At about 8:30 p.m. on St. Patrick’s Day, I got off the subway at Penn Station and exited into the Long Island Rail Road’s (LIRR) underground concourse. Paddy’s Day happened to fall on a Saturday this year, which meant that people who would normally begin drinking around noon started at 10 a.m., and those who would start at 10 probably took their first shot of Jameson by 8. The LIRR station stretches the length of a city block, and by the time I stepped into the long corridor, it looked like a triage center for the severely intoxicated. Women stumbled by with four-leaf clover stickers on their cheeks and fresh vomit stains on their skirts. A small mob hovered at the Sbarro counter, inhaling slices of pizza. A couple dry humped each other against the wall outside the entrance to K-Mart. Groups of NYPD officers looked on, ready to intervene. As I walked from the Seventh Avenue side to the Eighth Avenue exit, a maintenance worker rode by on a vehicular floor buffer, cleaning the ever-replenishing layer of spilled drinks and bodily fluids that coated the floor.
I was headed upstairs to the Theater at Madison Square Garden, to watch Sergio Martinez, the lineal middleweight boxing champion and consensus pick for the third-best pound-for-pound fighter on the planet, take on Matthew Macklin, an English-born Irishman, in front of a crowd that promoter Lou DiBella promised would be “raucously, crazily pro-Irish.” Macklin, who has been living and training in New York since last September, put it more simply when I spoke to him a few days before the fight: “They’re gonna be very drunk and very crazy.”
Inside the Theater, I saw an entire section of the venue standing and chanting “SEA-NIE! SEA-NIE” while a bullet-headed Irish-American light heavyweight named Seanie Monaghan strafed his opponent with hooks and uppercuts. Among the Monaghan supporters, I saw Celtics jerseys, shamrock tattoos, Irish flags, gold chains, and skullcaps. Many held a beer in one hand and punched the air with the other; some held beers in both hands and punched the air all the same. It felt a little like stepping into a House of Pain music video, circa 1992.
It all got me wondering why a fighter like Martinez, supposedly the finest boxer alive after Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Manny Pacquiao, would need to fight on St. Patrick’s Day against an Irish challenger in front of a mostly Irish, sellout crowd, on a card titled “Get Your Irish Up.” While Mayweather, Pacquiao, and many of boxing’s lesser lights headline celebrity-studded events in Las Vegas, Martinez appeared to be the odd man out at his own party. His Hollywood fans felt more like punch lines — Judah Friedlander, Cuba Gooding Jr., and Tony Danza. Taken at face value, the setup for Saturday’s bout didn’t make much sense. But then again, in the balkanized world of boxing promotion, where being the best is second or maybe third on the list of qualities needed to become a superstar, it made perfect sense.
St. Patrick’s Day is as important a day in my family’s calendar as Thanksgiving. It’s not because of ethnic heritage, although I’m a quarter Irish. It’s because my father has been a bartender at McSorley’s Old Ale House, New York City’s oldest continuously operated bar, for 40 years. In that time, he has missed only one Paddy’s Day at the bar — 1975 — because he was shacked up with a woman off the coast of Maine, on Cranberry Island. (For those wondering, he met my mother a few years later and they had me in 1982.) As a child, I knew March 17 as the day of the year when my father, who usually worked nights, left for the bar at 6:30 in the morning and came back late in the afternoon looking like he’d been sprayed with a fire hose of McSorley’s ale. In recent years, I began filling in as a bartender and waiter whenever one of the regulars needed a day off or went down with the flu or had a few too many and woke up with a fractured ankle of uncertain provenance. Aside from covering other guys’ shifts, I worked the past three Paddy’s Days before this one. It’s an all-hands-on-deck affair at the bar, and once it was confirmed that I’d be coming home this year for the Martinez fight, I was penciled in to work the bar from 1 to 7 in the afternoon.
It seemed like the perfect way to prepare for the bout. The same Irish-themed hysteria that would pervade the Theater during Macklin’s ring walk that night would be right before me, in all its intoxicated glory. Hell, as one of the men serving handfuls of light and dark ale all day, I’d be fueling the hysteria.
As it turned out, I was foolish to think I might be able to spend time observing my surroundings during a Paddy’s Day shift. On other nights, I’ve seen and overheard fights, infidelities, and a group of guys earnestly discussing how to develop their “cock muscles.” And my stories pale in comparison to the ones my father and other full-time barmen can tell. On Saturday, however, there wasn’t a spare moment to run to the bathroom or take a sip from my ginger ale, let alone take in the scene around me. I was too busy collecting empty mugs, dunking them, first in a sink full of hot, soapy water and then another sink filled with cold rinsing water. After that I would place the clean mugs on the brass rack in front of the taps, where my partner behind the bar poured ale, sometimes 20 or 40 mugs at a time. When I wasn’t washing mugs, I was taking orders, serving ales, taking cash and making change, trying to convince this one meathead not to sucker punch a drunk European who was leaning on him, wiping glass off the bar when mugs got chipped, and reminding our waiters to serve plates of corned beef that were ordered hours earlier. The rest of the shift was a blur. I remember seeing Mohawk wigs, cowboy hats, bowler hats, and leprechaun-style top hats — all in Kelly green. I remember everyone in the bar singing “Happy Birthday to You” twice, “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” once, “God Bless America” twice, and the national anthem once. I remember a little person, dressed as a leprechaun, standing at the bar for about five minutes. I don’t remember much else, and I’m starting to wonder if I really remember that last part. When I came out from behind the bar, my jeans and work boots were soaked from the knees down with water and ale, the dye from a green plastic necklace someone had put on me had mixed with sweat and colored my neck, and my swollen fingers looked like Vienna sausages.
It was time to wash up and head to the Garden. On my way out of McSorley’s, I fought through clusters of wobbly-legged revelers and took a last glance at the 158-year-old tavern’s relics of Irish-American boxing lore. On a shelf behind the bar, next to a bust of John F. Kennedy, is a small statue of John L. Sullivan, the Boston-born heavyweight who was boxing’s last bare-knuckles champion. An autographed photo of Jack Dempsey hangs on the wall adjacent to the taps, but a St. Patrick’s Day poster was taped over it on Saturday. Dempsey, one of the sport’s first great knockout artists, typified the brute strength and tenacity that has been associated with Irish fighters ever since. Dempsey was “never a good boxer and had little or no defense,” sports journalist Paul Gallico wrote in 1938. “His protection was aggression.”
That brawler ideal survives to this day in Irish fighters, with the two most prominent examples in the past decade being Micky Ward and John Duddy. After seeing the way Macklin attacked WBA champion Felix Sturm in their bout last June (Macklin lost a split decision. Most boxing observers believe he was robbed), the boxing public assumed he would fight the same relentless style against Martinez. At a pre-fight press conference last Thursday, Sampson Lewkowicz, who acts as an adviser or unofficial manager for Martinez, said: “The Irish and the English people is the Mexicans of Europe. They don’t care to die in the ring.” It was a backhanded compliment, celebrating Macklin’s toughness while insinuating he would need every ounce of it to survive the beating Martinez would give him Saturday night.
If it weren’t for the enduring support Irish fighters receive from Irish American communities, especially in the Northeast, the Martinez-Macklin fight probably never would have been made. That’s because boxing has become almost solely a niche sport in the United States, appealing to ethnic audiences and hometown crowds. Duddy and Ward both fought several times around St. Patrick’s Day in their careers; Puerto Rican Light Middleweight champion Miguel Cotto usually fights in New York in early June, around the time of the National Puerto Rican Day Parade; and promoters try to book a Mexican star in Vegas every year for Cinco de Mayo. Prominent African American fighters like Devon Alexander and Andre Ward fight as often as possible in their respective hometowns of St. Louis and Oakland because they can’t draw a crowd anywhere else.
Before Martinez and Macklin fought, their bout appeared to be a strange new take on nativist promoting. Ward was 3-0 and Duddy was 4-0 on Paddy’s Day weekend fights because matchmakers found them beatable opponents. The cards were set up to give the fans a competitive show and then send them home happy, having seen their lad triumph. Macklin, the Irishman, was a 10-1 underdog by the time the opening bell rang Saturday night. If Macklin came out like an “Irish-wild” brawler, as A.J. Liebling once described that style, Martinez was expected to sidestep his charges and tag him with punishing counterpunches. There seemed to be a chance — a likelihood, even — that Martinez, the 37-year-old Argentine, who lived in Spain for a decade before moving to California in 2008, would dismantle Macklin with all the preordained cruelty of a bullfight.
In front of a drunken, partisan crowd on St. Patrick’s Day, that sounded like a recipe for a riot. But then the bell rang, Round 1 began, and Matthew Macklin surprised everyone in the Theater, and no one more than Sergio Martinez.
Over the first six rounds of the fight, Macklin executed a defensive game plan. His protection was not his aggression, in the style of Dempsey and past Irish bruisers. His protection was his right glove, held firmly in front of his chin, and a commitment to circle toward Martinez’s right, away from and out of range from the southpaw’s powerful straight left. In past fights, when opponents have been hit by Martinez’s counter left and not seen it coming, as happened to Paul Williams in 2010, the results have been electrifying and blood-curdling.
Macklin seemed determined not to end up like Williams, facedown and momentarily comatose in the middle of the ring. But although Macklin fought cautiously in the early rounds, he didn’t run. He engaged Martinez judiciously, stepping in to jab or throw a quick combination, then retreating, always to Martinez’s right. Hardly any of Macklin’s punches landed flush on Martinez’s face or body — the overwhelming majority were dodged or deflected — but it didn’t matter that Macklin wasn’t hurting Martinez, only that he was preventing Martinez from looking like the top-three fighter boxing fans expected to see. The flashy and cocksure Martinez — faster in the feet and fists than any other middleweight, fighting with his hands by his sides and tagging his opponent whenever it pleased him — was largely absent through the fight’s first rounds.
Martinez admitted after the fight that he was caught off guard by Macklin’s strategy, that he expected the Irishman to attack from the opening bell. Martinez tried to lure Macklin into exchanges in those early rounds with a move that has become one of his trademarks: He dropped his fists, stuck out his chin, and galloped from side to side, inviting Macklin to become more aggressive, to take his best shot, and, hopefully, to expose himself to Martinez’s counterpunches. Macklin didn’t bite. He let Martinez stop and mug and bait him, but he stuck to his routine: circle right, step in with a quick attack, then retreat.
Even though Martinez couldn’t figure out Macklin early in the fight, he still managed to land a few sharp blows — mostly right jabs over the top of Macklin’s guard — in each round. The speed and timing of these blows was stunning. Even though they weren’t power shots, Macklin was caught so off guard by some of Martinez’s jabs that he reacted to them as if he’d walked blindly into a telephone poll. Between Martinez’s crisper punching and Macklin’s unexpected competitiveness, the fight seemed even after six rounds.
The seventh began in similar fashion, but in the second half of the round, Macklin hit Martinez with a right hook while Martinez’s legs were tangled up in Macklin’s left thigh. It was a glancing blow, but it sent Martinez stumbling. The referee ruled it a knockdown when Martinez touched his glove to the canvas to regain his balance. It was a legal, if questionable, knockdown, although on instant replay the move appeared to have more in common with judo than boxing. Nevertheless, it was the high point of the fight for Macklin, who would receive a boost on the judges’ scorecards for the knockdown. While the referee gave Martinez a standing eight count, it seemed like Macklin had a chance to pull off the upset.
And that’s when Martinez decided to end the dream. After the knockdown, Martinez pounced on Macklin and landed a pair of hard lefts before the bell. Martinez has gained headlines recently over his anti-bullying advocacy and his alliance with the “It Gets Better” campaign, but he made sure that after the seventh round of Saturday’s fight, things only got worse for Matthew Macklin.
Over the next four rounds, Martinez stopped waiting for Macklin to come to him. He stalked Macklin around the ring, catching him with the same short right jabs and crosses, and then finding the range and landing the straight left. Maybe Macklin was running out of gas, maybe the cumulative effect of Martinez’s jabs had tranquilized him, or maybe Martinez just asserted himself — regardless of the why, Macklin was no longer quick enough to move away from Martinez’s left hand. In the ninth and 10th rounds, Macklin seemed unsteady, and his legs buckled a couple times after Martinez landed clean blows. In the 11th round, Martinez opened a cut above Macklin’s right eye, and in the round’s final half-minute Martinez clipped him with a left that sent Macklin into the ropes and down. The Irishman struggled to his feet, and with about 10 seconds before the bell, Martinez landed another brutal left for a second knockdown. Macklin used the ropes to pull himself upright and then stagger to his corner, where trainer Buddy McGirt told Macklin that he had taken enough punishment.
Including Saturday’s TKO of Macklin, Martinez has knocked out his last four opponents, three of whom were regarded as among the very best in their weight class or in the world. That’s a murderous streak that no other fighter on most pound-for-pound top 10 lists can match. So why is this dynamic, TV-friendly action fighter always searching for the best credible opponent who can attract a crowd? Why can’t he get a pay-per-view megafight with Floyd Mayweather?
Martinez’s problem is that his skills in the ring exceed his ability to draw a crowd. Promoter Lou DiBella will have a hard time finding a North American city with enough Argentine expats to fill an arena. Martinez has already beaten Paul Williams and Kelly Pavlik, the two biggest American stars at middleweight. The rest of the division is a slurry of little-known fighters like Gennady Golovkin, Dmitry Pirog, and Grzegorz Proksa, who often refuse to fight outside of Europe and whose names look much better in the pages of a Gogol novel than on the marquee at Madison Square Garden.
The lone big-money star at middleweight is the sheltered Mexican champion Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. Chavez holds the WBC belt that Martinez won when he beat Pavlik. Martinez was forced to vacate the title last year because HBO didn’t believe his potential fight with the WBC mandatory challenger was worth televising. Martinez is supposedly guaranteed a shot at Chavez later this year by the WBC, but many boxing insiders believe Top Rank, Chavez’s promoter, would rather give up the belt than let Chavez, who has never fought an elite opponent, risk his undefeated record.
After the Macklin fight, Martinez restated his desire to fight Floyd Mayweather. But it seems unlikely that Mayweather will want to face a dangerous opponent like Martinez who won’t bring much additional money to the table. Mayweather can earn just as much or more by mowing down undersized champions like Juan Manuel Marquez, faded stars like Shane Mosley, and outclassed young pugs like Victor Ortiz, which is exactly what he has done in his last three fights. Even DiBella, who demanded bouts with Chavez and/or Mayweather after the Macklin fight and who ranted about the hypocrisy and cowardice of rival fighters and promoters, admitted that Martinez’s most likely next opponent would be Andy Lee, another Irish middleweight who would present a modest challenge for Martinez and who would be a draw in a place like Boston or Limerick, Ireland — Lee’s hometown.
It’s a shame. American sports fans should see more of Sergio Martinez. He doesn’t speak English very well, but the way he darts back and forth in the ring and slings narcotizing punches from his waist says more about his natural charisma than pretty much anything he could tell American audiences with words. As a fighter, he goes from dodging punches in a slack, hands-down stance to lashing his opponent with vicious, two-handed combinations in the blink of an eye, the same way Roy Jones Jr. once did. Outside the ring, Martinez and his team have an endearing tackiness that stands out, even in boxing. Look at Martinez’s spiked, gel-hardened hair and the chintzy plastic crown his seconds place on his head after some of his victories. Look at the enormous, wraparound stunner shades his head trainer wears in the corner during fights (and on most other occasions). Look at his adviser Sampson Lewkowicz, who looked like kitsch Satan at the Macklin fight in a red-shirt-black-tie outfit with a gold chain and boxing gloves medallion hanging around his neck. It’s hard not to get a kick out of these guys — they know how good they are but they haven’t yet figured out how to carry it. Or they just don’t care, which is even better.
At 37 years old, Martinez probably can’t fight at this all-world level for many more years. Will he get the fights and notoriety he deserves before then? Probably not. To whatever extent one can predict the peculiar anti-logic of the boxing business, I’d guess that the fighters who are avoiding him now will call him out once it becomes clear that Martinez has lost a step and is no longer a threat to them. The fans who care about seeing Martinez at his best won’t get what they want, but Martinez will receive a long-awaited payday and some overdue recognition, while the promoters, managers, and advisers will get their money, as always. It’s far from perfect, but that’s the way it is.
Martinez’s predicament makes me remember an Irish barman’s maxim that my father’s former coworker at McSorley’s, Tommy Lloyd, used to say. Lloyd liked to leave the bar soaked with ale for hours at a time, because he thought people would be more likely to leave wet dollar bills behind for the bartenders. “God would not have made them sheep,” Lloyd would say with a wide, devilish grin, “if he didn’t want them sheared.” In boxing, the fans are the sheep, and the promoters, managers, and TV networks hold the shears.