by Michael Gluckstadt
Sergio Martinez's triumphant return to Argentina was nearly spoiled by the Englishman Martin Murray in a fight that raises questions about how much the 38-year-old middleweight champion has left. In front of 40,000 of his screaming, rain-soaked countrymen at Club Atlético Vélez Sarsfield in Buenos Aires, "Maravilla" was stretched to his absolute limit, touching the canvas numerous times--though only one of them ruled an official knockdown--en route to a too-close-for-comfort unanimous victory.
After a rough middle patch, Martinez needed the last two rounds to secure the win. He called on his famous reserve strength and received encouragement from the crowd, ultimately taking them both and netting himself scores of 115-112 across all three judges' scorecards.
The night had started out strong for Martinez, who came out to a frenzied crowd and explosive fireworks display. With heavy bursts of rain and the occasional flash of lightning, he remained unfazed in the ring. A day earlier with reports of a storm swirling, Martinez had remarked, "The weather won't bother me; he has to fight in it too."
Martinez easily won the first few rounds as Murray seldom left his defensive posture, hands firmly planted in front of his face. Martinez was the far more active fighter, landing combinations and body shots, while Murray rarely threw anything at all. But in the fourth, Murray began to apply more pressure and connected with both hands, including a low blow that certainly caught Martinez's attention.
Perhaps taking a page from the playbooks of fellow English fighters and former Martinez opponents Darren Barker and Matthew Macklin, Murray continued to fight out of his defensive shell, landing sneaky right hooks and strong left hands with power generated from his legs. While Martinez tried to counter to the body, Murray continued to ratchet up the pressure, culminating in the eighth round with a straight right hand that knocked Martinez off balance and onto the canvas, prompting HBO boxing analyst Max Kellerman to declare, "Sergio Martinez is a diminished fighter."
The once-boisterous crowd grew quiet as Murray continued to bully their fighter, sending Martinez to the canvas again in the 10th, in what was ruled a slip by referee Massimo Barrovechio.
They did roar again, however, as Martinez clawed back in the final two rounds, including an onslaught in the 12th and final round. When the final bell rang, Martinez jumped to the pylon with the swagger of a man who knew he was still champion.
But questions linger about how long that will continue to be the case. Martinez has a singular style that he practically invented, in which he will often put his hands down and dance around with his face forward, daring his opponent to come forward and hit him. He then relies on his quickness and ring smarts to evade and counter. If age ever catches up to Martinez's reflexes in the boxing ring, it will not be a pretty sight for the man with the movie-star looks.
For now, Martinez has delivered. Though he left home over a decade ago to pursue other boxing opportunities in Spain, Martinez has been so eagerly embraced by his native country, they named him Athlete of the Year over Lionel Messi. Tonight, he gave them reason to celebrate. Whether he'll continue to be able to do so remains an open question.
In a fight that was not ultimately carried on the broadcast due to the effects of the weather on scheduling, Argentina's Luis Carlos Abregu defeated Canada's Antonin Decarie in a unanimous decision. A fierce welterweight battle that saw both fighters bloodied turned decisively for the hometown fighter in the eighth round, when he staggered Decarie with a big left hand, and later knocked him down with a punch-head butt combination. In the loudness of the arena, confusion reigned as both fighters returned to their corners with a full ten seconds left in the round. But in the ninth of ten rounds, Abregu continued where he left off, landing shots at will en route to a 97-92, 97-92, 97-90 decision victory.