This article appears in the March 21, 2011 issue of ESPN The Magazine
IN THE SUMMER OF 2008, Sergio Martinez moved to Oxnard, Calif. Why is that significant? Because Oxnard, the strawberry and lima bean capital of the state, has also emerged as the mecca of Hispanic boxing in the U.S. Two-thirds of the population is Latino, the vast majority Mexican-American. If the establishment in this SoCal town endorses a fighter, it's the equivalent of being knighted by boxing royalty.
So when Martinez, an Argentine, made the move, he was looking for something more than a change of scenery. He'd fought only five times in the U.S., never on American TV, and had spent the past year fighting no-names like Archak TerMeliksetian (16-6 at
the time) and Pavel Florin Madalin (3-34-2). Martinez, 36, had talent and a record (43-1-1 before the move), but he didn't have credibility. Oxnard, home to previous champs Fernando Vargas and Robert Garcia as well as current stars Victor Ortiz and Brandon Rios, gave him what he needed. "I knew Oxnard was the heart of Mexican boxing in the U.S.," says Martinez. "And I liked that they take the sport very seriously."
At legendary La Colonia gym, non-Mexican fighters are considered outsiders. Sparring partners are battered, and even accomplished fighters like Martinez are given a hard time. "As soon as anyone heard me speak Spanish, they could tell I wasn't from Mexico," he says.
To break the ice, Martinez joked about not being able to handle the local cooking ("Too spicy," he says). He tried talking soccer, but an Argentine wisecracking about Mexico's World Cup chances doesn't fly here. He stuck with food talk. In the ring, the southpaw impressed the locals. With his long reach and defensive style, Martinez was able to pick apart La Colonia's best and earn his way into the family. "He's not only a great fighter, he's a great person," says Garcia, the former IBF champ who now runs his own academy in Oxnard. "Humble. Respectful. I consider him one of us."
Oxnard's impact can be seen in Martinez's meteoric rise. After he beat unknown Alex Bunema in October 2008 to take over the WBC light middleweight belt, a December 2009 fight with middleweight star Paul Williams was his big career break. Their electrifying, back-and-forth brawl was fight-of-the-year material. Both guys hit the canvas in the first round, then traded punches for 11 more before judges awarded Williams a majority decision. Upset by the loss, Martinez vowed he'd take out Williams if given a rematch. After thumping Kelly Pavlik in April of last year to pick up the WBC and WBO belts, he got his revenge in November, sending Williams to the hospital following a vicious second-round KO. Next up: rugged Sergei Dzinziruk (37-0, 23 KOs) on March 12 and, Martinez hopes, a shot at Manny Pacquiao later in the year. "His improvisational, ambush style makes Martinez one of boxing's most watchable fighters," says veteran fight analyst Larry Merchant.
He's also gotten his unofficial green card in a certain community. In October, Garcia held a fund-raiser for his gym. Hundreds of people from the Mexican-American community showed up to see three guests of honor -- Mexican stars Rios and Antonio Margarito, and a certain Argentine-import-turned-honorary-Oxnardian.