NEW YORK — The best pound-for-pound boxer in the world not named Floyd Mayweather or Manny Pacquaio is middleweight champion Sergio Martinez, who returns to action Saturday against England’s Darren Barker at Atlantic City’s Boardwalk Hall (10 p.m. ET, HBO).
The 36-year-old Martinez held an open workout Tuesday at Modell’s Sporting Goods in Times Square, jumping rope, shadowboxing and working the pads with trainer Pablo Sarmiento before as many as 100 boxing fans and curious passers-by walking 42nd St. during lunch hour. Notables in attendance ranged from Kery Davis, senior vice president in charge of programming at HBO, to adult film actress Lisa Ann (of Who’s Naylin’ Paylin? renown).
Martinez captured the WBC and Ring magazine 160-pound titles from Kelly Pavlik in April 2010 and defended them with a savage one-punch knockout of Paul Williams in November — a highlight-reel finish that landed him consensus Fighter and Knockout of the Year honors while propelling him to No. 3 in most pound-for-pound tables.
But despite matinee-idol looks and a compelling backstory — a product of one of Argentina’s toughest barrios, Martinez sought careers in soccer and cycling before taking up boxing at 20 — the late-blooming southpaw’s improbable success has yet to translate to box-office appeal and crossover recognition. (“Is he a UFC guy?” asked one Valley-girl type who wandered in to see what the crowd was for; “No, he’s the middleweight champion of the world,” Martinez promoter Lou DiBella bemusedly corrected.)
Martinez looked sharp throughout the half-hour session and is widely expected to walk through 9-to-1 underdog Barker, who is undefeated but underexperienced. Beyond that, who knows. Before moving from the storefront to sign autographs for the fans downstairs, Martinez expressed interest in boiling down to face either Pacquiao or Mayweather at a catchweight of 150. “At 160 there are no opponents available to me,” he said through translator Sampson Lewkowicz. “I want to prove I’m pound-for-pound the best.” A noble cause, but whether he’ll be able to transcend the moderate fame of a successful boxer depends largely on whether Floyd or Manny steps to the plate in 2012.
– Bryan Armen Graham