LAKE CHARLES, La. – Javier Martinez scooped his 6-year-old son into his arms Friday, hugging him as someone shouted, “Daddy’s a winner!”
Martinez, 24, defeated archrival Troy Isley by a 4-1 decision in the 75 kg. division at the 2020 U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Boxing to advance to Sunday’s final.
Martinez is now assured of being one of two fighters in his weight class to participate next month in a Colorado training camp and an international tournament in Bulgaria on the Road to Tokyo. (The ultimate Team USA representative then must qualify internationally for the Olympic field.)
“He’s the reason why I do it,” Martinez said of Lionel. “I want to build a future for him. He makes me go harder. That’s why I brought him. I love that kid.”
Martinez and Isley have a long and intense history in the middleweight division. Isley, 21, defeated Martinez for the elite national championship in 2016 and 2017, with Martinez getting 10 stitches from a headbutt in the first fight (headgear was not required that year).
Lionel’s dad gained the upper hand in 2018, so they are now deadlocked at 2-2.
“Last year Lionel knew I was No. 2 and he told me, ‘Daddy, it’s time for you to get the No. 1 spot,’” Martinez said. “I didn’t bring him last year, but it made me go harder just keeping him in my head. This time I had to bring him.”
He asked Angel Luis Villarreal Jr., an assistant coach at the United Community Center club in Milwaukee, if it was OK for Lionel to come along.
“I said, ‘If that’s the icing on the cake for you, bring him,’” Villarreal said. “He spent half of the year overseas and in camp in Colorado and he misses his boy a lot.”
Even though Lionel can’t compete until he is 8, he has already started boxing. He had his hands taped Thursday night and was training alongside the eight other kids from their club who are competing in the Youth National Championships and Junior Open which is taking place at the same time as the trials.
“He’s a natural,” Villarreal said of Lionel, whose maternal uncle is also a boxer. “He’s been in the gym since he’s been able to walk. He’s going to be better than Javier. There’s no doubt about it.”
And he’s definitely a chip off the old block. “He gets nervous just like me,” said Martinez, whose head coach is Israel Acosta, a 1984 Olympian and two-time Olympic boxing coach. “You can tell that kid loves me.”
Martinez could meet Isley again on Sunday in the finals. The tournament is double elimination, so Isley will fight Joseph Hicks on Saturday with the winner taking on Martinez. Hicks stayed alive in the Challengers Bracket with a 4-1 decision Friday over Francis Hogan.
“I have no doubt that (Isley) is going to win and I’m going to have to face him one more time on Sunday,” Martinez said.
But Friday’s fight keeps the southpaw on track for Tokyo no matter who wins Sunday. The USA Boxing selection process gives points for everything from punctuality to tournament results, with the trials champion earning five points and the runner-up receiving three. The maximum point total is 65.
While Isley is the 2019 Pan American Games bronze medalist, Martinez got the nod for the world championships in Russia, where he won two bouts before losing in the round of 16 to the eventual bronze medalist.
“We’ve been ready since last year,” Villarreal said of facing Isley. “This is all we talked about for the last two years. This is an everyday goal for us and there’s no doubt that we came in with full preparation, everything we could do. We pulled out every weapon for him, we put everything we could to make sure his dream could be possible.”
And that included Lionel, who led a robust cheering section Friday for his dad.
Martinez set the early pace in the bout lasting three rounds of three minutes each.
“Hats off to that guy, man, he’s a great boxer,” Martinez said of Isley. “Ain’t nothing personal, but I just wanted it a little bit more.”
He figured he impressed the judges with his aggressiveness and counter-punching. “And I looked more hungry,” he said.
Martinez started boxing when he was 8 years old. He still lives in the house in which he was raised on the south side of Milwaukee, which is only two blocks from the club.
“I was in the streets,” he said. “I had a family that was dysfunctional, but I found my way. Now I’m here to do better, to break that cycle with my family.
“I’m doing it for my city and for my side of town.”
He came back with a new sense of purpose after leaving the sport in 2015 and taking a job as a dump truck driver. He did not compete in the 2016 U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Boxing.
“My mind wasn’t right,” he said. “I just had to find my way for my kid. I had to do something for him. But a 9-to-5 job wasn’t for me.”
While he was working, Martinez didn’t have time to train. “I wasn’t happy,” he said. “This is my happy spot. Boxing is my life. I leave it all in the ring. For me, my son and my family.”
After a year and a half, he returned to the ring.
“I never had doubt,” Villarreal said. “I was one of the main people that believed in him and tried to get him to continue with the sport. I encouraged him, I begged him not to give up and the first thing I told him was, ‘Thanks for believing in yourself. Thanks for believing in our team that we want the best for you, that we’re going to support you.’”
He said that Martinez has had offers to turn pro, which would make him ineligible to represent Team USA at the Olympic Games.
“They’ve been begging him to turn pro for two years,” Villarreal said, “but we want Olympic gold. The people that really care about him in the pro business say, ‘Finish this run and we can go from there.’”
After the world championships, Martinez “couldn’t find a fight anywhere in the country,” Villarreal said, because he was already qualified for the trials in the 75 kg. weight class.
So Martinez moved up to 81 kg. “to keep busy,” the coach said, and wound up qualifying in that division as well.
But he’s just where he belongs in Lake Charles, with his son by his side.
Villarreal said he’s glad the younger fighters from the club are also on hand to see their teammate succeed “to let them know to believe that it’s possible.
“They were Team Javier Martinez,” Villarreal said, “and I think he stole some hearts today, too.”
Yet the coach knows they still have a lot of work, a lot of punches, ahead of them.
“It’s not official,” Villarreal said, “until you’re on that Olympic poster.”