Sergio Martinez had drifted from Argentina to Spain before he ended up in England as an opponent for the fancied Richard Williams and a fight that changed his life, writes John Evans
SERGIO MARTINEZ had had enough. Enough of the bullies who stole his childhood. Enough of the gangs and thieves who made life in the poverty stricken Quilmes barrio he called home so difficult. A talented and successful boxer without a route to the big time and a smart, determined mind unable to find an outlet for his ambition, Martinez had had enough of other people controlling his destiny. Sat in the departure lounge waiting for the final call for his one-way flight from Buenos Aires to Europe, Martinez had decided that it was time to take his future into his own hands.
“I am the second of three brothers. My mum is Susana, she is a homemaker and my father, Hugo, is a metal worker. We were a poor family living in a very small house in Quilmes. I left school at 14 to help my father in his work,” Martinez told Boxing News.
“I left Argentina in the beginning of 2002. In 2001 we suffered the worst economic crisis in the history of the country. In Argentina, the people talked about how good the situation in Spain was with a lot of work at that moment. For that reason I decided to immigrate and search for a better life. I was hungry. Boxing was a separate thing.
“I moved to Spain with my girlfriend at the time because of the language and I started to work in gyms or as security in bars and discos here in Madrid. We came by way of Rome. In Rome thieves stole our suitcases and we lost everything. Once in Madrid, we lived a few days in a small hostel. The name of the hostel was a premonition: ‘Las Vegas.’”
Thousands of talented young footballers are plucked from poor areas of South America and whisked away to Europe to make their fortune. The youngsters may be lonely in unfamiliar surroundings but they are an investment. They have a structure, a daily routine and are supported by a team of people who stand to benefit from their success. Martinez was 28 and alone. Boxing may have been a secondary thought when he moved to Europe but the hunger quickly became unbearable.
“I was desperate until I found a little piece of paper in one of the pockets of my jeans with a phone number and a name; Pablo Sarmiento. I called him,” Martinez remembered. “Pablo arrived in Spain a few years before me. We were not friends in Argentina and only talked a few times in the federation gym but he helped me a lot during these first moments and gave me a home and a bed. After that we started to train together along with his brother, Gabi.”
Unusual trade routes are constantly opening up in boxing. They usually stay open for as long as they benefit all involved. The Sarmiento’s had already become regular visitors to the UK after setting themselves up in Madrid. Arriving as something of a win some, lose some trialhorse Pablo reinvented himself as a master spoiler, winning on three of his five visits and earning a few reasonable paydays to help make life in Spain that little bit easier. Business was good but with Martinez joining the ranks, the export of the Madrid based Argentinians to England was about to become a one way transaction.
As Martinez found his feet in Spain, Stockwell’s Richard Williams was slowly but surely building towards a world title fight. Williams had emerged with a beautifully smooth stoppage of Tony Badea a couple of years earlier and impressive victories over world title challengers Shannon Taylor and Andrey Pestryaev cemented his reputation as one of Britain’s most naturally gifted operators.
American veteran Bronco McKart had already been earmarked as the name opponent to move Williams into the higher reaches of the light-middleweight division later that year but McKart would have to wait. In the meantime, the UK undercard of the Lennox Lewis-Vitali Klitschko pay-per-view broadcast needed an extra title fight and the promoters wanted Williams to keep his tools sharp. Trust matters in boxing and Sarmiento’s previous form gave the matchmakers confidence that when the relatively unknown Martinez was offered up they would be getting a determined, gutsy opponent.
They wound up getting much more than they bargained for.
“I said, “Ok, I’ll fight. Just don’t get me a southpaw,” Williams told BN. “They call me a couple of days later and told me they had somebody but he was a southpaw. I think back and realise I was my own worst enemy. I said, ‘Yeah, don’t worry about it.’ I just wanted to fight. I didn’t really set my expectations high enough for myself. I tried hard but I didn’t take the business side of boxing seriously enough. I was in boxing and enjoying myself. In one way it’s a good way to look at things but if you have no destination in mind, when you come off track you never notice.
“I took the fight. Southpaw or orthodox, a fight is a fight once it happens. That was my mentality. But Sergio was a good fighter. A very good fighter.”
There was an added upside to choosing Martinez. Three years earlier in Las Vegas and overshadowed by the first Erik Morales and Marco Antonio Barrera war which headed the bill, Martinez had lost his unbeaten record to Antonio Margarito. With the Mexican having moved on to capture the WBO welterweight title, Martinez would provide Williams with a decent form guide. Better Margarito’s result and Williams may even be able to bypass the likes of McKart and move straight onto the world stage. On paper, Martinez was the ideal replacement.
“They called me by phone only nine days before the date. I was very happy and highly motivated. I was ready to win the fight. I was 100 per cent sure about my victory,” Martinez said. “I was living in Spain for a year and a half. The offer arrived in the worst moment of my life but suddenly I had the possibility to get a better life and future.
“When I arrived in Manchester to fight against Richard my motivation was extreme. This fight week I learned a lot of myself. I realised that big challenges motivate me a lot and that – under pressure – my mind works much better.
“The loss against Antonio Margarito was good in that it made the fight against Williams possible. I was an unknown fighter with a good record and low percentage of knockout victories. If you look at the numbers, I was perfect for Williams. I suppose that Williams and his people thought the same. I was going to be an easy victory for him.”
Videos, records and ratings can only tell you so much. Matchmakers and fight figures use their little black book of contacts to add meat to the bones but it is impossible to see inside a fighters mind and to steal a line from legendary NFL film narrator, John Facenda, Martinez was Hollywood handsome but tough cowboy.
Martinez found boxing after being unable to make a living in either professional football or cycling and he built his record by traveling around Argentina with a ring fashioned by his metal working father. His slick, hands down style overshadowed an inner hardness that had been bred into him. Boxing became more than a way of staying away from the dangers of the barrio and fulfilling sporting ambitions, it was also his most likely way out of poverty. Martinez had reeled off 12 victories since the defeat to Margarito and discovering that the streets of Spain weren’t paved with gold only hardened his resolve.
Red tape prevented the Sarmiento brothers from traveling with him to Manchester but experience had taught Martinez that the only control you have over your own destiny is the way you react to the situations you are placed in.
“In that fight my coach was Ricardo Sánchez Atocha, my manager at that moment. Neither Pablo nor Gabi could travel. But I was happy, this issue wasn’t important.
“The first three rounds were hard. Richard broke my nose and the left side of my jaw. He broke four of my teeth at the roots. In round three he knocked me down. In round six he cut one of my eyes and after the fight the doctor put in 15 stitches. In the seventh he fissured two of my ribs and in round 11 he knocked me down again. But my mind was very ready for a war, my motivation was extreme. This fight was the opportunity of my life and I couldn’t lose.”
Pitched into another desperate situation, Martinez’s refusal to accept circumstance once again paid dividends. Focusing on doing whatever it took to improve his lot, Martinez kept his belief and concentrated on ticking off the rounds. He held himself together so well that 17 years after the fight, Williams still had absolutely no idea of the damage he had inflicted.
“Bloody hell,” Williams said with a touch of disbelief. “He’s a tough guy. He’s done well.
“I remember going back to my corner and saying ‘I know what to do now.’ That’s when I first knocked him down. I was thinking, ‘Finish him, finish him’ but my energy just didn’t feel right. He was so slick and I always preferred fighters who wanted to stand with me. Every time I would throw something he would answer right back. As I got more and more fatigued I was thinking, ‘This guy just won’t stop.’ I hit him with some real good shots. I knocked him down again in the 11th round but when he came out for the twelfth I was like, ‘Jesus Christ.’ He’s throwing punches at me and I was willing myself to throw back. The referee was shouting ‘Williams, if you don’t punch back I’ll stop it.’ I took a knee in some hope that when I got back up I’d be able to land something, anything to turn things around but it wasn’t to be.”
Despite the injuries and knockdowns, Martinez was a revelation and his reward was an unanimous decision victory. The complete fighter who would go on to dominate the world middleweight division was still taking shape but it was clear that he possessed both the ability and attitude to succeed at the highest level.
“One thing I will say,” Williams said. “I’m happy that Sergio went on to do such good things. It makes me look better.”
After spending what would be a defining few hours of his life refusing to allow the repercussions of defeat or the pain he was suffering to breach the bulletproof mentality he arrived in England with, the floodgates opened once the fog of battle lifted and the adrenaline wore off . A glimpse in the mirror provided Martinez with a graphic reminder of the price Williams had forced him to pay.
“I was shocked of course. I was surprised with my ability to overcome,” he said.
“[Afterwards] we were in the hotel, my manager, my father and me, and I had a full covering of ice bags. My celebration was being in bed resting. I remember that I walked for about fifteen minutes but I felt a lot of pain in my ribs. I couldn’t recognise my face the day after the fight. That was the first and only time that I felt fear about boxing. For a moment I felt that maybe boxing was not a good idea. But five minutes after this feeling I remembered my victory in the ring and I was very happy again.”
The following day, Martinez found himself sat in another airport departure lounge. Bruised and swollen, he mingled anonymously with travellers headed for a week in the sun.
His self-belief and motivation would face further trials. Incredibly, it was 2009 before he began to attract serious attention in America and his star making performances against Paul Williams, Kelly Pavlik and Julio Cesar Chavez Jnr would only come after he took another leap of faith and ventured across the Atlantic, once again the unknown and overlooked underdog.
But, as he waited for this plane, for the first time in a long time Martinez was in control of his own future.
“That was exactly the feeling I had. What I didn’t know was that it was going to take about five more years.”