Characters make up boxing. In fact, characters make up sports.
Through the years, we have seen characters of all types emerge in every sport. In hockey, the fire and determination of a 'Rocket' Richard or Ted Lindsay was equally matched with the gentle and humble demeanour of a Jean Beliveau or a Frank Mahovlich. Baseball has seen everything from the violent passion of a Ty Cobb or Pete Rose to the gentleman status of a Lou Gehrig or Ted Williams. From the hard drinking escapades of a Mickey Mantle to the class and determination of a Cal Ripken, characters have enveloped the national pastime.
For its part, virtually EVERYONE in boxing is a character.
From the days of the first heavyweight champion of the world John L. Sullivan, who proudly claimed that he "could lick any SOB in the house" to the emergence of boxing's first African-American heavyweight champion Jack Johnson, to the proud, humble, yet destructive Joe Louis, boxing characters were the favourite of all sports writers. From the elegance of the great 'Sugar' Ray Robinson to the bombastic and social revolutionist Muhammad Ali, boxing's characters have transcended the sport.
Today's boxing is no different. However in this day and age, regardless of the sport, the 'gentlemen' are sadly, more often than not, lost in the mix as they go about their business, respect their opponent or team, and play hard but are never dirty.
In my 32 years in the game, I have been witness to all sorts of characters; the good, the bad and the ugly. In my 32 years, I have rarely met someone who carries themselves with the class, honour, dignity and humility of world middleweight champion Sergio Martinez.
This past Saturday on HBO, Sergio Martinez once again conducted himself with the behaviour worthy of a champion of the world. In front of an almost sell-out crowd at the famed Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City, the man they call 'Maravilla' met an unexpectedly strong challenge from undefeated European champion Darren Barker. The reason this fight flew seemingly under the radar was due to the fact that very few had given the unbeaten Brit a legitimate shot at dethroning the 2010 Fighter of the Year, and the #3 pound-for-pound fighter in all of boxing.
But as is usually the case in boxing, fighters with both talent and heart, regardless of the betting odds against them, usually find a way to surprise. That's exactly what Darren Barker did. Executing a brilliantly laid out fight plan, Barker boxed behind a tight, compact defence and rarely afforded Martinez the openings that the champion was desperate to find. After four rounds, the fight was even and Martinez was now suffering a broken nose. The fight remained extremely close, but the champion was begining to put some distance between himself and the game Barker. The more Martinez punched, the more Barker was forced to defend. The more he defended, the less he threw. The less he threw, the fewer rounds he won.
Martinez is a physical marvel. A diligent gym rat, Martinez trained for over four months for this fight. As the fight wore on, Martinez continued to gather steam. As the fight entered the final rounds, it was clear that Barker needed to finish strong. Against Martinez however, his aggressiveness would play right into the champions hands.
With a minute and a half gone in the 11th round, Martinez caught the game challenger with a crushing hook to the side of the head. Barker crumbled and was unable to beat referee Eddie Cotton's count.
While the record will show that Martinez was enjoying a somewhat comfortable lead going into the final rounds, the fight was far more competitive than the scores would have indicated.
Darren Barker may not be one of the sports 'characters', but on this night in Atlantic City and against all odds, he showed that regardless of his talent or his heart, both of which he clearly put on display against one of boxing's greatest champions, Darren Barker showed that he definitely had 'character'.
As for Sergio Martinez, he is a character of a bygone era. A humble, honest workman whose class and courage can only be matched by his extraordinary talent.
In this day and age of disrespectful displays, as well as the over the top attitudes by prima dona athletes who have a complete disregard for mutual respect, Martinez has emerged as a poster boy for boxing, and a master of its art form.