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The sleepy Valencian pueblo of Torrellano nestles inconspicuously between Alicante and Elche in the south east of Spain. With just 7,000 inhabitants and little to write home about, it is a small, rather unremarkable, one-horse town on the inner fringes of the Costa Blanca: but what a thoroughbred that sole caballo is that they’ve managed to breed there.
I meet the IBF Super Bantamweight champion of the world, Francisco Martínez Sanchez, in a relatively modern coffee shop on the town’s only main road. I see him pull up outside and greet a group of teenage kids loitering without intent on the fence of a children’s park. He’s wearing a personalised basketball vest of the local side but everyone here knows his name without needing to read his back. “Hola Kiko!” shouts the young girl behind the counter as he enters and spies me in the corner. The boxer has lived here his entire life alongside his parents, two brothers and two sisters. Torrellano is Kiko’s town.
He is relatively small for a super bantamweight but, in the flesh, Kiko is anything but diminutive and appears taller than his 5’ 3”. It is a trick of the eye produced by the statures of perfectly proportioned athletic bodies that they never come across as particularly short or tall. Ali was the same with his official height of 6’ 3”, just half an inch smaller than Foreman, surprising many who would have guessed an inch or two shorter. He orders a fresh orange juice and ice and settles down, comfortable in both himself and his surroundings.
The small talk is relaxed to begin the conversation and it is soon clear that Martínez is one of the most unassuming champions of the world that boxing has produced. His face lights up when I ask about his 17 month old daughter, Adriana, and he happily gives me advice on my own pending arrival – basically that the mother always knows what to do. Lifting his top he shows me his most recent body art, the religious maxim, Only God Can Judge Me, and Rosary beads snaking down a hard, ridged belly. He tells me he wouldn’t describe himself as 100% religious but he believes that there is someone up there in charge of things.
Kiko first walked into a boxing gym at 13 years old and it was love at first punch. At 16 he gave up any aspirations of playing in La Liga and, with the full support of his family, dedicated himself to the sweet science. Early opponents saw nothing sweet in La Sensación, however, as he knocked out the first 11 of them with none making it beyond the fourth round. He then stepped up in class to win an EU title which put him in line for a crack at Bernard Dunne and the European belt.
He entered the ring in Dublin that night back in 2007 as a 21 year old unknown, fighting outside his country for the first time. The Point Theatre was in party mode as Dunne walked to the ring with 8,000 in attendance gleefully singing along to the Irish Rover. Nobody expected anything but a home win. Kiko smiles broadly at the memory. “He underestimated me and he was mistaken,” he says with no little understatement. In 90 seconds of beautiful violence it was all over.
Yet in just seven months the Spaniard’s reign as European champion was over as well. Rendall Munroe won a majority decision in Nottingham and then a rematch more convincingly a year later. And when Kiko lost to Takalani Ndlovu in South Africa in September of 2009, a promising career was in danger of petering out before it had really got going. So he dropped back down a level and strung together seven victories which bought his ticket to another big night in Ireland, this time in Belfast against Carl Frampton.
“It was nothing more than a bad night for me and Frampton fought well,” is how Kiko sums up the fight, the only time in his career he has been knocked out. And while happy to admit that Frampton is the best he has faced, Kiko also points out that he was not the only casualty in the nine round war and that Carl needed eight months off to recover. Indeed, by the time the Northern Irishman was back in the ring, Kiko had fought again twice and was now a world champion having destroyed the Colombian Jhonatan Romero in an almost flawless six round performance in Atlantic City.
That earned him a rare opportunity to fight at home in Elche where he knocked out Jeffrey Mathebula, who had recently taken Nonito Donaire the distance, in the ninth round as Frampton and Barry McGuigan watched from ringside. Business with the Jackal was clearly unfinished.
He was soon on the road again, this time to Osaka in Japan and a seven round guerra with Hozumi Hasegawa. The local fighter displayed a heart as big as the rising sun to recover from a torrid two knockdown second round and push Martínez hard until a couple of vicious left hooks forced the referee to save the Japanese from himself. Frampton limbered up with a couple of easier days at the office and the stage was set for Kiko Carl II in Belfast on September 6th.
Despite being the champ, it is Kiko who must once again travel to the challenger’s back yard. This is down largely to the fact that boxing does not register in the consciousness of the overwhelming majority of sports fans in Spain. In fact, such is the level of misunderstanding prevalent in society here that a law exists prohibiting the broadcast of any boxing on television between the hours of 6am and 10pm.
But the prospect of fighting away from home has never bothered Kiko. “I like it,” he says, “It is better for me to fight outside Spain, it motivates me and helps me improve. From the first day I won the title I have been asking for the rematch with Frampton and for it to be back in Ireland”. And how does the atmosphere in Belfast compare to that of Dublin? “Similar, but the crowd in Belfast are maybe a little more aggressive,” he smiles.
Isn’t all of that to the benefit of your opponent? “None of that matters. I’m not intimidated by anyone and I simply go out to do my job. And after two and a half months of incredibly hard preparation, I’m completely sure I am going to win and the last thing I am thinking about is the crowd.” “Plus,” he adds pointedly, “in the ring it is just him and me.”
True, but to paraphrase Muhammad Ali, the fight is won or lost far away from the ring, in the gym and on the road, so what is Kiko doing differently this time around with his new trainer, Gabi Sarmiento, who came on board at the beginning of this year? “I am doing something I have never done before, planning a fight,” he states before divulging nothing more than an assertion that he’ll be victorious on the Titanic Slipways.
If he is right, the doors to big paydays will be further ajar. Guillermo Rigondeaux, Leo Santa Cruz and Scott Quigg are all Super Bantamweight champions of varying merit but Kiko says he could easily move up or down a division in search of a big name. That may mean the likes of Tomoki Kameda at Bantamweight or even Nonito or Lomachenko at Featherweight. He will also hopefully receive from his countrymen a little more or the adulation traditionally reserved for footballers with half his talent and a much smaller fraction of his dedication and commitment to his chosen profession.
But first things first: La Revancha in Belfast.