Less than a minute of the first round had gone by and handsome Vince Martinez was a slack-jawed, wobbly-legged travesty of the serene stylist he had always been before, even in rare defeat. Until now he had never been more than momentarily confused by an opponent. Largely because he has always known how to back off from sudden adversity, no one ever had knocked him out or even properly knocked him down. A tactical retreat, like so many he had organized in the past, was now called for but he had lost the knack.
One rather obvious defect in an otherwise superb boxing style was his undoing. Instead of slipping a straight punch he has a trick of pulling his head straight back from it. In prefight studies Virgil (Honey Bear) Akins had noted the defect and now, at the first opportunity, took savage advantage of it. He won thereby the welterweight championship of the world, estimated to be worth a quarter of a million dollars at going rates. It was quite a step up in class for a fighter who less than two years ago fought in Holyoke, Mass. for $52.
The fight was a tragicomic melodrama of calculation and miscalculation. Before the bell, the ringside buzz in the St. Louis Arena had been that, since Akins was notoriously a slow starter, nothing much would happen in the first few rounds except that Martinez would outpoint him. It was felt that after those few rounds the 2-to-1 odds favoring Akins would be justified, once Honey Bear began his stretch run. The Martinez corner had the early rounds figured that way, too. The Akins corner, in turn, had figured that that was the way the Martinez corner would figure it. Akins, therefore, fought as he never had fought before against a major opponent. He made a surprise party of it. Instead of waiting, Akins delivered the key punch of the fight a mere 30 seconds after the opening bell. He forced his opportunity with a long left jab, nothing much in itself. All it did was to send Martinez' head straight back, not from the power of the blow, which landed lightly, but because that is the characteristic Martinez way of neutralizing a jab. It is an unorthodox way, unworthy of him. By classical standards, and Martinez is in all other respects a classical boxer, a straight punch should be avoided by a slip—a sideways movement of the head that lets the punch glide harmlessly over a shoulder.
"Straight punches you slip," an old boxing professor explained later. "Hooks you move with."
But for years Martinez has been getting away with his backward movement. Until last week none of his opponents had thought to follow a jab with an overhand right to the well-exposed, upward-tilted chin that results from the maneuver. Akins thought of it and did it. Martinez, off balance, went down.
Down he went for the first time in his career of 65 fights and 60 victories, and when he arose there was written on his face the astonishment of a sinful man finally facing an unexpected judgment. After the fight Martinez said he thought he had been knocked out in the first—"or maybe the second"—round. He had no clear memory of it. Despite dousings with sponges dipped in ice water he never fully recovered from that punch. He went through the motions of fighting from a deep wellspring of courage in his subconscious. In the past he had been denounced for lack of courage in adversity when, in fact, he has never lacked courage. He has simply exercised more intelligent caution than is appreciated in ring society. Now, with intelligence blanked out, he responded from a natural resource that forced him to rise to loose-ankled feet time after time—and get knocked down, time after time. He was knocked down four times in that first round, stumbled stupidly to the canvas another time without a punch being thrown and went down four times more in other rounds for a total of eight clear knockdowns in the fight. The eighth, in the fourth round, ended it. Referee Harry Kessler, who had resisted a plea from Akins' corner that he stop the fight between the third and fourth rounds, called a halt without a count.
"Why count 10?" he asked later. "I knew I could have counted 30."
Akins proved himself a true successor to Carmen Basilio, who had given up the title so that he might briefly rule over the middleweight division. The fact that he did not take out Martinez with a single punch by no means implies that Akins is not a deadly puncher. Martinez proved long ago that he is no glass-jawed Fancy Dan. Most fighters could not have survived a round of the punishment he took, not only to the head but to the body, where Akins landed telling blows in fits of fury that sent Martinez reeling about the ring.
Basilio was at ringside to study a possible future opponent. There was instant speculation that a Basilio-Akins fight was in the sometime offing, and Akins was more than willing, foreseeing the greatest gate the welterweight division has had in years. Basilio wisely ducked the issue for the time being. There was, he pointed out, the matter of Sugar Ray Robinson's uncertainty about the future of the middleweight title, which Carmen would like to win back. Sugar Ray, on his part, was chasing a mysterious star that told him he could get a million dollars fighting Floyd Patterson for the heavyweight title in California. The matter of a Robinson-Basilio fight will, it is clear, be in abeyance for some little time.
The fight went on against serious competition from the Municipal Opera, which featured that glorious tenor, Andy Devine, in Show Boat and drew 9,527 admissions; a Cardinals-Phillies baseball game which drew 17,599; and nighttime Thoroughbred racing at the Cahokia Downs track just across the Mississippi which attracted 6,740. Even so, 9,777 fans paid $62,810 to get into the arena, a most respectable showing in view of these counterattractions.