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Martinez Can Go Home Again, But Maybe Not To Stay

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All he knew was that the years flow by like water, and that one day men come home again.

—-Thomas Wolfe, “You Can’t Go Home Again”

Wolfe, the early 20th century American novelist, was just 37 when he died on Sept. 15, 1938, but his most-quoted work – published posthumously in 1940 – captures the essence of WBC middleweight champion Sergio “Maravilla” Martinez, who at once is irresistibly drawn to the country of his birth while at the same time reluctant to revisit old times and more than a few unpleasant memories. Men do tend to come home again, but often with as much apprehension as anticipation.

To the 45,000 or so Martinez-worshipping boxing fans who will jam into an outdoor soccer stadium in Buenos Aires, Argentina, on April 27 to witness their pugilistic hero’s first ring appearance in his homeland in 11 years – his opponent in the HBO-televised bout will be Englishman Martin Murray – Martinez’s internal conflict is of little consequence. Argentina has a proud history of producing excellent boxers (Carlos Monzon, Pascual Perez, Hugo Corro, Niccolino Loche, et al) and Martinez (50-2-2, 28 KOs) no doubt will enhance his status as one of its all-time greats should he handle Murray (25-0-1, 11 KOs) as he has his recent opponents.

How big is the 38-year-old Martinez (seen above, in Chris Farina-Top Rank photo, exulting after finishing fight vs. Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. last year) in the South American country of over 41 million residents? He was named Argentina’s most popular sports personality of 2012, edging out soccer superstar Lionel Messi. That’s fairly amazing, considering that soccer is Argentina’s foremost sporting obsession, as well as the fact that Martinez has spent more than a decade living abroad, in such jewels of European culture as Rome and Madrid, as well as Oxnard, Calif., although he has since relocated back to Spain.

“I don’t want to go back to where I came from,” he has said of his impoverished childhood and adolescence in Quilmes, Argentina, in Buenos Aires Province, which he has described as a “dirt-poor rural village.”

A naturally gifted athlete who was, at various times, a professional soccer player, professional cyclist and competitive tennis player, Martinez, a southpaw, didn’t even try his hand at boxing until the advanced age of 20. He compiled a 39-2 amateur record before turning pro, at 22, with a second-round disqualification victory over Cristian Marcelo Vivas. He was 16-0-1, all his bouts in Argentina, before his first scrap elsewhere, and his first in the United States, on Feb. 19, 2000, at the Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas. But that fight – part of the undercard of a show headlined by the first of three classic matchups of Marco Antonio Barrera and Erik Morales – ended badly for Martinez, who was stopped in seven rounds by Antonio Margarito.

A chastened Martinez returned to Argentina, where he won his next seven fights, before taking off to Madrid, where he hooked up with trainer Gabriel Sarmiento. Eleven of his next 14 bouts were in Spain (the other three were in the United Kingdom) before he was “discovered” in 2007 by American promoter Lou DiBella, who wondered how someone with that much talent could have flown beneath boxing’s global radar for so long.

“He’s the best pure athlete I’ve ever promoted,” DiBella gushed after Martinez captured the WBC and WBO 160-pound titles on a 12-round unanimous decision over Kelly Pavlik on April 17, 2010, in Atlantic City’s Boardwalk Hall. “When I first saw a tape of this guy I thought, `Where has he been? He can fight his rear end off.’

“I was sort of stunned that he was out there and available to me. I couldn’t believe somebody with Sergio’s talent hadn’t been picked up.”

The blood-splattered dethronement of the favored Pavlik – who was badly cut over his left eye and gashed even worse beneath the right one — was a sort of coming-out party for Martinez in America, even though it was his ninth consecutive fight on these shores, and the 10th overall. Maybe that was because he picked a good night to sparkle, flooring Pavlik with a short right hand in the eighth round, when he was behind on two of the three judges’ scorecards. It was all Martinez the rest of the way as he connected with, according to CompuBox, 34 of 63 power shots in the ninth round and outlanded Pavlik, 112 to 55, in rounds 9-12.

“I couldn’t see out of my right eye after he cut it (in Round 9),” Pavlik said at the postfight press conference. “He found the rhythm and smelled the blood.”

But it wasn’t until his next outing, also in Boardwalk Hall, that Martinez even more emphatically announced himself as one of the finest pound-for-pound fighters on the planet, starching Paul “The Punisher” Williams in the second round with a compact overhand left that more than made up for his disputed, majority-decision loss to Williams 11½ months earlier. The takeout shot packed so much power that Williams pitched forward onto the canvas, face first, not even attempting to break his fall. Referee Earl Morton didn’t bother with initiating the formality of a count.

“That punch would have knocked anyone on earth out,” DiBella said at the time. “I got the best fighter in the world. I ain’t trippin’. I don’t think either one of those guys (Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Manny Pacquiao) watched this fight and said, `I want to fight Sergio Martinez.’ I guarantee you that didn’t happen.”

Scan most of the top 10 P4P ratings compiled by knowledgable boxing observers and Martinez – the 2010 Fighter of the Year, as recognized by the Boxing Writers Association of America and The Ring –is generally in the third or fourth slot, behind only Mayweather, Andre Ward and, on some lists, Juan Manuel Marquez. He not only is properly acclaimed for his boxing skills and putaway power, but for his indomitable heart and tenacity (witness the way he fought his way out of deep trouble in the 12th round against Julio Cesar Chavez Jr., whom he had dominated over the first 11 rounds).

“His (left) hand was broken, he got knocked down, his (left) knee was messed up, but he got up and he didn’t look to hold,” DiBella told ESPN after Martinez’s tap-dance along the edge of disaster. “He looked to fight. Sergio Martinez is a man’s man. He could have held and grabbed Chavez, or just stayed away, but that is not who he is. He wanted to fight.”

But Martinez’s allure to the public is not restricted to his capabilities inside the ropes. He is a ruggedly handsome man, someone who at various times been described as “a sort of Marlboro man of the Pampas” and “a dark-haired Daniel Craig lookalike.” Craig is the movies’ latest James Bond.

It is not difficult to imagine Martinez on the silver screen as an Old West sheriff or Armani-clad dazzler. He has a cosmopolitan aura that hardly hints at his hardscrabble roots, and his wealth owes as much to prudent investments as to his purses from boxing. Perhaps not since Gene Tunney, the erudite two-time conqueror of Jack Dempsey, has boxing presented such a Renaissance man capable of slipping in and out of the conflicting worlds of elegance and violence.

“He’s an unusual athlete, an unusual fighter,” DiBella said in an interview with the New York Times. “He’s cerebral. Sensitive. Very artsy. Likes fashion. Has his own sense of style, which is extremely Euro. Great recall. He should be in Mensa, the way his mind works.”

All of which begs several questions: Why has Sergio Martinez, evolving worldwide icon but especially beloved in Argentina, only now decided to put himself on live display before the countrymen who so cherish him? Why hasn’t he opted to come home again after so long a self-imposed absence?

As it turns out, that cerebral, sensitive guy who can turn out your lights with a single punch was a child who knows that real robbery is something more terrifying than a couple of boxing judges submitting dubious scorecards. Martinez claims he was so victimized “at least 10 times” in his Argentine barrio while growing up, once by someone brandishing a lethal weapon. Thieves relieved him of, among other things, his watch (twice), shoes, wallet and bicycle. The loss of his fancy racing bike, at 15, prematurely ended his dream of becoming a world-class cyclist. His father, a construction worker, didn’t have the money to replace Sergio’s most prized possession.

“One day his computer school was closed,” Hugo Martinez, Sergio’s dad, said in the Times article. “Someone hit him with a gun in the eye. It was purple, bruised. We joked about his bad luck with robberies. It seemed like, if Sergio left the house, he got robbed.”

Encountering danger while on the street is hardly restricted to poor and disadvantaged citizens of a particular nation. Inner-city kids who have made it to boxing’s elite status understand that even the most glittering urban areas also have dark underbellies. There are always going to be those who have, and those who have not. It’s the have-nots who tend to gravitate toward boxing, where it is literally possible to fight your way to something better.

Aware of boxers who lost much of what they earned with their fists, Martinez is determined to hold onto the better way of life he has made for himself. He also knows that Murray, whose own background is specked with rough patches, will be coming at him with everything he has. Desperation – to get to the top, or to remain there — is the fuel that feeds every fighter’s inner fire.

“It doesn’t get any better for me than having the chance to prove myself against Martinez,” Murray said in the April edition of the UK’s Boxing Monthly. “As soon as we got offered the fight, I said, `Let’s (bleeping) do it.’ I jumped at it. He’s a great fighter, but not by any means unbeatable. I’ve got the style to beat him … I can out-think him and I can outfight him.”

DiBella, a former senior vice president of HBO Sports, has been around long enough to know it doesn’t pay to take anything for granted in the fight game. Murray, he notes, is a tough and legitimate 160-pounder while Martinez, if need be, can still make 154 with no problem. And then there is the self-imposed burden Martinez bears of feeling the need to deliver a spectacular homecoming performance. It is not unreasonable to believe there will be no more such returns.

“Sergio loves Argentina,” DiBella said. “I think he recognizes the problems that existed, the socio-economic issues that he had while growing up in poverty. But his homeland is his homeland, which is why I think this event is so important to him.

“There is going to be pressure on him. You can say it’s a purely happy situation, but walking into a stadium filled with adoring fans after so many years away, and as this huge celebrity, there has to be pressure. He’s a human being. But he’s also a consummate professional. I’m sure he’ll handle it. He has a lot to fight for.”

Murray also has more than mere boxing issues to contend with. Not only is he on Martinez’s turf, but he expects some residual resentment from the massive crowd over the fact he is English and many Argentines remember 1982’s Falklands Conflict, which pitted their country and the UK over a group of islands in the South Atlantic, east of Argentina. After 74 days of fighting, Argentina surrendered and the Falklands remained under British control, but past resentments sometimes die hard.

The 13-year age gap also is part of the storyline. For Martinez – an “overnight star” after battling his way up through the ranks for more than a decade – the challenge is to hold onto his hard-earned fame before his window of opportunity closes.

“He’s a young 38,” DiBella pointed out. “He’s certainly not old at 38. But I don’t think he’s a guy who’s going to keep going into his 40s. You’re probably looking at the last couple of active years of an exceptionally great athlete.”

So what might lie ahead in the stretch run?

“We’re not looking past Murray, but there are big fights out there for Sergio,” DiBella said. “Maybe the winner of (Matthew) Macklin and (Gennady) Golovkin. Other fighters are developing (as potentially lucrative opponents). And, obviously, the Chavez rematch is something that has to be considered.”

There is not a lot of data to suggest how Thomas Wolfe felt about boxing, or about boxers who leave home and return to high expectations. It will be interesting to see how this intriguing chapter in the big book of human drama unfolds.

 

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Fast Results From London: Joshua Takes Out Povetkin in the 7th

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UK sporting

It was a very wet night at Wembley Stadium, but the dampness didn’t diminish the enthusiasm of the crowd which welcomed UK sporting hero Anthony Joshua into the ring with a thunderous ovation. And Joshua didn’t disappoint. After six relatively even rounds, he found his range in the seventh and became the first man to stop Alexander Povetkin. A three punch combo that began with an overhand right sent Povetkin sprawling into the ropes. The Russian beat the count, but Joshua smelled blood and as soon as the ref allowed the proceedings to continue he moved in for the kill. The official time was 1:59.

Povetkin started fast and in the eyes of many observers won the first three rounds. A sharp right hand in the waning seconds of round one reddened Joshua’s nose which leaked blood in the next round. The tide began to turn in round four when Povetkin suffered a cut above his left eye.

Povetkin (now 34-2), was the lighter man by 23 pounds. Joshua had a four inch height advantage and a seven inch reach advantage. And it mattered greatly that AJ was the younger man by 10-plus years. Povetkin wasn’t intimidated by Joshua and had several good moments but, at age 39, his reflexes betrayed him once the fight had crossed the midpoint.

Joshua, who owns three of the four meaningful heavyweight title belts, improved to 22-0 with his 21st stoppage. His next fight is penciled in for April 13 of next year against an opponent to be determined. His promoter Eddie Hearn has reserved that date at Wembley Stadium.

Other Bouts

In a 12-round lightweight bout, Joshua’s Olympic Games teammate and fellow gold medalist Luke Campbell (19-2) avenged the first loss of his career with a unanimous decision (119-109, 118-111,116-112) over France’s Yvan Mendy (40-5-1). This was Campbell’s second start since coming up short in a bid for Jorge Linares’s lightweight title and his first fight under his new trainer Shane McGuigan.

In their first meeting in December of 2015 at London’s O2 Arena, Mendy won a split decision that should have been unanimous. Campbell insisted that he had improved greatly in the interim and tonight’s fight bore witness. However, he needs to develop a harder punch to rank among the top lightweights in the world, a list headed by Mikey Garcia. As this fight was framed as a WBC title eliminator, Campbell is next in line to meet Garcia, but Mikey has indicated that he will pursue bigger game.

Lawrence Okolie, a 2016 Olympian who trains with Anthony Joshua, won a Lonsdale belt in only his 10th pro start with a 12-round decision over defending BBBofC cruiserweight champion Matty Askin in a messy fight. The undefeated Okolie had a point deducted in round five for leading with his head and had two more points deducted for holding, but banked enough rounds to get the nod on all three cards: 116-110, 114-112, and 114-113. Askin, who declined to 23-4-1, had won five straight heading in.

A 10-round heavyweight match between Sergey Kuzmin (13-0, 1 NC) and David Price (22-6) ended suddenly when Price retired on his stool after four relatively even rounds. The six-foot-eight, china-chinned Price claimed to have aggravated a biceps tear.

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Michael Dutchover Remains Undefeated in Ontario, Calif.

Transplanted Texan Michael Dutchover needed a little time to figure out Costa Rican Bergman Aguilar but when he did it was over quickly on Friday.

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Michael Dutchover

ONTARIO-Calif.-Transplanted Texan Michael Dutchover needed a little time to figure out Costa Rican Bergman Aguilar but when he did it was over quickly on Friday.

Lightweight prospect Dutchover (11-0, 8 KOs) knocked out southpaw Aguilera (14-4-1, 4 KOs) in the fifth round with a barrage of body blows that left the Costa Rican limp at the Doubletree Hotel.

For two rounds Aguilar used an awkward counter-punching style that had Dutchover a little tentative. But once he figured out that combination punching was the key, he opened up with barrages and floored Aguilar with body shots at the end of round four.

That signaled doom for Aguilar.

The fifth round saw Dutchover target the body with impunity as Aguilar tried holding, running and covering up with no success. Referee Wayne Hedgepeth signaled the fight over at 2:31 of the fifth round giving Dutchover the win by knockout.

In a bantamweight clash Santa Ana’s Mario Hernandez (7-0-1, 3 KOs) and Mexico City’s Ivan Gonzalez (4-1-2, 1 KO) fought to a majority draw after six back and forth rounds.

Hernandez targeted the body against the taller Gonzalez who relied on long range counters. Both found success but neither could prove superiority after six turbulent rounds.

After six rounds one judge saw it 58-56 for Gonzalez but the two other judges saw it 57-57 for a majority draw.

Other bouts

South Central L.A.’s Ruben Torres (7-0, 6 KOs) extended his undefeated streak with a knockout over Mexico’s Eder “El Koreano” Amaro (6-6, 2 KOs) in a lightweight fight. But it wasn’t easy.

Amaro switched from southpaw to orthodox and was matching Torres for two rounds until the taller local fighter began blasting away to the body and head with precision. Many in the crowd cheered “Koreano” in unison but it couldn’t help once Torres zeroed in.

At the end of the fourth round Amaro could not continue and the fight was stopped giving a knockout for Torres.

Richard Brewart Jr. (2-0) mowed through Edward Aceves (0-5) flooring him with body shots in the first round then overwhelming him in the second. After seven unanswered blows referee Eddie Hernandez stopped the fight at 1:32 of round two giving Rancho Cucamonga’s Brewart the win by knockout in the super welterweight bout.

Southpaw David Ortiz (1-0) won his pro debut by unanimous decision after four rounds in a welterweight match against San Diego’s Mario Angeles (2-11-2). Ortiz lives in Bloomington, Calif. and is trained by Henry Ramirez. No knockdowns were scored.

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Charr-Oquendo Scuttled When Charr Tests Positive; the Odious WBA Saves Face

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Manuel Charr

Manuel Charr and Fres Oquendo were scheduled to fight in Cologne, Germany, later this month (Sept. 29). Charr would be defending his WBA world heavyweight title, the “regular” version of it, not the “super” version which rests in the hands of Anthony Joshua.

The bout was quickly cancelled when it was revealed that Charr had tested positive for two banned anabolic steroids. The test was performed by VADA, the anti-doping agency identified with Las Vegas neurologist Dr. Margaret Goodman.

The 33-year-old Charr, born in Lebanon but a resident of Germany since the age of three, won the belt in his last start with a unanimous decision over 281-pound Russian behemoth Alexander Ustinov in Oberhausen, Germany. The title was vacant. Charr won the right to fight for it with a 10-round decision over Albanian slug Sefer Seferi. The victory over Ustinov elevated his record to 31-4. He has been stopped three times, by Vitali Klitschko, Alexander Povetkin, and Mairis Briedis.

If it wasn’t for bad luck, as the old saying goes, Fres Oquendo wouldn’t have any luck at all. For various reasons, his fights keep falling out. Before long he’ll be drawing social security. Well, not exactly, but he turned 45 in April and hasn’t fought in more than four years.

Oquendo has competed for this belt before. In his last ring appearance in July of 2014, he lost a majority decision to Russia’s Ruslan Chagaev in Grozny, Russia. As a concession for taking the fight on short notice, Team Oquendo negotiated a rematch clause in the contract, but a shoulder injury prevented Fres from activating it. When the injury healed, he had to go to court to compel Chagaev to fulfill his obligation. But then the Russian retired, muddling the water.

The WBA was legally bound to find Oquendo a title fight and in desperation turned to ancient Shannon Briggs. But the Oquendo-Briggs fight, scheduled for June 3 of last year in Hollywood, Florida, fell out when Briggs’ urine specimen showed an abnormally high level of testosterone.

Fres Oquendo was dogged by bad luck even before these recent developments. His professional record, 37-8, is somewhat misleading as six of his eight defeats were razor-thin including his 2003 setback to Chris Byrd and his 2006 setback to Evander Holyfield. However, Oquendo, something of a cutie, was never a crowd-pleaser and in none of his narrow defeats was there a public clamor for a rematch.

The cancellation of Charr-Oquendo cuts the World Boxing Association out of a sanctioning fee, but one would think that the WBA honchos are actually rather pleased by this turn of events. The fight, more precisely the WBA’s world title imprimatur, would have brought more unwanted publicity to the Panama-based organization.

ESPN’s Dan Rafael, who has the largest platform of any boxing writer, has been a persistent critic of the organization which once recognized 41 “champions” in 17 weight classes. In 2009, Rafael wrote, “(The WBA) has become such an absolute farce that even somebody like me, who follows boxing closely, sometimes has a hard time keeping track of all the nonsensical so-called world title belts the WBA has been doling out at an alarming rate. It almost reminds me of the ladies at Costco who hand out various samples on a busy Saturday afternoon.”

Rafael took note when WBA president Gilberto Mendoza promised to cull the herd by eliminating “regular” titles, and then became more caustic when Mendoza didn’t follow through. Recently, in one short, punchy diatribe, Rafael blistered the WBA as wretched, vile, and rancid.

Regardless of your opinion, it’s hard not to feel sorry for Fres Oquendo who keeps getting stranded at the altar. No, he’s not fun to watch and a man of his age shouldn’t be taking any more punches, but he has always been an honest workman and by all accounts he’s a very decent man. Born in Puerto Rico but raised in Chicago, Oquendo pitched right in when the island nation of his birth was ravaged by Hurricane Maria. He was personally responsible for relocating Puerto Rican boxing legend Wilfred Benitez and Benitez’s sister, his caregiver, to Chicago where their lives wouldn’t be as hard.

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