Last Saturday night, in the cool desert air of El Paso, Texas, middleweight champion Sergio Martinez just might have enjoyed his biggest victory to date in a fight that he wasn't even a part of.
When fellow 160-pound titlist Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. finished off respected contender Andy Lee with a brilliant seventh-round TKO, it was the best thing to happen to the 37-year-old Martinez's career since victories against Kelly Pavlik and Paul Williams in 2010 officially put him on the map.
Almost universally regarded as the No. 3 pound-for-pound fighter in the world, Martinez, 37, finally has an opponent to be excited about. A dance partner who fills in the few blanks in the résumé of the great Maravilla -- marketability and fan base -- Chavez will allow Martinez his first opportunity to headline a pay-per-view when the two are scheduled to meet Sept. 15 in Las Vegas.
Still wondering just how we got here? Only months earlier, Chavez, 26, wasn't even considered a fighter remotely close to the class of Martinez, nor would anyone believe the undefeated Mexican's handlers would allow him near a fight of this nature, one that he had so little chance of winning.
But all of that changed in Chavez's most recent title defenses, with the point fully hammered home upon his stoppage of Lee. Chavez's footwork and boxing skills have increased dramatically under Hall of Fame trainer Freddie Roach. Junior has also routinely benefited from an ability to sneak in under the 160-pound limit, only to bulk up to the size of a light heavyweight (at least) by fight night. That, along with the two traits he has taken his legendary father -- relentless body punching and a concrete chin -- have made him a legitimate opponent, almost overnight, for Martinez.
This is all music to Martinez's ears, simply for the fact that securing the Chavez fight represented what appeared to be his last hope of attaining the level of legit, crossover PPV stardom that the Argentine fighter has dreamed of.
It's no secret that Martinez has been the odd man out in boxing's upper table for almost two years. Shut out by opponents and rival promoters, who claimed he was too dangerous and lacked the ability to sell tickets, Martinez settled for title defenses against nondescript European challengers, with all three ending in late knockout wins.
In terms of maximizing the prime of his career under the daunting pressure of a fast-closing window, Martinez can view 2011 as no better than an abject failure. Despite having a presence as a featured HBO fighter, Martinez treaded water in a lonely division void of marketable names.
The trend, at the time, was to portray Martinez as a tragic figure while questioning what's wrong with a sport that denies one of its best an opportunity to compete at the highest level. But as that same trend continued into 2012, it became hard not to turn the double-edged sword of his predicament back on to the fighter himself, along with his handlers.
Martinez is promoted by Lou DiBella, which leads to two schools of thought: You either believe DiBella is the third-most powerful promoter in the sport or you believe the sport has only two promoters (Golden Boy and Top Rank) that really matter.
Given the way the power promoters have created a virtual American and National League, which rarely allows for interleague play, it's hard not to support the latter line of thinking. Especially when you consider how unsuccessful Martinez was in luring the marquee names, even after offering to come in as low as 150 pounds. In the case of Floyd Mayweather Jr., Martinez was openly willing to accept the bottom half of an 80/20 purse split.
Martinez has been slow to pick up the English language and just doesn't possess the trash-talking gene and combative personality that often leads to controversial and marketable opportunities (e.g., Dereck Chisora). You're more likely to see him using his platform in an honorable way to speak out against domestic violence or anti-bullying.
Martinez has clearly mastered everything within his power that goes on inside of the ring. But has he done enough outside of it to take advantage of his potential opportunities, both financially and in terms of his legacy? Was he too loyal in re-signing with DiBella in June 2011? What about his steadfast refusal to consider moving up to 168 pounds?
Was everything we respect about him as a person also the main reason his stock as an elite fighter in the sport has slowly fallen?
All of those questions are moot for now, as Martinez is in line for the kind of fight he has desired all along. A fight that all of us have desired right along with him and one that is great for the sport.
Those who feared Martinez's prime is being wasted can breathe a temporary sigh of relief. We still don't know whether he'll get an opportunity to face the very best and most marketable of his generation before his speed and reflexes begin to erode. At the very least, this is a step in the right direction toward one day finding out just how good Martinez can be.