Journeyman welterweight Aron Martinez, a 50-to-1 underdog, came on strong in the second half of the fight to pull off an upset and perhaps end former two-division world titleholder Devon Alexander's career as a top fighter Wednesday night at the Gila River Arena in Glendale, Arizona.
Alexander, coming off a 305-day layoff, the longest of his career, got off to a solid start but eventually found himself being pushed around and forced back by Martinez, who wasn't doing anything fancy. But he kept grinding away in a fight marred by holding and grappling by both fighters. In the end, it was the more physical Martinez who earned a unanimous decision on scores of 97-93, 97-93 and 96-94 in the main event of the ESPN Premier Boxing Champions card.
"We followed our game plan tonight. I give [Alexander] props for standing in there with me," Martinez said. "I'm always the underdog, but I embrace it because that mentality has pushed me to work harder."
On June 6, Martinez appeared to also score a major upset in a rock 'em, sock 'em fight with top welterweight contender Robert Guerrero, whom he knocked down, only to be denied in a controversial split-decision loss.
This time Martinez (20-4-1, 4 KOs), 33, a Los Angeles-based native of Mexico, got the benefit of the doubt from the judges and handed Alexander his second loss in a row and third in his past four bouts.
A former welterweight and junior welterweight titleholder, Alexander (26-4, 14 KOs), 28, of St. Louis, was trying to regroup after a dreadful showing in a near-shutout decision loss in December to England's Amir Khan, a former unified junior welterweight titlist.
Alexander, who has beaten top opponents such as Lucas Matthysse and Marcos Maidana, said he wanted to make a statement against Martinez and show that he is much better than he showed against Khan. But if Alexander made any kind of statement, it was simply that his time has passed.
"He was coming in fast like we knew he would," Alexander said. "We knew he was going to come forward. I just couldn't get my shots off like I wanted to. Consecutive losses are tough, but I'm not easily discouraged. I just need to regroup, and then we'll see what's next."
Alexander got off to a decent start, seemingly winning the first few rounds, which featured more holding than clean punching. The crowd booed and continued to do so for much of the fight.
While Alexander looked to stick and move, Martinez's game plan seemed to consist of bulling right at Alexander with his head down, which led to head butts throughout the fight.
One of them seemed to cause a cut over Alexander's right eye in the seventh round. Alexander complained about it in the corner after the round, and trainer Kevin Cunningham gave him an earful and threatened to stop the fight.
Martinez, who entered the fight having lost three of his previous four bouts, continued to come on. He hurt Alexander with a clean right hand that snapped his head back in the final seconds of the eighth round.
Cunningham was furious with Alexander's performance, telling ESPN during an eighth-round interview that Alexander was not following their game plan.
"He's not doing what he's supposed to be doing," Cunningham said.
As Cunningham sent Alexander out for the final round, he told Alexander he badly needed to score at least a knockdown to win, but Alexander did not come close to doing it, and Martinez continued to get the better of him on his way to a career-best victory.
"I'm the heavier guy. I've always fought at 147 pounds," Martinez said. "This is my natural weight, and I sparred against much bigger guys during the last few weeks of training camp. I was facing fast, 180-pound fighters in camp to get ready for this.
"Fighting on a PBC card on ESPN is the best kind of opportunity for me. I'll use this fight to get another great chance like I got tonight. I'll fight whoever they put in front of me."
Selby retains featherweight title against Montiel
Fighting for the first time in the United States and making the first defense of his featherweight world title, Lee Selby, of Wales, won a unanimous decision in a tough fight against Mexico's Fernando Montiel in the co-feature.
The judges scored the fight 119-109, 118-110 and 116-112 for Selby, whose 4-inch height advantage, long jab and busier work rate proved difficult for Montiel to overcome. ESPN.com scored the fight 116-112 for Selby.
"My jab, reach and speed were my biggest advantages tonight. That was how I got the win," Selby said.
Selby controlled most of the fight from the outside with his jab and right hand, as Montiel tried to get inside and bang him with left hooks with limited success.
Montiel appeared to win some of the middle rounds, backing Selby up with his left hook. In the sixth round, a big one for Montiel, he cut Selby over the right eye, but Selby's corner did a fine job keeping the wound in check.
"All the cuts I've had in my career have come against shorter fighters like [Montiel]," Selby said. "When I got cut tonight in the sixth round, it was the same thing. I caught a head butt."
The scores seemed to be a bit generous toward Selby, who said it was not his best night.
"I was honestly disappointed in my performance," he said. "I got the win, and it was a great feeling to get my first one on U.S. soil. But the fans didn't see me at my best, and a big part of that was Montiel's experience. He's a great fighter."
Selby (22-1, 8 KOs) connected with 236 of 809 punches (29 percent), according to CompuBox punch statistics. Montiel landed 141 of 539 punches (26 percent).
Montiel (54-5-2, 39 KOs), 36, saw his eight-fight winning streak come to an end. A former flyweight, junior bantamweight and bantamweight titleholder, he was attempting to join Juan Manuel Marquez, Erik Morales and Jorge Arce as the only Mexican boxers to win world titles in four weight classes.
"I thought it was a lot closer fight than the judges had it on the scorecards," he said. "I spent the first few rounds waiting for him to come at me so I could counterpunch. But he wasn't engaging me, so I became the aggressor and brought the fight to him. I honestly think I deserve a rematch. I want to fight him again."
Disappointing performance or not, Selby, 28, is probably on his way to bigger fights. He signed earlier this year with adviser and PBC creator Al Haymon to put himself in position for bigger fights in the United States. Haymon has a number of quality featherweights in his stable who could be future opponents, including world titleholders Leo Santa Cruz, Selby's preferred opponent; Gary Russell Jr.; and Jesus Cuellar. Former titleholder Abner Mares is also a possibility.
Selby, who has trained for his past several bouts in Southern California, was making the first defense of the 126-pound world title he won in London on May 30, when he dominated Russia's Evgeny Gradovich en route to an eight-round technical-decision victory. The fight was cut short because Gradovich suffered a cut over his right eye from an accidental head butt and was unable to continue.