Middleweight champion Sergio Martinez is in something of a no-win situation.
If the consensus 2010 fighter of the year -- and author of the knockout of the year when he put Paul Williams to sleep in the second round of their November rematch -- defeats Sergiy Dzinziruk on Saturday night (HBO, 10:30 ET) at the MGM Grand Arena at the Foxwoods resort in Mashantucket, Conn., he will have done what he was supposed to do against an opponent who is virtually unknown in the United States.
In other words, if Martinez wins, he won't receive the avalanche of credit and respect he garnered for destroying Williams, who was universally ranked in the top five on the pound-for-pound list at the time of their showdown.
And if Argentina's Martinez, who lives in Oxnard, Calif., loses to Ukraine's Dzinziruk, a junior middleweight titleholder who is moving up and fighting in the U.S. for only the second time, most will view it as a stunning turn of events because so few have heard of him.
But make no mistake, Martinez, 36, is in harm's way. He knows it.
"I never want an easy fight. I want to fight the best," Martinez said through translator and adviser Sampson Lewkowicz. "[Floyd] Mayweather cannot fight me. Manny Pacquiao cannot fight me. So, I need to fight somebody very challenging, and the best opponent, or the best challenger, is Sergiy Dzinziruk. Nobody else is left. The fight was officially made by HBO, and HBO got the best available opponent, Dzinziruk, because he has the credentials."
Dzinziruk, 35, has defended his 154-pound title six times since outpointing Daniel Santos in 2005. He is a no-frills, quality boxer with one of the best jabs in the business. But Dzinziruk (37-0, 23 KOs) is also a defense-oriented fighter, so even if Martinez wins, it probably will be hard for him to look good in victory.
Simply put, Martinez (46-2-2, 25 KOs) is in a tough spot.
He had hoped to face mandatory challenger Sebastian Zbik, but when HBO refused to approve him, Martinez -- the lineal champion -- was stripped of his alphabet title. Martinez was essentially forced by HBO to fight Dzinziruk, who was the only opponent the network would buy (for a stunning $850,000, an incredible amount for a fighter with zero recognition in the United States and far more than double than he has ever earned) because it had promised his co-promoter, Gary Shaw, a spot for Dzinziruk as part of the deal to close the January fight between Timothy Bradley Jr., Shaw's fighter, and Devon Alexander.
In the co-feature, middleweights Andy Lee (24-1, 18 KOs), a 2004 Irish Olympian, and Craig McEwan (19-0, 10 KOs) of Scotland battle in a scheduled 10-rounder with the winner improving on his chances to land a shot at the main event winner.
Lou DiBella, Martinez's emotional promoter, has been lamenting the Martinez-Dzinziruk fight since it was finalized.
He never wanted the fight. He hates the fight. He hates how HBO forced it on him. And he's not shy about telling folks.
"Since the beginning I've said I didn't like this fight," DiBella said. "Technically, he [Dzinziruk] is one of the best I've seen. This is his toughest fight and probably the toughest fighter Sergio has faced. Sergiy isn't well-known here, but he is the top 154-pounder. It's a terribly difficult fight for Sergio. I'm worried, but I have faith in my champion, who understands the challenge."
The reason DiBella is so concerned is he respects Dzinziruk's talent and knows how dangerous he is.
"The fact that this fight is happening is a tribute to the type of champion Sergio Martinez is," DiBella said. "In a lot of ways this is a no-win fight. This is the best fighter in the world, Dzinziruk, that no one knows. He is a very difficult guy to fight because of his defensive style, because of his great jab, his movement, and he's a very skilled guy. He's really unknown in this country, but this is the fight HBO wanted.
"They wanted Sergio in a difficult matchup, and it's typically Sergio Martinez's way. Sergio said, 'Put him in front of me and I'm going to fight him,' and he is. He is the boss, and that's why he's become the people's champion. He's fighting the best, and this is why he has captured the imaginations of so many boxing fans."
"Lou and Team Martinez have reasons to be worried. Everybody knows Lou doesn't say something like that lightly," said Josh Roy of Artie Pelullo's Banner Promotions, Dzinziruk's co-promoter. "Sergiy is the best junior middleweight in the world. He's never lost. He doesn't know how to lose. And it's not like he's been protected. He's 7-0 in world title fights. He has made a concerted effort to come [to the U.S.]. Sergio didn't take a soft touch after fighting Paul Williams. He's going all out."
DiBella tried to get Martinez a fight with junior middleweight titlist Miguel Cotto, but Top Rank promoter Bob Arum was not interested. So Cotto will face Ricardo Mayorga, who has a puncher's chance, on a $50 Showtime PPV card that will directly compete with the Martinez-Dzinziruk telecast.
"Obviously, Sergio is looking for the biggest fights possible," DiBella said. "We pursued the possibilities with Cotto and had conversations with Arum, but the fight didn't materialize. But this is the most difficult fight. This is the toughest fighter out there. I said it's a no-win situation, but if Sergio knocks this guy out, at least intelligent people in boxing, and the people who've seen Dzinziruk fight, will know what an accomplishment it is.
"It's just unfortunate that with a fight of this degree of difficulty, that the public doesn't know the opponent. The opponent is a champion in his own right. He's a very, very good fighter. And this is consistent with Sergio's pattern -- from Kermit Cintron to Paul Williams, to Kelly Pavlik, to Paul Williams [again] and now to Sergiy Dzinziruk. There's not a single fighter in the sport, not one, that's gone through a murderer's row like that in recent fights. And like I said, that's a credit to the greatness of Sergio Martinez."
While DiBella stewed over the making of the fight, Martinez, at least publicly, took it like a trouper.
"His attitude was, 'If they think this is the hardest guy, put him in front of me.' There haven't been guys like that I've had," DiBella said. "I've promoted guys before that don't shy away from challenges, but I've never had a guy like this whose attitude is if you think this guy is the hardest, then that's who I want to fight.
"If HBO holds true with that as their principal goal, going forward through the rest of the year and holds everybody to the same standard, then you'll never hear a peep out of us about them insisting on us fighting anybody. And the truth is, what Sergio said is 100 percent the reality, because he didn't make a peep out of fighting Dzinziruk because he realized that's who they wanted him to fight, and when he knew he was going to be paid appropriately, he was gung-ho to do it."
For his part, Dzinziruk, who brought on co-trainer Buddy McGirt to work with him for this fight, is just pleased to have the opportunity for a major television fight in America against a top-tier opponent no matter how he got it.
After splitting with Universum, his promoter in Germany, he came to the United States, signed with co-promoters Shaw and Pelullo and defended his title in California in May with a strong performance in a 10th-round TKO of Australia's Daniel Dawson. Facing Martinez will be his first fight since.
"It makes me very excited to know they think that highly of me. I want to thank HBO for making this fight happen," Dzinziruk said through translator Harry Kazandjian, his adviser. "It's a lifetime opportunity for me. I'm looking forward to fighting Sergio Martinez.
"Fighting is my life, my world. All I know is how to box. I love fighting and want to win a few more titles."