Sergio Martinez will be the one walking into Madison Square Garden on June 7 with the big green belt around his waist, but you’d never know it, and he’s tired of being made to feel like the challenger for his own title.
He’s done being disrespected.
That’s a message the 39-year-old Argentine—who will defend the WBC, The Ring Magazine and lineal 160-pound titles—made crystal clear to Miguel Cotto, in person, on Tuesday afternoon, calling him out just feet from the arena where the two men will clash in under three months time.
“I’ll tell you all that we’re going to have a great fight that day [June 7]. And like Mr. Miguel Cotto said, the fans are going to be the winners of this event,” Martinez told the assembled media and fans at a press event in New York City on Tuesday.
“But don’t forget one thing. We’re going to fight, because I’m the champion, and I’m coming into the ring first, and he's coming second, otherwise there would be no fight.”
Martinez, known in boxing circles as one of the nicest men you’ll find in the sport, was visibly agitated about the prospect of making a ring walk usually reserved for a challenger, and you could hear the venom and annoyance dripping from his voice.
The slights (and disrespect) he felt weren’t just below the surface—they were gushing out front and center.
Perhaps it’s the historical significance of the fight, or the general sense that he’s not being given his just due, but Martinez is both highly motivated and highly annoyed, and his promoter Lou DiBella—a fixture in the New York boxing scene—thinks he knows why.
“I think Sergio does feel disrespected as the champion. When you’ve accomplished as much as he has, you’ve fought all comers and you have to concede as much as he’s conceded,” DiBella told Bleacher Report on Tuesday.
“I also think he’s using it to motivate himself. He’s a great champion. I think the tone he’s setting is the tone he wants to have in his head this training camp.”
All the talk coming into this fight has been about Cotto and his chase for Puerto Rican boxing history, and Martinez has gotten shuffled off to the side. For him, the second-class status he’s being afforded is all over this fight.
It’s unorthodox for a champion—and in this case the legitimate champion and not just a beltholder—to enter the ring or have his name announced first.
Customarily, the champion is afforded the respect of his station, but in this fight, it will be Cotto who receives top billing, enters the ring second and has his name announced last before the fight, which will be distributed by HBO Pay-Per-View.
Despite being the champion, it was Martinez who needed to concede to a catchweight of 159 pounds—rather than the middleweight limit of 160—in order to get Cotto’s name on the contract.
Love it or hate it, a lot of that—more likely all of it—has to do with the business realities of the sport.
Martinez, while one of the top pound-for-pound fighters in boxing over the past several years, simply hasn’t proven to be a draw at the box office on his own.
He also played second-fiddle in his only other PPV headline encounter—September 2012 against Julio Cesar Chavez Jr.— but Martinez technically entered as the challenger in that fight.
Chavez Jr. had won the WBC belt after Martinez, refusing to fight a mandatory challenger, was stripped, and the Argentine came into the fight determined to take back something he had never lost in the ring. And he did just that, dominating all but 30 seconds of the fight.
This time, it’s all about location, location, location, with a fair bit of ethnic/national pride in the mix.
Cotto is a Puerto Rican icon. He’s fought nine previous times at Madison Square Garden—Martinez too has fought at MSG, but only once and in the small room—compiling an 8-1 record with over 120,000 tickets sold.
He will attempt to become the first Puerto Rican fighter to capture a world championship in four weight divisions, and he’ll be doing it on the weekend of New York City’s famed Puerto Rican Day parade.
It's hard not to understand the respect commanded by Cotto—fighting in his adopted home, in front of his fans and with history on the line—but you also have to understand how Martinez feels slighted.
And he, for one, feels that the matter is personal. He blames his foe for making what he feels are disrespectful demands in order to get the fight made.
“I will go to the blue corner [usually reserved for the challenger], but I don’t care because I am the champion,” said Martinez, who went to great lengths at every opportunity to re-emphasize that he, not his foe, holds the prize they’ll be contesting.
“If it wasn’t for that, he wouldn’t fight. I will be introduced first in the ring, because if it wasn’t that way, Cotto wouldn’t fight.”
And there were points during the long, drawn-out negotiations between the fighter’s camps that it seemed the fight would fall through.
These exact issues—who would receive top billing, who would enter last and be announced last—presented huge stumbling blocks, with Martinez, the champion, and Cotto, the box office draw, each presenting compelling cases in their favor.
With most of the issues seemingly settled in the direction of the Puerto Rican challenger, Martinez says he wouldn’t be surprised if the demands don’t cease, even with the ink dry on the contracts.
“I can imagine on June 7 he’s going to ask for rose petals otherwise he won’t walk to the ring,” Martinez quipped with equal parts sarcasm and genuine contempt.
"No more excuses. On June 7, I'm going to win."
It was a pretty uncharacteristic performance for the usually respectful champion. With the exception of the Chavez fight, Martinez is generally known as a soft-spoken fighter who lets his fists do the talking.
His tone is noticeably different this time around, and his demeanor speaks of a man with a chip on his shoulder, a frustration that he intends to take out on his opponent in June.
“He’s setting the tone for what’s going to be a savage, brutal fight in the ring. I think these guys are going to try and kill each other,” DiBella said.
“They both have one direction. It’s forward. It’s going to be explosive, combustive, the room’s going to be on fire.”
And that’s not just empty bluster.
Cotto is looking for history, but Martinez is looking for respect.
When those two forces collide on June 7 at the Mecca of Boxing, the fans will be the real winners, but only one man can leave as middleweight champion of the world.
Sergio Martinez not only intends to be that man, but he intends to send a message to Miguel Cotto and the rest of the boxing world.
Don’t disrespect him.
There's a price.
Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand.