The rise of Sergio Martinez was not meteoric, not chronicled in glossy magazine features or network documentaries. That kind of coverage doesn't come to fighters who box out of dusty gyms in Buenos Aires or who fight for obscure titles in the United Kingdom and Spain. It doesn't come to former professional soccer players and cyclists with no amateur background, who don't pull on a pair of gloves until the ancient -- at least by boxing standards -- age of 20.
No, Martinez's ascent was slow and methodical, one funded by meager paychecks in Argentina and fueled by an unwavering belief in his own talent. That talent surged to the surface in 2010 with career-defining wins over middleweight champion Kelly Pavlik and Paul Williams. Those triumphs, and the dramatic way in which they were achieved, have earned Martinez SI.com's 2010 Fighter of the Year award.
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"For a long time he was a totally unknown commodity," said Williams' promoter, Lou DiBella. "He was a superb athlete but completely unknown. And he's not the type of guy who makes a lot of noise. He just has a unique style and fights with intensity."
Martinez's breakout actually started at the end of 2009, when he was summoned as a late replacement for Kelly Pavlik in an HBO fight against Williams. At the time, Martinez was a nobody. His last fight was a draw against Kermit Cintron and before that his only notable opponent was Antonio Margarito, who knocked Martinez senseless in 2000.
Martinez fought well against Williams in a 12-round brawl that ranked on many lists as one of the top fights of the year. The buzz he generated from that loss earned him a shot at Pavlik, the middleweight king who had reigned atop the division since 2007. Martinez brutalized Pavlik over 12 action-packed rounds, opening grotesque gashes around the champion's eyes with sharp, accurate punches. He won a unanimous decision that April night and, more important, the respect of fans around the world.
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His first defense was in November against the rangy Williams, who didn't stand a chance this time. Williams said repeatedly before the fight that he would go toe-to-toe with Martinez, who simply nodded and smiled. In the opening round, Williams charged forward only to be met by heavy-handed response. In the second round, Williams went in for a left hook only to be met by an overhand left that rattled his brain and sent him careening to the canvas.
The downside to Martinez's path is that his stay at the top may be short. The 35-year-old Martinez is at an age when most fighters begin to think about a new profession. But as long as he stays in the game, his star will continue to shine brightly. He blends his talent with sly charm and movie-star good looks, qualities that will certainly endear him to a public clamoring for bigger names in boxing.
And unlike far too many stars in the sport, Martinez embraces a challenge. He packed on six extra pounds to climb to middleweight to fight Pavlik and lost a few to defend his title against Williams. He will be presented with opportunities in 2011 for perhaps a third fight with Williams along with new options like Antonio Margarito, Miguel Cotto, Andy Lee and Felix Sturm.
He won't shy away from any challenge. Never has and never will.