“HE had soft eyes,” said Charles Martin when discussing Anthony Joshua’s June loss to Andy Ruiz Jnr. “He didn’t have that eye of the tiger.”
No one knows that look better than Martin, whose history with Joshua was assumed to be over the moment the Brit knocked him out in two rounds in April 2016.
That night at the O2 Arena in London, a new era in heavyweight boxing was expected to begin when Joshua took Martin’s IBF title by force. As for Martin, it was a reign that began in questionable fashion and ended with even more questions after just 85 days.
The St. Louis native seemingly had all the tools to be more than just a footnote in championship history. At 6-foot-5, he had the size, he could punch, and he could seemingly take one. And though winning the vacant IBF title – stripped from Tyson Fury – due to a knee injury suffered by Vyacheslav Glazkov was anticlimactic at best, Martin’s willingness to fight the unbeaten Joshua in his London backyard did earn “Prince Charles” a measure of respect.
Then the bout happened, and Martin went away without much of a fight.
“I was always taught you hit me, I’ll hit you right back,” he said. “But my head wasn’t in there. That’s what made it look so bad. It was a new place, I was hurt and my head was not in the fight. That was not me.”
Martin’s team won’t disclose what he was physically dealing with on fight night, only to say it was a reoccurrence of a previous injury. And even with the injury, the then-champion felt he had what was required to win. As for everything else, Martin knew something was off the second he made the walk to the ring.
“You could feel that tension,” he said. “Everybody’s for him. That whole energy in the room was different.”
It was the perfect storm for Joshua and the perfect nightmare for Martin. When it was over, there were no calls for a rematch, no speculation on where Martin would land next. He was an afterthought who played his role, handing his title over to the game’s superstar in waiting. And as the days turned into weeks and months, Martin garnered more attention for what was happening outside the ring than what ever took place in it.
In August 2016, he was shot in the forearm after an argument in Los Angeles, requiring surgery. Later, there were often bizarre rants on YouTube, a stab at hip-hop under the pseudonym “Gorgeous Villain,” and a general idea that Martin was either losing it or playing a grand joke on the world. Martin says it was the latter.
“Everybody was just looking at me but I didn’t give a damn,” he said. “I was just enjoying my life, taking my little vacation. I wouldn’t do it like that now, but that’s what happened then. People are always taking stuff personal online. That’s the internet. People gotta learn to differentiate the internet from reality. They’re two different things. The world’s crazy with the internet. But you live and you learn.”
Longtime manager Mike Borao agrees, saying Martin “was just having a little fun. But then you realise you have to come back to your core, to who you are.”
Martin wasn’t ready to do that right away, though. Boxing had given him a lot, but after he suffered his first loss to Joshua, it took it all away. Add in the fact that he was a young man with money and a lot of free time, and it’s little surprise that he wanted to get away from the discipline of the fighting life for a while.
He did come back with a pair of early knockouts of Byron Polley and Michael Marrone in 2017, but there wasn’t the fire of before.
“I was retired on paper,” said Martin of the days last year when he got a call to face unbeaten rising star Adam Kownacki in Kownacki’s Brooklyn backyard last September. He took the fight.
“I climbed off the couch for a six-week camp,” he said. “I went into the mountains. It was a motherf*****.”
It was also a reminder of what Martin could do at the top level when his head was right. He went 10 hard rounds with Kownacki, making a late surge before running out of time and losing a decision that read 96-94 on all scorecards.
“Two more rounds, he would have been on his back pocket,” said Martin, and he may be right. Yet despite the loss, the former titlist’s stock rose once more. Not to pre-Joshua levels, but high enough that maybe, just maybe, Charles Martin can be a player in the division again.
At least that’s the plan for Team Martin as talk of a bout with Fury continues to gather pace.
“I think two more rounds he would have beat him,” said Borao of the Kownacki bout. “I think that’s the fight where people see the potential. I know what he really is, and the only guy that can beat him is him. If he’s a hundred per cent, Kownacki, Joshua, I don’t think anybody beats him. And now he’s in that space where I feel like they’re gonna see the real him. When he’s at his best, he’s like a Lennox Lewis. He’s got a chin, he can punch, he has the size, he has everything.”
Longtime coach Henry Tillman, a 1984 U.S. Olympic gold medalist and former cruiserweight title challenger, agrees, with one caveat – that his charge’s head is right for the battles ahead.
“Charles’ head is in a good place, his spirits are high, and it’s on,” said Tillman, owner of a pair of amateur wins over Mike Tyson. “He had a little screw-up there for a minute, but he’s come out of it. All of us go through some type of mental funk some time, and when you do, you’re just going through the motions at that point if you head ain’t all the way there, and that’s just how Charles’ thing was. His head is back on smooth and tight now.
“I believed it in my heart and soul that he was gonna come back because that’s what he loves doing,” he continues. “It’s kind of hard to walk away from what you love doing, especially with him being so young and strong. He just had to get his head screwed on tight, that’s all. Sometimes, just for no particular reason, we lose focus.”
Martin also has another voice in his corner in the form of a man making a lot of headlines these days, Manny Robles, who also coached Ruiz to the biggest upset of 2019 in Madison Square Garden in June.
“I think everybody’s feeding off that,” said Robles of Ruiz’ win. “Not just Charles, but everyone else in the gym. They’re all good friends, they help each other out with sparring, and they wish each other the best. It’s a good thing for all of us.”
Yet despite all the good vibes around camp, it all comes down to the man with the gloves on and where he sees himself at the age of 33.
“I’m training hard,” said Martin, who defeated 15-0 Gregory Corbin via disqualification in his first post-Kownacki bout in March and then dispatched Daniel Martz in four rounds in July. “I’m working hard every day and taking it 100 per cent serious. Back then, I wasn’t focused. But it’s different now. I always knew that I had the ability to do this stuff, but I lost focus at some point in my career and I had to bounce back. So I’m here, I feel good. I’m here to do what I gotta do. I’m ready to fight.”
Martin has been around long enough to know that’s what he’s supposed to say and what people want to hear. But there is a tone in his voice that makes it clear that it’s more than that for him this time around. Because while coming back from a gritty 12-round championship fight defeat is one thing, losing the way he did to Joshua then going off the rails post-fight has given him a smaller margin of error than most of his peers get. Whether that’s fair or not depends on the way you view things, but it is the reality of the situation and Martin knows that he must strike now or not strike at all.
“I don’t take anything personal,” he said of the social media critics. “They don’t know me, they just know the boxer; they don’t know me personally so it doesn’t matter to me. But this is a young man’s sport and it’s a short window, so if I don’t do it now, then it’s never. I don’t want to go out like that. I want to accomplish some things and get some big fights in, some big wins and big KOs.”
Borao’s plan is to keep Martin busy, hopefully securing the September matchup with Fury or, failing that, a Top 15 contender. Martin’s plan is to get some get back before chasing a particular green belt currently owned by Deontay Wilder.
“I want to fight both of them again and I guarantee I’ll knock them both out,” said Martin of rematches with Joshua and Kownacki. “Without a doubt. I was hurt in the other fight [with Joshua] and wasn’t focused. Then in that fight [with Kownacki] I was off for a year-and-a-half. That’s another thing that gives me confidence. I know I can do this. I know I belong.
Then I’m gonna get that WBC. You can write that. We’re gonna have all the belts in the gym.”
Robles likes the sound of that, saying, “I’m gonna be the happiest man on Earth. I’m gonna go to Disneyland.”
Martin may have to pass on that trip. The way he sees it, the days of riding rollercoasters are over. “Deep down I love it,” he said. “But at some point and I got stagnant. Now I’m back with the excitement. I love fighting. It’s in my DNA. I’m a fighter.”