Most people are familiar with Manny Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather, the consensus two best fighters in boxing, regardless of weight. The man generally considered to be the third best in the world, Sergio Martinez, is not exactly a household name. He's probably not even the most popular fighter in his own division, middleweight. That honor would likely go to Julio Cesar Chavez Jr, son and namesake of the Mexican legend. But there's no question that at this moment, Martinez is the dominant force at 160 lbs, with very few rivals even willing to challenge him.
On Saturday, October 1, a little-known fighter from the U.K. is stepping forward to do exactly that. Darren Barker, 23-0 and the reigning European middleweight champion, makes his U.S. debut at Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City when he tries to topple the dangerous Martinez.
FUN FACTS ABOUT SERGIO
-Hails from Quilmes, Argentina, just outside Buenos Aires.
-Professional cyclist and soccer player before turning to boxing...you might say he's the Hakeem Olajuwon of combat sports.
-Southpaw, a less common stance that sometimes befuddles less experienced fighters.
-Thirty-six years old.
-Nickname "Maravilla": Wonderful, marvelous.
-Including Barker, the record of Martinez' last six opponents going into their fights: 202-5.
Those opponents: Sergei Dzinzurik, Paul Williams, Kelly Pavlik, Kermit Cintron
FUN FACTS ABOUT D-BARK
-Hails from north London, United Kingdom.
-Currently not ranked in the top 10 at middleweight by Ring magazine or ESPN.
-Orthodox stance, fairly standard technical-boxer style.
-Twenty-nine years old
-Record of Barker's last six, including Martinez: 152-14
Those opponents: Domenico Spada, Affif Belghecham, Danny Butler, Derron McDermott, Jason McKay
-Also boasts wins over Ojay Abrahams, Ernie Smith and Leigh Wicks, combined record of 49-223.
Martinez is one of the few boxers in the world with a claim to being the legitimate, lineal champion of a weight class. His middleweight crown dates all the way back to the long reign of Bernard Hopkins. Hopkins lost to Jermain Taylor (twice). Taylor lost to Kelly Pavlik (twice). Pavlik lost to Martinez. He literally beat the guy who beat the guy. At 160 lbs, Martinez is the clear and only champion, yet he's not one of the four men with a "championship belt" from a sanctioning organization. Everything that's wrong with boxing is embodied by that. There are four guys walking around calling themselves champs, Felix Sturm, Julio Cesar Chavez Jr., Dmitry Pirog and....ah, who cares? Martinez is the legitimate champion at middleweight. End of story. And he's not just the lineal champ. He's far and away the best fighter in the division, based on every piece of tangible evidence.
Almost five years ago, Barker suffered an enormous tragedy when his younger brother, Gary, was killed in an automobile accident at the age of 19. Years later, Barker still brings that grief with him into the ring. Michael Katsidis, last year, went through with his fight against Juan Manuel Marquez just a month after his brother unexpectedly passed away. Katsidis has always been a warrior, but against Marquez he probably would have kept coming for fifty rounds if he hadn't been stopped, bruised and battered, for his own protection.
Barker has had time to recover from the initial shock, but those wounds never fully heal. In a highly adverse situation like the one Barker may be facing on Saturday night, that type of inspiration will serve as a rallying cry to dig deep against the most menacing foe he's ever encountered.
Why aren't I fighting Martinez..?
Why is Martinez fighting Barker anyway, one might ask, since Martinez is the best fighter in the division and Barker lurks somewhere on the fringe of the top 10?
The truth is, there's not a whole lot of great fights that Martinez can get. European belt-holders Felix Sturm and Dmitry Pirog, for different reasons, have thus far been reluctant to come to the States and tangle with the real champ. Julio Cesar Chavez Jr., the biggest money-fight in the division, is still in a developmental stage and Top Rank, his promotional company, won't throw him to the wolves quite yet. Martinez won't move up in weight to seek out fights with the likes of Andre Ward, Lucian Bute or Carl Froch. The "cash cows" who fight below Martinez at welterweight, Pacquiao and Mayweather, certainly won't come knocking down the door of a dangerous fighter with little name recognition for their next pay-per-view dance partner. So there's really not that much better out there, in terms of money or prestige.
Well, Martinez has more to begin with, so I would have to say he has more at risk. Barker can win just by putting up a good fight, not that that's an easy proposition by any means. If Barker doesn't get walked over, he at least beats the very low expectations of him.
If Martinez doesn't dominate Barker, we'll all be scratching our heads. However, in the illogical world of boxing, maybe a loss is exactly what Martinez needs to get a good fight. Or at least if he looks vulnerable, maybe somebody with any kind of credible significance actually steps up and calls him out.
Martinez is somewhere in the ballpark of a 15-1 favorite against Barker. Those are steep odds, even for a widely perceived mismatch. Is Barker worth taking as a 15-1 lottery ticket? In short, no.
All you have to do is look at the resume of these two fighters and that tells you pretty much everything you need to know. Martinez has fought top-level opposition over his last five fights. Barker has never fought anyone even close to the level of Williams, Cintron or Pavlik.
Martinez hasn't just gotten the job done recently, he's looked spectacular doing it; the shellacking of Pavlik, the stunning knockout revenge on Williams and his latest coup, the five-knockdown stoppage of previously undefeated defensive specialist Dzinzurik. On paper and video, Barker looks like an ordinary fighter and Martinez a special one.
If there's ever a reason to go against the grain and imagine a shocking upset, it certainly helps when the favorite has a suspect chin or the underdog is a powerful puncher. Neither of those ring true in this case. Martinez has a sturdy jaw, proven against decent hitters in Cintron and Pavlik. It often gets overshadowed by his offensive wizardry, but the reliable chin of Martinez is one of his greatest assets. His mesmerizing style of feints and lunges lends himself to taking some taps on the way in. Aside from an early-career stoppage to a more seasoned Antonio Margarito, Martinez has never been knocked out. Barker has 14 KOs in his 23 fights, but he's gone the full 12 rounds in his last two outings. I guess the strategy would be for Barker to out-box Martinez. Good luck with that.
That's the million-dollar question. Martinez doesn't come with the sound and fury of the sport's mega-stars, but to boxing fans, he's becoming just as much of a treasured gem. At 36, it's only a matter of time before the ugly hands of time begin to diminish his supreme abilities. Thus, like Pacquiao and Mayweather, it's imperative that Martinez spend these twilight years in the best possible fights, against his greatest competition.
Maybe it means he has to move up in weight. At 160 lbs, there's no one that can touch Martinez. A Chavez fight would be a joke, maybe a worthy one to prove a point (the WBC basically stripped Martinez' belt and gave it to the Zbik/Chavez winner), but not a competitive affair anytime soon. Settling an old score against Margarito would be worthy, if Margarito has anything left and we'll find out after he fights Miguel Cotto in December. But there's just not a lot of viable options. A great fighter with a dearth of worthy opponents.
Barker has very little hope of being anything but cannon fodder for Martinez come Saturday night. He can't match Martinez in strength or speed. He hasn't fought anyone in the ballpark of Martinez in terms of skill and athleticism. And Martinez should be able to gobble up whatever little resistance he faces with an underrated, solid beard.
You have to give Barker all the credit in the world for taking this fight. Anyone willing to stand in a ring with Sergio Martinez has to be commended, or have their sanity questioned. So props to Barker for taking on an incredibly formidable challenge. But in the end, Martinez will be too fast, too powerful, too slick and too experienced for Barker to pose any kind of threat. This was intended to be an easier fight for Martinez, after several in a row against stiff competition. It will be exactly that.
Prediction: Martinez by TKO in the sixth round.