This year boxing had a particularly busy Mexican Independence weekend, but hardcore fight fans focused on the battle for middleweight supremacy between Sergio Martinez and Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. From the moment the fight was announced it polarized the public, as it became nearly impossible to find an impartial observer with a nuanced perspective on the contest. You were either for merit and hard work or for tradition and endowment. You either believed craft and talent can carry the day, or you stood on the side of unadulterated brute power. You were either with Sergio or with Julio. Given the contrasting storylines and conflicting views, it is remarkable that the Chavez Jr. vs. Martinez spectacle somehow managed to leave every party pleased with the end result.
Followers of the Argentinean phenom were treated to 11 rounds of brilliance, a performance worthy of remembrance in which the fast-moving, quick-handed South American literally boxed circles around a befuddled, flat-footed, intimidated “Son of the Legend” who, as many predicted, was nowhere near ready to face an experienced connoisseur and practitioner of the game such as Martinez. A scene shown before the walk-ins revealed as much, as a concerned Freddie Roach gave last minute instructions to his Mexican pupil in the dressing room, while Chavez Jr. wore the look of a high-school student about to write an advanced calculus exam for which he is hopelessly unprepared.
Unmercifully, the puncher’s chance is never an option for those sitting an advanced calculus exam. But for a boxer who outweighs his opponent by at least 20 pounds, and whose main claim to success rests on his huge physical frame and punishingly leveraged hooks to the body, it remained very much a possibility throughout the fight. A genuine air of vulnerability engulfed Martinez whenever his back touched the ropes or he got himself worked into a corner. For the first eleven chapters, Sergio kept those threatening moments to a minimum as he proceeded to reconfigure Julio’s facial features with snappy right jabs, flashy left-crosses and speedy combinations.
Sergio’s plan worked as expected, driving his opponent into frustration, the champion’s corner into despair, and poor old Chavez Sr. into exasperation. While in the ring Chavez Jr. dazzled the audience with his spot-on impression of a walking punching bag, between rounds we saw old man Chavez berating Junior’s corner for failing to equip his son with the tools to compete against Martinez, cringingly oblivious to the fact they were tools Junior would’ve been too obtuse to know how to use in the first place. It was comeuppance with a vengeance for the coddled, taunting bully who used to pummel opponents into submission inside the ring while being backed and protected by the powers-that-be outside of it.
But then came round twelve.
In the final round, Chavez closed the distance between himself and a slowing Martinez. Maybe Sergio slowed because his legs had finally deserted him, or maybe because he was looking for the knockout he had so vehemently promised. Either way, with just over a minute to go in the fight, on Sergio’s jaw Julio found a comfortable home for an epic left hook that shook the humanity of the challenger and reverberated from Las Vegas, south through millions of Mexican households, and all the way to the Patagonia. Martinez went down in what seemed to be an evil twist of fate which threatened to rob him of the victory he had so fervently worked for and so firmly believed belonged to him.
Sergio went on to survive a hellacious last charge from Chavez, who suddenly believed he could achieve what seemed impossible just a few minutes before, even as his own team had acknowledged they considered throwing in the towel in the tenth round. We later learned Martinez had struggled for a portion of the fight with a broken left hand and torn knee ligaments, which makes his beating the count and surviving until the final bell all that more miraculous, but which really just speaks to Sergio’s determination and guts. And so the middleweight title returned to the hands of the best fighter in the division, with talent and dedication trumping conceit and aloofness. By willing himself to prevail, Martinez restored some dignity and credibility to a sport that sorely lacks it.
After last night’s performance, Martinez will rightfully be regarded as one of the best pound-for-pound active fighters. At 37 years of age, the Argentinean middleweight schooled a cruiserweight who only posed a threat when his blatantly un-middleweight size had a chance to meld with accidental circumstances which the Mexican did nothing to propitiate. Junior’s past achievements–as well as what he came close to accomplishing last night–can be explained for the most part by sheer physicality and his adeptness at sweating copiously right before weigh-in ceremonies. That may or may not be worthy of admiration, but it’s certainly not worthy of merit within the confines of what boxing is really all about. –Rafael Garcia