A Middleweight Tournament In Reverse

May 4, 2010

This is not how a tournament traditionally works.

Usually, the semifinals precede the finals. And usually, when the finals are being contested, the audience is aware of the stakes and prepared to celebrate the winner as champion.

What's unfolding in the middleweight and junior middleweight divisions these days is a tournament in reverse. And making things doubly unusual, it's a tournament spread across two weight classes.

The fighters involved are Sergio Martinez, Paul Williams, Kelly Pavlik, and Kermit Cintron. Last December, Martinez and Williams fought to a near-standstill in a spectacular middleweight bout, with Williams emerging victorious in a disputed majority decision. Martinez, however, still holds a junior middleweight title. In his next fight, he went on to outpoint Pavlik, competitively but convincingly, to claim the middleweight championship of the world. On May 8 in Carson, California, Williams will meet Cintron in a 154-pound bout. Cintron is a live and dangerous underdog, but Williams undoubtedly will enter the ring as the favorite.

Though it wasn't known at the time, the fight between Williams and Martinez, both of whom are openly fluctuating between the two divisions, may have been a matchup of the top two fighters at either weight. If Williams defeats Cintron, as conventional wisdom says he will, then we saw the finals of this four-man tournament five months ago and are watching the semifinals now. And to make matters even more complicated, if Williams does defeat Cintron, a second version of the tournament finals, Martinez vs. Williams, may emerge.

Needless to say, this is not the way a four-fighter tournament normally works. But then again, having two weight classes essentially meld into one isn't normal either. A fighter like Williams who can simultaneously campaign at 147, 154, and 160 pounds isn't normal. And a fighter like Martinez going from relative anonymity in his early 30s to world champion at age 35 isn't normal.

These are bizarre times in these two weight divisions. But with talent like this at the top, they're wonderful times also.

"We're all fighting to be the best, and it doesn't really matter what division we're fighting in," Williams told HBO.com. "I've been fighting in three weight classes, wherever I can get a fight. The one in the middle, 154, that's getting really interesting, because a lot of the guys that are fighting at 147, they're going to come up to 154."

Martinez and Williams have shown a willingness to seize opportunities at middleweight, but both might be at their very best at junior middle. Whether that's the division in which the rest of this drama will play out remains to be seen. There are all sorts of variables at play, such as whether Pavlik elects to enforce his immediate rematch clause and face Martinez again; whether any other big-name fighters (such as Miguel Cotto or Antonio Margarito) inject themselves into this mix; and, most immediately, whether Cintron can pull off the upset over Williams the way he did a year ago against the previously unbeaten Alfredo Angulo.

"I've been fighting in three weight classes, wherever I can get a fight. The one in the middle, 154, that's getting really interesting, because a lot of the guys that are fighting at 147, they're going to come up to 154," Paul Williams told HBO.com.

"We haven't seen Williams hit by a big punching middleweight. That's part of why the Cintron fight is interesting, because Cintron is at least a big-punching junior middleweight," observed HBO boxing analyst Max Kellerman. "But assuming Williams beats Cintron, I suppose if I had to pick one fight I'd like to see at the moment, I'd say Williams vs. Pavlik. We have our answers so far: Martinez beats Pavlik, Williams and Martinez is a dead heat. But I'd like to know what happens with Williams and Pavlik, then I'd like to see the winner in a rematch with Martinez."

Williams, for his part, is happy to fight either Martinez or Pavlik after the Cintron fight. He was ringside for Martinez's victory over "The Ghost" on April 17 in Atlantic City, and Williams recognized that the result that night elevated him by association.

"You could say that Martinez winning makes me look good," Williams said. "I would like to have been the one to beat Pavlik, but he kept pulling out on me. I was supposed to fight him on December 5, but I had to fight Martinez instead and I took that fight on 2 and a half weeks notice. But whenever the time comes, if people want to see me fight Martinez, I'll fight Martinez again."

The notion that "The Punisher" is willing to take on any and every opponent should come as no surprise to those who've followed his career closely.

If you had to compile a list of the most avoided fighters from 147 to 160 pounds over the last decade or so, in no particular order, it would look something like this: Williams, Martinez, Margarito, Winky Wright. Williams holds victories over all three of the other names on that list. His willingness to take risks is unsurpassed-
not that he's had much of a choice.

"Paul Williams is the most avoided fighter to come along in the last 20 years or so," Kellerman opined. "Think of it this way: Roberto Duran and Sugar Ray Leonard never came out and said, 'Tommy Hearns, no, he's too big.' But that's what the other welterweights say about Williams.He doesn't bring the money to make it worth their while, so they want nothing to do with him."

Thankfully, fighters like Cintron, Martinez, and Pavlik aren't opposed to fighting Williams. Cintron will take his crack on May 8. If he succeeds, then this complicated "tournament" becomes more of a round-robin free-for-all.

On the other hand, if Williams wins, all roads lead to Williams-Martinez II. We didn't get a conclusive result the first time around, but if it happens a second time, we'll know what we're looking at: a fight to determine who is The Man, not just in one division, but across two of them.

The path to get there has been circuitous and complex. But the idea of two men battling for complete supremacy, head-to-head, over 12 rounds couldn't be simpler.


Watch 2010-05-08 Paul Williams vs Kermit Cintron

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