- Dan Rafael, ESPN Senior Writer
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ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. -- One of the biggest disappointments of the year in boxing was the implosion -- twice -- of middleweight champion Kelly Pavlik's fight with Paul Williams due to Pavlik's lingering left hand problems.
The fight, which was very difficult to put together in the first place, had been signed to take place in October and loomed as one of the most significant fights of the year. Then it was postponed for two months and supposed to take place Saturday, when the Boardwalk would have hummed with the electric atmosphere only a big fight can produce.
Ultimately, the fight was scrapped altogether.
Caught in the middle was Williams, the pound-for-pound entrant and two-time welterweight titlist willing to fight from welterweight to middleweight. He had dominated the well-respected Winky Wright in an April middleweight bout, and had been training for Pavlik since July only to see the title shot go down the drain.
Williams was patient with Pavlik, but could only wait for so long until other plans had to be made, or he would risk being forced into a long layoff through no fault of his own.
So when Pavlik dropped out, Williams' team of promoter Dan Goossen and manager Al Haymon went to work on finding a new, credible opponent for "The Punisher" to face.
Down the list they went. For various reasons fights with junior middleweight titleholder Sergei Dzindziruk, former welterweight titlist Joshua Clottey and star welterweight champ Shane Mosley were not made.
But Sergio Martinez, the skillful junior middleweight titleholder from Spain looking for a name opponent, took the fight on a month's notice.
He had been very impressive in his two previous bouts, which were both on HBO: an eighth-round destruction of Alex Bunema to claim an interim title and a controversial majority draw with Kermit Cintron in February. In that fight, Martinez knocked Cintron out only to have the call changed moments later, and then Martinez got a draw in a fight most observers felt he won easily.
So Williams finds himself ready to rumble with a difficult opponent Saturday night (HBO, 9:30 ET) in the Adrian Phillips Ballroom at Boardwalk Hall. However, as competitive as the middleweight bout appears on paper, it's not the Pavlik fight.
Not in terms of buzz. Not in terms of stakes. And not in terms of profile, the main reason it was moved from the 13,000-seat main arena into the smaller room upstairs.
"We are just happy that we were able to put everything together with Paul and Sergio Martinez," Goossen said. "There was a lot of disappointment that Pavlik was not the fight, but I always believed that Paul was the star so we are still moving in that direction. We are going to have Paul showcased against a tougher challenge.
"I have been telling everyone that Sergio Martinez is a much bigger risk than a Kelly Pavlik in our eyes."
Lou DiBella, Martinez's co-promoter, likes his fighter's chances with Williams because of his technical ability, calling it "a much more difficult fight than Kelly Pavlik, whom I thought that Paul was going to cut right through. I've got to give Paul and his entire team credit for taking this fight because, frankly, it is a much more difficult fight than a Pavlik fight with less reward. He could have fought a lesser opponent, but if you beat Sergio you will be making a statement because we believe you will be fighting one of the best fighters in the world."
Despite the disappointment over the change in opponents and the smaller payday, Williams has taken it in stride.
"I was a little upset I wasn't fighting Pavlik, but I was like at least I'm gonna get to fight," a relaxed Williams said in the media center at Caesars Atlantic City on Thursday. "That was my biggest concern. I didn't know if I was going to be able to fight [again] this year. I've been in training camp so long, I didn't want to go home. I wanted to fight. It could have been anybody. They came up with Martinez. In my mind, he never fought a guy like me so he'll have to show me what he can do."
In the televised opener, Cristobal Arreola (27-1, 24 KOs) makes a quick return from a 10th-round TKO loss to heavyweight titlist Vitali Klitschko in September when he faces Brian Minto (34-2, 21 KOs).
Williams recalled the disappointment when he was told that Pavlik had dropped out for the second time.
Williams was at his training camp in Arlington, Va., and just getting out of the ring from a sparring session when his trainer and father figure, George Peterson, gave him the news.
"I was upset. I had been all pumped up. Matter of fact, I had just gotten done sparring and I was real energetic," Williams said. "Then they told that Pavlik pulled out again, says his hand hurts for the second time. The momentum shifted. I was like, 'Man, he pulled out again.' I was down, but it was chill because they said I'd still be fighting. So that pumped me back up, but it wasn't the same because I wanted Pavlik's belts.
"Pavlik had separation anxiety, I guess. He didn't want his belts taken away from him. I'll get them eventually."
Williams spent a couple of uneasy weeks awaiting word of his new opponent, but was comforted by the fact that he had retained his HBO date and knew he would be able to finish the year with a second fight.
Williams (37-1, 27 KOs) of Augusta, Ga., said it was business as usual in his training after Martinez (44-1-2, 24 KOs), 34, of Spain, replaced Pavlik.
"Only change I see that was difficult was switching up the sparring partners from righty to lefty," said Williams, a southpaw like Martinez.
In fact, to get ready for Martinez, Williams, 28, brought in southpaw former welterweight titlist Carlos Quintana to spar with him. Quintana, who will fight on the undercard, handed Williams his only professional loss, which Williams avenged via first-round knockout in an immediate rematch.
Although Williams said he would consider fighting Pavlik in the future -- "I'd love to do it for them titles, but they got to put up some up-front money. A whole lot of up-front money because I don't want to wait around and then he pulls out again" -- he insisted he was fully focused on Martinez.
"Sergio is a big threat and he brings a great challenge," Williams said. "So I have to do what I always do. I have to eliminate that threat. He is very fast, so I will have to impose my will like I always do when I get in there. Control the fight."
Martinez has as much confidence as Williams.
"The difference is going to be how rapid I fight. I am very fast," Martinez said. "I am much faster than Paul Williams and I am going to throw a lot more punches and that's going to be the big difference. I am going to win by knockout and I am sure of it. I am in the best shape of my life at the best time of my career. I am a lot faster than Paul and I don't take as many hits as he does."
Said Williams, "Unfortunately for Martinez, he is going to absorb the punishment I planned for Pavlik. I am glad that his confidence is such as that. We will have a fight."
Perhaps it's not the Pavlik fight, but it's a fight nonetheless.
Dan Rafael is the boxing writer for ESPN.com.
14hK. Lee Davis