear on television. Athletes from easier sports (and they’re all easier) are discouraged from it; sometimes they’re bluntly reminded of how limited their physicality and muscle memory is when it comes to fist-fighting for 30 minutes. At a news conference announcing a possible bout between Muhammad Ali and seven-foot Los Angeles Laker Wilt Chamberlain in 1971, Ali walked in and began yelling “TIMBERRR!” In a moment of seriousness, Ali looked at Chamberlain with dead eyes and said “if he was smart, he wouldn’t fight me.” Chamberlain was smart and didn’t fight him.

Martinez was unfamiliar with even using his hands when he ventured into the tiniest of fields where there is no escape, no time-outs, and no teammates to pass the ball to. As a cyclist he could cruise past trees on the road to catch a second wind but how do you adjust to a tree that actively tries to give you a concussion? Boxing burns more energy than cycling, soccer, and nearly every other human activity imaginable and yet it isn’t conditioning that brings victory so much as advanced technique. And those classes begin during childhood.

Boxing grins a bloody grin at late entries who skipped classes and think that athleticism is enough.

Rocky Marciano grinned a bloody grin right back. A natural athlete blessed with extraordinary strength, power, and endurance, he spent his teenage years playing baseball for the local American Legion team and as a catcher did enough squats behind home plate to develop thighs bigger than Beyonc?’s. By the time he had his first amateur fight of record he was 22 and he embarrassed every Italian in Brockton when he brought up a knee against a black opponent at an Irish social club. In the spring of 1948, he still had balls on his mind. He hitchhiked to North Carolina to try out for the Chicago Cubs farm team. They turned him down. Trainer Charley Goldman didn’t lay eyes on him until he was 24. “I got a guy who’s short, stoop shouldered, balding, with two left feet,” Goldman told Angelo Dundee, “and God, how he can punch!” But there was a problem. Marciano was getting beaned too much and his orthodox aspirations were to blame —he was trying to be a stand-up boxer. So Goldman taught him to be true to himself. He taught him to crouch. Heavyweight history swerved at that moment.

Martinez grins a grin that is seldom bloody. He moves around the ring on wheels with soccer stamina. “My defense,” he says, “is not in my arms, it’s in my legs.” Everything is in his legs. When boxing replaced soccer in his life, he spent about as much time reconfiguring his athleticism as Goldman did convincing Marciano to stop trying.

The middleweight king, a southpaw, has defended his throne four times and no challenger has finished the fight. Nine times they prostrated themselves before him; two did for ten seconds plus. What separates Martinez from his rivals in the ring isn’t athleticism; it is the same thing that separates rivals on battlefields and chess boards. His victories are the premeditated results of closed-door planning that see him concentrating on images flashing to and fro on a television screen. He isn’t cheering.

“Good luck!” he routinely tells his opponents before the first bell.

It will take more than luck to end his reign.

HALF THE BATTLE

Martinez is an atypical counterpuncher with a mission statement: Provoke blows to provoke mistakes. “When we want to throw,” he says, “that’s when we are most exposed.” When he leads with a single punch it is no different from when he flinches, feints with his feet, or drops his hands and leans forward. He’ll slide in, jerk a shoulder and slide out to draw you out so he can counter (what you think is) your counter attack.

This bluff and blast strategy is general. He insists that “it can be done with all.”

He was born three years after the death of the once-famous trainer Jack Hurley and his timing only serves to confuse the truth once again. The truth is Martinez is a Hurley fighter. “You can tell a Hurley fighter from the others as easily as an art expert can tell a Rembrandt from something by Harry Grunt,” wrote W.C. Heinz in 1967, they “come out with that shuffle step, the hands low and in punching position, and they just invite you to lead so that can move off it, step in and knock your block off with the counter.”

“The average counterpuncher is a guy who don’t do a damn thing,” Hurley said. “If you throw a punch he ducks it and he hits you quick.” Hurley raised the counterpunching game from checkers to chess. Martinez adds his own nuances. Half the time he knows what shot will be thrown because it is precisely what he invited in the first place. The end result is that the shot misses by an inch and he lands a simultaneous counter, reducing his reaction-time to nearly zero. What commentators are hailing as incredible speed has as much to do with planning and timing. What looks like natural power is really a product of a collision between his fist and the incoming face —what Hurley identified as “the difference between a push punch and a shock punch.”

And he has a secret that no one has figured out yet: He kills jabs. The jab is the evolutionary leap that separates boxers from flailing brutes and enables the former to routinely dominate the latter —literally single-handedly. Martinez invites the jab and then sneaks over a looping right with it. He uses two counters besides. In the second round against Matthew Macklin, he timed Macklin’s jab, slipped outside of it, and countered with a straight left that sent him flying into the ropes. Later, Martinez slid to his left off of Macklin’s jab and countered it with a left uppercut. He does this so well no one’s sure he’s doing it, least of all the one it’s being done to. He does it again and again, against everybody, and yet they keep right on jabbing, faithfully, to the end.

Martinez’s offense is not bait for his counters every time. He’s liable to attack the moment he senses an opponent getting set to punch or when the opponent is not expecting it. This is not only disruptive it is disheartening. Like Manny Pacquiao, Joe Calzaghe, and other discordant rhythm fighters, Martinez understands the human tendency to follow predictable patterns (move, set, punch 1, 2 —repeat.) and he anticipates and exploits that predictability. His is a jazz style with riffs as disorienting to his opponents as Miles Davis was to Percy Faith.

The Maravilla strategy becomes clear. His is the comprehensive counterattack of an athlete. He doesn’t simply “duck and counter,” he’s constantly provoking offense to his advantage and using mobility and discordant rhythm to confuse.

It’s all quite complicated, but the Sweet Science has answers.

COUNTERING THE COUNTERPUNCHER

Cautious trainers spot counters and tell their fighters to stop throwing the shot that is getting countered. These types, said Hurley, “breed fear” and produce boxers that stink joints out. Nobody gets hit, nobody gets hurt, and nobody in the audience cares to see what Hurley called “two old women fighting over the back fence.” Hard-line trainers recommend crowding a counterpuncher. The idea is to swamp him. Paul Williams tried this on Martinez. It didn’t work. Martinez is more eager to fight than his style suggests, he just isn’t eager to lead. In the eighth round against Kermit Cintron, the fifth round against Pavlik, and the second round against Macklin, he hollered at them to throw punches. He thrives on aggression —careless aggression.

Defeating him demands calculated aggression —calculated aggression and double bluffs.

Martinez kills jabs? He kills unthinking jabs. Instead of being safe and throwing less of them, throw more. He’ll respond as he usually does and you can get the jump on him. How? Two ways:

$11.     Telegraph a jab and then, shifting your weight onto the back foot, spring in with a straight right, dipping left as you do. His counter should miss and you can catch him leaning in (see figure 1).

$12.     Throw the jab half-way, hooking off it as you pivot off to your left (see figure 2). Martinez often slips outside jabs to his right as he counters with a straight left. Pivoting will enable you to slip his left counter; hooking as you do will enable you to catch his head sliding into your hook. Punctuate it with a right hand because if your hook lands, it will force his head into the range of your right.

Hurley had Billy Petrolle pull similar stunts. When an opponent got wise, he’d tell him “Look, he don’t believe you anymore. Show him.” Same here. When the time is right, resurrect the jab. Be sure that it is a technician’s jab —one where your chin is down and turned slightly into your left shoulder. Your right glove should be positioned in front of your chin.

Mobile boxers can use a touch-go tactic. Touch Martinez on a shoulder to draw him out, step back off the perimeter as he comes in, and then counter his counter. Do it enough and he’ll lose faith in his favorite strategy and throw caution to the wind. Meanwhile, your resurrected jab will stabilize him.

 

Leftward Bound

The Maravilla strategy begins and ends with his legs. He fights on a slide and uses angles to keep you in and him out of danger. Don’t be fooled. He’s not trying to avoid exchanges so much as he’s trying to confuse you, command space, and invite, evade, and counter your attack.

He moves like a ring general but doesn’t always operate like one. At times, Martinez mistakes the ring for a field and his constant mobility lacks clear purpose. This tendency is called “dynamism” in chess and favors active over efficient movement.

Favor efficiency over activity. You the conventional boxer should move consistently leftward. This will line up your back heel with his chin, which will maximize the impact of your right hand. Everything you do should be leftward: When you jab, slide left. When you throw a left hook, pivot left off of it. This will get you to the southpaw’s blind angle and out of range of his power. When you throw a combination, finish “on your left” —which means finish with either a left hook or a jab. The natural mechanics of that will put you in the ready position. Finishing “on your right,” by contrast, leaves you off balance and open enough for him to blast you with a shock punch.

Trip the Errant Bishop

Maintain the positional advantage and you will reset the match on your terms. Maravilla admits that his “placements are a bit strange”; sometimes they’re just plain wrong. A boxer’s feet should be parallel and pointing at 45 degrees toward the target. Martinez’s left foot is often lined up or crossed behind his right foot. This forces him to twist his torso when he throws a straight left, which means it will often be short and he’ll be off balance. He is also known to move in the wrong direction against right-handers, effectively conceding them an advantage by keeping his right foot inside instead of outside of their left foot. Bad positioning accounts for almost all of his knockdowns.

There are at least four ways to exploit this:

$11.     With your lead foot outside of his lead foot, move forward angling left. Your legs will form a blockade and can cause him to trip when he tries to skitter backwards.

$12.     Conventional fighters should avoid throwing right hooks because they arc from further back and take too long to reach the target. In this case they’re recommended. A right hook to his chest can have the same effect as pushing a man standing flush in front of you (see figure 3).

$13.     “Reach parry” his jab with your lead hand at the forearm or elbow and put your weight into it. Striking his extended arm while he’s in his typical linear stance can cause him to cross his feet and lose his balance.

$14.     Martinez becomes more aggressive when he’s hit well and in later rounds if he’s behind on points. When he grits his teeth, he makes mistakes. He’s prone to make a mad rush and leap off his feet. When he does, assume a tight formation with knees bent and chin and elbows tucked in and either shoulder-bump off balance or meet him with short, hard punches that finish on the left. If he’s forced backwards, follow him behind combinations.

…..

The Maravilla style, rooted though it is in the less disciplined foundation of athleticism, is the perfect complement for the Maravilla strategy. That strategy is nuanced but it isn’t new, and when it is overcome —when the middleweight king is toppled from his throne— luck will have nothing to do with it.

The Sweet Science has answers. It always has.

 

____________________________

The opening graphic is “Deposed King” by Anthony May (http://www.anthonymayphotography.com). It is used with permission. Martinez’s statements regarding his late entry into the ring as told to Robert Ecksel in “The Art of Boxing and Sergio Martinez” (Boxing.com, 8/15/11). Martinez’s statements about strategy from ESPN’s “Golpe a Golpe,” generously translated by Eduardo Segura. Jack Hurley’s quotes from Jack Olson’s Sports Illustrated article “Don’t Call Me Honest” (5/15/61) and W.C. Heinz’s “The Last Campaign of Boxing’s Last Angry Man” in the Saturday Evening Post (2/11/67). Special thanks to the memory and the memories of Stillman’s Gym alumnus John Bonner, Julie Cockerham, and Eddie Bishop of Bishop’s Training & Fitness in West Bridgewater, MA for use of his boxing ring for demonstration photographs. Coach Hilario of Think1stBoxing.com offered invaluable technical input for this essay.

 

Springs Toledo can be contacted at scalinatella@hotmail.com.

 

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2015 Fight of the Year – Francisco Vargas vs Takashi Miura

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The WBC World Super Featherweight title bout between Francisco Vargas and Takashi Miura came on one of the biggest boxing stages of 2015, as the bout served as the HBO pay-per-view’s co-main event on November 21st, in support of Miguel Cotto vs Saul Alvarez.

Miura entered the fight with a (29-2-2) record and he was making the fifth defense of his world title, while Vargas entered the fight with an undefeated mark of (22-0-1) in what was his first world title fight. Both men had a reputation for all-out fighting, with Miura especially earning high praise for his title defense in Mexico where he defeated Sergio Thompson in a fiercely contested battle.

The fight started out hotly contested, and the intensity never let up. Vargas seemed to win the first two rounds, but by the fourth round, Miura seemed to pull ahead, scoring a knock-down and fighting with a lot of confidence. After brawling the first four rounds, Miura appeared to settle into a more technical approach. Rounds 5 and 6 saw the pendulum swing back towards Vargas, as he withstood Miura’s rush to open the fifth round and the sixth round saw both men exchanging hard punches.

The big swinging continued, and though Vargas likely edged Miura in rounds 5 and 6, Vargas’ face was cut in at least two spots and Miura started to assert himself again in rounds 7 and 8. Miura was beginning to grow in confidence while it appeared that Vargas was beginning to slow down, and Miura appeared to hurt Vargas at the end of the 8th round.

Vargas turned the tide again at the start of the ninth round, scoring a knock down with an uppercut and a straight right hand that took Miura’s legs and sent him to the canvas. Purely on instinct, Miura got back up and continued to fight, but Vargas was landing frequently and with force. Referee Tony Weeks stepped in to stop the fight at the halfway point of round 9 as Miura was sustaining a barrage of punches.

Miura still had a minute and a half to survive if he was going to get out of the round, and it was clear that he was not going to stop fighting.

A back and forth battle of wills between two world championship level fighters, Takashi Miura versus “El Bandido” Vargas wins the 2015 Fight of the Year.

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Jan 9 in Germany – Feigenbutz and De Carolis To Settle Score

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This coming Saturday, January 9th, the stage is set at the Baden Arena in Offenburg, Germany for a re-match between Vincent Feigenbutz and Giovanni De Carolis. The highly anticipated re-match is set to air on SAT.1 in Germany, and Feigenbutz will once again be defending his GBU and interim WBA World titles at Super Middleweight.

The first meeting between the two was less than three months ago, on October 17th and that meeting saw Feigenbutz controversially edge De Carolis on the judge’s cards by scores of (115-113, 114-113 and 115-113). De Carolis scored a flash knock down in the opening round, and he appeared to outbox Feigenbutz in the early going, but the 20 year old German champion came on in the later rounds.

The first bout is described as one of the most crowd-pleasing bouts of the year in Germany, and De Carolis and many observers felt that the Italian had done enough to win.

De Carolis told German language website RAN.DE that he was more prepared for the re-match, and that due to the arrogance Feigenbutz displayed in the aftermath of the first fight, he was confident that he had won over some of the audience. Though De Carolis fell short of predicting victory, he promised a re-vamped strategy tailored to what he has learned about Feigenbutz, whom he termed immature and inexperienced.

The stage is set for Feigenbutz vs De Carolis 2, this Saturday January 9th in Offenburg, Germany. If you can get to the live event do it, if not you have SAT.1 in Germany airing the fights, and The Boxing Channel right back here for full results.

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2015 Knock Out of the Year – Saul Alvarez KO’s James Kirkland

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On May 9th of 2015, Saul “Canelo” Alvarez delivered a resonant knock-out of James Kirkland on HBO that wins the 2015 KO of the Year.

The knock-out itself came in the third round, after slightly more than two minutes of action. The end came when Alvarez delivered a single, big right hand that caught Kirkland on the jaw and left him flat on his back after spinning to the canvas.Alvarez was clearly the big star heading into the fight. The fight was telecast by HBO for free just one week after the controversial and disappointing Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Manny Pacquiao fight, and Alvarez was under pressure to deliver the type of finish that people were going to talk about. Kirkland was happy to oblige Alvarez, taking it right to Alvarez from the start. Kirkland’s aggression saw him appear to land blows that troubled the young Mexican in the early going. Alvarez played good defense, and he floored Kirkland in the first round, displaying his power and his technique in knocking down an aggressive opponent.

However, Kirkland kept coming at Alvarez and the fight entered the third round with both men working hard and the feeling that the fight would not go the distance. Kirkland continued to move forward, keeping “Canelo” against the ropes and scoring points with a barrage of punches while looking for an opening.

At around the two minute mark, Alvarez landed an uppercut that sent Kirkland to the canvas again. Kirkland got up, but it was clear that he did not have his legs under him. Kirkland was going to try to survive the round, but Alvarez had an opportunity to close out the fight. The question was would he take it?

Alvarez closed in on Kirkland, putting his opponent’s back to the ropes. Kirkland was hurt, but he was still dangerous, pawing with punches and loading up for one big shot.

But it was the big shot “Canelo” threw that ended the night. Kirkland never saw it coming, as he was loading up with a huge right hand of his own. The right Alvarez threw cracked Kirkland in the jaw, and his eyes went blank. His big right hand whizzed harmlessly over the head of a ducking Alvarez, providing the momentum for the spin that left Kirkland prone on the canvas.

Saul “Canelo” Alvarez went on to defeat Miguel Cotto in his second fight of 2015 and he is clearly one of boxing’s biggest stars heading into 2016. On May 9th Alvarez added another reel to his highlight film when he knocked out James Kirkland with the 2015 “Knock Out of the Year”.

Photo by naoki fukuda

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