In 2001, when he first laid eyes on the future middleweight champion, Gabriel Sarmiento was decidedly unimpressed.
Sergio Martinez had a great record, but he was skinny and not particularly fearsome-looking. He was also, Sarmiento noted, "kind of homeless." Sarmiento had a solid, if not thriving business as a boxing trainer and didn't see the need to waste his time on a no-hoper.
He might have shooed Martinez away and gone on with his life, and the world would never have heard of either of them.
Sarmiento's younger brother, Pablo, a boxer himself, pleaded with his brother to give Martinez a chance. The Sarmiento brothers were Argentinean who had moved to Spain and became big players on the local boxing scene. Pablo Sarmiento tried to convince his brother to give Martinez a chance because Martinez, too, was an Argentinean who had wound up in Spain.
"Sergio had no place to train and he was kind of homeless and my brother just asked me to help a countryman out," Sarmiento said. "I had a lot of things going on and I didn't want to train him. It was just another guy coming in and taking up my time."
About nine years later, Sarmiento laughs at the memory. He took a look at Martinez and, before long, realized he had something special on his hands.
Sarmiento helped develop that talent and mold Martinez into one of the best fighters in the world. Martinez won the World Boxing Council/World Boxing Organization middleweight title by upsetting Kelly Pavlik in April, then successfully defended it with a dynamic one-punch knockout of Paul Williams in November.
For his help in bringing Martinez to the top of the sport, Sarmiento is the 2010 Yahoo! Sports Trainer of the Year.
It wasn't an easy choice, as many of the usual suspects did great work. Freddie Roach, who trains Manny Pacquiao and Amir Khan, among many others, could win the award every year. He's the gold standard.
Emanuel Steward did his usual superb job with Wladimir Klitschko, but also helped Miguel Cotto win a world title. Orlando Cuellar worked wonders with Glen Johnson.
But Sarmiento, who also trains Victor Cayo, Javier Fortuna and Lucas Matthyse, gets the nod for getting Martinez to the top of the heap. Martinez was winless in what was actually a good 2009 – he drew with Kermit Cintron in an out-and-out robbery, a fight he clearly won, and then lost the 2009 Yahoo! Sports Fight of the Year to Williams – but came back to win the middleweight title, vault to No. 3 on the pound-for-pound list and put himself into the running for Fighter of the Year.
Sarmiento played a key role in Martinez' performance. He sat bleary-eyed in front of his television day-after-day, breaking down tape of Williams. And then, on the Wednesday before the fight on Nov. 20 at Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City, N.J., Sarmiento wanted to take one more look at Williams' tendencies. The game plan had long since been installed, but Sarmiento didn't want to leave anything to chance.
And 72 hours before the biggest fight of both his and Martinez' life, he noticed something that caused him to tell Martinez the game plan needed to be scrapped.
"It wasn't that I doubted the work we had done or what I had seen," Sarmiento said. "But in a fight like that, I wanted to make sure I didn't miss anything. And then I noticed his hands and I called Sergio right away."
Martinez was a bit aghast when Sarmiento told him he'd have to change the plan. Sarmiento watched repeatedly the way Williams would bring his hands back after throwing a punch and decided that Martinez would be able to create punching angles for himself if he stepped to his left rather than to his right, as they had planned.
"I showed Sergio what I had seen and he instantly understood," Sarmiento said. "He saw it, too, when I pointed it out and we knew what we needed to do."
Their partnership has been nearly flawless since Martinez convinced Sarmiento after a few weeks that he had ability and was willing to do what he needed to do to harness it.
Martinez was a welterweight in those days and, as Sarmiento said laughing, a scrawny one at that.
He also had a lot of flaws in his game. But it wasn't long before Sarmiento could see the athleticism and came to believe that if Martinez had the dedication, he could make it to the top.
"He had a lot of flaws and inconsistencies in what he was doing," Sarmiento said. "But he has great genetics. He is a tremendous athlete and he's very smart. He responded to what I was telling him and I knew he was a diamond in the rough. I knew the way he was picking up what I was telling him and the way he would work harder than anybody that he had a chance to be very good."
There are few boxing experts who would disagree that Martinez is, at the least, very good. Much of that goes to his natural physical gifts and flawless conditioning.
But a good part of the credit for his emergence as a superstar talent is owed to his trainer, who until the knockout of Williams was best known for always wearing his shades indoors.
Sergio Martinez brought him the raw materials, but Gabriel Sarmiento molded them into the finished product.
For his work in developing Martinez into one of boxing's elite, Sarmiento earned the 2010 Yahoo! Sports Trainer of the Year award.
- Sergio Martinez