1. Anything Can Happen
Excitement in sports has two components. First, there is the moment itself. The three point shot as the clock runs down, the touchdown pass, the knockout punch following a savage exchange, the winning run coming home in a dramatic race to the plate. Before these moments can actually happen we must have the first component, this being the tension building toward them and the anticipation of what might come.
Both the big moment and the anticipation vary in their intensity. In sport, to be it crudely, anything can happen at any time seemingly without explanation, so there’s always the possibility of surprise. Some of these moments produce an ephemeral excitement, a cheer or jeer from spectators. These are immediately gratifying but not so in the long-term. They can as well be a little out of the ordinary, prompting spectators to turn to their friends and say, with or without the use of words, “Holy Shit? Did you just fucking see that?” We can call these, strangely, small or medium big moments. Yet still, some moments have the kind of effect that causes one to reconsider what they initially thought was possible. These are truly big moments.
The tension and anticipation will inevitably vary as well. It’s always present, because as mentioned above, anything can happen at any time. Some contests seem to constantly be pressing toward an explosive moment and something previously thought impossible. In these instances, competitors seem to battle with a sense of urgency throughout and appear to be bringing their A game and them some. In most other instances, the tension can be quite mellow, as the action proceeds according to convention and a particular logic. There may be some moments of interest, but everything else looks like something you’ve seen before. Call this, strangely, tension lite. So it is that a truly religious sporting experience requires high tension, big moments, unpredictability, and a sense that you’re seeing something you’ve never seen before.
Boxing is no exception to these rules. The fights that are rife with excitement in which both fighters seem to be in overdrive, in which two combattants seem to constantly be going toe to toe or offering a perfect demonstration of the Sweet Science by hitting without getting hit, in which punches come fast and furious and savage exchanges take place from bell to bell, are rare and treasured precisely for their rarity. Think Corrales-Castillo I (link to YouTube vid), the entirety of the Morales-Barrera trilogy, the mere eight minutes of fury that it took Hearns and Hagler (link to YouTube vid) to bring their contest to a close. Most fights just don’t contain that type of intensity, at least not for more than maybe a few moments within the space of as many as twelve rounds.
It’s something that can be argued back and forth among devotees for an eternity, but I’m sure that I’m not alone in thinking that there are few fighters currently active who are capable of producing truly exciting contests that stay in one’s memory or leave you in awe of their abilities and their fighting spirit, as most fighters have adopted a more defensive and pragmatic style of fighting. Brandon Rios, Jorge Arce, Lucas Matthyse, Carl Froch, and non-elite fighters like Michael Katsidis, to name just a few, are never in boring fights, this much is true.
Though their fights are action packed, however, none of the above mentioned fighters produce the religious experience that David Foster Wallace once ascribed to Roger Federer, wherein ” the jaw drops and eyes protrude and sounds are made that bring spouses in from other rooms to see if you’re O.K.” There are many fights that are high octane, but at the end of the day, they look like what they are, a boxing match. Immensely enjoyable to be sure, but without that “unreal” quality in which fighters appear to have defied all logic and intuition and even the laws of nature.
2. The Counterintuitive Champion
Sergio Martinez is counterintuitive before the bell even rings. At press conferences, he is immaculately tailored, perfectly coiffed and, quite frankly, a stunningly beautiful man. In all his years of fighting, his face leaves no indication of his profession. The high cheek bones, square jaw, and impossibly bright smile seem more appropriate for the cover of GQ or a Dolce & Gabanna campaign than the third best pound for pound fighter on the planet, superseded by only Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Manny Pacquiao, the order of the top two spots varying depending on who you ask. Martinez’s counterintuitive nature continues in the ring.
Can you win a fight running? Such is one of boxing’s age old questions. Well, Sergio runs – the Argentine was once a competitive cyclist and only came to boxing in his twenties. In fact, he seems to spend the entirety of his fights moving around the ring. It’s this sheer stamina and unrivaled athleticism that is Maravilla’s greatest asset; Maravilla, the nickname bestowed upon Martinez, translates roughly as marvellous. The ring itself becomes his weapon as he constantly moves about in all directions, dodging his opponent’s shots before moving in to land devastating combinations of his own before pivoting and moving away in a flash from another angle. It’s a style that is uniquely Sergio, working from a game-plan that is so utterly different from what we see from the average fighter who simply moves forward to throw before moving back again or clinching when the exchange gets too intense.
While moving in and out, the stance that Martinez adopts itself seems to go against the dictates of smart boxing. Martinez crouches and his hands, rather than being held up to throw a punch, fall at his side, leaving his body and face entirely open. When crouched, his head leans forward slightly passed his knees and when in control of the action Martinez flashes a smile and mockingly winds up as if ready to throw a bolo punch, taunting his opponent to hit him. For his opponents, this is psychological torture. Martinez simply makes it look all too easy while his opponent struggles to even catch him.
For all his moving about, however, Martinez defies logic once again with his ability to outland his adversary by substantial margins while mostly refusing to stand still. Martinez moves in and lands superbly accurate one-two combinations, sometimes more, before he’s gone again. The punches are hard, and his opponent rarely seems to see them coming. He’s not strictly a runner or defensive fighter, as he lands a shocking amount of shots in the midst of savage exchanges, the best of which can be seen in his fights with Paul Williams and Kermit Cintron. When the exchanges get especially heated, Martinez is usually willing to engage rather than immediately get defensive again. Essentially, no pattern can really be detected.
Now at thirty-seven, Martinez still seems to have enough stamina to keep this strategy going well into the late rounds of a fight, appearing never to wane. In his bout with Kelly Pavlik, in which Martinez claimed the lineal middleweight title, the Argentine, after dominating the early rounds and struggling in the middle of the fight, during which Pavlik managed to score a knockdown, it was actually the late rounds in which Martinez shined his brightest. Martinez, continuing to keep his hands down and maintaining a crouched stance, repeatedly landed at will with a speed so blinding that Pavlik simply could not see the punches coming through the bloody mask he was wearing by the point in the fight.
When Martinez defended his middleweight crown against Sergey Dzinzurik, this strategy was taken to a whole new level. For the entirety of the contest, Martinez simply lunged in when he pleased and jabbed the living daylights out of Dzinzurik, a then undefeated fighter who had never been knocked off his feet in his entire amateur or professional career. The first knockdown would come in round four, followed by another in the fifth. Dzinzurik must have thought those first two knockdowns were cute, but it was clear through the eventual five knockdowns that Sergio would deliver that the speed and accuracy were too much for the poor Ukrainian who simply could not respond. Martinez again kept smiling throughout, making the ordeal look like child’s play.
3. Perfect Imperfections
In a sense, Martinez is an incredibly adept defensive fighter who does not give off the appearance of being one. Despite his ability to deftly avoid punches and to move with awe inspiring speed without depletion, what actually stands out is his accurate and copious punching. His ring generalship is supreme, but does not come at the cost of excitement. Knowing his punching power and ability to put combinations together, and his moving in and out from different angles nearly every time, not to mention the bravado of fighting with his hands at his side and leading with his chin, to watch Sergio Martinez fight is to have that perfect union of constant anticipation of what will come next and the explosion of excitement when he begins to beat his opponent senseless. It may sound like sacrilege, but it’s a bit like watching Ray Leonard and Arturo Gatti fight in the same body.
Perfection, or technical mastery to use what is perhaps a more accurate term, is admirable in sport but not necessarily exciting. Fighters like Floyd Mayweather and the Klitschko brothers, who are almost mechanically precise in their defensive tactics and ability to score points through accurate punching, are simply not exciting. I for one can’t recall a time when I decided to revisit any of their fights. They are brilliant at what they do, and deserve all respect from sports fans, but the excitement and the religious experience is just not there. We may solemnly bow to their skill, but we don’t leap from our seats and have an out of body experience.
Sergio, for all the praise I’ve given him, is not perfect, and this might just be what makes him exciting. He is a high risk fighter whose stunts in the ring, while producing those jaw dropping moments of ecstasy, also leave him vulnerable. The quickness and unconventional nature with which he moves in and out of range of his opponent can and has left him off balance and susceptible to a knockdown, as was the case in the Pavlik fight. He is hittable, as anyone is when they leave their hands down, though when his opponents do manage to breakthrough Sergio usually flashes that smile and retaliates almost immediately. Exchanging punches is something that doesn’t bother Martinez, and it’s his willingness to do so that enables him to create those moments which provoke that religious fervor in spectators.
He is, too, unpredictable, owing to both his aforementioned willingness to stand toe to toe when the occasion calls for it as well as his unique speed and stamina, which can be used to piece together countless ways of engaging his opponent. Martinez appears not afraid to lose. He has lost in the past, though only twice in a career spanning over fifty fights, and may do so again in the future. Once again, he is not a perfect fighter. What he is is perfectly unique and perfectly capable, thus far without fail, of delivering anticipation and adrenaline in equal and consistent measure.