Sunday, April 02, 2023  |



Martinez comes from a rich boxing tradition in Argentina

Fighters Network

British mariners who conducted business at the giant port of Buenos Aires at the turn of the 20th century brought with them some precious cargo: a love of boxing, which they introduced to the natives. A century later, with names such as Firpo and Monzon etched in our minds, boxing remains an important part of the sporting fabric in Argentina.

The sport isn’t as popular as it was when Luis Angel Firpo knocked Jack Dempsey out of the ring in 1923 or Carlos Monzon laid waste to the middleweight division about a half century later but the South American country still produces champion fighters.

Sergio “Maravilla” Martinez — who fights Kelly Pavlik on Saturday in Atlantic City, N.J., on HBO — and slugger Marcos Maidana are proof of that.

“The boys who are looking for a future still like boxing,” said Carlos Irusta, a sports writer and television broadcaster who has covered the sport in Argentina since 1963. “There is still a lot of boxing in Argentina, a lot of boxers.”

It all started with Firpo, “The Wild Bull of the Pampas.” Firpo (31-4, 26 knockouts) was very big for his time — 6-foot-2¾ (189cm) and about 220 pounds (100kg) — and very powerful. He stopped eight of nine opponents in the United States leading up to the Dempsey fight.

Dempsey, world champion and internationally famous at the time, would feel that power in a dramatic way when the two met in their legendary bout at the Polo Grounds in New York some 87 years ago.

Firpo expected a hostile reception.

“As I go through the crowd from my dressing-room to the ring,” he told a newspaper reporter, “men will stand on their chairs and shout evil things at me. They will have their fists over their heads and call me bad names and tell me that Dempsey will do terrible things to me.”

That's what Dempsey did, although not without some indelible moments.

The fight took place at a time when very few people in Buenos Aires had a radio. Thus, the local newspaper received the transmission and concocted a novel plan to announce the winner: A green light would be shined out a tower window if Firpo won, a red light if Dempsey won.

The first light anxious Argentines saw was green because of one of boxing’s most-legendary moments. Firpo had been down seven times in the first round when he rushed the champion and, with a clubbing right, sent him through the ropes and on top of a sports writer’s typewriter.

The newspaper people back in Buenos Aires, thinking that was the end of fight, shined the green light and ecstatic Argentines celebrated in the streets. Even Dempsey wasn't sure what had happened.

“I didn't even know he had knocked me out of the ring,” he reportedly said, “until I came to on my stool between rounds. I thought I had been knocked out.”

Of course, the green light was premature. Dempsey made it back into the ring in the nick of time and stopped Firpo in the next round, prompting the newspaper people to correct their error and shine the red light.

The people, Irusta said, were devastated. They were also angry. To this day, he said, many Argentines believe that Dempsey failed to get to his feet by the 10 count and should’ve lost. Irusta cited one theory that the film was edited to cut down on the time he was down and out of the ring.

“For this reason, there are still people from Argentina who don’t like Americans. They think this fight was stolen,” Irusta said.

Firpo never did win the world championship but remains a legend in Argentina and throughout Latin America. Streets, schools and even a professional soccer team in El Salvador — Club Deportivo Luis ├üngel Firpo — have been named his honor.

“He was the first big sports celebrity in Argentina. When Firpo was a contender, soccer wasn’t yet our national game,” Irusta said.

Many famous boxers from Argentina followed Firpo. Justo Suarez (24-3-1, 14 KOs), a dashing lightweight from Cordoba, was an idol in Argentina and a top championship contender in the 1930s when he died suddenly at 29 of tuberculosis.

Jose Maria Gatica (86-7-2, 72 KOs) became a huge figure in Argentina in the 1940s and ’50s — and a friend of President Juan and Evita Peron — because of his winning ways and thrilling style, but his hopes of winning a world title were dashed when Ike Williams knocked him out in one round.

Gatica, who once filled 40,000-seat soccer stadiums with adoring fans, ultimately fell from grace with the Perons' fall from power. He lost his boxing license and was run over by a bus and killed when he was only 38.

Pascual Perez (84-7-1, 57 KOs) was a 4-foot-11 (150cm) dynamo who became Argentina’s first world champion in 1954 and held it for five and a half years. He was popular but not an icon, Irusta said, because he fought many of his biggest fights overseas.

Junior welterweight titleholder Niccolino Loche (117-4-14, 14 KOs) was tremendously popular — and one of the best-ever defensive fighters — in the ’60s and ’70s. He was so big that he regularly drew sell-out crowds of 20,000 fans to the famous Estadio Luna Park in Buenos Aires, something Monzon couldn’t do.

“He would put on a show in every fight,” Irusta said. “He wasn’t a brawler; he was a contact puncher. He’d talk to people at ringside during the fight. He was very difficult to hit. He’d offer you his face but, when you threw the punch, it wasn’t there.”

And then came Monzon, a glamorous, handsome figure who also was one of the greatest fighters who ever lived. Monzon (87-3-9, 59 KOs) lost three times in his first 20 fights and never lost again, going a remarkable 71-0-9 against the best fighters of his time the remainder of his career. Still, few — even those in Argentina — believed that he would beat the great Italian fighter Nino Benvenuti in 1970 in Rome.

Monzon scored a 12th-round knockout before an international audience in THE RING magazine’s Fight of the Year to win the world title and recognition as one of the best fighters on the planet. He would go on to hold the title for seven years, one of the great runs in boxing history.

“The fight was on Saturday night in Rome, Saturday afternoon in Buenos Aires,” Irusta said. “All the people (in Argentina) were home watching the fight, the entire country. Nobody thought he’d beat Benvenuti. When he did, when he made a tremendous knockout victory, the people went crazy. That was the case especially in Santa Fe, where Monzon lived. All the people were in the streets.”

Sadly, Monzon, too, fell from his pedestal in the most-horrible way possible. He was convicted of murdering his common-law wife by pushing her off a balcony in 1988 and died in a car accident while on a prison furlow to visit his family in 1995.

“Some people don’t like Monzon for this reason,” Irusta said. “I think only in Santa Fe will he always be a tremendous champion. In Buenos Aires some say, yes, he was a champ but he was a killer too.”

Argentina has produced other champions after Monzon. Victor Galindez twice won a light heavyweight title. Julio Cesar Vazquez was a two-time junior middleweight titleholder. Juan Coggi won junior welterweight belts three times. And, more recently, Carlos Baldomir made a name for himself by beating Zab Judah to win a welterweight title and then successfully defended against Arturo Gatti.

And the trend continues today. Omar Narvaez is an undefeated flyweight titleholder, and Marcos Maidana, who Irusta said is becoming very popular in Argentina because of his brawling style, has a date with Timothy Bradley.

Then there’s Martinez, who will challenge for Pavlik’s world championship. The handsome boxer-puncher started his career in his native country but couldn’t make a decent living and moved to Spain about five years ago.

Thus, Irusta said, he is not as well known in Argentina as those who live there. He said that successful female fighter Marcela Acuna, who fights almost exclusively in Argentina, is a much bigger celebrity than Martinez is.

Could that change if he continues to win?

“That’s hard to answer,” Irusta said. “I suppose not. We have a problem with communication in Argentina. Not all the people can watch the HBO fights. I think a lot of people haven’t seen him fight. He fights this weekend. I think a lot of people will see him then.”

The sport remains popular in Argentina. For example, boxing cards within Argentina are televised regularly. However, big events are few and far between. Irusta remembers when two fights cards a week were held at Luna Park. Now there are two or three a year there.

The fans also bemoan a similar fate to those in the U.S.: A dwindling amount of space devoted to boxing in the print media, which is focused on soccer and other sports.

And relatively few people see the big international fights, in part because of the hour they take place. Big fights on Saturday night in the U.S. often begin very late in Argentina, which is one hour ahead of East Coast time.

“That’s too late for a lot of people,” Irusta said. “The show starts at maybe 11:30 and ends at 1:30 a.m. That’s very late. That’s the problem. And a lot of other people, they go out on Saturday night to the movies or shows or something like this.

“It’s the same as it was.”

Well, one thing is the same. Argentina continues to produce excellent boxers.

Michael Rosenthal can be reached at [email protected]