For those who live under the old-fashioned notion that championships must be won and lost in the ring, Saturday's middleweight title showdown between Sergio Martinez and Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. was gratifying theater.
It had been billed as class warfare. Martinez came up through boxing the hard way, fighting his way out of obscurity to the recognized middleweight title in 2010. He was the lineal champion: the proverbial man who beat the man who beat the man. Chavez by contrast was the coddled son of a fistic legend, who procured the WBC middleweight title only after it had been stripped from Martinez last year, acquiring it from a third party known as an interim champion. (That Chavez happens to be the godson of WBC president Jose Suliaman, who did the stripping, only lent to the stench.)
And for the first 11 rounds of Saturday's fight, it was every bit the mismatch it was thought to be when it first made logical sense a year-and-a-half ago. The 37-year-old Martinez showed that size isn't everything, using his superior hand and foot speed, intelligence, accuracy and ring generalship to box circles around an opponent who looked -- and moved -- more like a plodding cruiserweight. For the first 34 minutes, Chavez was simply too slow, too linear a fighter to compete with Martinez's kinetic assault and prolific work rate. The marvel known as Maravilla preened, he showboated, he played to the crowd.
Then Martinez lost focus for a split-second in the 12th and final round -- and nearly paid the ultimate price. Chavez caught him with a massive right hand with 1:45 remaining, then a three-punch combination that sent Martinez crashing to the canvas with 1:23 left. Hurt badly, Martinez relied on every reserve of willpower to make it to the final bell, where the official scoring proved elementary. Two of the ringside judges had Martinez winning 118-109, while the third scored it 117-110. (SI.com had it 118-109.)
Martinez (50-2-2, 28 KOs) looked as impressive from the opening bell as Chavez looked hesitant. The 26-year-old Mexican didn't throw a punch for the first 105 seconds, appearing unsteady as the Argentine southpaw peppered him with sharp counterpunches. Much of Chavez's hopes pinned on his ability to attack the body, but the agile Martinez never stayed in one place long enough for the Mexican to sustain an attack.
Even as Chavez (46-1-1, 32 KOs) made a concerted effort to close distance in the middle rounds, Martinez kept catching him walking in with right hands. By the end of the seventh, the Argentine had bloodied Chavez's eye, which over the next quarter-hour would close entirely. Martinez only grew more emboldened as the rounds progressed and the score tilted further in his favor, making good on his pre-fight guarantee of prolonged punishment.
So it went until the fateful 12th, where Chavez nearly matched the last-gasp heroics of his famous father, who was also behind on points when he stopped Meldrick Taylor with two seconds left in their unforgettable light welterweight title unification fight in 1990. "I wanted to repeat history, [but] unfortunately I couldn't," said the younger Chavez, defiantly upbeat following his first career loss. "I had him hurt, I could have finished him off. I hurt him like nobody else has hurt him before."
Say what you want about the dubious merit underpinning the stardom of Chavez, who's been matched carefully and brought along at a glacial pace since turning pro at 17 with virtually no amateur background, but there's no denying he is an attraction. Thanks in no small part to the jingoistic hook of Mexican Independence Day weekend, Saturday's fight sold out more than a week in advance, drawing a capacity crowd of 19,186 to the Thomas & Mack Center on the campus of UNLV. There's a reason Chavez was guaranteed $3 million plus a portion of the pay-per-view revenue for the fight, while Martinez -- the 2-to-1 favorite, widely recognized champion and eventual lopsided winner -- will receive a minimum of $1.4 million.
Fights as one-sided as Saturday's contest seldom warrant return bouts. Martinez landed 322 of 908 punches, compared to 178 of 390 for Chavez. But Saturday's nervy denouement makes a rematch -- Cinco de Mayo weekend sounds about right -- all but a foregone conclusion. Same for the similar paydays a second meeting will generate. "Of course we're ready," Martinez said afterward of a second fight. "We're two professionals and we take this seriously."
Within the span of one round near the end of a lost evening, Chavez's perserverance and self-belief justified his ascendant fame, while Martinez's talent and grit reaffirmed his hard-won stardom.
Rarely will two minutes of inspiration pay off more handsomely.