Martinez proving hard work pays off

MIAMI -- In the background you observe the silhouette of a fighter boxing in the shadows.

There's no better image to describe the career of Sergio "Maravilla" Martínez, for whom success and fame in boxing came late.

There are countless reasons for why stardom was far from immediate, but perhaps the late start of his love affair with boxing could be at the top of the list.

"I always wanted to be a professional athlete, but neither cycling nor soccer were the answer," Martínez recalled. "On May 2, 1995, I entered a boxing gym for the first time, and I quickly realized that this was for me."

At that time, the Argentine boxer was 20, and he had finally succumbed to the influence of three of his uncles, who were also boxers.

The fact that he was left-handed was also an incentive for choosing his profession, but his ability to avoid being struck became apparent from the beginning.

So much so that two years later he was already a member of the Argentine team, on which he participated in a tournament in Budapest in 1997. On the horizon was the Sydney Olympics, but with it came the first crossroads.

"There was nothing I wanted more than to represent my country in the Olympics, but if I continued as an amateur, I would've been 25 when the time came to travel to Australia," Martínez said. "My dream was to be a world champion, so I decided to become professional in December of 1997, and I'm happy with the decision I made."

With great power comes great responsibility, and it's not in Martínez's DNA to do things halfway.

The fighter known as "Maravilla" (Spanish for "Marvelous") grew up in a poor neighborhood in Quilmes, Argentina, where he has confessed that he was the victim of bullying. He worked with his father, Hugo, in construction and got used to overcoming obstacles ever since.

Martinez knew that glory in sports would not come free, and it was then that he decided to emigrate to Spain.

"It was the hardest thing you can imagine," Martinez admitted. "Leaving your family, your home, your yerba mate, your all. I didn't even have a return ticket, but eventually it ended up being the most important step I took in my career. Even beyond speaking your language, when you close the door to your house, you're alone. That's where I became stronger."

The dream of being champion was intact, but the doors would not open for Martinez. Far from home and with no apparent reward, his mind started playing tricks on him.

In April 2004, the Argentine boxer was going through a bad time both personally and professionally. Without the required documentation, he was in danger of being deported and ended up sleeping at the police station several nights.

"It was during those days that I became a man," Martinez said.

During one of those long nights came a call, which in retrospect turned out to be a turning point in the career of the Argentinian boxer.

"I was immersed in my misery and depression when I was called to replace a boxer in the fight for the IBO world title," Martínez said. "I was told a week before the fight, and I said yes."

The fight was against Richard Williams in Manchester, England. Martinez had a friend who was a gym owner who helped him with supplementation because at the time, Martinez "didn't even have enough money to eat."

On visitor status, and against the logic of the unwritten rules of boxing, Martinez finished being crowned with a unanimous decision.

"I was 28 years old, and at that moment, I felt that I could achieve absolutely anything I set my mind to," Martínez recalled with a smile.

Calls from Argentine friends and journalists were not long in coming. There were congratulations from everywhere with the intrigue of knowing how he was celebrating such an important moment. The answer? Maybe it wasn't as glamorous as they expected.

"I had an ice pack on my face and another on my kidneys for my multiple fractures," Martinez said. "I remember that at 8 a.m. the next morning, I looked in the mirror and it was the first time I felt scared and asked myself whether it was worth it. But then I looked at the belt and came to the conclusion that a few broken bones was nothing compared to success."

The belt was the image that represented the feeling of accomplishment, but large winnings and big-name opponents were still elusive.

The thing is that in the boxing profession, sometimes mere talent is not enough.

"I've seen boxers with huge talent, that because of either policies or promoters, disappear from the sport," Martinez said. "When it reaches a certain level, what happens around the ring is harder than what happens within it."

To avoid being sucked into the "noise" of the environment, you have to have a certain mental strength.

Martinez has the word "Resistance" tattooed on his right arm, and he has certainly exhibited it throughout his career.

But having a trustworthy team helps greatly.

"My team always looks over the contracts down to the smallest detail," Martinez said. "Today as a promoter, I do the same with my boxers. We have to make a shift in consciousness in this sport that we love. Sometimes boxers seem to be 72 kilos of meat and nothing else."

After defeating Kelly Pavlik for the middleweight world title in 2010, Martinez became a more relevant "72 kilos of meat."

He no longer had to chase stardom; stardom was chasing him.

However, he still had some unresolved issues. Among them, to regain a connection with his people. That's why after beating Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. in 2012, Martinez decided to return home.

On April 27, 2013, a universal flood rained on Buenos Aires. However, none of the 49,000 people who were present at the Velez Sarsfield stadium went anywhere; they wanted to greet their lost son in his title defense against Martin Murray.

"It was one of the most emotional moments in my life, very few fighters get to live that," Martínez said. "Only Noah's Ark could've pulled us out of there."

Today, Martínez is 39, and the end is near.

While it's true that Bernard Hopkins is still shining at age 49, Maravilla is quick to clarify that "he's made out of another material; I'm an ordinary human being."

Injuries don't help, either. He broke his hand and underwent surgery on his right knee three times. And although it's increasingly difficult to recover over the years, Martinez insists that he's in perfect condition.

"My doctor, Raquel [Bordons], has me under the microscope, but I'm training at a very high rate," Martínez said. "My knee was the most serious injury, but injuries are part of the equation. There's nothing that I can't control."

Martinez hasn't had a fight in 13 months, and for a moment doubted whether to do it again. He spent nine months on crutches, and few fights motivated him.

"I wasn't feeling well at all against Martin Murray, my right knee played a trick on me and I didn't want to go on like that," Martinez admitted. "That's when I told my promoters to only call me if Miguel Cotto knocked on the door."

That's exactly what happened, and now Martinez seeks to return to what he was not too long ago.

The fight is on Saturday at Madison Square Garden in New York, and Martinez has already begun the final stages of his preparation with sparring and with more intensity.

Cotto insists that his name be mentioned first when promoting the fight, but that doesn't cause Martínez, who just "wants to fight," to lose any sleep.

Stardom cost him blood, sweat and tears, but he finally arrived, and now Martinez enjoys it to the fullest.

Besides wanting to close his career in the best way possible, as a promoter he released his documentary, "Maravilla," he's writing a play with the Fantoni brothers and takes singing lessons as a hobby.

But his priorities won't change, at least not for now.

"I promised my mother I would leave boxing so many times, that I will soon fulfill it," Martinez concluded. "I still have outstanding accounts that I plan to settle, and Cotto is one of them, but the circle is closing."