NEW YORK – Sergio Martinez has a terrific record, is a brilliant athlete and is without question one of the finest boxers of his era.
Yet, he's a difficult guy to rate as his career winds down. While his WBC middleweight title defense against Miguel Cotto in Madison Square Garden on Saturday could potentially be his last outing, Martinez still speaks openly about earning respect.
He's in a sort of no-win situation against Cotto. Even if he beats Cotto, the win will, fairly or not, be perceived as one over a fading former champion who had jumped up in weight in an attempt to chase a record.
Some of the greatest fighters in boxing history were middleweights. Men like Sugar Ray Robinson, Harry Greb, Carlos Monzon, Marvelous Marvin Hagler, Charley Burley and Stanley Ketchel spent much or most of their career at 160 pounds and have wound up in the International Boxing Hall of Fame.
Martinez didn't become a middleweight until late in his career and, only then, jumped up from his more natural 154-pound class because he's so competitive and wanted to chase the biggest fight available.
He's never weighed at the middleweight limit of 160 pounds for any of his fights, which has made the chatter about the odd 159-pound weight limit for this fight somewhat comical.
Yes, it was ridiculous of Cotto to ask for it and getting the concession won't do a thing to help him, but talking out angrily about it simply dignifies the abuse of power.
Martinez is a guy whose reputation will grow after he's done with the sport. He was unfortunate to come along at a time when there literally were no career-defining fights legitimately available to him.
A fight with Floyd Mayweather would have been epic, but they were on different paths and nothing ever came close to working out.
He fought the best opponents he could get at 160, but the six men he's faced in middleweight title matches – Kelly Pavlik, Sergei Dzinziruk, Darren Barker, Matthew Macklin, Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. and Martin Murray – are no one's idea of a Murderer's row of middleweights.
Compare that, for instance, to what Robinson encountered from July 10, 1951 through June 25, 1952. He fought five times, twice against Randy Turpin and then once each against Bobo Olson, Rocky Graziano and Joey Maxim, all of whom would go on to be inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame. The fight against Maxim was for the light heavyweight title.
Those types of opponents simply haven't been available to Martinez, whose most notable wins were a second-round knockout of Paul Williams and a unanimous decision in a title-winning effort over Pavlik.
Cotto has the most storied resume of any fighter Martinez has fought, and so the match will carry added significance in terms of defining his legacy.
"When I win, I will get the universal respect," Martinez said. "This is a very, very important fight; one of the biggest of my career. I do feel I've earned respect from the boxing community, but it will be universal after [Saturday]."
Promoter Lou DiBella has been around a long time and he understands the nuances of both the sport and the media as well as anyone.
He concedes that Martinez is nearly in a must-win situation despite his 51-2-2 record and his almost breathtaking speed, quickness and athleticism.
"He shouldn't have to [win to earn universal respect], but this is a huge fight in the most famous arena in the world against the most proven pay-per-view fighter he has ever fought and the biggest name fighter he has ever fought, so in terms of Sergio's legacy, I'm not going to pretend: This fight is huge," DiBella said.
At 39, he's battled injuries over the past two years and has had surgery on his right knee after his wins over Chavez and Murray.
He hasn't fought in more than a year, since beating Murray on a rainy Argentina night in April 2013, but claims he's recovered from the myriad injuries he suffered in that bout.
He broke his left hand early in that match when he hit Murray on the elbow. He injured his right knee again which required surgery, and suffered a deep cut over his left eye. He suffered the exact same injuries seven months prior in a win over Chavez.
Martinez and his team insist he's not breaking down and his adviser, Sampson Lewkowicz, vowed he will be fully healthy on Saturday when the bell rings.
"Sergio Martinez has passed all the tests, the MRI on the knee and the MRI on the hand," Lewkowicz said. "Everything was perfectly done and he is 100 percent healthy, not 80 percent or 90 percent. I just [want] to make sure that everyone knows he will come in healthy."
When he's healthy, he usually wins. Had he come around in a different era, at a time when the 10th-best middleweight in the world was a beast and a formidable foe, his record may not be as illustrious as it appears now.
But fighters can only beat the men who are put in front of them.
Since he came to prominence in the previous decade, Martinez has sought the best opposition and decisively beaten those he's faced.
It would be a mere guess how the historians will eventually regard him, but anyone watching the sport today knows full well there are only a handful of men, perhaps fewer, who are superior to Sergio Gabriel Martinez.