BUENOS AIRES, Argentina – Legend has it that young Sergio Martinez wanted to be a soccer player, a dream shared by almost every male child in his native land. But his family’s involvement in boxing led him to turn his attention on the sweet science, and soon enough he found himself training under his uncle Raul in the dilapidated local gym, where the kid who would later be called “Maravilla” (the Marvel) had a hard time finding world-class models to imitate from his awkward southpaw stance.
Then, an epiphany that would mark a life he could never have imagined in those early days occurred when his uncle brought Martinez’s attention to the fact that if he placed the TV in front of a mirror and looked at his limited video collection of great fighters, he could turn any fighter in history into a lefty and use him as a model to imitate.
“What we did is, we looked through a mirror, and then we could have a look at the way things would look in the ring, to recreate those same conditions,” said Martinez (50-2-2, 28 knockouts) during a conference call in the buildup of his crowning homecoming fight in Argentina, in which he will be facing England’s undefeated contender Martin Murray (25-0-1, 11 KOs) in the biggest fight in the country’s history.
Martinez’s WBC and THE RING belts will be on the line when they meet on Saturday in front of a projected live audience of 50,000 fans at the local Club Atletico Velez Sarsfield, in a card that will be shown live on HBO World Championship Boxing, beginning at 8:30 p.m. ET/PT.
Soon enough, in that long-gone, pre-YouTube era, Martinez learned how to make the best fighters (like Carlos Monzon, Muhammad Ali, local idol Niccolino Locche and many others) turn around and provide him the lessons that circumstance had denied him. And it wouldn’t be the first nor the last time he would be able to turn things around in his favor and make the most out of a disadvantageous situation.
Later in his life, he would travel to Las Vegas to fight a rugged Mexican fighter for $900 dollars and get soundly beaten, only to return more than 12 years later to the same city to beat Mexican champion with a one-sided drubbing and for a record-breaking purse for an Argentine fighter. He would go from a job as bouncer and part-time dancer in a club in Madrid to participate in the Argentine version of “Dancing with the Stars.” He parlayed the sadness and bitterness of his forced exile into a budding career as a stand-up comedian (which he debuted on a local TV show before his fight against Julio Cesar Chavez Jr., with great reviews). And now, the kid who landed in Madrid with a bag of old clothes and a few phone numbers scribbled on a piece of paper is now returning to his country for a long overdue homecoming in an emotionally charged fight on a soccer stadium, the very field of dreams in which he had envisioned himself in his childhood.
Martinez has made a habit out of turning things around in his favor and turning rejection into opportunity. Since those early days at the neighborhood gym in suburban Claypole, where he grew up in poverty, Martinez has applied the old mirror technique to every challenge life has put in front of him.
“This has taught me to reason and meditate on every step and every move I want to make,” he says. “I believe every lesson I learned in life allowed me to have versatility in the ring. Sometimes, boxing was the easiest thing that I had to face. I have had a constant growing in my life. In my life outside of boxing I had to grow up a lot with the changes that I accepted and that I set out to do in life”.
Argentina, a country that has thrived on rag-to-riches stories, has embraced Martinez’s story and now is ready to welcome him back after his career-defining fight against Chavez Jr. last September, when he galvanized the country in a way that was not seen since the late ’70s, when Carlos Monzon, Victor Galindez and many other fighters grabbed the undivided attention of the local TV audiences in every one of their performances.
“My people gave me the best welcome I could have imagined,” said Martinez in front of a crowded press conference, in another impressive improvement from his days hanging out at Vegas press conferences of other big events, almost begging to be noticed and interviewed. “I couldn’t have hoped for a better homecoming. The feeling of coming back is spectacular, and I feel better than ever.”
The expectation of having his first fight in his homeland after more than 10 years of absence is visibly high on Martinez, who opened the press conference by rubbing his hands vigorously in delightful anticipation and asking the audience “Are we ready for a knock-out on Saturday, guys?” His question was answered with the roaring approval of the crowd, in which the hanger-ons outnumbered the registered members of the press 3-to-1; a reasonable expectation, given that Martinez has more knockouts than the challenger has fights.
Martinez has enough reasons to be excited about the enthusiastic expectations placed on him. In his last fight in Argentina (in 2002, against Francisco Mora), there were about 200 people in attendance at the old boxing federation stadium. In his first few press conferences in Argentina before the Chavez fight, only a handful of beat reporters met Martinez at the local dairy workers’ labor union, which provided their modest accommodations to host his press meetings. But Martinez dealt with this limited amount of attention by doing the only thing he could do: he put it in the rearview mirror, and moved on to greater opportunities.
Today, his impact permeates every social level, from the 5,000-strong legion of well-to-do Argentine fight fans who made the trip to Las Vegas to watch him take Chavez Jr. to school, to the thousands of children and teenagers in the most impoverished neighborhoods who wouldn’t mind taking a few lessons from Martinez himself. Today, the kid who had trouble finding role models has become one himself, at least in his native country.
“Every day, we’re being invited to the inauguration of a new boxing gym, and for us this is the future,” said Argentine boxing federation president Osvaldo Bisbal, highlighting the star power of Martinez among even the youngest sports fans. “If we know how to seize this moment, the presence of Maravilla will mark a before-and-after in the history of our sports, thanks to the tremendous push he is giving to Argentine boxing.”
Knowing that his time is now, Martinez didn’t wait to write his autobiography. He seized the opportunity to pass on his message and start building his legacy right now, at his peak and during his reign as the country’s most visible working-class hero. And he is counting on building enough achievements to continue filling out page after page of his already published ghost-written bio, “Corazon de Rey” (“The Heart of a King”) and turn it into an ongoing effort, a mirror for other people to look into and change their destiny as well.
On Saturday, he will walk into a crowded stadium to start filling the blanks of yet another chapter of his own history. The odds overwhelmingly favor him, 6-to-1, but life has already taught him that a life-changing turn can happen as suddenly as a quick look at a mirror at the right time.
But the feeling that awaits him when he steps on that field of dreams is more than enough reason to believe that he’ll turn back the challenge one more time.
“What I will feel, I could not explain it. Maybe after the fight I might be able to. But I do feel a huge emotion for everything that’s happening right now,” says Martinez.
The expected victory could easily become just another milestone in a lifetime of challenges met and bested, but the confidence gained in this return to his homeland could bring about the birth of yet another new version of Maravilla, a marvel ready to continue dazzling the boxing world for at least a few more years, until a new challenge appears in front of him.
How will the new, older, wiser, version of Martinez look?
It’s hard to say. But a renewed look at the mirror would be a good start.
Photos / Jeff Bottari-Getty Images, Juan Mabromata-AFP, Al Bello-Getty Images