During the jubilant celebration inside the ring after Sergio Martinez knocked Paul Williams into another dimension, trainer Gabriel Sarmiento placed a gold-colored crown on his pupil's head.
One of the members of Martinez's team had bought the prop more or less as a gag, but it was certainly a fitting symbol for what Martinez had done, not only on that November night at Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City, N.J., but during a year in which he blazed his way to becoming king of the middleweight division and earning his place among the top fighters in the world, pound for pound.
Martinez -- known as "Maravilla" -- won the middleweight championship by slicing up Kelly Pavlik to win a clear decision and drilled Williams in their much-anticipated rematch to cement his status as the 2010 ESPN.com fighter of the year.
Martinez, 35, had ended 2009 by going toe-to-toe with Williams in a sensational, all-action fight, but he lost a disputed majority decision. While a rematch was what boxing fans and media asked for, their promoters wanted them go to their separate ways for at least one fight until the inevitable sequel would take place.
When a fight between Williams and Pavlik could not be made -- yet again -- Martinez, who held a junior middleweight title, happily accepted the opportunity to challenge for the middleweight championship. That title means a lot in Martinez's home country of Argentina, which produced Carlos Monzon, one of the greatest middleweight champions in history and Martinez's boxing idol.
Martinez (46-2-2, 25 KOs) and Pavlik met April 17 at Boardwalk Hall and it was clear from the outset that even though Pavlik was the bigger man, it was going to be a tough fight. Martinez easily won the opening rounds with his superior boxing ability. But after Pavlik came on strong in the middle rounds, including scoring a seventh-round knockdown, Martinez turned it up a notch. He dominated down the stretch, opening a bad cut over Pavlik's right eye in the ninth round and sweeping the rest of the fight to claim the title in an outstanding performance.
After a brutal negotiation to get Williams back in the ring, because his team clearly did not want the fight (and basically was forced by HBO to take it), he and Martinez met again on Nov. 20 in a match pitting two of the top five fighters in the world. The rematch began like their first encounter had ended -- with them trading shots at a fast pace. After a blazing opening round, it looked like fight No. 2 was going to be simply a continuation of fight No. 1.
Rafael's Fighters of the Year
Martinez had been landing his left hand from the outset, part of Sarmiento's plan, but when Williams left his right hand a bit too low in the second round, Martinez came over the top, connected on his jaw and obliterated him for a spectacular knockout.
Even more than the championship victory against Pavlik, the knockout of Williams was the culmination of Martinez's surprising march to the top of boxing. Just a couple of years earlier, no promoter wanted Martinez, an obscure pro who had played soccer and been a cyclist before turning to boxing. He didn't turn pro until he was 22 and fought mainly in Argentina before later fighting on the European circuit in Spain and England.
But in 2007, he hooked up with adviser Sampson Lewkowicz, the man who brought Manny Pacquiao to the United States in 2001. Lewkowicz was a friend of Martinez's manager, Ricardo Sanchez Atocha, and, like with Pacquiao, he believed in Martinez's talent and set out to find him an American promoter.
Lewkowicz sent fight DVDs to various promoters without any takers except for Lou DiBella, who was blown away by the talent he saw and signed Martinez at the end of 2007.
"I always believed I had a pretty good eye for talent," DiBella said before the Williams rematch. "When Sampson sent this DVD around I looked at it and I didn't know anything about him, and I was like, 'Oh my God, where did this guy come from?' He wasn't fighting King Kong, but he was fighting top European talent and he was playing with these guys. And I also saw speed and power. I was blown away. And I have always had a lot of faith in Sampson's eye.
"I was like, 'How is this guy not already a world champion?' And then I met him and he looks like a movie star and is the most humble guy you could ever meet. I felt that he was special and he had unusual gifts. The looks, the charm, but also a combination of power and speed. I thought it was like Christmas morning when I looked at the DVD."
Right after Martinez had starched Williams, DiBella was even more effusive in his praise.
"Martinez will have a problem making fights because that's how f------ good he is," DiBella said. "I know what I got. I got the best fighter in the world."
You know what else DiBella has? The fighter of the year.
The pound-for-pound king was the fighter of the year in 2009 on the strength of two huge and dominating wins, knockouts against Ricky Hatton to win the junior welterweight championship and Miguel Cotto to win a welterweight title. In 2010, Pacquiao produced another dominant year, winning both of his fights in landslide fashion, although his opponents were not as well regarded as they had been a year earlier. When the year opened, the hope was that Pacquiao would face Floyd Mayweather Jr. in the summit meeting of pound-for-pound stars that the world wanted to see. When talks fizzed in early January, instead Pacquiao wound up defending his welterweight belt against former titlist Joshua Clottey in a hastily arranged March fight at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas. Pacquiao dissected Clottey in a near-shutout victory. When Mayweather refused to face Pacquiao in the fall (after another round of failed talks), Pacquiao (52-3-2, 38 KOs) met another former welterweight titlist, Antonio Margarito, in November, also at Cowboys Stadium. Despite being outweighed by 17 pounds on fight night, Pacquiao laid waste to Margarito in a brilliant display as he literally disfigured Margarito's face to win another near-shutout decision, this time picking up a vacant junior middleweight title in the process. The win gave Pacquiao a title in an eighth weight division, which extended his own amazing record.
Juan Manuel Lopez
Lopez, the power-punching Puerto Rican star, defended his junior featherweight title five times before deciding to move up in weight in 2010. He made his featherweight debut in January and overwhelmed Steven Luevano en route to a seventh-round knockout to take his title and send Luevano into retirement. In July, Lopez (30-0, 27 KOs) returned home to Puerto Rico and gave fans a thrilling fight in his second-round knockout of the Philippines' Bernabe Concepcion. Both men were down in the first round of the shootout before Lopez scored two more knockdowns to win it in the second round. Lopez went into the fight with Concepcion knowing he had to win in order to preserve a fight that had already been agreed to with former bantamweight and junior featherweight champ Rafael Marquez, the great Mexican warrior who had evened his epic series with Israel Vazquez at two wins apiece in May. They met in November and waged a fantastic fight. Lopez was pushed all the way, but was winning on all three scorecards after the eighth round, when Marquez stayed on his stool because of a shoulder injury, giving Lopez the biggest win of his career.
England's Khan, the 2004 Olympic silver medalist and 2007 ESPN.com prospect of the year, fulfilled his vast promise in 2009 by winning a junior welterweight title and making one defense. In 2010, Khan (24-1, 17 KOs) kept it going with two impressive defenses, both on HBO and in the United States, where he was trying to build his name. He came to New York to face former titleholder Paulie Malignaggi in his hometown in May. Khan was superior in every facet of the game as he outboxed and outpunched Malignaggi, battering him until it was finally stopped in the 11th round of what was a flawless performance by the Brit. Khan next made his Las Vegas debut in November against his mandatory challenger, the dangerous Marcos Maidana. Many had accused Khan of ducking the big-punching Maidana when he had elected to face Malignaggi. However, Khan showed that was nonsense. He not only accepted the fight, but showed enormous heart, surviving some rocky moments to win a close unanimous decision in an outstanding fight.
Segura has always been a tremendously exciting fighter. He always looks for the knockout and applies such ridiculous pressure that his opponents usually wilt. Mexico's Segura (26-1-1, 22 KOs) opened the year by defending his junior flyweight belt with an easy third-round knockout of Walter Tello in February. Then came another easy knockout, this time in the fourth round of a nontitle bout against Ronald Ramos. But the fight that put Segura into the fighter of the year conversation was in August, when he faced long-reigning champion Ivan "Iron Boy" Calderon on his turf in Puerto Rico. They waged an epic, fight-of-the-year candidate in which Segura eventually tracked down Calderon, one of this generation's finest technical boxers, and pounded him out with body shots in the eighth round, handing him his first defeat. Segura had unified two alphabet belts and claimed the 108-pound lineal championship in a career-best victory. As an encore, Segura moved up to flyweight for a nontitle bout in November and laid a beating on Manuel Vargas until putting him away in the eighth round.
Montiel has never gotten the hype or exposure of some his more famous (and heavier) Mexican countrymen, but he has proven over the years to be an elite fighter. He had an excellent 2010 in which he went 4-0, winning each bout by knockout, and unifying bantamweight titles. The former flyweight and junior bantamweight titlist opened the year with a first-round wipeout of Ciso Morales to defend his bantamweight belt in February. In April, Montiel traveled to Japan, where he scored the most significant victory of his career as he stopped highly regarded longtime titleholder Hozumi Hasegawa in the fourth round of a unification fight. Montiel's encore came in July, when he scored three knockdowns en route to a third-round blowout of Rafael Concepcion. And on Dec. 10, Montiel (43-2-2, 33 KOs) blitzed Jovanny Soto, scoring three knockdowns en route to a second-round knockout in a nontitle bout that set the stage for a big Feb. 19 showdown with Nonito Donaire on HBO.
Also coming: awards for prospect, knockout, round and fight of the year