MATTHEW MACKLIN did not want to quit. He could still stand up, he could still see, even though the slabs of skin grew around his eyes. He lifted his left arm and signalled to the referee that his mission would continue.
Despite being knocked from his feet twice, he had survived round 11, and he knew he had a further three minutes to rescue victory. But it is the most courageous who need to be rescued from themselves; Matthew’s trainer, the compassionate and intelligent Buddy McGirt, did the right thing when he refused to let his charge out for the final round.
“I’m never going to quit,” said the despondent but surprisingly alert warrior after the formidable arms of middleweight king Sergio Martinez were raised. “It was Buddy’s call but he’s a good trainer. I just wanted to do myself justice, I wanted to do everyone around me justice. I hope I’ve done that. I’m so disappointed.”
For both men, justice was served during this epic encounter. Just four rounds before the end, Matthew looked on the brink of victory inside the Theater at Madison Square Garden when he dropped an off-balance Martinez with a right uppercut. It punctuated a glorious spell for the underdog but it snapped the Argentine into action, who welcomed the crisis and regained control.
Martinez (11st 3 1/2lbs) began the contest well, a stinging southpaw left pinged off Macklin (11st 4lbs) before the Birmingham man walked into a right hand. The pattern continued into the second session; Sergio belied his 37 years, elegantly halted his dance to the left, pivoted the other way and slammed his fist onto Macklin’s jaw. The challenger swallowed the punch and smiled respectfully, almost grateful for the warning.
But, in these early stages, there was a confident calm surrounding Macklin. He was getting caught but making adjustments, each thud he took enhanced his education. He had been plotting Sergio’s downfall for a long time and as the round was coming to a close, he jarred the favourite with a right hand; a sweeping shot he had been studiously practising for weeks in the gym. The tide was about to turn.
Macklin was buoyant, measuring Martinez’s incoming leads, swivelling beneath the danger and countering to the body. In the fourth, Macklin enjoyed further success, screwing a right hand over Sergio’s lackadaisical defence that landed with a thud. Briefly stunned, Martinez glared as Macklin grinned, excitedly inviting acknowledgment of his work. The Brit’s joy hampered his concentration, though, and Sergio expertly changed position and landed an uppercut. Macklin was blind to the danger, and the impact of the blow went quickly to his knees. His legs folded before suddenly straightening and resisting downfall. Despite that, the 29-year-old had done enough to take the round on all three judges’ scorecards.
Macklin enjoyed the fifth round too and with 20 seconds remaining chucked a right hand that again punished his rival’s carefree approach. Martinez, one of the finest fighters in the sport today, refused to retreat and positioned his muscled frame in the eye of the storm. He was determined to retaliate as both men briefly ditched game-plans and surrendered to machismo; wild punches rained in and brought the 4,671 sell-out crowd to its feet.
By the seventh round, Macklin seemed to lose some momentum as Martinez grooved into gear, snapping out jabs and hurtful counters. But Matthew remained calm, even when a hook made his head rattle like a speeding snooker ball trapped in the jaws of a pocket. The shot was Martinez’s best of the fight so far but Macklin blinked and smiled again. Instinctively, the middleweight boss swung angrily but carelessly and Matthew ducked beneath, placed his feet to counter before uncorking a rising uppercut. Martinez stumbled and fell back as his glove briefly brushed the canvas. Referee Eddie Cotton correctly ruled – from this vantage point – a knockdown, much to Martinez’ despair. Macklin walked to a neutral corner, unable to stifle a smile, and looked to his corner. It would be his last moment of real success.
“For six or seven rounds it looked like he had the fight in his pocket,” said McGirt about Matthew. “But he strayed away from the gameplan and he got punished. He has nothing to be ashamed of though – Martinez is a great fighter. I thoroughly expect Matthew to be a world champion in the future.”
By round nine, despite still being in it on the scorecards, the fight looked beyond the brave underdog. He could no longer judge the punches coming his way; his skin was reddening quickly and providing Martinez with glowing targets to aim at.
A snappy left hit the mark and Macklin could no longer smile at the torment, his movement once majestic was ragged and as he tried to escape, another shot cruelly exposed his exhaustion. Suddenly, the stench of an upset was drifting out of the arena.
“I always knew it would be a matter of time,” said a virtually unmarked Martinez. “He was a tough rival and didn’t attack like I expected him to. His defence was not open. But I knew I would catch up with him. It’s like cutting down a tree, eventually they fall down.”
Martinez’s fists called timber at the end of the 11th. An accurate straight left, thrown perfectly, bashed into the crowd favourite and sent him spinning backwards. Macklin was in real trouble as he groggily tried to get up, a fogginess descended on his senses as blood seeped from his wounds. The smile returned to his face as he looked at the referee but there was no sincerity behind it.
Macklin was hurting, his dreams evaporating. Another attack followed and there looked to be no escape until the bell coincided with his second collapse. Again he rose, close to his corner. “I’m okay, I’m okay,” he muttered as he staggered to his stool. This time there was no smile.
Macklin is an admirable character, a genuine person with a tight grasp on his destiny. He has travelled the world, learning his trade from various trainers, while plotting a route to the top. But in the end, he should be thankful his coach came to his rescue and took the fight out of his hands. In the moment he needed a miracle, McGirt provided the truth. He was beaten. Don’t call Macklin a nearly man, though – he left nothing to chance and gave it is all. He can look back with pride on his latest adventure.