With a smile as big as his swollen left eye, Aron Martinez attempted to articulate what it feels like when a dark horse finds the light.
“It feels surreal, man,” Martinez said from his locker room after his 10-round, unanimous-decision upset over 147-pound rival Devon Alexander on Wednesday in Glendale, Arizona, where the odds against him were longer than a hippie’s coif. “It still hasn’t hit me yet, to be honest.”
And yet, this 30-to-1 underdog proved himself to have plenty of bite, winning a fight that could best be described as a rugged war of attrition.
From the get-go, Aron Martinez (20-4-1, 4 KOs) attempted to make the bout ugly, plowing Alexander into the ropes, grappling, mugging and leaning on his opponent in what seemed like an attempt to drain his energy and negate his superior hand speed. In fact, Martinez spent so much time fighting right up in Alexander’s grill that the former champ could probably smell the hunger on Martinez’s breath.
Alexander (26-4, 14 KOs) was at his best early when fighting in the center of the ring, where the 28-year-old was able to turn Martinez and benefit from his faster fists to land shots and then get out of the way.
But Martinez was able to penetrate Alexander’s defense through sheer relentless activity, and he began to gain momentum after some slow going early in the fight, when the action was measured. By the middle rounds, the 33-year-old Martinez found his rhythm, landing uppercuts and refusing to allow Alexander to elude his charge.
It was around this time when Martinez says that he felt the fight truly swing in his direction, when his opponent got quiet while Martinez’s fists did the talking.
“He was running his mouth, trying to get me off my game when the fight started,” Martinez said. “But after the fourth or fifth round, I didn’t hear any words coming out of him, so I knew I kind of took his heart away a little bit.”
Late in Round 8, Martinez split Alexander’s guard and landed a thundering right that snapped his head back and wobbled him. From there, Martinez unleashed a flurry of punches that appeared to have Alexander in trouble before the bell rang.
Martinez continued to go for broke the remainder of the slow simmering fight, which eventually came to a boil late with Alexander feeling the heat. In the end, Martinez was rewarded for his late surge, with the judges scoring the contest 96-94 and 97-93 twice.
Afterward, Alexander was predictably forlorn about his performance, speaking softly from his locker room.
“He did what he had to do, but I know I’m way better than that,” said the St. Louis native. “The game plan was to keep him outside with the jab, don’t let him get in, put on steady pressure, but stick my hands up, block him and come back. We knew he was going to be rugged and I’d have to use my jab to stay off of him.”
Yet as the fight wore on, Alexander relied on his jab less and slugged it out on the inside more, playing to Martinez’s strengths.
“I give him credit, because he stayed in there and fought with me,” Martinez said.
Alexander noted that early in the fight, he felt his chest tighten painfully with congestion, something that he’s experienced before.
“This is not the first time this has happened,” he said. “[My health] is causing me to not put my best foot forward. I can’t put forth the effort. I’ve just got to see what’s going on, get way better energy than what I’ve been having.”
Although highly disappointed that he lost for the third time in his last four fights—and the second time in a row–Alexander stopped well short of questioning his future in the ring.
“I’m a winner. I hate losing, but something’s keeping me from performing right,” he says. “It’s terrible knowing that you’re way better than your performance. But I’m not easily discouraged. I’m going to come back strong.”
As for Martinez, this was the kind of win that leads to bigger things, especially coming on the heels of the Mexican’s highly competitive—and hotly debated—loss to Robert Guerrero in June.
“Whoever they put in front of me, I’ll fight,” he said. “I’ve always been the underdog.”
Maybe so, but on this night, Martinez proved himself to be no mutt.
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