MATTHEW MACKLIN sat back in his armchair and grimaced. A fortnight previously he had recorded the greatest victory of his career yet the euphoria had since been replaced by a growing irritation. For by now, he knew two things, first that he was one of the best middleweights in the world and second that because of this precise fact, opponents and promoters were starting to run scared.
And so he sat holding a cup of coffee in one hand and the European middleweight championship belt in the other, and spoke about how marketability more than athletic ability counts in his game.
“When Don King said that boxing is all about how hard you negotiate, not how hard you hit, he wasn’t lying,” said Macklin. “It’s sickening. Men with less ability than me were handed world title shots simply because their face fitted for TV. Meanwhile, I was scrapping around, taking way more 50/50 fights than most guys do, cos that’s what I had to do to get my name up there. It drove me mad.”
All this was clear on that autumn day in 2009 shortly after he had knocked Amin Asikainen out in one round, in what remains the best performance and win of his career. As he sat his coffee down on the table, he pointed to the belt in his right hand.
“See this?” he asked. “It’s okay but that’s all it is, okay. I want more. I want the world.”
This St Patrick’s Day, he finally has the chance to own it, or at least, the part he has chased since he first stepped into a boxing ring as an 11-year-old, again on St Patrick’s Day, in 1993. Since then he has won ABA, Irish, British and European titles and last summer was the sufferer of a terrible injustice when Felix Sturm was awarded a points decision in a WBA championship fight that Macklin clearly won.
Yet in defeat, came a victory of sorts. With his profile enhanced, by virtue of the universal outrage over the decision rather than the excellence of his performance, Macklin was catapulted into HBO’s thoughts, resulting in the broadcaster forking out a small fortune to screen his challenge for Sergio Martinez’s world title.
Though he will be generously paid – Macklin’s $1.5million purse is the highest any Irishman has received for entering a ring – the money will be hard earned because the Argentinean champion is bettered only by Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao in boxing’s pound-for-pound rankings.
“Never mind Carlos Monzon, my guy has achieved more,” said Martinez’s colourful manager, Sampson Lewkowicz. “He is Argentina’s greatest ever fighter and I expect him to win. But Macklin is a proper opponent. The last guy from that parish [Darren Barker] came to survive. Matthew will go chasing my guy and might catch him. I don’t think he will. I think he’ll lose but I’ve always said that any 37-year-old boxer can become an old man in the walk from the dressing room to the ring.”
Certainly that’s what Macklin is hoping for. While finances proved persuasive in getting the Birmingham-born Irishman into the ring, opportunism was probably a bigger factor.
“Remember when Ricky Hatton fought Kostya Tszyu?” he asks. “This fight has so many similarities to that one – pitting the veteran champion against the hungry up-and-comer. Everyone knows Martinez is a great, that he is destined for the Hall of Fame, that he is the hot favourite. Yet that’s what they said about Kostya in 2005. Ricky had a profile, was unbeaten, was respected but no one gave him a prayer.
“When he won, commentators spoke with the benefit of hindsight about how Kostya was past it yet in advance absolutely no pundits said as much. That’s the same with me now. I’m the underdog. I’m the one with the point to prove. Martinez is the one who has done it. But at some point, eras end and the baton passes.”
If he is grab that baton then Macklin will have to produce the performance of his life. Though heavy-handed, the 29-year-old is also skilful, a crucial commodity when you consider that New York hasn’t seen upper-body movement like Martinez’s since John Travolta starred in Saturday Night Fever.
Yet despite his sharp reflexes and quick feet, there is a vulnerability about the champion that Barker exposed in the opening six rounds of their fight last September, when the Englishman crowded the Argentinean up close and then moved out of range when the counterattacks were launched. Inexperience and Martinez’s left hand eventually caught up with Barker but a point was made.
“That fight gave me encouragement,” says Macklin, “because I’m better than Barker. I hit harder, I move better, I have a stronger chin and a better engine. More than anything, though, I have a bigger heart. You need that in fights like these because these are the fights that can take you to a bad place.”
The worst place Macklin has been taken to in a 10-year-professional career was a Manchester hospital in the hours that followed his dramatic loss to Jamie Moore in a British light-middleweight fight back in 2006. Dehydrated at the 154- pound-weight-limit, Macklin exhausted himself with a series of relentless attacks before running out of steam in the 10th round, when he was knocked out.
“That night was crucial in my career,” he says, “because there is knowing you have heart and then there is really knowing you’ve got it. That night my body gave up but my mind didn’t. I remember getting off my stool and not being able to feel my legs but knowing I was going to hit and get hit. That’s what being a warrior is all about.”
The warrior has since learnt to box smarter and get hit less. Sturm, notably, hit him twice as less as Macklin clocked him during their meeting in Cologne last year. However even the judges on X-Factor show less histrionics than the three wise men who voted in Sturm’s favour that night.
“Again, that defeat was a valuable lesson,” he said. “I thought I was world class going into the fight. I left it knowing I was.”
He isn’t alone in knowing. Since the Sturm bout, Lou di Bella, one of boxing’s kingmakers, sought him out to make the Martinez match. HBO, the biggest players in the game, saw an Irishman fighting in the Garden on St Patrick’s Day as a simple ticket to sell. And Macklin has helped do his bit of selling, regularly offering up his time for interviews, posing for pictures with Martinez when asked.
Last week he, Lar Corbett and Eoin Kelly, walked into Times Square and saw one of those pictures staring back at him from a side of a building. “Surreal, absolutely surreal,” he said of the experience.
It was the moment a decade’s frustration ended.