ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. — Nobody could deny Sergio Martinez this victory.
The junior middleweight champion dominated Kelly Pavlik over the final few rounds Saturday night, winning a bloody and impressive unanimous decision to claim the WBO and WBC middleweight belts at raucous Boardwalk Hall.
When the final bell sounded, Martinez ran for the corner and leaped onto the ropes, thrusting his arms into the air in victory. Pavlik solemnly raised his own arm before retreating back to his corner, his face awash in blood — just as it been at the end of the last four rounds.
Judge Roberto Ramirez scored the fight 116-111, Barbara Perez scored it 115-111 and Craig Metcalfe had it 115-112, all for Martinez. The Associated Press also scored it 115-112.
"It was a 12-round fight and I knew it would go the distance," said the new middleweight king, "and I knew at the end I had to close strong."
Martinez (45-2-2) moved up to 160 pounds to challenge Pavlik, who had never been defeated at his natural weight. The 35-year-old from Argentina put on marvelous display of speed and footwork, though, rallying from a questionable knockdown in the seventh round to batter and frustrate the pride of Youngstown, Ohio.
"He was a smart fighter," said Pavlik, his face a gruesome mess of bruises and cuts. "He doubled up on the jab a lot after he cut me. I just couldn't get anything going."
It was refreshing change for Martinez to finally win a clear decision, because judges sure haven't been kind to him lately.
The charismatic fighter with the Hollywood looks appeared to beat Kermit Cintron in February 2009, dropping his opponent in the seventh round and watching the referee count him out. But after a lengthy commotion, the fight was allowed to continue and Martinez wound up with a draw.
Then in December, Martinez battled feared puncher Paul Williams in the smaller ballroom at Boardwalk Hall in a Fight of the Year candidate. Both of them hit the deck in the first round and they stood toe-to-toe the rest of the way, but Williams earned the debatable decision.
No way Martinez was going to let it happen again.
He buzzed around the outside of the ring like a hornet from the start, dashing in to sting Pavlik (36-2) before moving away from the champion's punishing right hand.
"He sliced him up," Martinez promoter Lou DiBella said. "I thought Kelly showed a lot of heart, but he was much faster. He's the best athlete I've ever promoted, in terms of a pure athlete."
Pavlik tried to make his move in the middle rounds, finally catching Martinez with a couple hard shots that left him off balance. A short right sent Martinez to the floor with about 90 seconds left in the seventh round, but he claimed it was a slip and never appeared to be hurt.
That much was obvious by the ninth round, when the momentum swung back to Martinez. He opened a deep cut over Pavlik's right eye that turned his face crimson by the end of every round, and Martinez cruised after that. He kept out of the way of a knockout blow in the final round, the only thing that could have sent the titles back to Youngstown again.
"In the last third of the fight, in the eighth or ninth round, he began touching me a lot," Pavlik said. "I tried, but it was very hard to come back after him. I couldn't see out of my right eye after he cut it in the eighth or ninth round. I could not see his left."
Pavlik's corner said that he would need at least a dozen stitches to close the cut.
"We were coming on strong in the middle rounds. After the eighth round, he just seemed like he gave it away," said his trainer, Jack Loew. "We couldn't turn it around, and I don't know why."
Much has changed since Pavlik last stepped foot on the boardwalk, when he was embarrassed by slick veteran Bernard Hopkins in a non-title fight in October 2008.
Back then, thousands of fans made the trip from Youngstown to cheer on their favorite son. He was feted everywhere he went, throwing out the first pitch for the Cleveland Indians and showing up in magazine and newspaper spreads on a regular basis.
Then he got a staph infection on the knuckle of his left hand that threatened his career, if not his life, and caused him to back out of a high-profile fight against Williams last fall.
His only title defenses last year, against overmatched and undersized Marco Antonio Rubio and Miguel Espino, took place in his hometown, far removed from the glaring spotlight that had once shone so brightly. Unfounded rumors began circulating that Pavlik was an alcoholic or having other personal problems, and many of his fans began to turn their back to him.
Boardwalk Hall was still heavily in his corner Saturday night, but Pavlik acknowledged before the fight that merely winning might not be enough to earn back everyone who abandoned him. He needed to win the fight convincingly, perhaps by knockout.
In the end, Martinez was the one who nearly finished the fight early.
"There is a lot of pride and emotion for me," Martinez said, unable to wipe a broad smile from his face. "When the last bell rang, I knew I was the new world champion."