One of the most exciting fighters on the planet takes to the ring for the first time in 2011 when Argentina's swashbuckling Sergio ''El Maravilla'' Martinez, rated by everyone except the WBC as the best middleweight in the world, defends the linear middleweight title against WBO light middleweight champion Sergiy ''Razor'' Dzinziruk of the Ukraine at the Foxwoods Resort Casino, Connecticut, scene of Carl Froch's epic victory over Jermain Taylor, on Saturday night
The Argentinian has become the no.1 box office draw for fighters weighing 154 lbs or more, and no doubt Froch would love to defend his WBC super middleweight title against Martinez in the near future.
Martinez won the middleweight title last April with a stirring performance against American Kelly Pavlik and defended it seven months later in emphatic style, knocking out former conqueror Paul ''The Punisher'' Williams in just two rounds.
Since then, Martinez (46-2-2, 25 ko's) has seen his stock rise to such an extent he is now almost universally regarded as the third best pound for pound fighter in the world, behind only Manny Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather.
By reaching his peak when most fighters have already retired, 36 year old Martinez's story is virtually unique in the annals of boxing history. A semi-professional cyclist and soccer player in his native Argentina, Martinez didn't even consider boxing until he was 20.
However, it soon became his passion above all else, and he participated in 41 amateur bouts, winning his national title twice and competing in the 1997 World Championships in Hungary. It was during his amateur career that his crowd pleasing style became apparent, and Argentinean fans Christened him 'El Maravilla' – the marvelous one, a nickname that he has kept to this day.
Martinez turned pro in December 1997, and boxing almost exclusively in Buenos Aires, ran up a 16-0-1 record inside of two years.
In February 2000, Martinez was given an early opportunity to display his ring talents when his promoter took a fight against another young undefeated fighter, Mexican Antonio Margarito, on the Erik Morales v Marco Antonio Barrera undercard at the Manderlay Bay Casino in Las Vegas.
After starting impressively and out-boxing the methodical Mexican in the early rounds, Martinez was dealt a rude awakening late in the seventh round when future triple world champion Margarito nailed him with a volley of vicious head shots, forcing the referee to intervene.
After the disastrous result against Margarito, Martinez returned to Argentina and boxed eight times, winning all, four inside the distance. Frustrated that his career was going nowhere fast, Martinez decided in 2002 to uproot to Europe, and out of linguistic necessity chose Spain.
Legend has it that he landed in Madrid minus his briefcase and telephone book. Luckily, he remembered the number of countryman Pablo Sarmiento, and through him managed to hook up with his brother Gabriel who was working in Spain as a boxing trainer. The pair have been together ever since, with Martinez giving Sarmiento huge credit for his ring achievements. Gabriel Sarmiento is instantly recognizable for his ever present wrap-around sunglasses that he wears even when working Martinez's corner in the ring.
Under Sarmiento's tutelage, Martinez's progress went into overdrive. After four easy wins in Spain, Martinez fought three times in the UK: in June 2003 he defeated London's Richard Williams at the M.E.N Arena for the lightly regarded IBO light middleweight crown. He returned to England to defend his IBO belt, scoring a twelfth round TKO over American based Brit Adrian Stone. In April 2004 at the Kings Hall in Belfast Martinez gave Williams a rematch, this time scoring a ninth round stoppage.
Boosted by his UK experience, Martinez and Sarmiento returned to Madrid and continued to work on technique and fitness. Martinez stayed active, scoring seven wins, six by KO.
In April 2007, Martinez returned to the US for a bout with Mexico's Saul Roman in a WBC super welterweight title eliminator in Houston, Texas, his first fight on American soil since the Margarito disaster seven years earlier. If Martinez was suffering any sense of 'deja vu', he didn't show it, knocking out Roman in the fourth round with a vicious body shot.
Martinez was now clearly the outstanding contender in the 154 lb division, but he was forced to mark time for a year and a half, scoring four tuneup wins before landing a shot at the WBC's no.1 contender Alex Bunema of the Congo. Martinez put on a career best performance, dominating the African and winning every round before Bunema's corner withdrew him after the eighth. The victory earned Martinez the WBC´s interim super welterweight title.
In February 2009, Martinez defended his title with a controversial majority draw against Puerto Rican puncher Kermit Cintron. Martinez floored Cintron with a big left hand in the seventh round, and Cintron barely beat the count.
It initially appeared that the referee had indeed counted the Puerto Rican out, leading Martinez to celebrate accordingly. However after several minutes it was decided that Cintron had in fact beaten the count, and the fight was allowed to continue.
In the twelfth round, the referee instructed the ringside judges to take a point off Martinez's scorecard for hitting behind his opponent's head. When the result was declared a majority draw, it was clear that the point deduction had effectively cost the Argentinian the decision. Nevertheless, it was Martinez's most impressive performance in America so far.
Three months after the Cintron fight the WBC stripped Vernon Forrest of his world title for inactivity due to injury, and promoted Martinez to full world champion. Tragically, just two months later, Forrest was shot to death in a robbery in Atlanta.
When Kelly Pavlik withdrew from his scheduled title defense against Paul Williams last December, Martinez stepped in as a replacement. The resulting contest was one of the best fights of 2009. The pair exchanged first round knockdowns, and then waged war for twelve rounds. As he often does in his fights, Martinez started and finished the stronger, with Williams dominating the middle rounds. The majority decision went in favor of the American, but many at ringside were convinced Martinez had done enough. Martinez dedicated the fight to the memory of Vernon Forest.
After his great showing against Williams, Martinez was selected by WBC/WBO middleweight champion Kelly Pavlik's management as the opponent who would put the 6'3'' Youngstown slugger back in the public's eye. However if Pavlik and his team were confident, the bookies weren't convinced that his lack of recent top class action would stand him in good stead against an opponent who was clearly hitting top form, and only made the American a slight favorite.
Last April 4th at the fabled Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City, Martinez proved that the bookies had been right to be skeptical, as he confounded the heavy punching but limited Pavlik with his tremendous movement and boxing skill, winning the first five rounds before negotiating through some tough exchanges in the middle of the fight to pull away strongly and take a deserved unanimous decision.
Soon after becoming middleweight champion, Martinez announced he had relinquished his WBC 154 lb title, as he doubted he could ever make the weight again. Like Manny Pacquiao in his ascent up the weight divisions, Martinez has added considerable muscle and power to his frame since his days at welterweight. On fight night versus Pavlik he reportedly scaled a rock hard 174 lbs.
That added power was evident in Martinez's first title defence against old rival Paul Williams last November. The bookies could not split them pre-fight, and had both boxers at evens, and most experts expected a replay of their first thrilling encounter.
After a brisk first round, Martinez attempted a whistling overhand left that just missed the target – Williams jaw. Three more times he attempted it with a similar lack of success. At the fifth attempt, the overhand left landed with explosive effect, knocking Williams out cold for the first time in his career. It was a truly stunning performance, and it garnered Martinez Fighter of the Year and Knockout of the Year in every poll that mattered.
Earlier this year, the WBC proposed that Martinez fight their no.1 contender, unbeaten German Sebastian Zbik. However, Martinez's paymasters, TV giant HBO balked at the idea of a Martinez v Zbik encounter, and told the Argentinian they would not be interested in screening the bout.
Martinez decided to defend instead against long time WBO light middleweight King Sergiy Dzinziruk, an opponent okay-ed by HBO. The WBC in its infinite wisdom chose to strip Martinez of the title and award it to the German, while appeasing the Argentinian to a degree by awarding him the title of Champion Emeritus, champion in exile, if you will. Saturday's fight will therefore be for something called the WBC Diamond middleweight title.
Martinez's opponent on Saturday, 35-year-old Ukrainian Sergiy Dzinziruk (37-0, 23 ko's) has largely gone under the radar of the mainstream boxing fan, despite being WBO 154 lb champ since 2005. A top class amateur with 195 wins from 220 fights, southpaw Dzinziruk turned pro in January 1999, boxing extensively in Poland, the Ukraine and strangely enough, four times in England.
In February 2003 with a 20-0 record, Dzinziruk uprooted to Germany, and within a year had knocked out Mamadou Thiam in three rounds to win the European light middleweight title. After two successful defenses, Dzinziruk's promoters enticed WBO light middleweight championship Daniel Santos of Puerto Rico to defend his title in Germany. Santos, the former WBO welterweight king had won nine consecutive title fights, and was a heavy favorite when the two entered the ring in December 2005, but it was the Ukrainian who triumphed after twelve epic rounds.
Dzinziruk has subsequently made six defenses of his WBO title, but is yet to set the world on fire, choosing to defend his title against Sebastian Lujan (W12), Alisultan Nadirbegov (W12), Carlos Nascimianto (TKO11), Lukas Konecny (W12), Joel Julio (W12) and Daniel Dawson (TKO10), in a division that boasts names like Miguel Cotto, Paul Williams, Ryan Rhodes, Cory Spinks, Cornelius Bundrage, Antonio Margarito and Kermit Cintron and Saul Alvarez.
The defence last May against Australian Dawson was the first for Dzinziruk's new promoter Gary Shaw, and his first in the US. At 6' he is tallish for a light middleweight, and boxes tall, fighting out of a classic upright European style. He has an excellent southpaw right jab, a tight defence and good mobility. Despite a 62% knockout ratio, Dzinziruk is not a big puncher, but rather an ''arm puncher'' in that he seldom gets his body-weight behind his shots.
Saturday's encounter could be intriguing for several rounds, as Martinez dances around Dzinziruk, looking for openings for his powerful shots. Much has been made by both Gary Shaw and Martinez's US promoter Lou DiBella of Dzinziruk's boxing ability and awkwardness. ''This is the toughest opponent Sergio could have picked!'' DiBella has repeated often in the build up to the fight.
However, the Argentinian dealt decisively with the much bigger, harder punching southpaw Paul Williams last time out, so it is hard to see Dzinziruk making much of an impression against him.
I expect Martinez to go all out for another impressive performance on Saturday, and that means kayoing an undefeated champion in style. Martinez will have too many moves, too much strength and too much power for Dzinziruk, and by the eighth round he will be pummeling him around the ring, or leveling him with another of those thunderous overhand lefts.
Prediction: Martinez by KO in eight.
Dan Hunter is a lifelong boxing aficionado and our Boxing Editor.