Bryan Armen Graham
Sunday April 18th, 2010

ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. -- When Kelly Pavlik dumped Sergio Martinez to the canvas with a short right in the seventh round of Saturday's middleweight title showdown, it seemed the champion was primed to deliver a spectacular finish.

The headline-grabbing finale came all right -- but Pavlik found himself on the wrong end of it.

Martinez outlanded Pavlik by a 112-51 margin over the last four rounds as the lineal middleweight title changed hands -- and one of the division's more puzzling championship reigns came to a quiet end before 6,179 fans at Boardwalk Hall.

"If [I] want to be a champion," said Martinez through an interpreter, "[I] must finish like a grand champion."

By the end of the eighth, Pavlik (36-2, 32 KOs) led on two of three judges' scorecards and seemed poised to retain the 160-pound title for a fifth straight time. But the 35-year-old Martinez, an unsung junior middleweight title-holder who'd been stung by dubious judging in the past, was determined not to leave the outcome up to the arbiters and stormed to the finish line.

"If we didn't give away those last four rounds, we win the fight," said Pavlik's trainer Jack Loew, speaking at the post-fight press conference in place of the ex-champion, who was taken to the hospital afterward.

From the opening bell, Martinez (45-2-2, 24 KOs) dropped his hands near his beltline, an audacious approach against a violent puncher with such obvious size and reach advantages. Pavlik tipped the scales at 178 pounds before the fight, while Martinez weighed 167.

But the slippery Argentine made Pavlik's hand speed appear dreadfully slow throughout the night. Martinez spent most of the fight circling backwards to the right, maintaining a safe distance from Pavlik's powerful right -- once considered one of the sport's most fearsome weapons.

Midway through the second, a small cut appeared under Pavlik's left eye, a harbinger of things to come. Martinez's agility and evasiveness left the champion looking like a man trying to find the light switch in a dark room.

Yet, even as Martinez won the first three rounds, the danger of Pavlik's punching power loomed over the exchanges.

"[Pavlik] got outspeeded and outboxed by a faster guy," said Lou DiBella, who promotes Martinez. "But if he would have landed flush at some point, it could have been really scary. He's a bigger, stronger man, but he's slower; he wasn't as skilled a boxer and not as quick."

Staying mostly on the outside early, Martinez continued to drop his gloves and dared Pavlik to initiate the action. While his work rate wasn't too impressive in the early rounds, it was downright industrious compared to Pavlik, who was unable to cut off the ring and press the size and reach advantages.

Pavlik turned the fight with a powerful left hand in the fifth that buckled Martinez. He looked more comfortable in the sixth, scoring more frequently with the jab and closing distance more effectively. When Pavlik's right hand inside caught Martinez off balance and sent him to the canvas in the seventh, it seemed the last of Pavlik's ring rust from a mostly inactive 2009 was shed.

But in the ninth round, a rejuvenated Martinez remembered how to fire combinations, and went to work on the cut near Pavlik's eye. The blood cascading down Martinez's back during the 10th sprang from the gusher on Pavlik's face; by the end of the round, the Ohio native's visage resembled a Mack and Manco's pizza.

Pavlik hurt Martinez with a body shot in the 10th, but it did nothing to cut into the Argentine's tireless work rate down the stretch. A mystifying lack of urgency during the last two rounds suggested the champion simply ran out of gas.

"We just stopped throwing punches in the ninth, 10th, 11th and 12th rounds," said a sobered Loew. "He just had to let his hands go. He had to keep him on the end of his jab and we just got away from it. I think, at the beginning, we didn't get frustrated during the first three rounds and that was the game plan, stay patient, and we're going to start catching him. And we were. Things were changing in our favor.

"And like I said: For some ungodly reason, we just stopped punching."

It was here at Boardwalk Hall when Pavlik electrified the sport with a seventh-round TKO of Jermain Taylor for the lineal middleweight championship in 2007. Pavlik was an exciting figure with a ready-made storyline: A deglammed rust-belt hero who lifted the spirits of the dying factory town of Youngstown, Ohio.

After defeating Taylor in the rematch, Pavlik returned triumphantly to a packed Boardwalk Hall to defend the title against Gary Lockett.

But an ill-fated 2008 showdown with Bernard Hopkins -- in a non-title fight at 168 pounds -- resulted in the first loss of Pavlik's career. A life-threatening staph infection dogged Pavlik throughout '09, limiting his activity to a pair of mandatory title defense just to keep possession of the title. A high-profile meeting with Paul Williams was scrapped not once but twice, along with another defense against Sergio Mora.

That much-anticipated showdown with Williams, who watched from ringside in sunglasses, was reduced to an afterthought as Pavlik ceded the title to Martinez.

The underwhelming turnout Saturday at Boardwalk Hall reflected just how far Pavlik's star had fallen. The droves of Youngstown fans who traveled to Atlantic City for the Taylor, Lockett and Hopkins fights were nowhere to be found. There were pockets of empty seats throughout the lower and upper levels and the corners were empty.

Most of the boxing cognoscenti believed Martinez, with his speed and awkward style, was capable of springing the upset against the out-of-form champion. He was the first southpaw Pavlik had faced in four years. Yes, Martinez was a decided underdog, but the odds had been slashed to less than 2-to-1 by fight night. And he'd looked very impressive in dropping a close majority decision to Williams in December, a popular choice for Fight of the Year.

DiBella said the Argentine has 15 days to decide whether to keep the junior middleweight or middleweight championship. He said Martinez is certainly interested in a rematch with Pavlik, but would also entertain a matchup with former welterweight champion Antonio Margarito at 154 pounds.

Top Rank CEO Bob Arum confirmed Pavlik has a rematch clause. But it's unclear whether the ex-champion, who has entertained the idea of moving up to 168 pounds, will continue to campaign at middleweight.

"If they want [the rematch], they'll have it," DiBella said. "If they want it next, they'll have it next."

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