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ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. – Sergio Martinez, a former professional soccer player and a former professional cyclist, didn't pull on a pair of boxing gloves for the first time until he was 20.
He fell in love with boxing and quickly gave up the other sports. And quietly, he has become one of the elite fighters in the world, which he proved conclusively Saturday with a unanimous decision win over Kelly Pavlik at Boardwalk Hall to claim the World Boxing Council and World Boxing Organization middleweight titles.
Martinez won by scores of 115-111, 116-111 and 115-112 while sweeping the final four rounds while the fight hung in the balance. Yahoo! Sports also scored it 115-112 for Martinez, 35.
Pavlik was far bigger – they both weighed 159 1/2 at Friday's weigh-in, but by fight time, Pavlik had rehydrated to 178 while Martinez was just 167 – and always carried the threat of a fight-ending blow with his right hand.
But Martinez' quickness and athleticism were far too much for Pavlik, whose face was a bloody, swollen, bumpy mess by the end of the fight. Martinez spent most of the first three and nearly all of the last four rounds darting in and out and around Pavlik, raking him with blistering combinations in the process.
Pavlik didn't have the hand or foot speed to combat that. Pavlik was in the fight in the middle rounds when he used his jab to neutralize Martinez' speed and managed to keep him stationary long enough to land his money punch, the right hand.
"In the whole fight, I was worried about the power of Pavlik," said Martinez, whose face was largely unmarked after the hard-fought battle.
Martinez was 0-1-1 in his two previous bouts. He got a draw in a bizarre fight with Kermit Cintron in the summer, a bout he seemed to have won twice. He appeared to knock out Cintron in the seventh round, but after counting 10 and waiting several minutes, referee Frank Santore Jr. changed his mind and allowed the bout to continue.
Then, Martinez seemed well ahead on the cards at the end, but two of the three judges called it a draw.
He lost to Paul Williams in December in what would become the Yahoo! Sports Fight of the Year, a taut back-and-forth match that could have gone either way. It was his only loss in more than 10 years.
That led him into his title shot, which he more than proved he deserved.
His promoter, Lou DiBella, was supremely confident he would win Saturday, but he wasn't so confident a few years ago. Samson Lefkowicz, who advises Martinez on boxing matters, brought a tape of Martinez to DiBella and asked him if he'd be interested in promoting him.
"The first time I saw a tape of the guy, I was going, 'Oh my God! Where's he been?' " DiBella said. "The funny part is, a couple of promoters passed on him and Samson brought him to me. I looked at the tape and I said, 'This guy can fight his rear-end off.' I couldn't believe it."
Pavlik had difficulty in the early going cutting off the ring, which allowed Martinez to utilize his superior movement and quickness. Pavlik was following Martinez around the ring, often not throwing any punches, while Martinez constantly circled, moving in and out and connecting with quick, short punches.
The champion managed to turn the fight around in the middle rounds. He pumped his jab a lot more, and he limited Martinez' movement by closing the distance between them, cutting off Martinez' escape routes.
Pavlik knocked down Martinez in the seventh, though it appeared the fighters' legs were tangled. Referee David Fields, though, ruled it was a knockdown and it gave Pavlik a big two-point swing.
"That was an accident," Martinez said, saying his legs were tangled with Pavlik's before the punch landed.
When Pavlik won the eighth round, the momentum clearly was on his side.
"After the third round, we were figuring him out," Pavlik trainer Jack Loew said. "We turned the tide a bit. We were beating him with the jab. We were jabbing and keeping him at the end of our punches. He had come back and was doing well, but then we stopped punching in Rounds 9, 10, 11 and 12."
Martinez, one of the best-conditioned fighters in the game, stepped on the gas pedal in the ninth. He began letting his hands go and was cracking Pavlik with three- and four-punch combinations that landed before the champion could react.
Pavlik was cut by each of his eyes and the right eye was swollen nearly shut. He fought each of the last four rounds trying to find Martinez through a mask of blood.
"In the last third of the fight, around the eighth or ninth round, he began touching me a lot," said Pavlik, who did not attend the post-fight news conference. "… I couldn't see out of my right eye after he cut it in the eighth or the ninth. I couldn't see his left. I wasn't hurt, but he just hit me with a good volume of punches."
Pavlik, who needed 36 stitches to close the cuts around his eyes, has the option for a rematch if he wants to exercise it. But promoter Bob Arum wasn't sure which direction he wanted to go and said he would need to speak with Pavlik, manager Cameron Dunkin and Loew before acting.
Little, it would seem, would change in a rematch because it will be extremely difficult to neutralize Martinez' speed and quickness edge. Pavlik has been having trouble making 160 pounds and was considering a move to super middleweight. He was paired on HBO on Saturday with Lucian Bute, a super middleweight who knocked out Edison Miranda.
HBO Sports senior vice president Kery Davis said a Pavlik-Martinez rematch would make sense, but if Pavlik moved to 168, he'd probably need to fight a non-title bout before meeting Bute.
Martinez has decisions of his own to make. He holds an interim 154-pound belt and could opt to retain that.
When someone asked Lefkowicz how long he had to decide, Lefkowicz said 15 days. Arum disputed that time frame and then cracked, "Don't make up rules. They're pretty good at making up rules themselves."
Everyone laughed, but it was one of the few chuckles anyone on the Pavlik side had.
Before the news conference began, Arum was philosophical.
"Kelly didn't punch the last four rounds and you can't win if you don't punch," Arum said. "But he also lost to a very good fighter. I hadn't seen this guy fight before, but he's very, very good. You can talk about what Kelly didn't do, but you can't overlook what Sergio did do."
The best thing Martinez did was decide 15 years ago that boxing, not cycling or soccer, was the right sport for him.
He just proved that again Saturday.