Now or never: Kiko Martinez realizes his upcoming fight against Leo Santa Cruz might be his last shot at a title

Confusion and chaos are as much a part of boxing as a left glove and a right glove. But one thing about the sweet science is not in dispute: Championship opportunities are finite. Kiko Martinez understands this reality as well as anyone.

Kiko Martinez and Carl Frampton

A battered Kiko Martinez looks for an opening during his 2014 loss to Carl Frampton, which cost Martinez his 122-pound title.

In his last two championship fights—against current 122-pound titleholders Carl Frampton and Scott Quigg—Martinez didn’t show well (to put it mildly). Facing Frampton in September 2014, the Spaniard was knocked down in Round 5 on the way to dropping a one-sided unanimous decision.

Martinez absorbed an even more frightful battering against Quigg this past July, twice hitting the canvas in a second-round TKO defeat. The separate knockdowns were preceded by 12 and 29 unanswered blows.

Throw in a ninth-round TKO loss to Frampton in their first meeting in February 2013, and Martinez has failed in each of his last three fights against upper-echelon competition.

Now enter Leo Santa Cruz (31-0, 17 KOs), the volume-punching, undefeated 126-pound champ whom Kiko Martinez (35-6, 26 KOs) will face February 27 at the Honda Center in Anaheim, California (Showtime, 10 p.m. ET/7 p.m. PT).

Simply put, Martinez—winner of three consecutive fights since the loss to Quigg—understands he’s reached the must-win stage of his career.

“I know I may be on the last train of my career [when it comes to] the biggest fights,” says Martinez, who was a world champ at 122 before losing the rematch to Frampton. “I’m training so hard, and I feel good and that I am in the perfect moment of my career. I have a lot of experience, and I’m still hungry. I want this title.”

Of course, desired results don’t always match up with actual results. So why should fight fans believe this bout against the highly skilled Santa Cruz will end any differently than Martinez’s clashes with Frampton and Quigg?

Well, for starters, the fight is taking place at a higher weight limit. Martinez, who turns 30 on March 7, blames extreme weight loss for his poor showing against Quigg, which was his final fight at 122.

Since then, Martinez has fought three times at 124, 125 and 127 pounds, and won every contest convincingly: Within a six-week stretch, he defeated Herlad Molina by first-round knockout on October 23; Everth Briceno by eight-round unanimous decision on November 14 and Miguel Gonzalez by fourth-round TKO on December 12.

In addition to fighting at a more comfortable weight, Martinez believes he’s benefited greatly from the tutelage of Gabriel Sarmiento, former cornerman of retired 160-pound champion Sergio Martinez (no relation to Kiko). Under Sarmiento’s guidance, Kiko Martinez is 4-0, including the three victories to close out 2015.

“With Gaby in his corner, Kiko has never lost,” says Sampson Lewkowicz, who handles Martinez. “Mentally, Kiko says he feels wiser, stronger and more confident.”

Martinez’s initial bout with Sarmiento was in December 2013, a ninth-round stoppage of former champ Jeffrey Mathebula of South Africa. That was Martinez’s first defense of the 122-pound world title he won four months earlier against Jhonatan Romero by sixth-round knockout.

Romero and Mathebula were part of a string of four consecutive stoppage victories Martinez secured after his initial loss to Frampton. Needless to say, he’s hoping to recapture that powerful championship form against the heavily favored Santa Cruz.

“Santa Cruz is a very good fighter, not a great slugger, and has not fought against the high level of opponents that I have,” Martinez says. “I think he’ll try to make it a long-distance fight, not exchange blows with me, and look to go to the final round.

“I have a plan to follow for the full 12 rounds, but if I win by knockout, that’s even better.”

A win, by any means, would be impressive—not to mention career altering.

“Kiko knows that a loss could mean it’s the last tango,” Lewkowicz says. “He’s at the age where he’s got to win in order to continue dancing. Or else he goes home.”

For complete coverage of Santa Cruz vs Martinez, click over to our fight page.

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