World Middleweight Championship: Kelly Pavlik vs Sergio Martinez
Saturday’s middleweight title fight between Kelly Pavlik, USA (36-1, 32 K.O’s) and Sergio Martinez, Argentina (44-2-2, 24 K.O’s) will be contested for the WBC and WBO world titles. The reality though is that Pavlik reigns as the lineal, undisputed middleweight champion – despite what the other sanctioning organizations might claim. We know this because in September of 2004 WBC, WBA and IBF middleweight champion Bernard Hopkins defeated WBO title holder Oscar de la Hoya to become the first man in history to simultaneously hold all four of boxing’s “world” title belts – as recognized by the international boxing hall of fame. The impossibility of meeting subsequent mandatory obligations of all four championships meant that the titles inevitably fragmented, but nevertheless we can still trace the royal bloodline to this Saturday’s fight.
Hopkins, after twice being outpointed by Jermain Taylor for his titles, moved up to become light-heavyweight champion, and so opened the door for the man they call “The Ghost” – Kelly Pavlik. In a brutal and exciting fight in September of 2007 Pavlik rose from a hard second round knockdown to kayo defending champion Taylor in the seventh round. It was a thrilling encounter that established Kelly as one of the most exciting and marketable champions in the world. Any boxing promoter at the time would have told you that Pavlik – a talented and hard-hitting, straight-talking, undefeated, white American middleweight champion who provided consistent value for money, action packed fights and had a loyal fan base – equated to one thing: a license to print money.
Fast forward the clock a few years, and oh how things have changed. Instead of taking the box-office by storm and forcing his way to the front of America’s sports pages, Pavlik has largely languished in obscurity, unknown outside of hardcore boxing circles and his loyal home town following in Ohio. Following a twelve round points victory in a rematch with Taylor, which lacked the drama and excitement of their first encounter, things were still looking up for the pale-skinned American. His decline in marketability can largely be attributed to one man: Bernard Hopkins.
With HBO tightening their purse strings and a lack of “name” opponents on the horizon, Pavlik and his team decided that in order to maintain the pay-per-view pay cheques coming through the door they would move up in weight and add the name of aging legend Bernard Hopkins to their resume. After all, Jermain Taylor had out-pointed Hopkins twice already, and Pavlik had made mince-meat of Taylor (at least in their first encounter). Only, somebody forgot to tell Hopkins about the script.
What followed was a twelve round beat-down, as the old master handed the young apprentice one of the hardest boxing lessons you are likely to witness. At times it became almost cruel watching the young “future” of American boxing being so easily manipulated around the ring, unable to connect with anything approaching an effective scoring blow. Hopkins out-thought, out-jabbed and out-punched his younger foe, punctuating the performance with humiliating bolo-punches midway through the fight, winding up his arms before whacking his opponent a la Sugar Ray Leonard.
As the fight took place at a catch weight of 170lbs, no titles were on the line, and so Pavlik remained champion at the 160lb middleweight limit. Numerous excuses/reasons were floated around after the fight by Pavlik’s team in an effort to explain what had occurred: Kelly was sick going into the fight; his body wasn’t used to the 10lbs addition in weight. The damage had been done though; his aura of invincibility as a fearsome puncher had been shattered. It is hard to believe in hindsight that he went into that bout a strong favourite to win – although I was one of few people who capitalized on the odds that night and made a pretty penny by backing the old warrior to win.
The subsequent rehabilitation of the middleweight champion’s image has been a slow process. After two relatively easy stoppage victories over unheralded opponents, this Saturday will be the true litmus test to see what the champion has left. Periods of inactivity through injury and numerous cancellations of proposed bouts with the respected Paul Williams have not helped the process. A resounding victory this weekend though would again help to establish The Ghost as one of boxing’s premier operators.
It is not an easy assignment. His Argentinian opponent stepped in as a replacement against the aforementioned Williams last time out, enhancing his reputation in a hard fought contest in which many thought he was unlucky not to receive the verdict on the scorecards. He enters the ring as the current WBC ‘interim’ champion (whatever that means) a division south at 154lbs and certainly represents Pavlik’s toughest post-Hopkins test.
The champion will step into the ring as a significant favourite, carrying advantages in punching power and size, with Martinez having fought the majority of his career as a light-middleweight. There’s no doubt that the American is still a damaging puncher and can take out almost anyone in the division he is able to hit cleanly. He utilizes an arsenal of heavy blows to pressure his opponents, breaking them down with powerful right hands and hurtful uppercuts before stopping them around the midway point. He is though somewhat robotic in his approach, relying heavily on his favoured one-two combo and sometimes neglecting to double up the jab. If Hopkins showed one thing it is that Pavlik struggles if his man refuses to stay in front of him and doesn’t allow him the time to set himself properly for his punches.
If Martinez is able to control the distance then, utilize his movement and stay out of the way of Pavlik’s power shots, he may upset the champion’s rhythm enough to take a lead on the cards. If he can maintain this through the middle rounds and stave off the champion’s assault, he may well be able to earn himself a points victory. As they say in boxing, “styles make fights”, and I think Martinez’s southpaw stance and in-and-out movement could be all wrong for Pavlik. I wouldn’t bet money on it as with Hopkins, because here Pavlik carries the advantages in firepower which could well make the difference: Hopkins has never been taken out by a puncher, while Martinez visited the canvas in his last fight against Williams and was previously stopped by Antonio Margarito at welterweight.
The defeat to Margarito was ten years ago though, his only other loss since 2000 being against Paul Williams in his last fight. And although he lost the bout to Williams on a majority decision, he impressed me enough to believe he will at least give Pavlik some significant problems to overcome. Whichever way it goes it’s likely to be a closely fought contest for however long it lasts, but I’m going to predict the upset here: I think Martinez can pull out a victory on the scorecards.