The forthcoming book “Brute” follows two Sacramento boxers: Mike Simms, a cruiserweight who trained with the Olympic team in 2000, who when I found him had lost five successive fights; and Stan Martyniouk, a young, Estonian-born featherweight, who when I found him had just fought and won his professional debut by decision, despite breaking his right hand in the first round.
Over the next few months I look forward to sharing the stories of these two fighters with the readers of the Sweet Science, and I look forward to hearing from any and all of you. –KS
The following evening I arrived a few minutes after five and found Stan wrapping his hands by the ring. I went up to him almost cautiously, and when he acknowledged me I introduced myself. He remembered me from the May 15th fight at the Red Lion, and we shook hands. I asked him if he was sparring and he said, laughing, as if the question were almost too inane to answer, “I did my last sparring on Saturday. Today I’m just doing some light shadowboxing. I’m just gonna break a little sweat.” Then I asked him, more sensibly, how he was feeling. “Pretty good,” he said. “I’m feeling really prepared for this one. The guy I’m fighting is a journeyman, and I’m moving up to lightweight.” In his last bout he’d fought at super featherweight, and moving up to lightweight, where Manny Pacquiao and Nate Campbell live, I realized, was both a dangerous and potentially profitable relocation.
Stan’s father was also standing ringside. I had seen him in May at the Red Lion, pacing around in the lobby. Now at the gym he was wearing black, square-rimmed glasses, leather sandals with black socks, shorts, and a white and gray Hawaiian shirt. He is a broad man, a little over six feet tall, with a barrel chest and a stout neck. As I stood there, he said something to Stan in Russian, and Stan climbed into the ring and began to bounce on his toes. I took the opportunity to ask his father a few questions. I had written about Stan in a previous article, and I asked him if he’d read the piece. “No,” he said. “Maybe I skim it. You know, I understand one word, and then after two words, I don’t understand anymore.”
The buzzer sounded announcing the start of a three-minute round, and Stan began to stalk. I asked his father, then, who the son was fighting on Thursday.
“His next opponent, I don’t know his name. Bigger, stronger guy. From Las Vegas.”
Up in the ring, Stan was engaged with his phantasm, circumnavigating the ring clockwise. His movements were crisp, and he snapped his jab like a whip. He would pivot beautifully on his left foot, reset, stick his jab, follow it with a right hook, and pivot again, all the time circling the ring. He has high, wide-set cheekbones and a solid, square jaw. His brow is sharp and prominent, his forehead is wide, and his hairline is low. For a fighter of his weight (between 130 and 135 pounds) he is tall (5’10”) and broad at the shoulders. But his torso tapers down to an absurdly narrow waist so that when he squares to an opponent—in this case a fictional one—he presents a solid, inverted, isosceles triangle from which hang two clubs that he can flail discriminately. It is clear that he is designed to box, rather than wrestle. Unlike most of the other men in the gym that day, all shaped like pit bulls with thick chests, short legs, and the molested ears of grapplers, Stan has the broadened, though not disfigured, nose of a puncher, and long, taut limbs.
As I stood watching him, Urijah Faber came through the front door. He owns the gym where I was standing, but I hadn’t expected to see him. I had watched him fight on television, so to me he was a sort of celebrity. He walked by smiling, and shook the hands of at least six men on his way to the rear of the building. When he passed the ring he looked up at Stan shadowboxing. He nodded, seeming to approve of what he saw. I am not a tall man, but I was surprised to see how short Urijah was. He passed a few feet from me and I noticed that we shared the same eye-level. He has curly, light-brown hair that that day hung past his jaw line, and a deeply dimpled chin that looks as if it had been struck with a sheet metal punch. He is, in juxtaposition to Stan, short and coarsely muscled.
Urijah went into the back room, and I returned my attention to Stan. The buzzer announced that his round was over and he settled down onto his heels gradually, as a ball comes to rest exhausting its kinetic energy.
“Stan, that’s enough,” his father said. “You are wet already.”
Stan came over to the ropes and laid his forearms on the highest strand, bent at the waist and breathing deeply. I glanced over to the room where Urijah had gone and saw him on his knees beside two men, one of whom was on his back, and the other who was between the supine man’s legs. Urijah was demonstrating how, from the bottom, one transitions into a guillotine choke and then sinks it in by moving the right leg up the back.
Stan said something to his father in Russian. The elder Martyniouk called to a man standing ringside holding a pair of punching pads, who promptly climbed up and joined Stan in the ring.
“Who is this?” I asked Stan’s father.
“Gilbert,” he said. “He is not the normal guy. They are not so used to each other. Stan will not be as crisp. I am usually the one in there, but I am too tired.”
In fact, Stan was not as accurate hitting the pads as I expected him to be. A fighter develops a relationship with a training partner and grows to anticipate his movements. To watch a boxer work, therefore, with a man he is not comfortable with gives some insight into how he will actually perform in the ring. Gilbert was calling out combinations and moving the targets, and Stan was abiding and chasing after the marks. But when his gloves hit the leather they did not always make the satisfying crack that accompanies a clean blow.
I turned to Stan’s father. “What part of Russia are you from?” I asked.
“Not Russia. Estonia. I am Russian, of course, but then Estonia was part of the Soviet Union.”
Estonia, in my limited knowledge of the place, is not a fighting country. When they protested Soviet rule, for instance, rather than shooting down helicopters with shoulder-mounted rockets as the Afghans had, the Estonians gathered in a large public square and tried to sing the Kremlin to death.
“My grandmother was Ukrainian,” I said.
“Yes?” He looked at me with approval.
“When did you come here?”
“When Stan was four or five.”
“Were you his first coach?” I asked.
“I came to Sacramento to be a boxer. I used to train him on the balcony of our apartment. That was when he was maybe seven.”
“When did he start training seriously?”
“Oh, not till he was thirteen. I asked him if he wanted to make this something he did always. He told me that he wanted it to be that way, and by then he was maybe fourteen. I lost a lot of jobs to go with him to those fights. I did not want him to see what I had to see.” He looked as if he’d upset himself, and then turned and yelled something up to Stan.
“You were a professional boxer?” I asked.
“Yes,” he said. He was not smiling. “I don’t want to talk about it. It was a bad thing for me. Grown people.”
I did not press him to explain, but that phrase, “grown people,” left a strange impression with me. What were you to make of that? Perhaps that grown men had acted towards him the way grown men ought not to act. I watched him as he watched his son, and I could see, just by the way he moved his shoulders as Stan moved his in the ring, how seriously Mr. Martyniouk took his son’s career, and how badly he did not want to push Stan further than he wished to be pushed. I got the feeling that if Stan were to announce that afternoon he no longer cared for boxing, his father would drive him home and never mention the sport again.
Then he turned to me. “That’s why I watch him close. If I see the people and they are all right, I say, ‘that’s okay.’ But I must see.”
Up in the ring Stan had started on his second round with the pads. He was still moving well, and he was punching harder now, with greater precision and greater noise. When the buzzer sounded finally, Gilbert said, “You’re looking good, man. Are you feeling good?”
“I feel pretty sharp,” said Stan.
The two men climbed out of the ring. Stan’s father hoisted up a gym bag and hung it on his shoulder. He spoke to Stan, who listened, then crossed the gym and began jumping rope. He turned to me and we shook hands. He seemed wary, and when I said, “It was good to meet you,” he only nodded and turned away. He shook hands more cordially with Gilbert, and then left the gym.
I went and stood by the counter while Stan jumped rope. The front door opened and two blind people entered—a young woman leading her younger brother. I had to wonder if they’d come in the gym thinking, perhaps, that they were walking into a grocery store. But no one around me seemed to find it strange. So I watched them, almost in awe, wondering how they could box, even recreationally, if they couldn’t see whom they were hitting, or rather, if I’m to be consistently cynical, who was hitting them. But then it occurred to me as they made their way to the back room that they might have come for a Jiu-Jitsu class. In that discipline the fighters are never separated. You can feel your opponent, so you would not necessarily need your eyes.