The first meeting didn't warrant much hype, just a smattering of Internet columns and few token mentions on HBO. Paul Williams vs. Sergio Martinez in a non-title fight didn't move the needle, not when most boxing fans were clamoring for Williams vs. Kelly Pavlik and few had even heard of Martinez.
That was December 2009. That was before Williams and Martinez engaged in a knock-down, drag-out brawl that ended with Williams winning on points (barely) and both leaving the ring with bigger names than when they entered it.
A lot has changed since then. Martinez (45-2-2, 24 KOs) is the lineal middleweight champion, a title he earned after customizing Pavlik's face last April. Williams (39-1, 27 KOs) has had a quieter year. He won a bizarre technical decision in May after Kermit Cintron tumbled out of the ring, but has spent most of 2010 in the (unsuccessful) pursuit of Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao.
Williams and Martinez will get reacquainted on Saturday night when they fight for Martinez's WBC middleweight title at Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City, N.J. (10 p.m. ET, HBO). And if the stakes were high before, well, they are
Respect is the name of the game for Martinez. Middleweight has long been boxing's glamour division, with names like Carlos Monzon, Marvin Hagler and Bernard Hopkins enjoying high-profile reigns. Martinez would appear to have both the style and substance to elevate him into that elite company, but his time atop the division has been spent in relative anonymity. For five months, it was Martinez (the champ) chasing Williams (the challenger). The pursuit finally ending with Martinez swallowing the smaller end of the split and having to defend his title at a catch-weight (158 pounds).
"[The weight] doesn't matter to me," Martinez said. "I'll make the weight. So it's not really a big deal for my part. It's more for the press. You know, whatever weight Paul Williams wanted to do it, I would gladly accept it. I just want to fight him."
And Williams? A rematch with Martinez wasn't option No. 1, 2 or 3 on his list. A rangy 6-foot-1, Williams has scared off most of the big names in the 147-pound weight class and doesn't bring the kind of gate that would draw those names to him, a flaw that essentially ended any negotiations with Pacquiao and Mayweather before they started.
Another win over Martinez could change that. Pacquiao won't be making any moves to middleweight -- Williams would have to drop down to 147 -- but the possibility of beating a middleweight champion (even one fighting out of his weight class) might be just the carrot to make Pacquiao bite.
"I'm looking forward to [Saturday] but [fighting Pacquiao] is more motivation," Williams said. "That motivates me even more. I'll go out there and put on a good show."
The quality of the show is perhaps the one certainty. The first fight between the two was highlighted by numerous crowd-pleasing exchanges that left the outcome in doubt. Williams and Martinez have promised a repeat performance.
"He [Martinez] is going to have to fight," said Williams' trainer, George Peterson. "There is going to come a time in that ring where he's going to have to fight and I know who will get the best of that."
To the winner goes the spoils. Williams already has eyes on Pacquiao while Martinez would like a unification fight with Felix Sturm. They are each other's personal springboards, with the win going to the one who hits it the hardest.