LAS VEGAS -- For 11 rounds, Sergio Martinez did everything he wanted, including giving Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. the beating he promised.
Then came a wild 12th round that will be talked about in boxing for a long time to come.
Bleeding from the nose and his face bruised from the hands of Martinez, Chavez somehow found a way to land a left hook and then another that put Martinez on the canvas before a frenzied capacity crowd at the UNLV campus arena. Martinez would go down one more time in the final round and was taking huge punches when the bell mercifully sounded to end the fight.
Martinez ended up winning a lopsided unanimous decision to regain the middleweight title. But the 12th-round rally by Chavez was one for boxing lore, reminiscent of a fight his father was in 22 years ago against Meldrick Taylor just a few miles away from the Las Vegas Strip.
"I was 20 seconds away from knocking him out. I started way too late," Chavez said. "I didn't really get started until the eighth round."
Martinez was quicker, busier and far more accurate as he won round after round, piling up points as Chavez struggled to do much against him. Martinez said before the fight he didn't consider Chavez a true champion and vowed to give him a beating he would long remember.
He did just that, to the point where trainer Freddie Roach told Chavez after the 10th round he was going to stop the fight if he didn't do something spectacular.
"He fought a great fight and he was a lot tougher than I expected," Martinez said. "He showed great heart."
Martinez won 118-110 on two ringside scorecards and 117-110 on the third. Two judges had him winning every round until the 12th, while the third gave him only one round. The Associated Press had Martinez winning 118-110.
Chavez lost for the first time, falling to 46-1-1, while Martinez improved to 50-2-2.
The wild ending nearly ruined what was a great night for the Argentinian, who used his speed and boxing skills to dominate until the final round. Chavez was bleeding from the nose, his face was marked up and he looked finished until suddenly landing a huge left hook to drop Martinez for the first time.
Martinez got up only to take several more head punches and go down once again. Chavez kept after him when he got back up, trying desperately to land the finisher before the bell sounded and the decision was lost.
"If Julio wants a rematch, we'll do a rematch," Martinez said.
The comeback was reminiscent to the one by his father in 1990 against Taylor, when he came back from seemingly certain defeat in the last round to stop Taylor with 2 seconds left.
"You hit very hard," a victorious Martinez told Chavez afterward.
Promoter Lou DiBella said his fighter wanted to knock Chavez out, and may have taken more chances than he should have in a fight he had well under control.
"You saw a boxing clinic for 11 rounds and you saw an epic last round," DiBella said. "I know how he held on."
Ringside punch stats showed the dominance of Martinez, who was credited with landing 322 of 908 punces to 178 of 390 for Chavez. Martinez was particularly effective with his right jab, landing 140 of them, and often following them with a left to the body or head to keep Chavez away.
Martinez won back the title the WBC stripped from him for not fighting a mandatory challenger, a mission he had said was personal. He said he was going to make Chavez pay a price for holding the 160-pound title he considered his, and for 11 rounds he kept his promise.
Martinez fought his fight in the early rounds, using his jab and speed to keep Chavez off balance. Fighting out of a southpaw stance, he stayed on his toes, moving around on the outside and seldom allowing Chavez in where he could cause damage.
The action picked up in the fourth round as Chavez found Martinez with a good right, only to take a series of punches from his quicker opponent. At one point in the round, just after Chavez complained of a low blow, Martinez landed a right-left combo, then taunted Chavez.
Until the 12th round it was much of the same. Chavez picked up the pace late, but it wasn't until he caught Martinez with the left hook that the fight turned into a brawl that nearly cost Martinez the bout.
"I knew Martinez was good," said Freddie Roach, the trainer for Chavez. "I didn't know how good. This was a good lesson for Julio, he needed to let his hands go sooner."
The fight was part of a big fight night in this gambling city. Just a few blocks away from where Martinez and Chavez did battle, Mexican sensation Saul "Canelo" Alvarez stopped Josesito Lopez in a 154-pound title defence.
Chavez earned his biggest payday, $3 million guaranteed, while Martinez got $1.4 million plus a percentage of the pay-per-view sales.