ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. -- Plan B turned into Grade A.
Plan A was supposed to be Paul Williams challenging middleweight champion Kelly Pavlik in one of the most significant fights of 2009.
But after Pavlik pulled out for the second time a month ago, promoter Dan Goossen turned to Plan B: Sergio Martinez, the relatively unknown, but outstanding, junior middleweight titlist.
The result was sensational as Williams won a majority decision in a classic middleweight slugfest on Saturday night at Boardwalk Hall's Adrian Phillips Ballroom.
It was perhaps the fight of the year.
It featured nonstop, back-and-forth action from the opening bell -- the fellow southpaws both suffered first-round knockdowns -- and it never let up.
What should have been a glorious night for the sport, however, was marred by an indefensible scorecard turned in by judge Pierre Benoist, who scored it 119-110 for Williams, prompting the crowd of 2,927 to boo lustily. Judge Lynn Carter had it 115-113 for Williams and Julie Lederman had it 114-114. ESPN.com had it 114-113 for Martinez in a fight that was dead-even all the way and could have gone to either fighter.
"I thought my guy one by one point," said Lou DiBella, Martinez's promoter. "I can live with a close loss. I can live with 115-113 or a draw. But I cannot live with a 119-110 incompetent piece of s--- who shouldn't work again as a judge. Is there anyone on Earth who actually thinks that great fight was almost a shutout? Please."
Said Martinez, "It was an error. It was a true error. We should have a rematch."
Even Goossen, while happy with the victory, panned the scorecard.
"I obviously felt that was off base," he said. "I'll take it but when everything was said and done I believe Paul won the fight."
But a horrible scorecard does not take away how wonderful the fight was. With no title on the line, Williams (38-1, 27 KOs) and Martinez (44-2-2, 24 KOs) fought for pride and showed enormous heart.
As soon as the bell rang to start the fight, they were on the gas pedal. First it was Martinez going down on the end of a shot that caught him on the shoulder/neck area.
He popped up and didn't appear hurt and went right at Williams, eventually knocking him down on the end of a right hand just as the bell rang to conclude the round.
"It was a war. I was tying to make it a war and make him fight me," said Williams, who got his wish. "I had to get up and show him what a warrior is made of. I've been knocked down before in the gym and [I wanted to] show him what a true warrior is made of."
The wild first round set the stage for a scintillating war fought at an extremely high level.
"What a fight, it was a classic. It was Arturo Gatti-Micky Ward at a higher skill level," DiBella said.
Said Goossen, "It was a great fight. What can you say? Martinez was in the fight. He showed sensational fortitude. They both did."
A former two-time welterweight titlist from Augusta, Ga., Williams has been labeled the most feared fighter in boxing by some, a 6-foot-2 southpaw with the reach of a telephone pole who few want to fight.
But it's not like anyone was rushing to fight Martinez, born in Argentina and living in Spain. Both of them showed why with their gritty, skillful performances, and it's unlikely that a line will form anytime soon with other top fighters waiting to face them.
"For my guy to fight like that against a guy nobody wanted to fight, come up in weight and put on that kind of performance, Sergio Martinez is one of the best fighters in the world," DiBella said. "There is nobody at 154 who could beat him. He would walk through Kelly Pavlik."
Both fighters were extremely aggressive, but Williams almost recklessly as he went after Martinez, 34, and walked into many punches instead of using his reach advantage.
An accidental head butt in the fourth round opened a nasty cut over Williams' left eye, which bled throughout the fight.
But it didn't deter the 28-year-old Williams from brawling, which delighted the crowd. It cheered wildly throughout the fight as the two went toe-to-toe, eventually bringing nearly everyone in the joint to their feet for the final round.
"They call him the most feared fighter in the world but I didn't have any fear at all in this bout," Martinez said. "I know he is a good boxer and puncher, but I was never hurt. I wasn't exhausted. I actually wanted to pick up the pace later in the fight."
Williams' handlers always viewed Martinez as a more difficult opponent than the more one-dimensional Pavlik, and with good reason.
But Williams didn't hesitate to take the fight, even on short notice.
"I don't look for an easy fight. I look for a hard fight," said Williams, who sure got one. "The preparation was tough for this fight because I had to switch from training for a right-hander to left-hander just a few weeks ago. If people want to see this again, we can do it again."
Goossen may consider a rematch, but he'd prefer a bigger name for Williams to face.
"It's too soon to talk about what's next but two guys we've been chasing for a year and a half are Shane Mosley and Bernard Hopkins," he said. "Mosley has another fight [on Jan. 30] with Andre Berto. I think we would do great numbers for a Hopkins fight in Washington, D.C. [where Williams trains and spends a lot of time], or here in Atlantic City. It's a great fight and a fight Bernard should take."
What about Pavlik?
"We tried to make the Pavlik fight three times, but you know what happened," said Goossen, noting that Pavlik was well enough to take a Dec. 19 fight with unheralded Miguel Espino. "We'd do it but we would need a safety net in case he pulls out again. And no negotiation this time. It has to be a 50-50 deal or the fight doesn't get made."
Whatever happens, Williams will get more notable fights. He probably made a lot of new fans also with the way he fought. The same goes for Martinez.
They deserve it. And whomever they fight, let's just leave Benoist at home and enjoy the action that is sure to come.
Dan Rafael is the boxing writer for ESPN.com.