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.