With Olympic dreams denied, Javier Martinez ready for pro debut

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After winning the 2020 U.S. Olympic Team Trials in December, middleweight Javier Martinez believed he had taken another key step toward earning a spot representing the United States in the upcoming Games in Tokyo. Martinez entered the tournament as the No. 2 seed in the 165-pound division, and then won the tournament outright.

After missing out on the team in 2016, Martinez pushed aside the possibility of a pro career and dedicated four years of his life to making himself an Olympian. Martinez was a five-time national champion and had represented his country in various international competitions before winning the trials. He had every expectation that his place on the squad was secure this time around and he would have the opportunity to compete in the final qualifying tournament to fulfill his Olympic dream.

That was until Martinez was told by USA Boxing that, despite coming in first place, he would be an alternate on the 2020 team.

"When they called me with that news, I felt like my soul left my body," Martinez says. "I couldn't believe it, nobody else believed it, either. It was horrible."

With that perceived slight, Martinez made the decision to turn professional. He will make his debut on Tuesday's Top Rank card at the MGM Grand Conference Center in Las Vegas (ESPN, ESPN Deportes, 9 p.m. ET) against Jonathan Burrs (2-1, 2 KOs) in a four-round super middleweight bout.

"I decided I'm not going to be nobody's alternate," Martinez told ESPN. "I'm the number one guy and these [USA Boxing] people are just making fun of me. I'm just going to go ahead and just do my thing."

The spot on the team that Martinez believed was his went to Joseph Hicks. The pair faced off three times in the double-elimination Olympic boxing trials in Lake Charles, Louisiana. Martinez won the first bout, but Hicks fought his way back to the finals and defeated Martinez by unanimous decision to even the score. That set up the third and final bout to crown the winner of the tournament, in which Martinez defeated Hicks by majority decision.

"Basically they said that [Hicks] had a better chance at international competition," Martinez says. "But hear me out: This guy basically has zero international fights, he goes to fight one time [at the 71st Annual Strandja International Boxing Tournament in Bulgaria] and almost gets stopped. That makes no sense."

It wouldn't have been this way had Martinez won the trials in 2016. In the past, the winners of the Olympic Trials were automatically locked into a spot at the Summer Olympics. Now, winning the trials is just part of the formula used to come up with the U.S. roster.

"The past four years leading into our Olympic trials, we have changed the way we select teams," said Matt Johnson, director of high performance at USA Boxing. "With this being the first Olympic trials to incorporate that, [it] is more of a body of work, an evaluation process for the selection of teams."

Martinez says he harbors no animosity toward his fellow boxers who are on the U.S. team, which will go to the Olympic Games in Tokyo next year. His anger is placed elsewhere. "I'm more pissed off at the people in charge," he said.

So what does USA Boxing have to say in response?

Johnson says as heartbreaking as this system might be to certain fighters, like Martinez, it's the best way for USA Boxing -- which has not had a male boxer win a gold medal since Andre Ward in 2004 -- to compete on the world's biggest stage.

"It creates more opportunity, where we're bringing in the number ones and number twos, evaluating them -- and obviously if we keep the number two in training, in case an opportunity comes, there is some subjectivity in it," Johnson said. "It's hard to find a sport that doesn't have some subjectivity in it, unless you're in track or swimming where everything is timed."

USA Boxing is still producing top-notch talent that graduates to the professional level. While the 2012 men's team didn't win a single medal, it has produced four world champions at the pro level in Errol Spence Jr., Joseph Diaz Jr., Jamel Herring and Jose Ramirez. And 2016 silver medalist Shakur Stevenson has already captured a major title belt. But USA Boxing is in the business of amateur boxing.

"A big piece of it is getting down to what our goal is," Johnson explains. "It's not necessarily, 'Who is the best boxer in America?' It's, 'Who's going to give us the best boxer to put us on top of the Olympic podium?'"

After failing to secure a spot on the 2016 team, Martinez was advised to turn pro by several managers who were interested in representing him and felt he could make a major impact at that level.

Looking back, Martinez admits that his life was a "freakin' mess." Martinez wasn't even sure he wanted to continue boxing, but ultimately came to the decision that he was going to devote the next four years of his life to making the Olympic squad -- and at that point, it became more than fulfilling his dreams.

"I stayed amateur this whole time to prove people wrong," Martinez explains. "I did everything I had to do. I won the trials. For them to do this to me, it's just messed up.

"Basically I wasted four years ... well, I didn't waste, it was a big learning experience being on the U.S. team. But those are four years I could've started my career [as a pro]. ... I was number two for a while, with that dream of making it to the Olympics.

"With me knowing that one day when 2020 came that I was going to be an Olympian, that was my goal for four years, being on that team. And for them to do that to me, and with my son [7-year-old Lionel], when I told him ... he was so disappointed. That's when I said, 'F--- them, f--- USA Boxing. I've got to make moves.'"

Martinez was one of four USA Boxing athletes who won the trials but were selected as alternates, joining Lupe Gutierrez, a female boxer in the 125-pound class, Abraham Perez (114) and super heavyweight Antonio Mireles.

''[Martinez] definitely had the closest evaluation, between him and Joe. It was definitely the toughest decision we made," Johnson says. "But based on our coaching staff's evaluations and the process that we had, Joseph Hicks had the slight edge."

The USA Boxing committee that makes those decisions consists of Johnson, head coach Billy Walsh and athlete representative Franchon Crews-Dezurn, a unified super middleweight world champion.

"So the evaluations are done by our coaching staff, reviewed by our selection committee, then the decisions are made by that committee," Johnson said. Other factors considered in this process include weight management, medical management and performance in training. But perhaps what is really vital is what Johnson describes as ''international performance potential.''

''Our goal is to select the best international boxer," Johnson says. "Our goal is to win Olympic medals. Sometimes the best boxer in the U.S. isn't the best international boxer that we can put forward. That's the reasoning why we changed the process of not just winning one national tournament, you're on the team."

So was it really about past performance versus future potential?

"In some senses, yes," Johnson answers. "A part of the evaluation process that we have is a multination training camp in January. During the process we're evaluating each boxer's performance in sparring. So we do get that look in training camp."

Johnson says that there were several countries that participated in that camp. But he adds that "the top two boxers [in that camp] compete internationally, so that we're able to see them actually in action, so it's not completely projecting."

The 27 year-old Hicks, of Grand Rapids, Michigan, placed second in the 2020 Olympic trials. In 2019 he captured first place in the Eastern Elite Qualifier and National Golden Gloves. So why did he get the nod instead of Martinez?

"A lot of it was performance in training," explained Johnson. "The competition that they both had in Bulgaria, there wasn't much that separated them. Javier had one fight against an opponent that wasn't ranked internationally. Joseph, on the other hand, fought a world champion from 2019 in the weight division and lost in a close fight. So there wasn't a lot between that to separate them.

"So what separated Joe and Javier was their performance in training while they were here in camp."

After the decision, Martinez actually went to a training camp with USA Boxing as an alternate for a stretch, but eventually decided to leave.

"It took me a little bit of time to realize I didn't want to be part of this fake organization no more," Martinez says, adding that in hindsight, if he understood how this process would play out, he "would've turned pro in 2016, for sure."

Tim VanNewhouse, who scouted Martinez and eventually signed him to a professional contract on behalf of Split-T Management, says there were some thoughts on fighting USA Boxing's decision, but their selection process is approved by the U.S. Olympic Committee.

Some of the contention in this situation also boiled down to VanNewhouse's relationship with Martinez before he even turned pro.

"USA Boxing, they frown on people that want their amateurs and take them away from the program," says VanNewhouse. "Javier is someone we really encouraged -- because I've built a relationship with him over the past several years -- to stay amateur, compete in the Olympic process. He's done everything that USA Boxing has asked for, won every single tournament, went to every international tournament, was their USA team member -- and they took his spot away.

"We encouraged him to remain amateur -- when the kid wasn't making any money, turned down professional deals, remained amateur -- and USA Boxing ripped that away from him when he earned that spot."

Martinez, who stands 6-foot-1, is a southpaw who has a come-forward style, and will consistently invest to the body. VanNewhouse believes he will be a fan-friendly fighter as a pro. He is now trained by Jorge Capetillo in Las Vegas, and as far as Martinez is concerned, the past few years could've been invested into his pro career and making some money.

But what's done is done. Martinez would've had to wait another year even if he had made the team, as the ongoing coronavirus pandemic has pushed the Summer Games back to 2021.

At this point, it's no longer a concern for Martinez, who is now embarking on the next chapter of his boxing career.

"I just want to do what I should've done in 2016," he says.