The road to being a champion is not one you can find on any map. It’s a journey of the heart and of the spirit that can only begin from within and reached through iron-willed action. Each road and each champion is different. For some, the road to glory is a quick drive from the Olympics to the mansion. For others, the road is seemingly never-ending but the journey’s end makes the trip that much sweeter.
Middleweight Champion of the World Sergio “Maravilla” Martinez, 46-2-2 (25) road began on February 21, 1975 in the city of Avellaneda, Buenos Aires Province, Argentina. He was born to Hugo Alberto Martinez and Susana Griselda, a poor couple who moved the family shortly thereafter to nearby Quilmes, where Martinez would live until his departure in 2002 to Europe.
The city of Quilmes, population 230,810, is located roughly 11 miles south of Buenos Aires on the River Plate Coast. As you can imagine, on the coast of Argentina, the weather is beautiful. The city dates back to 1665, when the Quilmes (also spelled and referred to as “Kilmes”) Indians were defeated by the Spanish after 100 years of resistance and moved from what is now known as the province of Tucuman. Some 200 families survived the 745.6 mile trek to what would be called the Reducción de la Santa Cruz de los Indios Quilmes (Quilmes Indians Holy Cross Reservation) in 1666. By 1810, the settlement was abandoned; the land sold off and, in 1812, the city of Quilmes was born. The city celebrates its anniversary on August 14, the day the reservation was closed and the town was established. They celebrate that day because the precise arrival date of the first Kilmes Indian settlers is not known.
It is from this place that a young fighter would one day invade Spain with intentions of taking over the world.
Hugo Martinez Sr. is “a good guy, hard worker,” according to Sergio Martinez, from a 2007 interview with Argentina’s Silvana Carsetti from Show Boxing. His father worked in construction on roofs and as a metal worker, as did Sergio, along with his two brothers Sebastian and Hugo Jr. (who Sergio calls by his middle name, Victor). His mother Susana “was the minister of economy because with very little money she made wonders to sustain the family.” Sergio was an easy-going, if curious, kid who loved the outdoors just the same as sitting and reading a book. His first sports dream was to be a soccer star. Either his second or third life dream was to be an astronaut. Somewhere in there was cycling.
However, all those dreams were replaced when Sergio first “met” boxing.
The year was 1995; former Middleweight Champion of the World and Argentine legend Carlos Monzon died in a car crash in January; In their first try, South Africa played in and won the Rugby World Cup and 20-year-old, former soccer-playing cyclist Sergio Martinez started boxing.
“At the beginning, I did other sports. And I have always liked sports; I have always liked to do sports,” Martinez told me and co-hosts David Duenez and Ernie Gabion on the Leave-it-in-the-ring.com Radio Show on Nov. 25, 2010. “Until the day I ‘met’ boxing, I realized then that what I wanted to do the most was be a boxer. I believe it is the sport or at least the one I like the most and the most beautiful one I know.”
Under the tutelage of his uncle, Ruben Paniagua, Martinez learned “The ABCs of boxing.” Martinez credits Paniagua with teaching him defensive essentials that kept him intact along the way.
“He saved my life, my face, and a few neurons,” Martinez laughed.
Sergio was a natural athlete and a quick learner. The kid could fight, though he had much to learn. But right off the bat, Martinez set the ultimate goal for himself of one day being like Monzon and earning the WBC title. There was no point in being a fighter if he wasn’t going to be a champion. For Martinez, putting on a pair of boxing gloves is what it must have been like for a soccer-playing Michael Jordan if he picked up a basketball for the first time at 20 and went, “Wait a second. I’ve been playing the wrong sport.”
“I believe I was born to be a champion,” Martinez said, without any hint of bravado but as a person who truly believes in destiny. “It's a road that is already made and I only have to walk it, nothing else…”
It was while Martinez was compiling an amateur career of 39-2 (one loss by KO and one by majority decision) that local journalist and boxing judge Luis Blanco first wrote that he saw a kid who “is a Maravilla” (“Marvel” to our English-speaking friends). After the second viewing, Blanco declared, “This kid is a Maravilla.” And a nickname was born.
All was well for Martinez until, in the middle of 1996, the southpaw broke his left hand. “August 3 of ‘96 in the amateurs,” said Martinez, who did not divulge if he won or not. “And four years later, the doctors just told me. It was already too late. They operated on me and I was retired from boxing for a year, couldn't move the hand."
Ironically, considering his most recent win (we’ll get to it later), Martinez feels that the power in his left hand is less than what it was before the surgery.
With a broken hand, Sergio Martinez turned pro as a welterweight on December 27, 1997 in Ituzaingo, Buenos Aires, Argentina against Christian Vivas. Martinez won by disqualification. He won his next bout by first-round TKO of Javier Vivallva and then followed that with a draw against Mario Nieva. Martinez immediately rematched Nieva and took a unanimous decision win.
Martinez rattled off a total of 14-0-1 with 6 knockouts by February 19, 2000 when he met Top Rank’s dangerous welterweight prospect Antonio Margarito.
Maravilla had done well building up a following in Argentina when Top Rank came calling to fill out the undercard of Erik Morales vs. Marco Antonio Barrera I at the Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas, NV. It was to be Martinez’s first time fighting outside of Argentina. It was a huge step in class for the homegrown prospect and, sadly, he didn’t prove up to the task of beating a young, fresh Margarito, who was this win away from getting his first regional title shot against David Kamau. Margarito had done his time and worked himself from a young 16-year-old pup fighting grown men to a lion of a contender.
Martinez started out rough, getting dropped in the first round but he recovered and came back to work his way back in to things. In the seventh, the pressure of Margarito became too great and Martinez was caught along the ropes and raked with shots as the oncoming tornado surrounded him. The ref stepped in at 2:57 of the seventh round. This was Martinez introduction to big-time boxing in Vegas.
“I am sorry I was not present that night,” said Martinez. “I stepped into the ring but I was not present. I am more sorry perhaps for all the people that had expectations. I was not prepared. I was trained but I was not prepared and I found myself with a boxer with a great, great, great prospect, who was Margarito. Justice was made. Many maybe could say that I had four good initial rounds; I started punching; well, Margarito always fought like that. He took a lot of hits and finished punching a lot. It was impossible for me to win that night because I had absolutely nothing in comparison with him and it would have been unfair for me to win because he was a professional boxer, a great champion with all the letters and at that moment, until that time, I was an internal product, a boxer that three or four years before was working on roofs. I was playing soccer with my friends and Margarito had already been a professional boxer for six or almost seven years. What had to happen happened. Nothing else. Things did not work out how many expected them to but they did work out how they should have.”
“In terms of spirits,” added Martinez. “I never was down after that defeat.”
Martinez returned home to Quilmes. He would fight three more times that year and finish off with a fourth-round TKO of Adrian Daneff for his first title, the WBO Latino welterweight title in June 2000. Soon after, Martinez would have surgery, an immobile hand and an uncertain future. Still, he never stopped believing in his dream.
“Life sometimes takes you through a path where the lighter thing is boxing,” said Martinez, when asked about his struggles along the way.
He sat for a year, working for his father or whatever odd job he could get, always learning in the gym and dreaming. Finally, less than a year later, Martinez returned with a string of five wins. They would be his last in Argentina.
Martinez fought last in Argentina on February 2, 2002, a points win over Francisco Mora. However, with the local economy on shaky ground and Argentina’s boxing federation in arrears as well, Martinez headed to Europe, not knowing exactly where to go but with an inclination that, in Spain, times might be better.
Martinez landed in Italy from Argentina in March with a list of numbers to call to get him started.
"I only needed them to tell me where,” he said. “I would take care of the rest"
Martinez traveled Europe by train from Italy to Spain, looking for work anywhere he could get it. When he arrived in Madrid, however, his plans took a turn that was either very bad or- if you wait for it- very good.
“I arrived in Italy in a flight from Argentina. From Italy to Spain, I traveled by train. Three days of travel went by, not knowing where I was going or anything. Luckily, I arrived in Spain and when I got to Madrid, I realized they had stolen the most important thing, which was the card with the [phone] numbers.”
With no contacts at all, Martinez, ever a cool cat, was not in a panic but definitely worried. He was a stranger in a stranger land looking to get some work. He then found his ace in the hole…or pocket.
In the pocket of his pants was the number of Pablo Sarmiento, a former IBO junior welterweight titleholder who lived in Spain and worked out of a gym in Azuqueca de Henares, a town near Guadalajara-Spain.
“I saved [the number] in a place where I thought I was never going to find it,” said Martinez, “and yet that phone number saved me that day in Spain.” I contacted Pablo and it was like the Hand of God.”
Martinez quickly got work through Sarmiento, as well as a gym to work out in and a place to say. It was during this time that Martinez would meet and begin working with his future general, tactician and trainer, Gabriel Sarmiento.
By April 2002, Martinez was fighting and winning again with a series of four bouts that led British promoters to take notice and soon, he was put in an IBO title fight in Manchester on eight days notice as a B-side. The moment only served to show Martinez’s true mettle.
During all this time, Martinez worked many jobs from bouncer to dishwasher. Anything he could to eat and live. He shared a room with several people and was paying rent of 290 Euros a month. It was a rough time as he often fought malnourished and tired from work. Still, Martinez never complained and only sought to be ready when the time came.
The moment came on June 21, 2003 against Richard Williams for the IBO light middleweight title. With just eight days to prepare, Martinez isolated himself, focusing his mind on the task at hand and preparing everything from the game plan to his diet to his training techniques. Williams was a tough customer with 17 wins- 14 via KO- vs. one loss. This would not be easy.
Martinez was a small junior middleweight at this point and so his plan was to overmatch Williams with speed and volume. The plan seemed to be working, though Martinez was feeling his power throughout. Afterward, he said he had never been hit that hard nor taken that many punches. For a fighter who prided himself on his defense, Martinez had to prove he could do something when that same defense failed him. He was dropped hard in the third and, for a moment, it appeared the Brits had picked the right underdog.
“I got up and, while holding the ropes, remembered that my dad was there looking at me,” Martinez remembered, “and I did not want to disappoint him. I knew right then I was going to win. I would change my plan and I worked.”
Martinez let his hands go and seized control of the bout, winning it by scores of 115-110, 115-112 and 116-110. It was a major turning point in his career and an affirmation of all he had worked for.
“The IBO title is prestigious in Europe but very little-known in USA,” Martinez said. “I had to suffer way too much for that title and hence having suffered so much for so many months, it made it more valuable for me, like anything in life that costs suffering. What I went through to get that title has no equivalent, not with anything afterward. Nothing will have the same feeling. It doesn't matter if I fight Mayweather or Mayweather and Paul Williams together and Oscar de la Hoya and Tito Trinidad come and join. It won't ever compare because that night, I didn't just beat a boxer; that night I won against other things more important: life.”
The Brits brought Martinez back in November, this time to put his IBO title on the line against Adrian Stone. Maravilla was hitting his stride and, in an entertaining fight, he stopped Stone in the 12th round. Next up was the rematch with Richard Williams. Martinez, who had learned the rematch lesson in just his fourth fight, showed that once he has a look at you, he adjusts like few others. He stopped Williams in nine and The Brits finally learned their lesson about Sergio Martinez: B-side badass.
Isolation and focus on his dream had served Martinez well. All seemed to be coming together, despite him approaching 30 and not making much more than a few thousand Euro per fight. But the ever-patient Martinez felt urgency but no pressure as he waited for his next move. All the years of taking care of himself, as well as the defensive lessons of his uncle, had preserved him well for what he believed would be a final act to remember.
“There are many factors,” Martinez explained of his youthful appearance at age 35. “The first one is the personal care, that I never drank alcohol, never smoked in my life. I have never had bad habits for my body. And second, I receive few hits and I train a lot. I work a lot, a lot of physical training and few hits. That is what happens with me, I take care of me pretty well.”
Soon, through the advice of his manager Ricardo Atocha, Martinez would meet a man who would take a look at this Argentine diamond-in-the-rough hanging out in Spain and beating up the locals and see a potential where others had not.
The future King had already met his general in Sarmiento. Now, they were about to meet their adviser…