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Martinez bucks up late, KOs Barker

AP Photo/Tim Larsen

ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. -- Middleweight champ Sergio Martinez spent most of the prefight build-up for his bout against Darren Barker talking about his desire for big-name opponents, not about Barker.

Martinez talked about wanting Manny Pacquiao or Floyd Mayweather Jr., the two fighters ahead of him on the pound-for-pound list. He even said he would drop down to 150 pounds to land a fight with either of them.

Martinez spent way more time talking about those fighters than he did about his opponent, England's Barker. And early on in their championship fight Saturday night at Boardwalk Hall, it looked like Martinez might pay the price.

He looked sloppy. He didn't look sharp. And then he suffered an obvious nose injury in the fourth round when blood began to pour from it and his breathing became labored.

But Martinez didn't ascend to the 160-pound championship and high up the pound-for-pound list for nothing. Despite his early troubles, Martinez righted the ship, roared back and knocked out Barker with a clean right hook in the 11th round to retain the lineal championship.

Who knows? Maybe the fact that Martinez -- named the consensus 2010 fighter of the year after beating Kelly Pavlik for the title and then drilling Paul Williams in the second round for the knockout of the year in their rematch -- looked vulnerable in his third title defense and not as spectacular as he has in his recent championship run might help lure a big-name opponent into the ring.

Whatever happens next for Martinez, he can revel in his explosive victory against Barker, a former European champion and a massive underdog, who was more than holding his own during the first half of the fight.

"Every challenger is a strong challenger that has their own way," Martinez said. "I knew it would be this kind of fight. I planned for this."

Early on, Barker looked like he might bag the upset of the year before an excited crowd of 4,376 in a Boardwalk Hall set up for 5,000. He landed some solid right hands and held his hands nice and high, making it hard for Martinez to penetrate his guard.

And then he landed a shot on Martinez's nose and the blood began to flow. Several times, Martinez blew and blood sprayed out.

"The nose? It's broken. That was a good shot," Martinez said with a laugh.

Martinez cutman Russ Anber got the bleeding under control by the eighth round, and the nose didn't seem to cause Martinez any problems in the later rounds, when he came back strong.

"I always get a second wind," said Martinez, 36, a native of Argentina living in Oxnard, Calif., who gave some of his postfight remarks in English and others through an interpreter. "We trained for that. It was part of our game plan going in. We knew we would get stronger as the fight went on."

Barker I can't remember the punch. I can't remember. I remember my legs just fell from under me. I was trying to get up, but couldn't. I didn't feel he was a massive puncher before that.

-- Darren Barker on the punch that finished him in Saturday's 11th-round knockout loss to middleweight champ Sergio Martinez

He sure did. While Barker, whose left eye was swelling in the second half of the fight, was slowing down and dropping his guard, Martinez began to get his offense going. He stunned Barker (23-1, 14 KOs) with some solid straight left hands and rocked him in the 10th round with a right.

Another right hand in the 10th round nearly dropped Barker. He was trying to hold on, but Martinez (48-2-2, 27 KOs) let his hands go, firing punch after punch. He had a 25-3 edge in power shots landed in the round.

"He closed the show, didn't he?" promoter Lou DiBella said of Martinez. "Once you're a little bit off your game, he is going to knock you out. I got the sense Barker was hurt and thought he couldn't win around the 10th round."

DiBella was right, because in the 11th round Martinez took him out. He hurt Barker with a right hook and then finished him with another right hook. Barker just dropped and couldn't beat referee Eddie Cotton's 10 count at 1 minute, 29 seconds.

"I kept throwing the right hand because I knew it would eventually land," Martinez said. "It landed more and more as the fight went on."

Said Barker, 29, who helped land the fight by calling out Martinez on Twitter: "I can't remember the punch. I can't remember. I remember my legs just fell from under me. I was trying to get up, but couldn't. I didn't feel he was a massive puncher before that."

At the time of the knockout, Martinez led on all three scorecards, but it was competitive: 99-91, 97-94 and 96-94.

"I told everyone, that was a real fight," said DiBella, who took a lot of criticism for making the perceived mismatch. "Barker can fight. He's a tremendous fighter and a good boxer. He took some rounds. He made it a fight. I did think Sergio started slow and the nose was broken. But Barker showed he is a legitimate middleweight contender. All you had to do was go on YouTube and look at some of his fights and you could see this would be a real fight. Sergio will wake up Sunday knowing he was in a real fight, but he figured him out in about the sixth or seventh round and it was a matter of time."

And now Martinez is back in the same conundrum as before: Who can he make a big fight with that will fight him?

The truth is that there isn't an obvious opponent. Pacquiao and Mayweather aren't going to fight him. Miguel Cotto, a junior middleweight titlist Martinez has been calling out, won't fight him. Middleweight titleholder Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. is being kept away from him -- for obvious reasons.

At middleweight, there are some good opponents -- titlist Dmitry Pirog and top contender Matthew Macklin, for example, who were both ringside -- but neither is a huge fight, at least not yet.

"Was it entertaining? Yes," DiBella said, believing the performance might improve Martinez's chances of landing a bigger fight. "He had a bit of a rough night. He was a little banged up going into the fight, and Barker had a great game plan. But Sergio came on like gangbusters and he knocked him out. This was a good fight and that helps as far as making him a bigger name. There was nothing mismatched about this fight."

Martinez would still love Pacquiao or Mayweather, and if he can't get them, Cotto instead. But he will leave it up to DiBella.

"I'm ready to fight anybody as long as I can come to a good deal and so can my rival," Martinez said.

DiBella said there was plenty of time to figure out the next step. Instead, the promoter had already figured out Martinez's immediate next move.

"Probably," DiBella said, "a good vacation."

A well-deserved one.

Dan Rafael is the boxing writer for ESPN.com. Follow him on Twitter @danrafaelespn.