In boxing, the road to respect is usually a long one. You put in your time, pay your dues one marginally-more-challenging opponent at a time, and, if you keep winning, ultimately get your shot at the big fight. At least that's how it usually goes. What makes the Sept. 15 middleweight championship bout between Sergio Martinez and Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. so extraordinary is that it completely defies the rules about respect being earned instantly. One minute, this fight fell somewhere between absurdity and atrocity. The next minute, everyone demanded it.
And to make things even more unusual, the moment we demanded it, we got it. That doesn't happen very often in boxing.
On the night of June 16, 2012, Chavez knocked out Andy Lee in seven rounds, and suddenly boxing's most popular "fraud," the kid who filled arenas but supposedly couldn't fight, had become the people's challenger for the lineal middleweight title held by Martinez. Maybe it's a slight exaggeration to say that Chavez's transformation happened all at once. Baby steps were taken in wins over Sebastian Zbik and Marco Antonio Rubio in the 12 months prior. But the Lee fight was a statement. And in combination with the 37-year-old Martinez looking more vulnerable than expected in his last two outings against Darren Barker and Matthew Macklin, we'd gone from a mock-able mismatch to a mega-fight for all the middleweight marbles.
"I think Sergio Martinez is in for a very, very tough fight," said HBO Spanish-language broadcaster and former junior middleweight titleholder Raul Marquez. "Martinez has the better skills, he's faster and all that, but he's got to fight a very intelligent fight against Chavez. He can't afford to do the hot-dogging where he puts his hands down. Chavez is big. He's got a good chin. I thought Andy Lee was going to do more than he did, and Chavez just walked right through him. To me, that was very impressive."
The Lee fight impressed a lot of observers, as it highlighted Chavez's potential advantages over Martinez: size, physical strength, and the ability to keep coming and cut off the ring even if things aren't going his way early on.
The Xs-and-Os breakdown for this matchup is simple. Martinez will look to use his footwork and hand speed to score and avoid return fire, to tattoo and frustrate his younger challenger in equal measure. Chavez will look to make it a high-contact fight, whether at long range or in close, and use body shots and persistent pressure to make Martinez feel his age.
During their riveting verbal sparring session on "Face-Off With Max Kellerman," the combatants perpetuated the universal assumptions about the stylistic pairing. Chavez called Martinez a "ballerina." Sergio asked of his slower-fisted opponent, "How are you going to catch me, Julio?"
Chavez answered, "This ring is a square, like this," as he drew four lines with his fingers on the table. "You can't get out."
Then Martinez offered the perfect capper: "Neither can you."
If Martinez's threat proves prescient and Chavez has his be-careful-what-you-wish-for moment on Sept. 15, what would that mean for boxing and for each fighter?
For the sport, the status quo would be maintained, the middleweight championship still held by a veteran who is liked and respected but is unlikely at his age to transport the fight game to new heights. For Martinez (49-2-2, 28 KOs), adding Chavez's name to his resume would increase his own name recognition, but for a guy who's already ranked third on most pound-for-pound lists, it wouldn't particularly alter the respect he's given. And for Chavez (46-0-1, 32 KOs), defeat would be only a minor setback, as long as he isn't blown out in embarrassing fashion. He's 26 years old and one of the top two under-30 ratings-grabbers in North America. He'd be credited for taking his shot and consoled with the assurance that there's no shame in falling short against the division's best, the guy who dethroned Kelly Pavlik and knocked out Paul Williams.
On the flip side, if underdog Chavez prevails, it shakes up everything.
"If Chavez wins, I would think he becomes the third biggest star in boxing behind [Floyd] Mayweather and [Manny] Pacquiao," Marquez said. "And those are two guys who could be on their way out soon anyway. The new talent is the focus now. If Chavez wins, he takes over as a big superstar fighter."
And it follows that what energizes and expands Chavez's fan base likely does something similar for the sport of boxing. You can never have too many handsome, articulate, hard-punching 26-year-old champions with legendary surnames headlining pay-per-views a couple of times a year.
Martinez, meanwhile, has a lot to lose here. He's the one taking a major risk to his reputation in order to cash a major payday. You know that swift descent from respect to reject? "Maravilla" will experience that, in some measure, if he falls at the hands of Chavez Jr.
But for an older champion, that potential downside is always in play. Entering his fifth defense of the recognized championship, Martinez is used to the dangers associated with being The Man.
And he surely remembers what a long, grueling climb it was to get to where he is now. Martinez was not always taken seriously as a fighter. Chavez was not always taken seriously as a fighter. And Martinez vs. Chavez was not always taken seriously as a championship fight.
It is now.
Posted 12:00 AM | Sep 5, 2012
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