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Kelly Pavlik and the Hard Road of Boxing
Kelly Pavlik: photo by Holger Keifel
By Thomas Hauser
Most professional fighters have struggled with demons. That’s one of the things that impelled them to become fighters. They’re faced with the constant reality of being punched by men trained in the art of hurting. And if a fighter becomes The Man, it seems as though everyone wants a piece of him.
Kelly Pavlik has been a fighter through much of his childhood and all of his adult life. No matter how many challenges he confronts in and out of the ring, there’s always another dragon to slay on fight night.
Pavlik moved into the spotlight three years ago when he knocked out Edison Miranda in seven rounds. On September 29, 2007, he duplicated that feat against Jermain Taylor to become middleweight champion of the world. A victorious rematch against Taylor and third-round demolition of mandatory challenger Gary Lockett followed.
Pavlik was the pride of Youngstown, Ohio. There was talk of his being the successor to Arturo Gatti as Atlantic City’s flagship fighter. But boxing is an insecure business. There’s no such thing as security in boxing.
On October 18, 2008, Pavlik went up in weight to fight Bernard Hopkins. If he’d won, it would have elevated him to superstar status. Instead, he suffered the first loss of his career. And even though he was still middleweight champion of the world, things weren’t quite the same.
In most sports, an athlete can lose and come all the way back within a short time frame. Boxing is different. Every loss impacts significantly on a fighter’s career.
Pavlik’s first fight after losing to Hopkins was in Youngstown against Marco Antonio Rubio on February 21, 2009. The Chevrolet Centre was sold out.
“That’s the first time I ever saw Kelly nervous before a fight,” Michael Cox (a Youngstown police officer, who’s Pavlik’s friend and one of his cornermen) said afterward. “He didn’t want to disappoint all those people and he knew that he needed to put on a dominating performance.”
Pavlik knocked Rubio out in nine rounds.
Promoter Bob Arum wanted Kelly’s next fight to be in Cleveland. But the eight-percent city tax on top of a five-percent state athletic commission tax made that impractical. Thus, Arum began planning for a June 27th date in Atlantic City against Sergio Mora.
But there was a problem. Pavlik’s promotional contract with Top Rank ran until May 31, 2010. One of the clauses provided that, if Kelly won a world championship, Top Rank would be entitled to promote his next five fights. The Pavlik camp took the position that, once those five fights were held, the contract would terminate even if that occurred before May 31, 2010. Pavlik-Mora would be Kelly’s fifth fight subsequent to winning the title.
Arum said that Team Pavlik’s interpretation of the contract was ridiculous. Moreover, he maintained that he was entitled to a seven-month contract extension (through December 31, 2010) because of time that Kelly had been unable to fight due to injury.
Pavlik-Mora fell through. Then Kelly signed a contract extension that unites him with Top Rank through May 2011. After that, Arum closed a deal for an early-October bout between Pavlik and Paul Williams. But a staph infection that began in Kelly’s left hand forced postponement of Pavlik-Williams until December 5, 2009.
Even then, Pavlik-Williams was in doubt. At a September 29th press conference announcing the new date, dead skin was flaking off Kelly’s hand. Eventually, the fight was cancelled. That led to the sort of bombastic idiocy that plagues boxing; to wit, claims that Pavlik was ducking Williams. The truth was more serious than that.
In early March, while Kelly was playing basketball, the skin over a knuckle on his left hand (where he’d received a cortisone injection several months earlier) burst and began oozing puss. A doctor prescribed antibiotics, but the infection persisted; even after surgery to clean the area out. Further tests revealed the presence of MRSA (methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus), a sometimes fatal infection that resists most antibiotics.
Pavlik was given new medication and had an allergic reaction to one of the antibiotics. That coincided with an overdue visit to a hand specialist in Cleveland.
“As he was looking at me,” Kelly later recalled, “I got the shakes and the shivers and I started swelling up. My face was turning purple. The doctor said, ‘Look, we’ll worry about the hand afterward. Go upstairs to the infectious specialist now.’”
Kelly’s temperature rose to 104.5 degrees. His heart rate was 150 beats per minute. His blood pressure was rapidly dropping.
"I’m not a medical man," Mike Pavlik (Kelly’s father) said afterward. “But he was really close to the edge that day."
Kelly was hospitalized for four days. After two surgeries on his left hand, he needed physical therapy to regain full use of his finger.
“The kid was injured,” Arum said afterward. “He couldn’t make a fist. It wasn’t some fear of Paul Williams. To hear morons talk like that when they have no basis for what they’re saying really makes me sad.”
Meanwhile, the once-adoring local media was turning on Pavlik. In today’s culture, athletes lose their privacy. Some, like Floyd Mayweather Jr, revel in that and act in a way that’s calculated to make their personal life a public spectacle. Others, like Kelly, don’t. They just want to be regular guys.
But in Youngstown, Pavlik isn’t just a regular guy. If he’d left home and moved to a large urban area where he isn’t a local hero, he could enjoy relative anonymity. Loyalty to, and a comfort level with, Youngstown have kept him where he is. That makes him a standard bearer for the entire city and a packhorse for other people’s hopes and dreams.
Larry Holmes (another fighter who stayed close to home) recently noted, “Fighters are human beings. Just because we’re fighters doesn’t mean that we don’t have feelings. And sometimes, people forget that.”
The media acknowledges few boundaries and shows little respect in covering an athlete’s personal life. Nobody dissects the private lives of sports writers. Nobody writes about how many drinks a reporter had at the bar before filing his story or how many pancakes an overweight scribe ate at breakfast.
But in Pavlik’s case, there were reports of heavy drinking and blaring headlines in The Vindicator (Kelly’s hometown newspaper): “Pavlik Fights Off Rumors About His Personal Life” one headline read. Among the rumors: “Pavlik was pulled over for a DUI. He was arrested for carrying a gun. He stabbed someone.”
As Kevin Iole wrote on Yahoo.com, “The rumor mill has worked overtime in Youngstown. Pavlik’s career has taken a hit. A whisper campaign has suggested that he’s hanging with the wrong crowd; that he’s on the verge of financial collapse.”
“It’s been a tough year,” Mike Pavlik said as 2009 drew to a close. “First, Kelly had his health problems. Then there was a turn in the way some of the newspapers wrote about him. There were a lot of rumors. We went day to day, not knowing what to expect. I don’t care that much about the boxing part of it. I’ve come to understand that the boxing business is a terrible business. It’s the selling of human flesh. People don’t even care about what you’ve done for them lately. It’s all about what you can do for them now. I don’t care that much about what other people say. But I care a lot about Kelly’s feelings and the young man inside.”
“It has been a hard summer and fall; for Kelly and for all of us,” Michael Cox added. “It’s very hard to watch someone you care about have to struggle and go through this craziness. The rumors and stories got completely out of control.”
“I honestly wouldn’t wish fame on anybody,” Kelly said. “There are a lot of perks that come with it. I’m well aware of that and I’m thankful for it. But there’s a lot of bad and a lot of stress that comes with fame, too.”
On December 19th, Pavlik returned to the ring and scored a fifth-round knockout over journeyman Miguel Espino in Youngstown. That raised his record to 36-and-1 with 32 knockouts.
Then Kelly made a decision to address some of the personal issues in his life.
Many fighters don’t take care of themselves the way they should. They train for eight weeks and then, between fights, let themselves go. But the work ethic of a good fighter is far more demanding than the work ethic required of most conscientious men and women. And that work ethic extends to a fighter’s lifestyle. He might fight as few as two or three times a year. But the truly great fighters are always on the job. The demands of their trade would overwhelm ordinary people.
“I realized that I’d worked too hard for too long and come too far to let it all slip away from me,” Kelly said. “I decided to do what I had to do to make things right.”
On April 17th in Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City, Pavlik’s journey through boxing placed him in spotlight again; this time against Sergio Martinez.
The 35-year-old Martinez is a remarkable phenomenon. Born in Argentina, he moved to Spain and now lives in Oxnard, California. The first time he stepped into a boxing gym, he was twenty years old. Two years later, he turned pro.
Over the years, Martinez had compiled a 44-2-2 record with 24 knockouts. The blemishes on his ledger are deceiving. One of the draws came twelve years ago in Sergio’s third pro fight. The other was last year against Kermit Cintron in a bout that virtually everyone in attendance thought he won.
As for the losses; Martinez was stopped by Antonio Margarito ten years ago. And last December, he was on the short end of a majority decision after a hotly-contested encounter with Paul Williams. No less an authority than Kelly Pavlik thought that Sergio won that fight.
Pavlik-Martinez was a crossroads bout for both men and Kelly’s first big test since losing to Hopkins. Sergio was confident, ready, and strong; a superbly-conditioned athlete; fast with a solid chin, and a southpaw to boot.
“Kelly will have to be at his best to beat Martinez,” Jack Loew (Pavlik’s trainer) said. “And he will be. Ever since we signed for this fight, I’ve heard people say that Martinez is the wrong style for us. He’s too fast; he’s a left-hander. Let me tell you; Kelly hits harder than anyone Martinez has ever fought. And Kelly has never lost to a lefthander; not in the amateurs or the pros. I don’t care what Martinez does. He doesn’t have enough to beat us.”
“Southpaws that move are tough,” Pavlik acknowledged. “Martinez is a dangerous fighter. But a lot of the time, he’s off-balance. He leaves himself open to get hit. And he’s not as fast as people think he is.”
Pavlik looked good in the days leading up to the fight. There was a glow about him that hadn’t been there since his first outing against Jermain Taylor almost three years ago. He’d been eating better than ever before; no red meat, very little fat. Even his voice sounded different.
“This is a huge fight for me to prove a lot of things to a lot of people,” Kelly said.
The belief was that he’d done what he had to do outside the ring to get back on track in it.
“Kelly has been very motivated and focused,” Michael Cox said. “He really dedicated himself in training camp. There was no complaining. He did everything he had to do. He knows that his star has fallen, and he’s determined to make the next part of his career even better than the first part. He’s aware that, the same way the Miranda fight set the stage for what followed, this fight will go a long way toward determining what happens in the next part of his career.”
“Kelly fought so hard for so long that it took a lot out of him,” Mike Pavlik added. “The last few months, I’ve see a burning desire in him that I hadn’t seen in a while. He wants to fight again.”
Pavlik arrived at Boardwalk Hall and entered his dressing room at 8:30 on Saturday night. The arena was the scene of his greatest triumph (seizing the championship from Jermain Taylor) and also his loss to Bernard Hopkins.
The members of Team Pavlik unpacked their bags. No one had brought Kelly’s socks. There was a call to the hotel, asking a friend to bring them over.
Light conversation between Kelly, his father, and Jack Loew followed. The Cleveland Browns and upcoming National Football League draft were the first subject of discussion.
“I don’t think they gave [recently traded quarterback] Brady Quinn a fair chance,” Mike Pavlik offered.
“He had nothing to work with,” Loew added.
The conversation turned to Tiger Woods.
“I thought sex therapy was to teach you how to do it; not how to stop . . . There’s a new DVD out. Tiger Woods talks about his best eighteen holes.”
HBO production coordinator Tami Cotel came into the room and asked if she could check Kelly’s weight on an HBO scale. At three o’clock the previous afternoon, each fighter had weighed-in officially at 159-1/2 pounds. Martinez now weighed 167. Kelly stepped on the scale. Since the weigh-in, he’d gained eighteen pounds.
The conversation resumed. Kelly fired a series of one-liners about a Youngstown legend named Bear Cabelli, who has a reputation for being tougher than the average guy.
“Bear Cabelli is so tough that he sleeps with a pillow under his gun . . . Bear Cabelli is so tough that he won a stare down with the sun . . . Bear Cabelli is so tough that he slammed a revolving door shut . . . Bear Cabelli is so tough that he killed two stones with one bird . . . When Bear Cabelli puts milk on his Rice Krispies, he’s so scary that Snap, Crackle, and Pop shut the fuck up.”
Loew began taping his fighter’s hands. When he was done, Kelly did some light stretching exercises and shadow-boxed briefly in the center of the room.
There was a quiet moment.
“How do you feel?” Mike Pavlik asked his son.
At ten o’clock, Kelly put on his trunks, socks, and shoes. Top Rank photographer Chris Farina, who was in the room, memorialized the moment.
“I’m glad I’m not a fighter,” Mike said. “I don’t want anyone taking photos of me when I’m getting dressed.”
Referee David Fields came in and gave Kelly his pre-fight instructions.
At 10:22, Lucian Bute vs. Edison Miranda (HBO’s first televised fight of the evening) began. Miranda is a different fighter from what he was when he fought Pavlik. Back then, the Colombian was a feared and ferocious puncher. A disputed loss to Arthur Abraham was the only blot on his record. He has now lost five of his last twelve fights.
All eyes turned toward a television monitor in a corner of the room.
“Miranda is shot,” Jack Loew said.
“He doesn’t even fight back anymore,” Mike noted.
Round one ended. Loew began gloving Kelly up.
Kelly kept an eye on the television monitor. “Bute is a sneaky fighter,” he said. “And he’s a good body puncher.”
Miranda was knocked out in the third round.
Loew warmed Kelly up on the pads.
“Remember; back him up . . . Tight punches . . . Don’t reach with the right hand . . . He might come out firing to make a point. If he does, fire back . . . If he turns, turn with him . . . That’s it . . . Be patient. You’ll catch him.”
Then it was time for battle. “What’s meant to be will be,” Mike Pavlik said.
Every fight is a self-contained drama. Pavlik-Martinez played out in three distinct acts.
Rounds one through four saw Sergio circling elusively, darting in and out as Kelly moved forward. During those rounds, Martinez out-landed Pavlik 61-to 38 and opened a small cut on Kelly’s left eyelid. It was not unlike a matador sticking banderillas into a bull.
In round five, the tide turned. Pavlik had kept the pressure on and it started to pay dividends. Over the four middle rounds, he out-landed Martinez 75-to-57, punctuated by a right hand to the top of the head in round seven that put Sergio down. It was more of a balance shot than a hurting one. Still, it gave Kelly a 10-8 round. After eight stanzas, he was ahead by a point and had taken control of the fight.
In round nine, Martinez regained control. A straight left-hand opened a gash over Pavlik’s right eye. Sergio was all over him like a swarm of bees.
From that point on, the challenger put a beating on the champion. Kelly’s face was a gory mask with blood streaming down both cheeks. Over the final four rounds, he absorbed 112 punches while landing only 51.
This writer scored it 115-112 in favor of Martinez. The three judges turned in similar cards.
Sergio fought a magnificent fight. But several self-inflicted wounds contributed to Kelly’s defeat.
First, Pavlik didn’t use his advantage in weight as effectively as he could have. He was neglectful of Martinez’s body for long periods of time and was too passive when he got in close. He should have leaned on Sergio, pumped punches into his side, and roughed him up. Instead, he landed only twenty-two body blows.
Second, Kelly tired down the stretch. Part of that was due to the demands of the fight. And part of it was because, while he worked hard and lived a disciplined life in the months leading up to April 17th, Martinez had worked hard and lived a disciplined life in the years leading up to the fight. There’s a difference.
If a fighter hasn’t taken care of his body properly for several years, he can’t put everything together in three-and-a-half months. Not if he’s fighting Sergio Martinez.
There was a rematch clause in Kelly’s contract for the fight. If he chooses to exercise it, in order to beat Martinez, he has to use the conditioning that he has developed so far this year as a platform to build on. He can’t backslide and start over again from square one.
A better cutman would also help. For most of Kelly’s career, Miguel Diaz was in his corner. But according to a source in the Pavlik camp, Diaz demanded excessive fees for fights after Pavlik-Hopkins. That and a reported personality conflict led to Miguel being let go. There are other excellent cutmen in boxing. Sid Brumback (who was in Pavlik’s corner against Martinez) has not yet proven himself to be one of them.
Against Martinez, the cutwork in Kelly’s corner was ineffective and the flow of blood was a factor. A big one.
“I was having a hard time seeing,” Pavlik said in his dressing room after the fight.”
Kelly was sitting on the same chair he’d been on a little more than an hour earlier when Jack Loew gloved him up.
His body was streaked with blood.
Mike Pavlik stood by his son. The preceding hour had been particularly painful for Mike. He hadn’t just watched Kelly lose an athletic competition. He’d seen his son get beaten up.
Kelly bowed his head.
“Shit! I hate losing.”
“It’s part of the game,” Mike said. “Nobody stays champion forever.”
“A fucking punching bag. That’s what I was tonight.”
“I’m still proud of you.”
Kelly shook his head.
“For eight rounds, I fought a good fight. The last four rounds, I was a fucking punching bag. They should have put ‘Everlast’ on my forehead.”
“Not many people in history have been middleweight champion of the world,” Mike told his son. “Hold your head high.”
One at a time, family members and friends came over to Kelly, offering hugs and words of consolation. Then he rose from his chair, dressed without showering, and started for the door with Mike at his side.
“I’m going to the hospital to get sewn up,” he said. “I’ll see you guys back at the hotel.”
Thomas Hauser can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. His most recent book (“An Unforgiving Sport”) was published by the University of Arkansas Press.