ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. – Stretched out on a couch in a spacious hotel suite, a dazzling view of the Atlantic Ocean to his left and an NBA game flickering on the high-definition television in front of him, Sergio Martinez seems like the guy who has everything.
He has the looks that make women swoon – "You ought to see it; the women go crazy over him," promoter Lou DiBella said – and he has athletic talent such that he could have played any one of a handful of sports professionally.
Martinez will defend his World Boxing Council middleweight championship in an HBO-televised fight on Saturday at Boardwalk Hall against Paul Williams – a rematch of the 2009 Yahoo! Sports Fight of the Year.
He'll collect a seven-figure paycheck and, with a victory, likely will be regarded as no worse than the third-best boxer in the world, behind Manny Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather Jr.
Martinez, though, is very much a product of his environment. Beyond the movie-star looks and dazzling smile is a hard-nosed fighter who, quite literally, had to dodge bullets growing up in one of the poorest areas of South America.
He was born in Quilmes in the province of Buenos Aires in Argentina, a place where gangs, drug dealers and hardened criminals ruled the streets.
"Growing up there made me who I am," said the 35-year-old Martinez, who, after getting fed up with soccer, didn't take up boxing until he was 20.
As a young boy, he would frequently encounter a group he refers to now as "the knuckleheads." It was never a good encounter.
Martinez was always involved in sports. He was good enough to have played minor-league soccer and was a cyclist and tennis player of some note in Argentina. But "the knuckleheads" weren't too impressed, and they let Martinez know it.
"I found myself running a lot because I had to run," Martinez said. "These freaking guys, they would shoot at me and make me dance. They'd laugh, like it was a big joke. 'Dance!' But it was no joke to me. All it would take would be one mistake and I wouldn't be here today.
"It made me work hard to get out of there. I knew if I ever wanted to do something with my life, I was going to have to get away from there and that kind of an environment."
Martinez fought professionally for the first time a month after he first walked into a gym. He quickly flashed potential, but he was making next-to-nothing in the ring and had to take a series of minimum-wage jobs to help support his family financially.
By the time he was 26, with jobs tough to come by in Argentina, Martinez decided to flee to Europe. He was mugged not long after landing in Spain, after a brief stint in Italy, and life wasn't improving as rapidly as he hoped.
He lived almost seven years in Spain as an illegal immigrant, which essentially guaranteed that life would remain a battle.
"It's very hard for an immigrant in the first place, but if you're an immigrant with no papers, it's very difficult," Martinez said. "You can't get good jobs. The only thing available are the low-paying jobs."
Martinez met trainer Gaby Sarmiento in Spain. It didn't take Sarmiento long to realize that he had a potential star on his hands. Martinez had boundless energy and could fight for long stretches at a high pace and not tire. He was fast, he was athletic and he was a quick study.
Show him a move once, Sarmiento said, and Martinez had it. This was the kind of a guy who could go places.
Martinez gravitated toward boxing because he knew he could rely on himself and not be done in by the failures of a teammate. He was a highly regarded soccer player with a bright future, but concedes he was temperamental.
"As a boxer, I'm very calculating and I think things through a lot," Martinez said. "When you're in a team sport like soccer, you have to rely on your teammates. I wanted the team to be perfect and I was very temperamental. It was frustrating to me. I have always been a very hard worker and I realized that as a boxer, if I worked hard and put forth a great effort, I would be rewarded for it and my hard work would be obvious.
"I'm very confident in my training and my conditioning. I believe in myself because I know I can rely on myself."
He won the middleweight title in April by pulling away from Kelly Pavlik down the stretch. Martinez swept the early rounds, but Pavlik fought his way back into the fight in the middle rounds and believed he was on the verge of a victory.
As he sat on his stool after the eighth and looked across at a very motivated and suddenly surging Pavlik, Martinez realized he needed to make a change.
"I sat there on the stool and I said to myself, 'What are you doing? You're doing it wrong,' " Martinez said. "And I went out and changed it and [swept the final four rounds]."
Martinez used his athleticism to move in and out and make Pavlik continually miss, pumping a jab in Pavlik's face a jab that quickly opened several bad cuts which made it hard for him not only to see but to breathe.
Martinez is at his best when he's moving and making himself a difficult target. Against Williams, a towering middleweight with a heavyweight's reach, it's not an easy task. Williams has an 82-inch reach or one inch more than the massive 6-7 heavyweight champion, Vitali Klitschko.
Complicating matters for anyone fighting Williams is that he is one of boxing's busiest fighters, routinely throwing 100 or more punches a round.
Martinez, though, has been through a lot in his life and he's always managed to find a way to land on his feet. His experiences with the hoodlums in Quilmes taught him it's possible to find a way to overcome just about any obstacle.
Williams is a major but not insurmountable obstacle, Martinez said.
"That [reach] is incredible; he's huge," Martinez said. "Internally, I think I'm stronger than he is. It's like a sword it's a good weapon but it is useless if you don't put it into the fire and sharpen it up. What I've been through in my life, where I grew up, made me that way. Not only am I very sharp, but I'm very dangerous internally and physically. I'm in great condition but I have a very sharp mind, and that's what will make a difference for me in this fight."
- Sergio Martinez
- Paul Williams