by Hamilton Nolan
Vanes "The Nightmare" Martirosyan (32-0) has all the outward signifiers of a champion. He's trained by Freddie Roach. He was a 2004 Olympian. He's undefeated. He's a long-armed and athletic puncher, he moves well, and uses his reach to his advantage. His only problem is that in a seven-year career, he hasn't yet gotten around to fighting anyone he could brag about beating. With Erislandy Lara, he has finally signed on for a bout against an excellent fighter. And he may well regret it.
It's not as if Martirosyan hasn't beaten anyone decent. He whipped rugged local New York favorite Joe Greene at Yankee Stadium in 2010. He's decisioned the tricky Kassim Ouma, and TKO'd the old warhorse Saul Roman. But Vanes has earned the reputation of loudly challenging top fighters, and then failing to sign the line to actually make the fights happen. He has at times appeared willing to waste his prime years on mediocre competition. There's no better proof of that than the fact that his last two fights -- at the height of his reputation, when he's been mentioned as a legitimate opponent for the top 154-pounders in the world -- have been against Richard Gutierrez and Troy Lowry. For someone of Martirosyan's talents, that amounts to taking a year off.
Erislandy Lara (17-1-1) has the opposite problem: most of the top fighters in his division would prefer to avoid him, and when he did finally land an A-level opponent (Paul Williams) last summer, he was robbed by the judges in what many considered the worst decision of 2011.
Lara was a Cuban amateur champion, and missed out on some of what would have been his early pro years before successfully defecting in 2008. So don't let his record fool you. He is a completely polished fighter. He's a skilled but not flashy southpaw, a precise puncher with an explosive straight left capable of knocking out anyone who parts their guard a fraction of an inch too widely. Martirosyan's hands and feet are both fast-- perhaps even faster than Lara's-- and he will have to keep both of them moving in order to stay alive. Martirosyan is a pretty good puncher, but not as dangerous as Lara. Theoretically, a trainer would ask him to step around and "look for angles" in a fight like this; but considering Lara's skill, there may not be any advantageous angles to be had.
Though pundits have soured on Martirosyan due to his lack of meaningful activity, his talent is real. This is a fight between two of the best junior middleweights on Planet Earth, and it could go either way. The winner will certainly be well positioned to stake a claim to a big money fight against Canelo Alvarez or Miguel Cotto, the division's two cash cows; the loser, assuming a good showing, could look toward James Kirkland or Austin Trout -- just as hard work, for a smaller payday. It's a tough division for fighters, but a good one for fans.
Twenty-four-year-old Mikey Garcia's 29-0 record with 25 knockouts is one of the flashier stat lines you'll find in the entire featherweight division. He, Yuriorkis Gamboa and Juan Manuel Lopez comprise the triumvirate of power-punching knockout artists who make the division rich in potential dream action fights. But none of the three have fought each other. And Garcia has not yet been seriously tested in a way that would allow one to judge how real his record is. His best win was last year's knockout of Rafael Guzman -- respectable, to be sure, but not enough to earn him A-level status just yet.
Jonathan Barros (34-3-1) will not earn him those stripes either, but, as tests go, he is a fair one. Barros has split a pair of fights with Celestino Caballero -- and, even more impressively, went 12 full rounds in a loss to Gamboa, without getting knocked out. If one can be counted as a "crafty veteran" at age 28, Barros is one. Though he hasn't exactly dominated outside of his native Argentina, he's faced world class competition and survived.
He'll need all of that experience. Garcia is not a beautiful boxer -- he stands too high, he turns his shoulders almost square, and he's so patient early in fights that he often gives the impression of being dominated. But he knows how to wait and time his opponent, and when he has taken his man's measure to his satisfaction, he has a straight right hand that handily smashes anyone who's been lulled into getting a bit lazy with their jab. If Garcia can knock out Barros, he'll have done something that not even the great Gamboa accomplished. If that's not enough motivation for promoters to get busy on a featherweight superfight, I don't know what is.