Best I Faced – Mario Martinez
Hardnosed Mexican warrior Mario Martinez unsuccessfully challenged four times for world titles at junior lightweight and lightweight, but gave the likes of Julio Cesar Chavez, Azumah Nelson and Jeff Fenech tough fights.
Martinez was born in Guadalajara, Mexico, the third born of five children in a working-class family, on August 15, 1965.
“It was very tough,” Martinez told The Ring through Mauricio Gonzalez. “We struggled, that’s why at 11-years-old, my father took me to work. Me and my brothers were washing and detailing the cars while my father worked on them. [I would also] shine shoes, even became an apprentice on construction, whatever needed to be done [to make money.] We didn’t miss a meal but struggled to get it.”
Boxing was in the family’s blood, his father, Alberto, boxed professionally and fought former bantamweight titlist Jose Becerra in October 1962.
Martinez took up boxing at 13 and when he realized he could be successful he focused his attention and stopped going to school.
“I debuted at 14-year-old,” said Martinez, who won all seven amateur fights. “Back then you could box professional at 14, now it’s 17, me and my brothers, we all debuted at 14-years-old.
“I was a little nervous but I was well prepared because I was training with guys, 18, 19, 20. By the time I was 15, I was already doing 10-round fights. I was training with veterans.”
His older brother Rodolfo “Dorado” Martinez, was a solid journeyman, who faced former or future world champions Guty Espadas, Juan Herrera, Daniel Zaragoza and Gilberto Roman. While younger sibling, Alberto “Hungaro” Martinez, won national bantamweight and junior featherweight titles but lost against Erik Morales, Oscar Larios and Johnny Tapia.
In the early stages of Martinez career, he was bestowed a nickname that stuck.
“A journalist, Hector Castro, that named me “Azabache,”‘ he recalled. “My brothers were very fair skinned and had light eyes, I was the one with darker features. So, they named me “Azabache” because that’s a Vicente Fernandez song about a black horse, so I was the dark skinned one in the family. My brother was “The Golden One” because he had light skin.”
Martinez went about his business and belied his tender years. He started to make a name for himself in his homeland before signing with Ricardo Maldonado and heading north of the border, notably stopping two-time world title challenger Roberto Castanon (TKO 6) and former WBC junior lightweight titlist Rolando Navarrete (TKO 5).
When Hector Camacho vacated the WBC 130-pound title Martinez was matched with another young Mexican fighter, an unknown Julio Cesar Chavez at the Olympic Auditorium, Los Angeles in September 1984.
“I was well prepared for that fight,” said Martinez, who was stopped in eight rounds. “I was the favorite going into that fight because Julio hadn’t been on TV and prior to that fight, I had fought three times in Los Angeles.
“I was looking forward to the fight and becoming champion but it was a tough fight for me from the get-go. It was a great fight and Julio won and was champ. I definitely thought he was a great fighter and champion; he was strong and kept coming forward but I never imagined he was going to end up where he ended up at.”
Martinez reeled off five wins over the next 14-months and landed a fight with Roger Mayweather in November 1985.
“It was a tough fight because his reach was tough to manage,” explained Martinez, who dropped a narrow 10-round split decision. “He had great waist movement and a great uppercut, he knew how to work the ropes real well, he was very smart.”
The Guadalajara native stayed in the title hunt with eight wins before landing a shot at the vacant WBC 130-pound title against tough Ghanaian Azumah Nelson.
“Very tough fight,” said Martinez, who lost a razor thin 12-round split decision. “I knocked him down in the 10th, you don’t win just because of a knockdown but I felt I won that fight, a lot of people felt I won that fight.”
Martinez spent time on the sidelines after injuring his hand that required surgery. When he returned, he stopped trial horse Mauro Gutierrez to set up the rematch with Nelson at the Las Vegas Hilton, Las Vegas in February 1989.
“He knocked me out in the 12th, the only fighter to ever do that,” he said. “When I took off the glove, the wrapping was red because my hand was bleeding. When I got down from the ring, [WBC President] Jose Sulaiman was there and he said, ‘Wow, I can’t believe you fought like that.’ he said, ‘No matter what, I’m not taking you away from that No. 1 ranking, you’ll still be No. 1.'”
Several months later, Martinez traveled to Australia to face unbeaten three-weight world champion Jeff Fenech in a WBC junior lightweight eliminator.
“I felt I won that fight, if that fight had been in the United States, I feel I would have gotten the decision,” said Martinez, who lost a 12-round unanimous decision. “I was able to knock him down in the sixth round. That’s the way it goes. To beat a guy in Australia at that point, you either had to knock him out or almost kill the guy, that’s the only way you were going to get a decision over there.”
The proud Mexican moved up to lightweight and was able to secure an opportunity at then-fledgling WBO titlist Dingaan Thobela.
“I did my best,” said Martinez, who dropped a wide 12-round unanimous decision. “I’d already been through several championship fights so I knew what it took.”
Martinez fought twice more before stepping away from boxing before returning after a near four-year absence. He won both fights and then retired for good.
Although Martinez wasn’t able to win a world title, he is at peace with that.
“I didn’t get that title but I don’t regret anything,” said Martinez (51-9-2, 31 knockouts). “I left it all in the ring, I gave those world champions all they could handle. I am very satisfied with everything I did in my career.”
Martinez, now 56, is married, he has four children and a grandchild. He lives in Guadalajara and combines his time between his restaurant and boxing gym.
He graciously took time to speak to The Ring about the best he fought in 10 key categories.
Roger Mayweather: He really knew how to command the jab and keep the distance with the jab. It was a strong jab.
Mayweather: I’d get him against the ropes and like his nephew, Floyd, they know how to manage a fight well. I just couldn’t hit him like I wanted to hit him.
Mayweather: He was a long, rangy fighter, he’d throw a punch and move. Overall quick, not just hand speed.
Mayweather: Speed wise he was a complete fighter. He was in and out.
Julio Cesar Chavez: I really admire him because in his career, not just in our fight, Chavez did what he needed to do and knew what he was doing. Everybody sees him as a come forward fighter, which he was but very smart fighter. Chavez was the smartest fighter I faced.
Azumah Nelson: I think the strongest fighter overall would have to be Azumah Nelson. He kept coming forward. Chavez keeps coming forward, it’s a close one, but I’d have to say Azumah Nelson. You hit that guy with the kitchen sink and he gets stronger and kept coming forward. I have to give him credit because he kept coming but it’s a close one.
Nelson: I would have to be between Chavez and Nelson. I think Nelson, I got better shots on him and the guy wouldn’t go down. Chavez was very strong and takes a great shot too.
Nelson: Nelson without a doubt. I felt Nelson’s punch a little more [than Chavez]. Nelson hurt me, he stopped me in the 12th round, it wasn’t a knockout, in the sense I was out, it was a TKO. You feel his punches.
BEST BOXING SKILLS
Chavez: It’s a tough one to answer. Fenech was a cagey fighter, I can’t put him at the top. It has to be between the three guys, Chavez, Mayweather and Nelson. They each had their different skill sets but they’re so unbelievably talented. I would say Chavez.
Chavez: The best overall, most complete fighter would be Chavez because of everything he did. Looking back on that fight. he was in a different class.
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