By CLAIRE MICHALEWICZ Press Staff
MASHANTUCKET — At a press conference announcing one of the biggest fights of his career, middleweight boxer Sergio Martinez on Thursday promised viewers they would see “the best Sergio Martinez.” Then, pausing, he added, “This fight is for you, Monique,” and invited 13-year-old Middletown resident Monique McClain on stage.
When Martinez fights Sergiy Dzinziruk for the middleweight World Boxing Council Diamond Championship on Saturday, he’ll be doing it for the city seventh-grader, he said.
McClain was forced to leave Woodrow Wilson Middle School in January because of relentless bullying by her classmates. Since then, she’s been trying to keep up with her studies from home. Her family has asked the Middletown Board of Education to provide her with a tutor or place her in another school district. So far, they haven’t had any luck.
On Thursday, Martinez invited Monique, her mother, Alycia, and grandmother, Alexa, to join him and his team at a restaurant at Foxwoods Resort Casino before the press conference. On Saturday, McClain and her mother have V.I.P seats to watch the fight.
“It’s very important to show her support for what she’s going through,” Martinez said in the restaurant, speaking in Spanish with his agent, Sampson Lewkowicz, translating.
The boxer called Monique “a champion,” and explained that he knew the consequences of bullying firsthand, since he was bullied as a child in Argentina.
“It’s a major problem,” he said, adding that both bullies and their parents should be held responsible for their actions, because both bullies and their victims could face lingering problems throughout their lives. “It’s not only your problem, it’s the community’s problem.”
Martinez listened intently as he heard from the McClains about the challenges Monique have faced at school. The bullying, they explained, started in September after Monique had her hair braided, and got worse throughout the school year.
Along with emotional support, Martinez brought gifts, including signed photos, a T-shirt and autographed patches Monique can put on her boxing jacket.
“That will be the most special team jacket anyone could ever have,” said Johnny Callas, who has been coaching Monique for about six months with the Champions of Life program at the Lion’s Den in Middletown.
The program helps young people grow and learn life skills through boxing. Monique said she hasn’t started competing yet, but she hopes to soon. And, she added, Martinez had promised to come to her first fight.
Martinez also offered some words of advice: When you do it from the heart, you succeed, he said.
“If she feels good, I feel better,” Martinez added, giving McClain a hug.
Callas worked with the Charter Oak Boxing Academy to set up Thursday’s meeting. He said he wanted to do something to help Monique, and said Martinez was a great choice because he has campaigned against domestic violence and bullying in schools around the world.
Martinez’s promoter, Lou DiBella, said that when he heard about McClain’s story, he wanted to meet with her and help her.
“Children have to be protected,” DiBella said during the press conference. “That’s why there’s schools, that’s why there’s school systems.”
“Monique, we wish you all the best, and we hope you have fun this weekend,” DiBella added.
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