The most important man in boxing has a charming million dollar smile, stands less than six feet tall, and is small for his weight division. He is renowned for his quick fists and skilled boxing ability; he recently moved up in weight to win a title in another weight class; and he is one of the top pound-for-pound fighters in the world.
He is Sergio Martinez, the 5'10" middleweight champion from Argentina who has a November 20th rematch with Paul "The Punisher" Williams in boxing's most significant bout this year.
If you're a casual boxing observer or even a die-hard fan, this may be hard to believe. Following the press coverage and online boxing forums, it may seem like the only boxers in the world today are Manny Pacquiao, Floyd Mayweather Jr., and whoever their next opponents are.
There is no question that those two are the two most famous, and arguably two most talented, boxers in the world today, and a bout between them would be the biggest boxing match in over 20 years.
But how long have we been talking about that match for? At least since Pacquiao defeated Oscar De La Hoya two years ago. And is it any closer to taking place? By all appearances, no.
Why The Mayweather-Pacquiao Model is Failing Boxing and its Fans
So at this point, we as boxing fans must accept the futility of hoping for a Mayweather-Pacquiao matchup. It could happen, no doubt, but nobody knows, and this idle speculation does nothing to bring the fight any closer. If anything, it presents the illusion to Mayweather and Pacquiao's promoters that their fighters are the only ones that matter, which lets them milk their hype for all it is worth.
Yet a shrewd observer can see the "Team Mayweather vs. Team Pacquiao" model is not working. Boxing's ratings are still down, and the matches simply aren't that entertaining.
Think about it. What was the last good Mayweather fight you saw? Hatton, maybe, or you could go back even further to his May 2007 bout with De La Hoya. How about Pacquiao? His fight with Cotto was entertaining, but the damaged Puerto Rican didn't win more than two or three rounds. So again, we probably go back to March 2008 and his second fight with Juan Manuel Marquez.
This means we're left with two fighters who consistently produce uninspiring bouts against token opposition. No matter how many well-crafted HBO 24/7 specials there are, it's impossible to escape from the fact that, at best, we are watching the world's top two fighters take on our second- or third-choice opponents.
I don't care how dominant Pacquiao or Mayweather looks. People worldwide are losing interest, for one reason.
Good fights, not good fighters, make boxing worthwhile
Who do you think we'll remember better in 50 years: Joe Frazier or Roy Jones, Jr.? Jones was a superior athlete and had a much longer winning streak. Yet the hard-fought Thrilla in Manila and Fight of The Century against Ali, and the "Down Goes Frazier!" calls against George Foreman, are far more enduring than Jones' dominant victories over Mike McCallum, Montell Griffin and Virgil Hill.
Today is no different. Boxing will be defined not by the rampant speculation, but by the fights that grab our attention. Corrales vs. Castillo, Gatti vs. Ward, Vazquez vs. R. Marquez, J.M. Marquez vs Barrera: it's not the most-hyped or most one-sided fights that keep us glued to our seats, it's the all-out battles.
It's the same as in any sport. During the first round of March Madness, we watch the 7-10, 6-11, and 5-12 matchups because these matches showcase fascinating drama rather than trite, predictable results.
Sergio Martinez offers the most excitement in boxing today
This is why Sergio Martinez is probably the most important man in boxing today.
First off, he's an extraordinarily talented athlete. He was a top-level soccer player and professional cyclist before he started boxing 15 years ago at age 20. He is now ranked as the 6th best pound-for-pound fighter in the world.
Secondly, he's extraordinarily marketable. He is probably the most handsome champion in boxing right now, and his rugged, gritty performances make him as appealing to male fans as he is to female fans, if not more so. He is charming, likeable, and speaks well in English, with an accent like Antonio Banderas.
Third, he has had excellent fights. This may be surprising for someone with less than a 50% career knockout percentage, but a Martinez fight is always a fight worth watching. His last three fights - a unanimous decision win over Kelly Pavlik, a controversial majority decision loss in his first fight against Williams, and a controversial majority decision draw against Kermit Cintron. 1-1-1 may not seem like what you'd want from boxing's most important figure, but the quality of his opposition has been substantial, and he could have won all three fights.
Fourth, he continues to book fights against only the top opposition. Paul Williams used to be "the most avoided fighter in boxing." Then, after he narrowly defeated Martinez in their first outing, it was Williams who was doing the dodging - only signing to fight Martinez again after all other lucrative options had been exhausted. He is fighting Williams again, and then no one knows what will happen after that, but we can be certain that it should be interesting.
He may not be boxing's next "top dog", but he will define who is
Martinez is 35 years old, smaller than Williams, and is only ranked # 6 P4P in the world, going up against Paul "The Punisher" Williams, who is ranked # 5, on November 20th. There is a very real possibility (50-50 according to Las Vegas oddsmakers) that Martinez will lose to Williams again.
But the winner of their fight is in all likelihood going to move up to number 3 or 4 pound for pound, leapfrogging Nonito Donaire and probably Juan Manuel Marquez (who hasn't had any huge wins lately). The winner may even move up to number 2 if Mayweather remains inactive.
So Martinez may not be the next great boxing star, but at this point in time, he is the most important person in terms of defining who that next star is.
If he wins over Williams, then we can expect to see a lot more of Martinez, including a potential rubber match against Williams, a bout at a catchweight against Pacquiao, or even matches against some of the Super Six super middleweights.
If Williams wins over Martinez, then Williams indisputably becomes one of the world's marquee boxers who fans will no longer be able to ignore. A second win over Martinez will bring Williams the fame that he has long deserved, and fans won't help but take notice.
Since both he and Williams can fight in three or four different weight classes, the opportunities are plentiful and the rewards substantial. Until November 20th, no one will know what the future holds for these two fighters, and the middleweight division as a whole.
But as long as Pacquiao and Mayweather keep twiddling their thumbs, then much of boxing's future lies in the hands of a 5'10" Argentinian whose actions in the next few months will help define boxing's trajectory into 2011 and beyond.
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