Sergio Martinez overcomes Martin Murray, weather for WBC title
BUENOS AIRES -- Five things we learned from Sergio Martinez's unanimous-decision victory over Martin Murray to retain the WBC middleweight title on a rainy Saturday night at the Estadio José Amalfitani:
1. Martinez's homecoming was a success. This was a close fight. A hell of a fight, even, worthy of the considerable pomp surrounding it. Martinez was dropped in the eighth, then again in the 10th (though it was ruled a slip), and appeared as vulnerable and easy to hit as he's looked in years. The official margin -- 115-112 on all three cards despite the knockdown -- may have been slightly home-cooked. (SI.com had Martinez taking the last two rounds to nick it 114-113.) Yet Martinez, perhaps feeling the pressure of fighting before nearly 50,000 of his countrymen, showed the heart and class of a champion by coming off the deck to rally for the win. "He's on his way to the hospital," Lou DiBella, the promoter who built Martinez up from obscurity and who'd expressed worry about the fight all week, said afterward. "He can't open his hand and his knee is going to need another surgery. He's never going to be 100 percent again. But when a superstar needed to step up and close the show in the championship rounds, that's what he did."
2. The atmosphere was absolutely insane. Saturday's fight promised an unforgettable backdrop from the moment it was announced in December: The Argentine hero's first fight back home in more than a decade -- made possible by a reported $5 million guarantee by the government and opposite an Englishman to boot -- was bound to be an compelling spectacle. Somehow it managed to exceed those heady expectations, even as (or perhaps because) nature threatened to put a literal damper on things. Revelers packed the 103-year-old home of Vélez Sársfield football club, standing for five hours in a pouring rain which alternated between steady drizzle and downpour, sometimes in the same round. Earlier in the day, the forecast for thunderstorms was so ominous that canceling the fight -- or at least the entire undercard -- was seriously considered. (Officials ended up moving the main event from 11 p.m. local time to 8:30.) Amid the storm, the Argentines lived up to their reputation as one of the world's most passionate sports populaces, a surreal tableau enhanced by drums, horns, flags, banners and songs. So many songs. While riding back to the hotel across town with HBO's broadcasting team of Jim Lampley, Max Kellerman and Roy Jones Jr., all three placed Martinez-Murray atop their list of most memorable crowds, with only the 2007 fight between Joe Calzaghe and Mikkel Kessler even entering the conversation.
3. Murray showed he's one of the top middleweights in the world. This wasn't the first time Murray (25-1-1, 11 KOs) had deigned to fight in a champion's hometown. The only previous blemish on the Merseysider's record was a split draw against veteran middleweight titleholder Felix Sturm in Germany that many at ringside declared an outright robbery. Overlooked by many as a glorified dance partner for Martinez's coronation, the 30-year-old used his two-inch height advantage (and what seemed like a considerable edge in weight) to very nearly play spoiler. After starting with caution, Murray started to beat Martinez to the punch, peppering the champ with left-right combinations as his confidence grew. An eerie hush fell over the crowd when he floored Martinez with an overhand right in the eighth -- you could hear the Argentine's body clatter onto the canvas -- and it was obvious the challenger was getting the better of the exchanges. Methodical, workmanlike boxer-punchers like Murray will never rack up the style points like Martinez, but on this night he was great. "Just not great enough," he lamented. Regardless, Murray's willingness to take on any challenge -- and, importantly, his refusal to make excuses -- is winning him capital with fans.
4. Martinez's time is running out. It's a funny thing about these homecoming events: When a fighter is finally massive enough an attraction to warrant one, he's usually past his peak. For several years, Martinez (51-2-2, 28 KOs) has been considered no worse than one of boxing's top three pound-for-pound fighters. Yet his style, built on superior reflexes and instinct rather than technique, was never built to last. The knee injury suffered in his September win over Julio Cesar Chavez Jr., which required surgery, hampered his movement Saturday, and there were points where he looked flat-out old. Martinez has been fighting larger opponents since winning the title from Kelly Pavlik in 2010. For his next fight, the Argentine should leverage his star power to entice a junior middleweight to come up in weight to meet him. If not a James Kirkland, how about Miguel Cotto? You could even picture Floyd Mayweather sitting at home and mulling Martinez as an opponent after watching the Argentine struggle. One thing is for sure: If you're Martinez, you're in no hurry to fight up-and-rapidly-coming middleweight terror Gennady Golovkin.
5. HBO came through under impossibly difficult circumstances. HBO has been in the boxing business for 40 years but had never done a fight in South America before Saturday night. They have every right to wait another four decades to return after everything that happened. When you consider all the obstacles the network was up against -- the weather nightmare, coordinating with local crews they'd never worked with before, dealing with a fight schedule that was in constant flux and at the mercy of the forecast, balancing it all with the other end of their split-site doubleheader in California -- it's a miracle the telecast went off without a hitch. "A bunch of moving parts that were all in movement until a half-hour before the main event," as executive director Rick Bernstein described it. So a major shout-out to HBO's hard-working production crew: May they enjoy more than a few Quilmes tonight.