Middleweight champion Sergio Martinez, the consensus fighter of the year in 2010, will begin his attempt at a repeat when he faces junior middleweight titlist Sergei Dzinziruk in his second defense.
Martinez, the lineal champion of the 160-pound division despite being stripped of his alphabet belts, will meet fellow southpaw Dzinziruk, who is moving up in weight, on March 12. The fight at Foxwoods Hotel and Casino in Mashantucket, Conn., is the main event of an HBO-televised "World Championship Boxing" doubleheader.
"March 12 is what world class boxing is all about," promoter Lou DiBella said Tuesday. "Sergio Martinez is proving that he has no interest in resting on his laurels by taking on an accomplished champion such as Sergei Dzinziruk. Once again, 'Maravilla' will show why he is not only the 2010 fighter of the year, but also the people's champion."
In 2010, Martinez (46-2-2, 25 KOs) won the middleweight championship as he decisively won the final few rounds to take a decision against Kelly Pavlik in April. Martinez followed by scoring the knockout of the year when he obliterated Paul Williams in the second round of their Nov. 20 rematch to retain the title in his first defense.
Now Martinez, 35, of Argentina but living in Oxnard, Calif., is taking on the fighter many regard as the top 154-pounder in the world, even though he is virtually unknown to American fight fans.
"I believe my next fight could be my best fight of my career because my boxing is getting better," Martinez said. "I am physically stronger and I am stronger mentally. My rival is a great fighter and a great champion for several years now, but on March 12 he will fight the best Sergio Martinez and the fans will witness a spectacular show and the best fight of my career."
Dzinziruk (37-0, 23 KOs), 34, of Ukraine, won his title with a unanimous decision against Daniel Santos in December 2005, but he has been quite inactive, making only six defenses in five years.
Part of the reason for his inactivity was a lengthy legal dispute with his former promoter, Germany's Universum. When they finally settled last year, Dzinziruk signed a co-promotional deal with Artie Pelullo's Banner Promotions and Gary Shaw with the plan to fight in the United States.
Dzinziruk, a 1996 Olympian and 1997 world amateur champion, made his American debut last May and stopped Daniel Dawson in the 10th round of a dominant performance on Showtime.
"I really appreciate the opportunity to fight Sergio Martinez and show the world how good I am," Dzinziruk said. "I am looking forward to the fight and I am very excited. I have not tasted defeated yet and I want to keep it that way. We know how much work was done by [co-promoters] Banner Promotions and Gary Shaw Productions to make this fight and it is greatly appreciated. We're looking forward to a great fight with Sergio Martinez."
Martinez will earn more than $1 million. The Dzinziruk side will receive a package of $850,000.
Dzinziruk was not the first choice for Martinez, adviser Sampson Lewkowicz or DiBella. They had hoped to match Martinez with mandatory challenger Sebastian Zbik, an interim titleholder. However, HBO would not approve him, which led to Martinez being stripped of his WBC belt and Zbik being elevated to its full titleholder. The other leading candidate was Irish contender Andy Lee, who will now fight on the undercard.
"It's a very difficult fight," DiBella said. "Dzinziruk might have the best jab in boxing. He has tremendous defense. He has good movement. He's extremely skilled. In terms of degree of difficulty, it's huge. It's no accident he's a world champion. He's probably the most fundamentally sound guy out there I can think of.
"I wish he was more well known so people would understand what a risk my guy is taking. This shows my guy will fight anyone put in front of him.
The quality of the opponent is not the issue, it's the name recognition. I have no doubt what HBO was trying to do was put Sergio in with the best guy available. Dzinziruk is the best guy available. Now I got to promote the show. I have the fighter of the year fighting a guy who is a huge challenge and I have to get that message across, and HBO has to help me do it."
In the HBO-televised co-feature, Lee (24-1, 18 KOs), a 2004 Irish Olympian, will face fellow southpaw Craig McEwan (19-0, 10 KOs), a Los Angeles-based Scotland native.
"This is a very important fight for me and something I will be totally focused for," Lee said. "I know Craig's style quite well, a tall technical boxer with a snappy right jab. He is someone with a good work rate in the ring and he is an effective switch-hitter. I beat him as an amateur in 2005 and I am determined to beat him again as a pro on March 12.
"I am prepared for a tough night of boxing. The Scottish are a proud people, but so are the Irish. I will be training and sparring at the Miguel Cotto training camp. It is the perfect environment to get ready for the fight."
Lee is trained and managed by Emanuel Steward, who also trains Cotto. However, Steward won't be with Lee on the night of the fight because he will be in Las Vegas manning Cotto's corner for his first junior middleweight title defense against Ricardo Mayorga.
Lee was originally supposed to challenge Martinez in the main event. HBO approved the fight and DiBella made a deal with Steward. However, HBO later reneged, leaving DiBella to convince the network to buy Lee in an undercard fight.
When Lee was bumped to the undercard, he was supposed to face John Duddy, a fellow Irishman in a fight on St. Patrick's Day weekend. However, last week Duddy abruptly announced his retirement, leaving the $100,000-plus payday on the table.
DiBella quickly made a deal with Golden Boy Promotions for McEwan to take the fight. In 2009, McEwan scored a 10-round decision against Brian Vera, who handed Lee his only defeat, a come-from-behind seventh-round TKO in March 2008.
"Those looking for a good old-fashioned knock-down, drag-out war to ring in St. Patrick's Day will be fulfilled when Andy Lee and Craig McEwan duke it out," DiBella said. "Both are old-school sluggers with proud roots."
Dan Rafael covers boxing for ESPN.com. Follow him on Twitter.