You might not be familiar with middleweight title challenger Martin Murray, but he poses a very real threat to champion Sergio Martinez-in part because everyone poses a threat to "Maravilla" from here on out.
One fight can be a fluke. Two fights can be a coincidence. But three fights? That's a pattern. That's a trend. In a sport in which the typical championship-level fighter competes twice a year on average, three fights qualifies as a sample size from which meaningful information can be extrapolated.
And based on his last three fights, there's a very real conclusion to be drawn about Sergio Martinez: He's probably done having easy nights in the ring.
Martinez's 2010 Fighter of the Year campaign was capped by a shockingly quick highlight-reel knockout of Paul Williams, and "Maravilla" followed that with an eight-round wipeout of previously unbeaten Sergei Dzinziruk. He was beginning to look untouchable. But since then, Martinez battled to 11th-round stoppage wins over prohibitive underdogs Darren Barker and Matthew Macklin, then barely survived the 12th round of an otherwise sterling display against Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. Martinez is 38 years old now. He's coming off knee surgery necessitated by his final-round adventure with Chavez. It hasn't been easy lately, and it isn't going to suddenly start getting easier.
All of which is wonderful news to Martin Murray.
On April 27, at a soccer stadium in Martinez's native Buenos Aires, Argentina, Murray, a little-known Brit from essentially the same stock as fellow UK fighters Barker and Macklin, challenges Martinez (50-2-2, 28 KOs) for the lineal middleweight championship of the world. The Sergio Martinez of 2010 would be expected to dominate Murray. The Sergio Martinez of 2013, though still a top-five pound-for-pound pugilist, is legitimately risking both his boxing career and his modeling career every time out.
"He's getting older and he's coming off surgery, so I have very real concern about this fight," said Martinez's longtime promoter, Lou DiBella. "Not only is he in with a very tough guy in Murray-a much younger guy, a strong guy, a bigger guy-there is that added pressure of fighting at home in front of 40-something-thousand people. But what keeps me confident that Sergio will win is that I know who Sergio Martinez is. I know how mentally tough he is. His psychological strength, it's so pronounced that I believe it will overcome his physical issues and the added pressures and stress that accompany this type of fight."
The 30-year-old Murray intends to be personally responsible for some of the pressure and stress Martinez feels. Undefeated in 26 fights with one draw (a 12-round battle with Felix Sturm in Germany that legitimately could have gone either way), Murray is fairly straight-forward in his approach, whether maintaining distance behind his jab or getting in close and applying smothering pressure. What power he has-his résumé consists of only 11 KOs-is mostly delivered via his heavily tattooed right arm. Defensively, Murray generally keeps a high, tight guard, leaving him most susceptible to uppercuts or wide hooks and crosses. The Sturm fight illustrated that he has excellent stamina (Murray arguably swept the last three rounds) and that he doesn't shrivel up under the pressure of taking on the best opponent of his career on foreign soil.
Though Murray may be an unknown to American fight fans, he's a known quantity in terms of what he'll bring to the ring in Buenos Aires. Oddly, despite how much more proven he is and despite his status as the defending world champion, Martinez is the subject of the bigger question marks. Will his knee be 100 percent? As a hyper-athletic fighter who relies on movement to befuddle opponents, how compromised will he be if the knee isn't quite 100 percent? Will the 12th-round punishment against Chavez have any lasting effects on his confidence or chin? And will the roar of a massive Argentine crowd cause him to take any unnecessary chances?
While the conclusion of the Chavez fight directly raised most of those questions, DiBella also insists it provided crucial answers.
"He got up off the ground and showed for a minute and a half maybe the greatest balls and grit you're going to see from anybody," DiBella said. "He got up and he didn't take a backwards step. He went in the pocket and he said, 'If you're going to win, you're going to knock me out this way. I'm going to fight you on your terms.' And I thought that last minute and a half of the fight was as much of a statement as the 11 rounds of a beating he gave Chavez before that."
Speaking of Chavez, many fans and experts are assuming the Murray fight will act as a prelude to a rematch with the popular young Mexican. But at this point, nothing is agreed to and both sides have hinted, for various reasons, that the rematch isn't their first choice, regardless of whether it's the most lucrative option.
For Martinez, especially, every matchmaking decision is critical because he's nearing age 40 and, according to DiBella, will likely have fewer than five more fights. The late-blooming middleweight king hasn't been a part of the boxing consciousness for long, yet we're already hitting the enjoy-him-while-you-still-can phase of his career.
A crowd of some 40,000-odd Argentines will come together to do just that, enjoy Martinez while they still can. Martin Murray is no Martinez, but he just might be the man to spoil everyone's enjoyment.
On the undercard in Buenos Aires, another of Argentina's top fighters, Luis Carlos Abregu, takes part in a battle of once-beaten welterweights when he meets Montreal's Antonin Decarie. Abregu's lone loss, a competitive battle with Tim Bradley in 2010, is certainly nothing to be ashamed of. But it's his latest win that is truly eye-catching, a seventh-round TKO of formerly 16-0 prospect Thomas Dulorme last October. Interestingly, Decarie can match that win: Last September, he too upended a 16-0 prospect, stopping Alex Perez in six rounds. Decarie isn't typically a knockout puncher and that, combined with Abregu's hometown advantage, make him the underdog here. But this still has the makings of a fun and highly competitive stage-setter for the Martinez-Murray main event.
And in the broadcast opener, emanating from Citizens Business Bank Arena in Ontario, California, heavyweight contender Chris Arreola ends a 14-month layoff to start what might be one last run at a title shot when he takes on heavy-handed Bermane Stiverne. This fight has been scheduled and postponed twice already, but the waiting should be worth it once these two aggressive-but-flawed knockout punchers start letting their hands go.