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Argentina waits with bated breath for superstar Sergio Martinez's fight

Photo: Latin Content/Getty Images

Sergio Martinez wore an Argentina soccer jersey during the weigh-in for his fight vs. Martin Murray.

BUENOS AIRES -- The setting is unlikely for the final workout before a major prizefight, but there's nothing likely about Sergio "Maravilla" Martinez, the middleweight champion who didn't start boxing until 20 and didn't truly break through until he was midway through his thirties.

It's a Thursday, less than 48 hours before Martinez will climb through the ropes to face England's Martin Murray at the Estadio José Amalfitani, the 50,000-seat home of Vélez Sársfield football club, and he has just returned to his penthouse suite in the Sheraton Libertador Hotel. All the furniture has been moved to one side of the room, leaving imprints in the plush carpet. The trappings of luxury are everywhere: oil paintings hanging from ornate frames, a marble bust next to a bottle of champagne in a silver bucket, trays of Villavicencio and boxed orange juice, a fully stocked bar that appears untouched. A pair of open doors leads to a balcony overlooking the barrio of Puerto Madero, where the sun has just gone down beyond the Río de la Plata riverbank.

And here is Martinez, gliding effortlessly around the room in a powder blue Adidas tracksuit with gold stripes and burgundy shoes. It's 7:15 p.m. The room is silent, save for the faint wail of an ambulance 18 floors down and a train horn in the distance. After four minutes of shadowboxing, Martinez nods to an assistant and the music is switched on: Calle 13, the Puerto Rican band whose eclecticism -- dashes of rap, rock and world music -- mirrors the rare blend of a fighter by way of Buenos Aires, Madrid, Rome and Oxnard, Calif., who at points mulled careers in soccer, tennis and cycling. The intensity picks up.

The fight has captured the attention of this city of three million, no doubt stoked by the political overtones any Argentina-England showdown engenders, be it on the pitch or in the squared circle. It's Martinez's first fight in his native country in 11 years, a homecoming reportedly made possible by a $5 million guarantee from the Argentine government, and it has put his face in the public eye like never before: TV appearances, magazine covers, omnipresent ads on subways and city buses. They are drawn as much to his rugged beauty and impeccable style as his formidable skill. Two Argentine channels, one network and one cable, are broadcasting it live. (HBO is airing it in the U.S.)

Argentina's boxing cognoscenti had largely abandoned Martinez when he suffered a knockout loss to Antonio Margarito in 2000. Today, he's a superstar domestically on the level of a Lionel Messi, the latest in a proud fistic heritage that includes Carlos Monzon, Pascual Perez, Niccolino Loche, et al. When he fought Julio Cesar Chavez, Jr., in September to unify the middleweight titles, as veteran Buenos Aires boxing writer Carlos Irusta tells it, the restaurants were empty and the sidewalks were clear. When he won, revelers celebrated and car horns screamed.

More than 45,000 fans are expected at Saturday's bout, which will be the country's biggest since Oscar Bonavena fought Gregorio "Goyo" Peralta for the Argentine heavyweight title in 1965. That fight drew 25,236 to Luna Park, the Madison Square Garden of Buenos Aires. "But those were all boxing people," Irusta notes, describing Maravilla's homecoming as more of a cultural event than prizefight. "[Martinez] is like a rock star. Everyone loves him, this weird guy, this boxer who wears sunglasses."

Murray is no walkover, even though you'd never know it from the tenor of the promotion and the temperature of the town. "He's a bigger guy," promoter Lou DiBella said on Thursday. "Never been knocked down or out." The uncertain weather forecast for Saturday is on everyone's mind. What's more, Martinez suffered a knee injury in the Chavez fight that required surgery. At 38, the rehabilitation process was arduous. Until he loses, every Martinez fight will carry with it a degree of suspense.

For today, however, the knee looks fine. He's parrying and changing direction on it as always, slipping punches as much to avoid damage as to pivot into his own counterattack, like a chessmaster's bending of tempo to his will. As the music blares from a white Macbook next to a silver bowl filled with comically robust fruit, Martinez circles to his right and fires straight rights and hooks at the right mitt of trainer Pablo Sarmiento, the Cleto Reyes gloves a blur of black and red. When they strike true, as most of them do, a sharp thwack rings through the room. Spirits are high. Martinez looks strong, happy, ready.

It's not a typical venue for a fighter's last workout. But what lies ahead is no typical fight.

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