NEW YORK -- Why isn't Sergio Martinez more popular?
Why does the best fighter in the world not named Floyd Mayweather or Manny Pacquiao remain a virtual unknown beyond hardcore boxing fans?
Sure, a sellout crowd of 4,671 packed the Theater at Madison Square Garden on Saturday night to see Martinez defend his middleweight title with an entertaining 11th-round TKO of game challenger Matthew Macklin. But why does his name continue to elicit blank stares from the general sports fan?
It's one of the most maddening riddles today, because Martinez would seem to have all the ingredients of a major crossover attraction: crowd-pleasing style, matinee-idol looks, an extraordinary backstory even by boxing standards.
What's more, the Oxnard, Calif., resident and Argentine expat is one of the genuine good guys in all of sports, whose crusades against bullying and domestic violence far surpass the made-for-TV philanthropy of other pro athletes. In fact, much of Martinez's charitable work -- like his visits to safe houses for domestic-abuse survivors whose locations must remain undisclosed -- can't be done for the cameras.
But it's his penchant for highlight-reel knockouts that make Martinez's anonymity all the more mystifying.
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Everything that's propelled Martinez to No. 3 on everyone's pound-for-pound list -- the herky-jerky style, the slippery footwork, the TNT-packed left hand -- was on display against Macklin (28-4, 19 KOs), a 7-to-1 underdog who came to fight and didn't let down a partisan crowd well-lubricated from St. Patrick's Day revelry.
Martinez (49-2-2, 28 KOs) had trouble with Macklin's defense and head movement early. He appeared to be breathing from his mouth in the fifth round as Macklin scored with a sharp left uppercut and a series of well-timed combinations. Martinez even suffered a knockdown when Macklin connected with a right and his glove touched the canvas.
But it only seemed to awaken Martinez, who adjusted on the fly, quickly figured out Macklin's timing and ramped up the pressure. A well-schooled combination in the 10th stopped Macklin in his tracks, and another gorgeous left-right sequence opened a cut above the challenger's right eye in the 11th.
Martinez dropped a fading Macklin twice near the end of the round, both with the crushing left hand that had dangled over the proceedings all night like a sword of Damocles. As blood poured from a gash above Macklin's left eye, the 29-year-old's corner smartly asked referee Eddie Cotton to stop it before the bell rang for the final round. The electric finish only boosted Martinez's reputation as the best finisher in boxing.
"I was waiting for the mistakes as an experienced fighter would and I took advantage of it when it happened," Martinez said afterward through a translator. "It's like chopping a tree, little by little, and I knew he would fall."
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Lou DiBella, the gregarious promoter whose steadfast belief in Martinez has paid off handsomely, says Martinez's inability to speak English is his biggest obstacle to widespread fame. It certainly doesn't help to be a 37-year-old southpaw whose abilities far outstrip his Q score. The translation is a four-word anathema to rival promoters: high risk, low reward.
Yet Martinez has managed to talk his way onto the short list of opponents for Mayweather, who fights Miguel Cotto at 154 pounds in May. And DiBella is willing to make any concession for a fight with boxing's cash cow, even if it means settling for a pride-swallowing 80-20 split of the purse.
"We'll handicap it for [Mayweather]," said DiBella, bellicose as ever, during a scorched-earth rant on press row. "[Sergio] will come down to '54 or '53 or '52 or '51 or '50. 80-20 and we'll go down to [150 pounds]. If Floyd doesn't want to do that, there's not much more we can do.
"[Martinez] is Roy Jones in his prime. He's a Mayweather-level guy. The reason they're running from him is because he's that good."
Martinez, fielding questions at ringside wearing a vintage Diego Maradona shirt, ever the cool yin to his promoter's fiery yang, didn't seem too concerned about waiting for Mayweather. Time, he assured, was on his side.
"I'll keep waiting because I'm a young man," Martinez said. "I'm not as old as they think."