Martinez regards fight against Cotto as more than just title defense

NEW YORK — He could have retired on top and nobody would have thought less of Sergio Martinez.

A 39-year-old who has had two major surgeries on his right knee and two operations to fix his left hand in the past two years, Martinez had every excuse to leave the ring. Instead, he returns tonight looking to successfully defend his World Boxing Council middleweight title against 33-year-old Miguel Cotto, a fighter and three-division world champion who has had his share of injuries and issues.

The two veterans will meet at approximately 8 p.m. at Madison Square Garden, a venue where Cotto will be fighting for the ninth time, on an HBO Pay Per View card.

For Martinez (51-2-2, 28 knockouts), the fight is about cementing his legacy.

“I would never stop doing what I do,” he said. “My hope is to be the best. And to do that, I have to go through the pain and suffer.”

Martinez, who will make a minimum of $1.5 million to Cotto’s $3 million minimum, has been at the front of a recent wave of top fighters from Argentina that includes Marcos Maidana and Lucas Matthysse. He has seen the sport’s popularity rise back home, where the nation is gearing up for the World Cup soccer tournament. And before Lionel Messi and his teammates hit the pitch in Brazil, Martinez will have his nation’s attention tonight.

“I’ve always been proud to represent Argentina,” he said. “It’s not only about me and Maidana and Matthysse, it’s about all the good young fighters back home that we’re developing, and it’s important to set a proper example for them and represent the sport very highly.”

Yet Martinez moved to Spain a few years ago so he could better concentrate on his career. He said he can train without distractions and his doctor can keep a close watch on him.

“The best move I ever made was to move to Spain,” he said. “It was good for me to get away and focus on my career. But after (today), I hope I’ll be as popular as Messi back home in Argentina.”

He won’t be popular tonight with the majority of the crowd, which will be pro-Cotto. But Martinez is looking for an early knockout so the judges won’t be swayed by Cotto’s supporters.

“They (judges) won’t have a lot to do,” Martinez said. “This fight is definitely not going the distance.”

One reason it might not go 12 rounds is Martinez’s health. Despite his claim that his knees are fine and he’s 100 percent recovered, many skeptics think he can’t last 12 rounds and thus expect him to come out charging hard in an attempt to make it a quick evening.

He made the agreed-upon 159-pound limit at Friday’s weigh-in, coming in at 158.8 pounds. Cotto weighed a surprisingly light 155 pounds. The fight is for Martinez’s 160-pound title, but his camp wanted the one-pound cushion negotiated into the deal.

Martinez is the bigger fighter and has excellent footwork. He figures to use both in an attempt to dictate the pace of the fight. He keeps his hands lower than most boxers, but it’s a style he’s comfortable with and isn’t changing at this point of his career.

“It goes back to when I was an amateur,” he said. “Many people in boxing don’t like it, but it works for me and I’m happy with it, so why change?”

Martinez finds it humorous that people are looking at his shortcomings while overlooking that Cotto (38-4, 31 KOs) had lost two straight before stopping Delvin Rodriguez on Oct. 5. He points to Cotto’s losses to Manny Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather Jr. as proof he’s vulnerable.

“He had problems with Mayweather, and he had problems with Pacquiao, so we’ve been planning accordingly to make sure we give him more problems,” Martinez said.

Contact reporter Steve Carp at scarp@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2913. Follow him on Twitter: @stevecarprj.