JOHN RIORDAN: Warriors lay it all on line but prize stays out of reach

George’s career hadarrived at the all-or-nothing stage. If he didn’t win here, he didn’t know what he was going to do with his life. This was a truly broken man.

There was so much to revel in on Saturday night at Madison Square Garden. But in the grander scheme of things, when it comes to boxing’s future as a viable, professional sport, it was as disheartening as it was life-affirming.

Like Matthew Macklin, boxing is good to be around and you can’t help cheering the slugger on as he continues to battle bravely. However, deep down you’re worried. The potential is always there that a knockout blow is in the opponent’s arsenal: a couple of quick, stiff left jabs and suddenly he’s floored. The handsome champion prevails unscathed, seeming to provoke opponents with his undiminished features: no scars, no swollen eyebrows and certainly no westward-facing noses.

Sergio Martinez is hard to love, which deepens the concern for boxing at large. It’s proving difficult to market this man of no place and no time. He’s from Argentina but fled its poverty and crime years ago. He’s not Central American enough for the Latino fans whose passion for the ring is limitless. Meanwhile, most of Spain won’t know or care that they hosted him during his incredible redemption under the watchful eye of Gabriel Sarmiento.

Martinez’s age is jarring too. How can a man of 37 move and hit like that? Luckier fighters would have attracted more attention and endeared millions to a cause like this in decades past but not now, not with all the other ring-based sports hogging the limelight of impatient fans.

Saturday night at the Garden was the type of event where even the glory is tinged with sadness. Dominican up-and-comer Edwin Rodriguez was underwhelming in his win over Donovan George in the much-anticipated support act. But he got the job done and as he made his way through the press section to get back to the dressing rooms, a photographer harangued him from above. “Hold the belt up champ,” he asked the drenched and drained fighter. “I’m tired buddy,” he said with a weak smile, all the while politely acceding to the request.

Of course much sadder was the fate of his vanquished opponent, pictures of whom HBO would transmit subsequently from the dressing room as he reflected on the fight he had just lost. According to the commentator, George, a Greek-Cypriot from Chicago, had placed all his chips on causing an upset. After a promising start to his career which was derailed by personal problems, he had finally arrived at the all-or-nothing stage. If he didn’t win here, he didn’t know what he was going to do with his life. This was a truly broken man.

Also on the card was Charlie Ota. He had travelled from Tokyo where he is a cult hero to fight professionally in his hometown for the first time. Ota caught my eye at the weigh-in. He had an intriguing air about him as he sat alone with his legs stretched out in front of him and his head bowed down, motionless. Maybe it was the constant presence of three or four Japanese journalists who seemed to watch his every move. Ota was born in Harlem and moved to South Carolina when he was six. Stationed in Japan as part of the US Navy, he decided to live there after completing his service.

“He has the patience and determination of a Japanese person,” his promoter Issei Nakaya said in advance of his fight with Gundrick King. Which comes in handy because, as one of his corner men told me a couple of hours before his win over King, finding a junior middleweight/super welterweight opponent in Japan is an almost impossible task.

Martinez left the arena in an oddly sombre manner. Every seat empty by this stage, he was back in his good shoes and smart suit, the big sunglasses hid his eyes and his dwindling, subdued entourage led him out. On reaching the street, he would have been greeted by green-clad drunks weaving in and out of the scaffolding which has made a mockery of this once proud acre of Midtown Manhattan.

Saddest of all was the man he left behind. Surrounded by media and family, Macklin sat ringside for a long time, gathering his thoughts and holding on to his emotions. A gash on top of his head bled heavily while his face, dramatically swollen, was the alarming word made flesh of Martinez’s dominance. All these men, winners and losers, giving so much of themselves. And for what?

* john.w.riordan@gmail.com Twitter: JohnWRiordan


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