The middleweight champion of the world is back. It is both a glad and potentially dangerous occasion, the return Saturday of Sergio Martinez not only to the ring, not only to HBO, but to his native Argentina, where he's become an athlete worthy of presidential hobnobbing. Martinez is resuming his reign coming off the richest win of his career, a resounding decision win over popular Mexican brawler, Julio Cesar Chavez, Jr., and will be celebrated by approximately 40-50,000 Argentines live in Buenos Aires. But the Chavez win was a win that, while it enriched him, came with a cost: a badly injured knee resulting from the final round charge of Chavez, one that required surgery. Reconstructed knees are not kind to 38-year-old late starters who depend upon a special brand of speed and gymnastics, the way Martinez does.
Enter Martin Murray, a top-10 middleweight with similarities to two fellow U.K. 160-pounders who have given Martinez more trouble than some expected, Darren Barker and Matthew Macklin. Murray, whose best performance came in a draw against top middleweight Felix Sturm in a bout that many believed he deserved to win, is fundamentally sound, intelligent, nothing special but with no discernible exploitable flaws, like Barker and Macklin. Both of those men kept things close, but ultimately succumbed to the superior speed and power of Martinez. Neither of them faced Martinez coming off knee surgery.
There should be no question any longer about what Martinez has accomplished in the ring, as one of the five best fighters in the world of any weight. He has beaten top 154-pounders and top 160-pounders, taking the lineal title from Kelly Pavlik and waging a 2010 Fighter of the Year campaign. It hasn't always been easy -- he's been in life-or-death wars with Paul Williams, struggled against Barker, gone down against Chavez, etc. -- but he's come out the winner or at least the arguable winner since his long-ago loss to Antonio Margarito.
In that way, he contrasts with Murray. Murray's biggest test was the aforementioned Sturm, and there was nothing comparable on his resume before. Absolutely nothing. That was in 2011, and it's not like he's taken on a murderer's row since, stopping anonymous 12-0 Jorge Navarro and beating also-anonymous 13-2-2 Karim Achour. It's not that Murray is UN-tested -- it's just that he's UNDER-tested. It just so happens that he looked solid before that one Sturm test, and since, and really performed well in that one test. Problem is, Sturm had struggled with Macklin before Murray, and aside from one win over Sebastian Zbik in between, lost two straight to Daniel Geale (respectable) and Sam Soliman (less respectable). You can interpret Murray's one defining performance as a defining performance against a Sturm who was losing the qualities that defined him.
Often described as a pressure fighter, Murray was often backed up by Sturm, which suggests he's a pressure fighter when the occasion suits him more than that it's who he IS. He certainly doesn't have the knockout percentage to suggest he's a full-time pressure fighter, although there have been feather-fisted pressure fighters over the years, as odd as they are. On the other hand, that he can fight going backwards speaks to his versatility. When one looks at Murray, it's hard to say he does anything exceedingly well, but he doesn't do anything poorly, either. He throws a reasonably good jab -- he's kind of a 1-2 artist -- and doesn't waste a lot of motion. He will do un-obvious things, like throw two lead rights followed by a jab, although he tends to stick to the basics. When his 1-2 is working, he'll add in a left hook that has some power to it, and he'll also work in solid body shots or lead right uppercuts. Defensively, he is hittable because he's not got great speed but he's sound when he keeps his gloves up and can counter when he decides to keep them down. He appears to have some toughness and a motor, but his chin has yet to greet big punchers, with Murray in a slight bit of trouble at the very end of the 12th against Sturm.
Fighting an aging Sturm, though, is one thing. Fighting an aging Martinez is another. Martinez put on a spectacular display of movement, paralyzing power punching and overall ring generalship for 11.5 rounds of his last fight against Chavez, before getting caught and hurt by Chavez and sending him down in a way that tangled his knee muscles. Martinez probably would've crushed the version of Sturm that Murray met like Optimus Prime steamrolling a Volkswagen Beetle on the Autobahn. Yet, somehow, Martinez's style is vulnerable to technically sound fighters who don't make a lot of mistakes. Martinez depends on the pressure of his opponents for optimal success, and the wilder and more predictable, the better. That's why he was able to make a fool of Chavez for so long. It's also, though, why he had trouble with Barker and Macklin, who threw intelligent punches and weren't so robotic in what they did as Chavez, and knew when to back off and when to time the elusive champ. Martinez, too, is vulnerable to random deckings. Martinez, the former bicyclist, doesn't usually get very hurt, but he does skate around the ring like he's bicycling on a high-wire, and he can be dropped by someone who picks his wobbliest moments to throw.
Yet -- again -- as much static as Barker and Macklin gave Martinez, they ended up knocked out. What that means, then, is that this match-up comes down to Martinez's surgically repaired knee. if it's all good, or even at 90 percent, he should be fine. If it's not, he's very, very vulnerable. In the nature videos, the majority of the wildebeests outrun the lions, and some even bash them off. It's the weakened ones who fall.
With the scales being tipped how they are, I'm going to take a gamble on Martinez's knee being sound until I know otherwise. He stopped both Barker and Macklin in the 11th. I figure he'll be just a touch slower and stop Murray in the 12th. But if he's much of a shadow of his former self, all bets are off. And then we can kiss a dream rematch with Chavez or a dream match-up with next-gen middleweight Gennady Golovkin goodbye.