Onetime 122-pound champ Kiko Martinez feeling fit at 126 as he preps for Leo Santa Cruz

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Scan the résumé of Kiko Martinez, and you’ll quickly notice that his last two losses came against world-class opposition. Dig a little deeper, and you’ll notice another plausible explanation for those defeats.

Carl Frampton and Kiko Martinez

Kiko Martinez scores with a hard jab to the nose of Carl Frampton during their September 2014 rematch. Martinez lost the 122-pound title fight by unanimous decision.

Before facing current 122-pound titleholders Carl Frampton in September 2014 and Scott Quigg last July, Martinez tipped the scales at 121 and 121½ pounds, respectively. On the surface, that’s not a big deal, seeing that Martinez had mostly competed at the 122-pound limit since turning pro in 2004. 

However, Martinez struggled to make weight in both bouts. But since the Quigg defeat, the Spaniard has fought three times at weights ranging up to 127 pounds, and he won all three convincingly, including two by stoppage.

All of which leads to this reasonable conclusion: By the time he challenged Frampton and Quigg, the 29-year-old Martinez, who won a 122-pound world title by defeating Jhonatan Romero in August 2013, had simply outgrown the division.

“Kiko was beginning to sacrifice too much to make 122,” says Sampson Lewkowicz, who promotes Martinez. “Kiko is so much stronger at 126, and he’s certainly demonstrated that in winning his past three fights that he’s more than ready for the 126-pound division.”

Indeed, after losing to Quigg by second-round TKO in the victor's native U.K., Kiko Martinez (35-6, 26 KOs) capped 2015 with a trio of wins in the span of six weeks. He scored a first-round KO of Harold Molina (October 23), won an eight-round unanimous decision over Everth Briceno (November 14) and earned an eighth-round stoppage of Miguel Gonzalez (December 12).

Now, Martinez is preparing for his toughest test yet at 126 when he challenges Leo Santa Cruz (31-0-1, 17 KOs) for the latter’s world title on February 27 at the Honda Center in Anaheim, California. (Showtime, 10 p.m. ET/7 p.m. PT.)

Santa Cruz is coming off a majority decision over former three-division champion Abner Mares, a victory that gave the Mexican-born, Los Angeles-bred fighter his third title in as many weight classes. The brawl against Mares marked Santa Cruz’s second bout at 126, following championship runs at 118 and 122.

“Leo started his career at 118, so he’s not a natural [126-pounder], and I’ve been able to eat more and train harder,” Martinez says from his camp in the Canary Islands in Spain, where he’s working under trainer Gaby Sarmiento, the former cornerman for retired 160-pound champion Sergio Martinez (no relation to Kiko).

“I am very far from my family, but this way is better and will give me the best results. For this fight, I’ll be much stronger at 126.”

Martinez won his first 11 fights by stoppage of four rounds or less and stood at 17-0 with 14 knockouts in March 2008, when he suffered his first professional defeat, by majority decision to Rendall Munroe.

I am Spanish, and Leo is a Mexican. We are hot-blooded Latinos. I want a war. Kiko Martinez, on his February 27 fight against 126-pound world champion Leo Santa Cruz

Martinez rebounded with three victories before dropping back-to-back unanimous decisions to Munroe and Takalani Ndlovu in 2009. Another seven-fight winning streak followed, leading to Martinez's first fight against Frampton in February 2013 in the latter's native Belfast, Northern Ireland.

Frampton won by ninth-round TKO, after which Martinez switched management teams and signed with Lewkowicz. Four consecutive stoppage victories followed, the second of which earned Martinez his world title.

For the third defense of his title, Martinez agreed to a rematch with Frampton. Once again, the fight was in Belfast, and once again, Frampton prevailed, this time by unanimous decision.

Three months later, Martinez made the jump to 126 and dusted Giorgi Gachechiladze by second-round TKO. But when offered another title shot at 122—this time against Quigg—Martinez dropped back down in weight.

After failing to get out of the second round, however, Martinez knew it was time to say goodbye to the 122-pound division. Santa Cruz will represent the fifth—and far and away most skilled—opponent Martinez will face at 126. Which is just the way he likes it.

“I am always fighting the best opposition, and that experience will help me for this fight,” Martinez says. “I am Spanish, and Leo is a Mexican. We are hot-blooded Latinos. I want a war.”

Says Lewkowicz: “Now that Kiko is at 122 pounds, he feels like he’s in heaven. He will be a much stronger fighter against Leo Santa Cruz.”

He’ll need to be if he’s to score the upset and become a champion once more.

“This is, by far, Kiko’s last opportunity for a title,” Lewkowicz says. “Trust me, he knows that.”

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