Last year, Sergio Martinez beat the so-called "most avoided man in boxing." And putting an end to Paul Williams' run atop those "most ducked" lists (by way of the 2010 Knockout of the Year, no less) transformed Martinez into the new star who struggles to find a proper challenger.
So while "Maravilla" (Spanish for "Wonder") waits to see if he can lure Manny Pacquiao or Floyd Mayweather up two weight divisions, or Miguel Cotto up one division, he's doing the best he can to keep busy against whatever 160-pounders are willing to fight him. And though the boxing world doesn't know much about London's "Dazzling" Darren Barker, the man who challenges Martinez this Saturday night at Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City, we do know this much: Barker is very much willing.
Barker took to social media early in the summer to call out the Argentine champ, and the result was the most progressive contract negotiation in boxing history.
"[Barker's promoter] Eddie Hearn and I basically did the negotiations over Twitter," explained Martinez's promoter, Lou DiBella. "This might be the first major fight ever made on Twitter."
That's almost as novel as the concept of a fighter going from obscurity in his early 30s to a world championship and a top-three pound-for-pound ranking at age 36. Martinez came to boxing late, first lacing on gloves at age 20. He turned pro at 22 and spent the next 10 years compiling a sparkling record, mostly in Argentina, the U.K. and Spain, without making any kind of a name for himself. He'd lost just once in 45 fights when finally, at age 33, he made his HBO debut against Alex Bunema.
Martinez blew out Bunema. He stepped up against the junior middleweight elite with close, controversial fights against Kermit Cintron (ruled a draw) and Williams (a majority decision loss in a Fight of the Year candidate). Then it all clicked in 2010, when Martinez upset Kelly Pavlik for the middleweight championship and shocked Williams with a left hand for the ages in round two. Those wins made Martinez the consensus choice for Fighter of the Year. He began his 2011 campaign by taking on undefeated fellow southpaw Sergey Dzinziruk and scoring a five-knockdown demolition, bringing his record to 47-2-2 (26 KOs).
You won't find the same bona fides on Barker's resume. The son of an amateur boxer-and with solid amateur credentials himself-Barker's 23-0 (14 KOs) professional record has been built almost exclusively in England against names even hardcore fight fans would be hard-pressed to tell you anything about. Ben Crampton? Darren McDermott? Affif Belghecham? These are hardly Cintrons, Williams or Pavliks.
But quality of opposition doesn't always tell the story. As Barker said in a recent interview on the British boxing show Ringside, "I don't think anyone's seen the best of Darren Barker yet, and it will take someone of the class of Sergio Martinez to bring it out of me."
That may well be true, that Barker will give the best performance of his life on Saturday night. But would that be enough?
Two things Barker has going for him are that he's been a middleweight far longer than Martinez (he even fought at 166 pounds once) and he can score knockouts with either hand. His first-round knockout of Paul Samuels was about as fun and explosive as it gets. So Barker has the strength and the punch to make an upset possible, and as Martinez noted, "The fact that Barker is willing to step up and put his undefeated record on the line shows you that he has a lot of heart and that he is a true warrior." Confidence alone can't win fights, but it's a start.
Still, Martinez is on a higher plane than almost anyone else in the sport right now. He's fast enough to get away with holding his hands by his waist, and powerful enough to level Williams with one shot. And that left hand was no fluke; the same punch wrecked Dzinziruk in the champ's next fight. Martinez also has the remarkable ability to appear off-balance one moment, then lash out with a power punch the next.
Nevertheless, he can be hit. According to CompuBox statistics, in his last five fights, Martinez was hit by 29 percent of his opponents' punches. For a guy we think of as having great reflexes, that number is slightly higher than most experts might have guessed. And as Pavlik showed in rounds five through eight, Martinez is not impervious to pressure. If Barker can apply that pressure, or land the perfect shot at the perfect time, a stunning upset isn't out of the question.
Adding to Barker's hopes is the "trap game" factor. Coming off so many consecutive fights against elite opposition, and with the mega-bucks paydays against Pacquiao and Mayweather on his mind, could Martinez overlook Barker?
Everything Martinez has built the last three years is on the line in this title defense. Against a challenger who appears all too willing to fight him, Martinez is looking to turn in a performance that reminds everyone else why they're avoiding him.