WILLIAMS WINS WAR WITH MARTINEZ
In a classic middleweight fight that was more or less even going into the championship rounds, Paul Williams came on just strong enough to edge WBC Junior Middleweight Champion Sergio Martinez for a majority decision win.
Williams originally planned on facing Kelly Pavlik for the Middleweight Championship in October, but Pavlik twice pulled out, citing a staph infection in his hand that prevented him from training. Not wanting to sit out for the remainder of 2009, Williams, who last fought in April when he dominated Winky Wright, moved forward with a fight against Martinez, who also had trouble landing a big fight.
Coincidentally, Pavlik was healthy enough to arrange a bout against underwhelming challenger Miguel Espino just two weeks after Williams was scheduled to meet Martinez.
Fighting at middleweight, likely because Williams couldn’t get down to 154 pounds on only one month’s notice, the two best junior middleweights – and two of the most avoided fighters on the planet – clashed, and the result was one of the best fights of the year.
The bout got off to a wild start in round one when Williams caught a backtracking Martinez with a grazing straight left hand over the top of the head, and Martinez surprisingly went down on his backside just a minute into the fight. He quickly got up and grinned as Referee Randy Neumann issued the mandatory eight-count.
Martinez already had ground to make up and quickly blasted Williams with a huge straight left hand of his own – this one across the jaw of his taller opponent. Williams was caught off guard and stumbled aside from the shot. And, with less than five seconds to go, Williams stepped into a hard right hook to the chin from Martinez that sent him collapsing backward into the ropes, his glove touching the canvas.
Having suffered the first knockdown of his career, Williams stood and answered Neumann by the count of four. He hopped to show he was fine as Martinez walked along the ropes, nodding his head triumphantly. Williams turned and looked back at Martinez as they headed to their corners, the gauntlet having been thrown down.
Williams hurled a left hand at Martinez early in round two and walked into a counter right hook that turned his head. Martinez believed he had found something with the punch because he threw it throughout the round. And when Williams fired another left, he took one back from Martinez that snapped his head sideways.
Williams landed a left-right combination early in the third, but the blazing fast Martinez wasted no time countering with a right hook. After getting his head knocked back by another right hook, Williams threw a body shot and ended up hitting heads with Martinez. Martinez responded by hitting Williams with two right hooks and a left. One more big right hook slammed Williams’ head back in the waning seconds and closed another round for Martinez.
Round four would prove to be the best of the fight. Martinez scored early with the right hook and a left to the side of the head. Williams then bounced Martinez’ head all over the place with a one-two and a right hook. Midway through the round, Martinez slammed Williams’ head back with a big straight left hand. A right hook shortly thereafter made Williams stutter-step, but he held his ground and hammered Martinez with a huge straight left.
Down three rounds to nothing and bleeding badly from a cut over the left eye, Williams knew he needed to drag Martinez into a brawl and drove home another big left hand across the face. A right hook from Williams knocked Martinez’ head sideways, and Martinez started clinching to slow him down. A three-punch volley from Williams ended with a left hand that slammed Martinez’ head to the side.
With ten seconds remaining, Williams drilled Martinez with a crushing one-two to the head. Martinez grabbed onto Williams, doubling over and nearly hitting the canvas. He was lucky to escape the round on his feet.
Martinez may have still been stunned when the bell sounded for round five because he avoided Williams for the first half of the round. Williams caught him with two right hooks, and, when Martinez finally threw a power shot, Williams cracked him with another. Martinez came back, snapping Williams’ head up with a one-two, but Williams countered with a three-punch combination to the head and added another hard left. Martinez answered with a brutal right hook, but Williams took it well.
They proceeded to trade right hooks, each man landing a pair. The round ended with Martinez grabbing Williams around the waist and stumbling in on top of him as they went between the ropes – a clear sign that the battle was taking its toll on both.
Early in the sixth round, Martinez was hit by three jabs to the face and a clean left from the pressing Williams. Martinez also found success with his jab before taking a right hook from Williams. Another right hook rattled Martinez’ head and had him briefly clinching. Williams added a hard left that knocked Martinez back and finished his most dominant round with a dozen more shots to even the fight up at three rounds a piece.
Williams controlled most of round seven with his jab as Martinez threw less and less punches. Martinez failed to put anything big together until under a minute left when he caught Williams with a hard right hook. Williams then landed two stiff jabs and a right hook in return to keep the round in his favor and take his first lead in the fight.
He also controlled the first two-and-a-half minutes of round eight with his jab, which allowed him to bounce straight lefts off the cheek of Martinez. When Martinez tried his right hook, he caught an uppercut from Williams instead. Williams then smacked him with a left and another uppercut. With under thirty seconds to go, Martinez finally landed something big – a right hook that snapped Williams’ head up and had him staggering aside momentarily. But whether one punch was enough to give Martinez the round was hard to say.
Round nine began with a right hook exchange, and Williams followed up with a left. Midway through the round, Williams lifted Martinez’ head with an uppercut square on the nose. They traded hooks again, with no give from either man. Williams added another hook and an uppercut for good measure. He then knocked Martinez’ head back with a jab, avoided a round of hooks and hit Martinez with one in return. The round ended in Williams’ favor as he jabbed freely at Martinez’ head.
Needing to rally over the last three rounds to pull out the fight, Martinez clocked Williams with a straight left to begin the tenth. It was Williams’ turn to clinch then. Once free, Martinez turned Williams’ head with another left. Williams tried to jab, but Martinez came over it with another left. And though Williams landed a straight left of his own before the bell, it was a clear round for Martinez, who needed it.
With the fight perhaps on the table heading into the championship rounds, it was Williams who had more left in the tank. He let his hands go early in round eleven, snapping Martinez’ head back on a long right hook. A crisp left to the head knocked Martinez sideways, and Williams followed up with right hooks. Martinez answered by rattling off a three-punch combination to the head of Williams. He landed a head-turning straight left, but Williams got him back by bouncing a left off his jaw.
With under a minute to go, Williams rocked Martinez with a one-two and a right hook. Martinez answered with a straight left but took a right hook to the chin, and Williams rattled Martinez’ head with a big left. Martinez hit him with a right hook in return but caught another left. Just before the bell, Martinez made his case for the round – as he had done in round eight – with a right hook that stood Williams up momentarily.
Martinez’ stand in the eleventh left him with little to give for the twelfth. Moments in, Williams sent sweat flying from his head with a jab. Martinez then shot a left across Williams’ mouth and took an uppercut in return. Another uppercut from Williams snapped Martinez’ head straight up, but, when Williams threw another hook, he walked into a left. With the crowd chanting “Paul,” Williams landed a right-left combination. Martinez tried to clinch but took another pair of right hooks and a left. He drilled Williams with a straight left in return, but Williams rallied down the stretch, getting in the better shots that appeared to seal the deal.
The first two scorecards were indicative of the fight that had taken place: 114-114 and 115-113 for Williams. But a bizarre score of 119-110 by Pierre Benoist for Williams – which gave him a majority decision – put a damper on what had been a great fight. Though Williams appeared to have earned the win, the way it happened was disheartening for Martinez, who had clearly won the first three rounds.
For Williams, the duel with Martinez was without a doubt his toughest victory to date, including the hard-fought bout with Antonio Margarito from 2007. He was dropped for the first time in his career and showed great poise in coming back against a style that has posed him serious problems. Carlos Quintana, a lesser-skilled fighter than Martinez, was able to beat Williams with a style very similar to Martinez’ early in 2008.
In Williams’ defense, he had one month to switch his training from preparing for a much slower but harder-hitting middleweight in Pavlik to getting ready for a slick, quick mover in Martinez. Still, Williams’ team would be wise to avoid any more southpaws who like to move in the future, though there aren’t many below 168 pounds better than Martinez, if any at all.
As for Martinez, his stock will actually go up in defeat. Recognized by many experts as the king at 154 pounds, he more than held his own against a man who could compete with the best from welterweight to middleweight. The junior middleweight division is still waiting for someone to unify the belts and stake his claim, and Martinez seems the best candidate to do that if he wants it.