Sergio “Maravilla” Martinez is a living paradox. He is a world championship boxer and current holder of the WBC middleweight title but somehow he is always the underdog and remains unknown to most American sports fans. Inside the ring he’s a relentless southpaw; outside the ring he’s an activist who speaks out against bullying and domestic violence. Plus, he looks more like a male model than a boxer. All of this makes for an exciting new documentary. Maravilla, directed by Juan Pablo Cadaveira, premieres this week in New York at the Tribeca Film Festival.
The dynamic doc recounts Maravilla’s struggles with the politics of boxing — in 2011, his title was stripped away by the World Boxing Council — and his fight to get the middleweight belt back from Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. (the son of Mexican boxing legend Julio Cesar Chavez).
We caught up with the director of Maravilla ahead of the film’s premiere at Tribeca to talk about what motivated him to pick up a camera, his opinion on boxing as a sport, and all the spicy jokes he was forced to cut from the doc.
Where are you from?
I’m from Buenos Aires, Argentina. I grew up in Montserrat, one of the oldest and most charismatic neighborhoods in the city. We used to play soccer on the streets on weekends since there was no traffic.
What city do you call home?
I split my time between Buenos Aires and New York.
When did you know you wanted to be a filmmaker?
My first thoughts of being a filmmaker came to me when I was 20 years old. I was in a late teenage crisis since I couldn’t find anything I was passionate about to study. I was really good at math, physics and computers. But it didn’t keep my interest; it wasn’t enough of a challenge for me. One day I ran into my schoolmate Ernesto and he told me he was going to film school. That moment of him explaining this profession was profound for me. That was the spark that ignited my curiosity.
So, I bought a S-VHS camera, started shooting, and soon worked as a cameraman traveling around the world at the age of 22. Later, I became an editor, moved to the U.S. and worked in advertising, on TV shows and films. But it took me a while to find a great story to tell.
What’s a movie you are embarrassed to admit you really like?
How did the idea to make this film come to you?
The same friend who sparked my interest in film school, 20 years down the road called me one day while I was living in New York. He told me he was coming to New York to interview Sergio Martinez after his fight and asked if I wanted to come to the fight. I had never heard of Sergio or watched a boxing match live. My curiosity again peaked and I researched Sergio online before the fight. I was amazed by Sergio’s personal story and professional career, his persona, hard work, persistence, and great professional achievements. I read that the WBC [World Boxing Council] had stripped his title after being the best boxer and knockout of the year in 2010. So it was clear to me he was still an underdog even after becoming a champion and one of the best boxers in the world. Immediately, I knew there was a great story there.
Did you already know Sergio Martinez? How were you able to get such intimate access to his personal life?
I did not know Sergio. I first wrote to his adviser, we talked over the phone and he asked where I would publish or broadcast this film. I told him that I hoped at the best film festivals around the world and on TV but I could not guarantee that would happen. I knew he was not happy with my answer so I decided to camouflage myself as a journalist and I offered my services to an Argentine TV network to cover Sergio’s next press conference. I interviewed him there in person and after the interview I asked him if he received my email and if he wanted to do the film. He said yes on the spot. Then Pablo Sarmiento, his trainer offered me the chance to stay with them at their training camp. The rest is history.
Your film is a testament to the charisma that Sergio Martinez has both inside and outside of the ring. Why do you think he wasn’t able to capitalize on that to become a “big name” boxer who draws large crowds and advertising dollars?
I think it’s a combination of multiple factors:
“Big name” in boxing means money not necessarily great boxing skills. I think at one point he was too good in the ring and represented a great risk for the money people. So they never fully opened the doors for him.
Timing and fans. By the time he became a champion in the U.S. he was 36 years old and had no following because he moved so much plus, he was born in Argentina, a country where boxing is not a major sport and then he moved to Spain, another country where boxing is not as popular as it is in America.
Unprofessional Managers. The boxing industry is populated by managers and promoters who take advantage of the delicate economic situations most boxers are in. I think it took him a while to find the professional team he has today: adviser Sampson Lewckowiz and promoter Lou DiBella.
Communication barriers with an American audience. Sergio does not speak English and that’s a barrier that prevents him from connecting with American audiences.
Lack of connection with his country people. Since Sergio left Argentina to develop his boxing career abroad and he did not come back to fight there for 13 years, he lost an emotional connection with his nation.
What was your biggest challenge in making this film?
My biggest challenge was to maintain the access to Sergio Martinez and the business of boxing by trying not to piss off anybody while making the film. Most of the big names and celebrities in this film are rich and powerful. I’m neither of those.
The film has an incredible energy and wraps you up in the drama of boxing. Did you look at other sports films as influences? During the editing process were you conscious of that energy?
I watched a lot of boxing films. All the Rocky films, Million Dollar Baby, Raging Bull and my favorite boxing doc, When We Were Kings and many sport documentaries including some ESPN 30 for 30 docs as well. One of the films I watched a couple of times was Senna because it made me appreciate F1 Racing as I‘ve never thought I would. I was never able to understand why people in Argentina will wake up at 6 in the morning to watch F1. It seemed very boring to me. Then I watched Senna and the charismatic character and underdog story in it made me appreciate F1 racing from another point of view. That was my goal in this film, to tell Sergio’s life story while making audiences understand the sport, its politics and business behind it.
Editing is key for a documentary. The timing, the story development, the character arc. We had so much to tell in 80 minutes that we had to spend a lot of time editing scenes and then changing the order in the film. We wanted to surprise the audience in a good way by connecting with viewers’ emotions, while providing the necessary information to follow the story of the film. To create that balance was really hard work. We used slow motion, sound effects, and music to emphasize the cinematic aspects during the fights.
Any funny or memorable moments that you shot but didn’t make the cut?
I shot Sergio telling so many jokes on camera that I couldn’t use because they were in Spanish and very spicy.
Did your opinion on boxing as a sport change through the process of making this film?
I had no opinion before I started this project since I knew nothing about the sport. I tried to keep my outlook fresh about the sport throughout the film.
What’s next for you? Any new projects?
I’m working on developing a narrative feature film and a new documentary.