After title defense, Martinez welcomes any willing challengers
ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. -- They'll get his name right next time.
An unheralded British middleweight named Darren Barker made the stand of his life Saturday against the best fighter in the world not named Floyd Mayweather or Manny Pacquiao.
In the end Sergio Martinez came through with an 11th-round knockout to defend his lineal middleweight championship, but not before a fight that proved far better than anyone expected, certainly the many ringside oracles who presaged an early knockout victory for 2010's consensus Fighter of the Year.
What had been viewed as little more than a marking-time fight for Martinez -- who ranks No. 3 on most pound-for-pound lists but whose ability far exceeds his Q score -- turned out to be an entertaining challenge that demanded a gutsy effort from world's best 160-pounder.
"Nobody believed he was a tough fighter," Martinez said afterward through translator and adviser Sampson Lewkowicz. "Nobody gave a shot to him. It's the same thing that people thought about me when I came from Europe."
Fighting for just the second time outside his native England, Barker (23-1, 14 KOs) brought an attractive record but an alarmingly thin resume. Bookmakers had installed him as a 9-to-1 underdog, though many offshore betting sites offered odds as long as 25-to-1. Even Martinez seemed to look past the unknown challenger, talking breathlessly throughout the buildup about his willingness to drop to a catchweight of 150 pounds to land a fight with Mayweather or Pacquiao instead of the 29-year-old Londoner.
Few of the 4,376 in the crowd at Boardwalk Hall noticed when ring announcer Michael Buffer introduced him as Darren Baker. Even fewer believed he'd pose much of a challenge for the 36-year-old Argentine expat and Oxnard, Calif., resident who'd upset Kelly Pavlik and nearly decapitated Paul Williams last year to skyrocket from relative obscurity to the pound-for-pound penthouse.
"I haven't seen a fighter that disrespected before a fight in a long time," said Lou DiBella, who promotes Martinez. "I think everybody knows who Darren Barker is now."
After both fighters spent the first two rounds feeling one another out, it was Barker who began landing with regularity as an uncharacteristically sloppy Martinez struggled to solve his opponent's disciplined peek-a-boo defense.
From the second round on, Martinez dropped his hands in an effort to get Barker to open up, but the Englishman managed to connect with a crisp punch early that broke the champ's nose and opened a steady flow of blood. ("That was a good shot," Martinez later recalled with a laugh.) Through four rounds, most at ringside had the fight even.
If the mark of a great champion is the ability to find a way to win when he doesn't have his best stuff, Martinez may just be as extraordinary as his bellicose promoter insists.
"I always get a second wind," Martinez said. "It was part of our game plan going in."
Martinez (48-2-2, 27 KOs) began to take control in the middle rounds, finding range with his straight right and letting his hands go. But Barker stayed in the pocket and gave it as good as he got it, matching and sometimes winning the exchanges in the middle of the ring. Still, Martinez was the busier fighter and started banking rounds by putting his punches together to the head and body.
The cumulative effect of Martinez's body work paid off when the champ wobbled Barker badly late in the 10th, though the Englishman managed to make it to the bell. Minutes later, a straight right to Barker's forehead closed the show at 1:29 of the 11th, when he couldn't beat referee Eddie Cotton's 10-count.
"I can't remember the punch," Barker said. "My legs just fell out from under me. I was trying to get up but I couldn't."
His outstanding defense kept him in the fight, but Barker's inability to throw punches down the stretch kept him from scoring a seismic upset. Martinez connected on 206 of 691 punches (30 percent) compared to just 115 of 408 punches (38 percent) for Barker. The most glaring disparity came during the last two rounds, where Martinez staked a 33-7 edge in power punches. He led on all three scorecards at the time of the stoppage, but it was hardly a blowout: 99-91, 97-94 and 96-94.
Martinez, who took up boxing at the impossibly advanced age of 20, took the long road to the brink of boxing superstardom, but the last step could prove the hardest as he attempts to lure either Pacquiao or Mayweather into the ring in a play for the mainstream recognition that's eluded him despite a crowd-pleasing style and matinee-idol looks.
Two more likely potential opponents -- beltholder Dmitry Pirog and recent DiBella signee Matthew Macklin -- watched Saturday from ringside. But the most attractive option for Martinez is the winner of the Dec. 3 rematch at Madison Square Garden between Miguel Cotto and Antonio Margarito, though DiBella insists Top Rank CEO Bob Arum (who promotes both) would never risk either fighter against Martinez.
"I'm ready to fight anybody as long as we can come to a good deal and so can my rival," Martinez said.
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