For boxing purists, war by the shore trumps last week’s blockbuster

Marquee event The fact that Manny Pacquiao’s whitewash of Antonio Margarito last Saturday drew anywhere between 1.25-1.4 million pay-per-view buys, depending on who you ask, is a testament to two things: the popularity of Pacquiao, and the effectiveness of the HBO 24/7 program.

Tonight’s Paul Williams-Sergio Martinez rematch in Atlantic City, which I will be attending, has neither of those aspects in its favor. But while last week’s spectacle was valuable in that it showed that boxing could still be a major mainstream draw, the vibe for tonight’s fight from fans and writers actually possesses more excitement.

Last week’s fight was for everyone. This one’s for us.

For one, it’s a real matchup. I ended up ordering the Pacquiao fight after I said I wouldn’t, primarily because my girlfriend and a couple of friends wanted to watch it. (She made it through all four 24/7 episodes, so if she wanted to watch the fight, I’m down) And I ended up glad I did, especially after becoming aware of Tecate’s 25-dollar rebate, and when she produced a tray of excellent nachos out of nowhere.

But make no mistake, we were watching just for Pacquiao. 24/7 – and Team Pacquiao – did an excellent job of selling the idea that Margarito had a legitimate chance to win, but anyone who watched his first fight back from his suspension for loaded hand wraps knew he was a drastically diminished fighter who had no business being in the ring with Pacquiao, potentially the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world.

And of course, overshadowing unsurprising early controversy regarding Margarito taking Stacker 2 or something, Pacquiao beat him to within an inch of his life. He essentially called off his assault by about the ninth round or so when the referees and Margarito’s corner wouldn’t do it for him. Margarito ended up with a broken orbital bone, a career that may be over and – of course – one last big $3 million payday.

It stung of irony, of course. If Margarito fought Cotto with illegal hand wraps and essentially ruined his career as a high-level fighter, it appears Shane Mosley did the same to a discombobulated Margarito after he was stripped of his plaster of paris wraps.

Tonight’s fight is scaled down in national attention – almost to zero – but anyone who saw the first Williams-Martinez fight last December knows it’s a must-watch. Even personal favorite Gabriel Montoya of MaxBoxing.com has made the trek out from Los Angeles.

The two southpaws with markedly different styles had an intense battle of wills that was nearly too close to call. I personally had it by one point to Martinez – I had to watch a couple rounds several times to score it – though Williams ended up with a decision, benefiting from one horrible 119-110 card. We’re fortunate enough to get a rematch tonight, and the catchweight doesn’t bother me – it’s only two pounds.

The setting, too, lends itself to a more intimate appreciation of tonight’s fight. Papered or not, Cowboy Stadium lent itself to the spectacle of Pacquiao-Margarito. Watching Martinez-Williams tonight will remind me of the three times I saw Arturo Gatti fight there – another example of someone who resonated in the fight game, but not necessarily the mainstream. It’s an intimate place to watch a fight, in a quirky location made even more intriguing by the excellent show Boardwalk Empire, which may get some cross-promotion tonight.

Martinez ended up taking the fight on short notice last year after Kelly Pavlik pulled out, but he had been preparing for the possibility of that exact scenario. Williams had been training for Pavlik, and as such was caught off guard by the slickness and deceptive power of Martinez. Once Williams adjusted, he took Martinez out of his game – which meant that Martinez could no longer keep his hands down, daring Williams to miss glancing blow after glancing blow.

I think Williams will be far more prepared this time, much as he was after his loss to Carlos Quintana. He knocked Quintana out in the first round in their rematch.

I don’t see a stoppage here. Both of these guys are too tough, too savvy, too determined. But Martinez is 35, and some – notably Tim Starks of the excellent Queensberry Rules blog – thought Martinez looked washed out at the weigh-in after having to cut weight from a reported 200 pounds. Remember also that Williams has an astounding reach advantage, more substantial in that area than most heavyweights.

I see Williams taking a decision in a closely contested fight, but perhaps not as close as last time, as I expect him to be more ready than a year ago.

Regardless, the main takeaway is that after a year in which there haven’t been many fights to get excited about, we now have a pretty good few weeks, with Williams-Martinez leading to Marquez-Katsidis and Khan-Maidana.

You won’t see any of the participants on Jimmy Kimmel or on the cover of Time Magazine, but after a disappointing year for boxing, it’s good to know that the sport didn’t die when the negotiations for Pacquiao-Mayweather did.

Esoteric

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