ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. -- Sergio Martinez bounced up the stairs of the Boardwalk Hall dais on Saturday night, face unblemished, smile intact. It was a little over an hour after Martinez had defended his WBC middleweight title against Paul Williams, a fight billed as a 12-round, 36-minute slugfest that ended after four minutes and 10 seconds when Martinez connected with a savage overhand left that sent Williams careening to the canvas.
It was a statement win for Martinez that, when factoring in his defeat of Kelly Pavlik last April, locked up the 2010 Fighter of the Year Award and established him -- at worst -- in the top three of every credible pound-for-pound rankings.
The question now -- as it always is in boxing -- is what's next?
Speculation after the fight was that Martinez might now be in line for a shot at Manny Pacquiao or Floyd Mayweather. Forget it. Pacquiao admitted last week that fighting at 150 pounds was a challenge. Fighting at 154, against a taller, heavy-handed puncher with precision accuracy? Not a chance.
Count Mayweather out, too. It's widely assumed (hoped?) that Mayweather's next fight will be against Pacquiao. But should Mayweather elect to take a tuneup fight before, there is no way he would sign on to fight Martinez, largely for the same reasons as Pacquiao. Both Mayweather and Pacquiao have held titles at junior middleweight but neither one fits the physical criteria.
"You can't chase Mayweather or Pacquiao," said Martinez's promoter, Lou DiBella. "They are ultimately going to fight who they are going to fight. They are the bosses. They are generating the big money. I'm not tripping. I don't think either one of those guys watched this fight and said 'I want to fight Sergio Martinez.'"
So where does that leave Martinez? A third fight with Williams is possible. The series between the two is even after Saturday and the public loves a good rubber match. Williams said he wants one even though his promoter, Dan Goossen, cringed when he did. HBO would snap it up in a heartbeat and the buzz would be palpable given the entertaining nature of the first two fights.
And despite Goossen's desire to see Williams campaign at welterweight (147 pounds) and DiBella's claims that Williams didn't belong at 160 pounds, Williams didn't lose because he was overmatched. He lost because he came into the fight with an atrocious game plan. When you have a three-inch height and six-inch reach advantage, as Williams did against Martinez, you don't go in and slug it out. You fight tactically, build a lead on the scorecards and look to capitalize on a mistake in the later rounds. What Williams did against Martinez wasn't just bad; it was flat-out stupid.
Of course, Martinez has other options. He could clean out the middleweight division. Artie Pelullo, the co-promoter for WBO champion Dmitry Pirog, was chatting up reporters after the fight to try and build momentum for a Martinez-Pirog fight. There is also Felix Sturm (WBA) and Sebastian Sylvester (IBF). There have been only 13 undisputed champions in middleweight history, including Martinez's countryman, Carlos Monzon. Becoming No. 14 before he retires would be a nice feather in the 35-year-old Martinez's cap.
But the list of possible opponents gets even longer. HBO is interested in a Martinez-James Kirkland fight sometime in the second half of 2011. There is Miguel Cotto, the junior middleweight champion who DiBella says Martinez would fight at 156 pounds. And there is Antonio Margarito, who handed Martinez one of his two losses in 2000.
"It would be a murder but it would be good to make some money," said DiBella of Margarito. "My relationship is very good with [Margarito and Cotto's promoter] Top Rank and Bob Arum and I have always been able to figure out in a half-hour if we can make a deal."
Besides finding an opponent, DiBella needs to find a way to make Martinez more marketable. Saturday night's fight drew a paltry crowd of 5,502, many of whom were there to see Williams along with several hundred Hungarians who came to support Zsolt Erdei on the undercard and didn't bother to stay for the main event. DiBella crows about Martinez's good looks and natural charm but Martinez doesn't speak English and is light years from being a staple in the mainstream media.
DiBella jokes that the "Rosetta Stone DVDs have been ordered," but really that's the kind of training Martinez needs right now. For the third straight fight Martinez has dazzled on HBO, putting on the kind of performance that should land him on the American talk show circuit. Instead, Martinez will return to his native Argentina -- where, to be fair, DiBella will look to build his fan base -- and let the memory of his electrifying victory fade away.
DiBella is right about one thing: Sergio Martinez is a star. The challenge is in getting the public to see him as one.