With nearly 100 different "world" title belts floating around out there in various corners of boxing's diamond-, super-, and interim-infused universe, unofficial titles that aren't accompanied by belts have taken on increasing significance in recent years. One such title is the designation of "Most Avoided Man in Boxing." It's a label that's debated among hardcore fans like the mythical pound-for-pound throne -- and brings similar pride to the fighter who wears it.
In the mid-2000s, Antonio Margarito was the near-unanimous choice for boxing's most avoided fighter. When Margarito lost a close decision to similarly risk/reward imbalanced Paul Williams on July 14, 2007, "The Punisher" became the new poster boy for elite fighters who can't find elite opponents. And when Sergio Martinez iced Williams on November 20, 2010 with a second-round left hand that earned a spot on boxing's all-time desert island highlight reel, "El Maravilla" instantly transformed into the sport's most avoided combatant.
But here's what makes Martinez unique: He's a legit champion of the world. He's THE MAN at 160 pounds, and everybody knows it; he beat Kelly Pavlik, who beat Jermain Taylor, who beat Bernard Hopkins, who beat Felix Trinidad, William Joppy, Keith Holmes, and everybody else who mattered at middleweight at the start of the current millennium. Martinez has what everybody else (theoretically) wants.
Yet, somehow, only a select few are stepping up and trying to take it.
On March 17, Irishman Matthew Macklin will become Martinez's fourth world-title challenger. Like Darren Barker and Sergei Dzindziruk immediately before him, he's facing long odds. But Macklin is perfectly worthy of the opportunity (ESPN.com ranks him third in the division, behind only Martinez and Felix Sturm, to whom Macklin dropped a highly controversial decision last June).
And just as important as being worthy, Macklin is willing.
The list of potential challengers to Martinez with names more recognizable than Macklin's is lengthy. It includes, of course, Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao, the two biggest stars in the sport. It includes Julio Cesar Chavez Jr., who, as a symbol of the modern alphabet era, is simultaneously a prospect and a belt-holder. It includes Miguel Cotto. And James Kirkland. And Andy Lee. Not all of them are better than Macklin. Not all of them deserve the fight more. But all of them are better known than "Mack the Knife."
And all of them are doing something other than fighting Martinez on March 17.
"The majority of them wouldn't step up. You have guys like Kirkland that want no part of Sergio. Cotto too. I mean, you can go through the list," said Lou DiBella, whose comments must be contextualized as coming from the mouth of the man who promotes both Martinez and Macklin. "Sergio Martinez is extremely, extremely high-risk, and for a promoter that's making a fortune protecting an asset, he doesn't want to put that asset at risk against a guy that's likely to beat him. It's business. It's not stupid business. It's comprehensible business. The quote-unquote ‘right' guys, the pay-per-view A-sides, where I think Sergio would be a very, very strong B-side, a fight where there wouldn't be a clear favorite, a fight that would capture the public's imagination -- I would love to see those fights happen, but I realize that Sergio doesn't have a pay-per-view track record and he presents incredible risk."
So for now, there is no Martinez-Mayweather, no Martinez-Pacquiao, no Martinez-Cotto. Instead, there is Martinez-Macklin. It doesn't have the same cachet, obviously. It doesn't provide the same paycheck for the champ. But it's a fight that's taking place at the right site and on the right date (The Theater at Madison Square Garden in New York on St. Patrick's Day), and stylistically, it could be as pleasing to fight fans as any of the above pay-per-view superfights.
Martinez (48-2-2, 27 KOs) is an unorthodox southpaw slickster who trades traditional technique for all the mistakes his reflexes allow him to get away with. Maravilla's is a flashy and fun style, one that made his first bout with Williams a Fight of the Year candidate and even enabled his one-sided win over tactical jabber Dzindziruk to be entertaining. On paper, that style should mesh nicely with the aggressive pressure-fighting approach of Macklin (28-3,19 KOs). Macklin isn't hard to find, but also isn't easy to dissuade.
"I'm going to impose my style upon him," Macklin insisted during an interview with HBO's cameras. "I want to make it a physical fight, I want to make a grueling, tough, hard fight, and basically I want to go to war."
Martinez, who for all of his advantages in speed and athleticism never shies away from an exchange of leather, is preparing for that "go to war" approach from his challenger and for the very best Macklin has to offer.
"I know that it's the most important point in his career," Martinez said. "He'll be really motivated and well prepared, but that's what I hope for in all my opponents."