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Blood Brothers

Cousins Martinez and Luevano took divergent paths in boxing but still support each other at all times

October 17, 2008|Lance Pugmire | Times Staff Writer

Eight years ago, boxing promoter Bob Arum was convinced he'd landed the sport's next legend when he signed Marshall Martinez.

Martinez had defeated Miguel Cotto (a future welterweight champion) in an Olympic qualifying fight, and U.S. boxing officials envisioned a gold medal dangling around the neck of the tough, hard-punching kid from Fontana.

Martinez seemed headed to the Sydney Games. But the fighter nicknamed "little devil" had to quit the U.S. team after he wrote checks stolen from another athlete's Olympic training headquarters' mailbox. Instead, he turned pro.

Arum snapped Martinez up for a $50,000 bonus and, as a favor, signed Martinez's cousin, a scrawny La Puente teen named Steven Luevano. "Luevano was nothing special," Arum said. "We signed him only in order to get Martinez."

As it turned out, the cousins' careers took divergent paths.

Martinez's boxing plans came to a stop when he was arrested in 2004 for conspiracy to distribute cocaine and sentenced to a four-year prison term. He's now back in the gym, trying to reassemble his life and career. Meanwhile, Luevano (35-1-1, 15 knockouts) will defend his World Boxing Organization featherweight title against Billy "The Kid" Dib on the undercard of the Kelly Pavlik-Bernard Hopkins fight Saturday in Atlantic City, N.J.

The cousins chat on the phone frequently and visit each other when possible. Martinez says they're like "brothers." Luevano said he tosses his cousin occasional reminders, "to stay out of trouble.

"If he was going to do something, he was going to do it, and no one could stop him," Luevano recalled.

"They were always close," said Luevano's mother, Dolly, whose sister, Margie Carmona, is Martinez's mom. "But they're different people."

When they were young, they were driven to East Los Angeles by Martinez's mother to train. They shared the same dream to one day fight professionally and become world champions.

The shy Luevano for years maintained a disciplined routine: "Wake up, go to school, carpool to the gym, do his homework, eat, go to bed," his mother said. When he was 17 and had a child with his wife, Marina, the pattern didn't change. Boxing would now have to support a family.

Martinez always lived off-script. As a child, he'd throw rocks at his cousins. In his late teens, he had volatile relationships with girlfriends, he'd hang out with other cousins who were gang members and he'd know where to party.

Asked to explain the opposing forces that affected the cousins, Arum remains at a loss. "I'm not a psychiatrist," he said. "Martinez was a bad boy. We just didn't know how bad."

Before their first pro fight, the southpaw Luevano was becoming the tactician who now routinely out-thinks his opponents with counter-punching and sophisticated defense. "Wait, wait, wait for an opening," his amateur boxing trainer Manuel Montiel Jr. would tell him. "Make them miss, and make them pay."

Martinez's subtlety was a punch in the nose. The cousins' pro careers began on the same card as 19-year-olds, in an outdoor ring in Bell Gardens. Luevano won by second-round knockout. Martinez was victorious in typical tough-guy manner, overcoming an early broken nose to gain a unanimous decision.

Martinez frequently strayed into crises. He was shot in the hip at a party, spent three months in jail for a prior crime and became embroiled in disputes with Arum. He fought only eight times, going 7-0-1, including a July 2003 date in Mexico in what would be his last fight. By then, Luevano was 19-0 with nine knockouts.

Then, in August 2004, Martinez was arrested in a case involving more than five kilograms of cocaine -- with a street value of $750,000. Uicardo Williams Jr., who was a U.S. Olympic silver-medalist boxer in 2000, and a third man were also arrested and convicted.

Asked why he did it, Martinez said. "The money . . . you're making $110,000 every three to four days . . . I accepted responsibility, though. Yeah, I did it."

Martinez started prison with a year of hard time in Leavenworth, Kan., where he fought with one prisoner and got caught with a cellphone, violations that sent him into solitary isolation.

"When they take your freedom away and you're locked up in a box, it's the worst," Martinez said. "Being there changed me 360 degrees. Before, I was a walking time bomb . . . I realized God put me in there to turn my life around. I thought about all of that, how the people I thought were my friends weren't friends at all. . . .

"Going to prison is like dying and being able to see your own funeral. You get to see who brings you flowers.

"You know who did? My mom . . . and Steven, he sent me some money. That's who took care of me. I have no more 'friends,' it's just me and my girl, going to the gym every day and then back home."

One recent morning, at an East L.A. gym adorned with a small sign reading, "Champions never take the easy way out," Martinez started his comeback, slamming his fists into a heavy punching bag.

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