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Kelly Pavlik: The Journey Continues
Kelly Pavlik: photo by Holger Keifel
By Thomas Hauser
Former middleweight champion Tony Zale grew up in the steeltown of Gary, Indiana. In the late-1940s, he won two of three slugfests against Rocky Graziano in boxing’s bloodiest championship trilogy.
A photograph of the U. S. Steel plant in Gary taken years ago tells of the world that Zale came from. A large sign outside the plant reads, “Days Since Last Disabling Injury.” Beneath that is the notation:
Power and Fuel Division
Blast Furnace Division
Sheet-Pin Hot Roll Division
“When a guy don’t want to go back to a certain thing,” Zale said late in life, “that’s what makes him fight.”
HBO commentator Jim Lampley once observed, “The notion that you don’t give up your body to make a living and support your family is an elitist white-collar notion. In the blue-collar world, people do it every day. Laborers who put up high-voltage power wires face constant physical danger. The lungs of coal miners in Appalachia tell a tale of creeping death.”
Kelly Pavlik comes from Youngstown, Ohio; a factory town in the heart of America’s “rust belt.” It’s an area rich in coal and iron that was once the center of steel production in the United States. In the 1970s, the local economy went bad. Steel mills shut down. Youngstown and the surrounding communities never fully recovered.
Pavlik is a professional fighter. That’s how he provides for himself and his family. In the past year, he has beaten Edison Miranda and Jermain Taylor (twice) and annexed the middleweight championship of the world. He is a source of civic pride and Youngstown’s biggest sports hero.
“It’s weird, the way things happened,” Kelly says. “One day, I was ignored; and the next day, people were calling me a savior. I haven’t changed, but a lot of people are treating me different. Go figure. I’m just doing my job.”
On June 7th, Pavlik’s job took him to Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City, where he defended his crown against Gary Lockett. At present, Pavlik has two belts (WBC and WBO) in addition to the Ring Magazine bauble. Lockett was the WBO’s mandatory challenger, although at a March 27 kick-off press conference in New York, the Welshman acknowledged, “I don’t know how I got to number one.”
The fact that Frank Warren is his promoter helped. Lockett’s status within the WBO had far more to do with Warren’s admirable lobbying skills than Gary’s fistic accomplishments. As Showtime boxing analyst Steve Farhood observed, “Mug an old lady and, if you have the right connections, the WBO will rank you seventh.”
Lockett (whose largest previous purse had been US$60,000) was pleased to be in line for a $250,000 pay-day against Pavlik. That left open the issue of whether or not the WBC would sanction the fight. After all, the challenger was unranked by the WBC in February 2008.
No problem. There was a sanctioning fee to be had. In March, Lockett (who had never been ranked in the top forty by the WBC) found himself in the #15 slot and thus eligible for championship competition.
Pavlik said all the right things in the build-up to the fight. “It wasn’t that long ago that I was the number-one contender,” he told the media. “I know the hunger Lockett has for my title.”
It was also noted that Lockett had only been on the canvas once in his career (in a 12-round decision win over Ryan Rhodes in 2006). And there was talk that Gary was a “big puncher” with a puncher’s chance.
But being a big puncher in the school playground isn’t the same as being a big puncher on an elite championship level. And nothing on Lockett’s record suggested that he posed a serious threat to Pavlik.
Kelly would be entering the ring with 33 victories in 33 fights, 29 of those wins coming by way of knockout.
Lockett had similar numbers (30-1 with 21 KOs). But his opposition had been suspect and he’d fought only once in the previous thirteen months (against an opponent from Finland named Kai Kauramaki, who’d lost seven of his last eight bouts and been knocked out nine times).
The challenger was hardly a study in confidence. “I’m a massive underdog,” he acknowledged. “I know that. But if I lose, I’ll have given it my best shot.” That was followed by, “I’m under no illusions; the odds are greatly stacked against me, but it’s not impossible. Maybe I’ll catch him at the right time. Maybe they’re underestimating me. Maybe this, maybe that. Who knows?” Next came, “There are a lot of people who think I don’t deserve the shot. Well, I got here the hard way; fighting on small hall bills for very low money. Anyone who knows me won’t begrudge me my shot.” And finally, “Before [the Pavlik fight] came along, I seriously contemplated retirement. I had better things to do with my life. Boxing is like a job to me. I know a lot of people think you should love boxing, but I don’t. I fell out of love with the sport a long time ago.”
In the absence of a compelling match-up between the fighters, the promotion turned to the trainers for drama.
Pavlik is trained by Jack Loew, whose credentials were questioned before Kelly dethroned Jermain Taylor last year (at which point, Loew became a candidate for “trainer of the year” honors). Lockett is guided by Enzo Calzaghe, who won the “trainer of the year” award and works with numerous fighters (most notably, his son Joe).
An April 30th press release quoted Loew as saying, “I see where Lockett has become inspired by Joe Calzaghe’s victory over Bernard Hopkins and is predicting the same result against Kelly. Maybe Enzo Calzaghe can teach Lockett to slap like a girl, just like Joe. You can get away with that style of fighting against a 43-year-old geezer, but don’t try that against Kelly.”
Then Loew sat back and waited for the fallout, which was fast in coming.
“I had to go on the Internet because I’d never even heard of this person, Jack Loew,” Enzo Calzaghe responded. “All I found was that he paves driveways. When Pavlik is world champion for ten years and has made 21 title defenses, then I will listen to Loew. Pavlik hasn’t even held his title for a year yet.”
For a while, things escalated. It was suggested that, at the final pre-fight press conference, the staredown should be between Loew and Calzaghe. Then Mike Pavlik (Kelly’s father and no-nonsense co-manager) proclaimed, “Kelly’s not a real big advocate of trash talk. Kelly works hard to keep his image clean and he never says anything against fighters. I think it’s time to put a stop to the talking.”
When the final pre-fight press conference came, each trainer expressed nothing but admiration for the opposing camp. Although Loew did wonder aloud, “Why should I have to keep my mouth shut when everyone else in boxing is allowed to say whatever they want? Besides,” he added, “I’m enjoying this. It’s the first time I can remember that I’ve been taller than the other trainer.”
“How tall are you?” Loew was asked.
“Five-seven-and-a-half,” he answered. “And make sure you give me the half inch.”
On June 7th, Pavlik arrived at Boardwalk Hall at 8:30 pm. Kelly is superstitious about certain things. At the request of his camp, he’d been assigned dressing room #115 (the one he’d been in on the night he seized the middleweight crown from Jermain Taylor eight months earlier).
A New Jersey Board of Athletic Control physician came in to conduct a cursory last-minute physical examination.
“You should be taking my blood pressure, not Kelly’s,” Mike Pavlik told the doctor. “I’m a nervous wreck.”
The room was hot and humid. Some fighters like it that way. Kelly doesn’t. Mike asked a maintenance man to bring the temperature down.
Thereafter, Kelly followed a familiar routine. He sat on a chair in the middle of the room, put his legs up on a chair in front of him, and began reading text messages from well-wishers.
Earlier in the month, Mike had told Jason Lloyd of the Lake County News-Herald, “Who could’ve imagined it leading to this? It’s like having a kid out in the backyard throwing a football. You can’t ever imagine him winning the Super Bowl.” Then he’d confided to Joe Scalzo of the Youngstown Vindicator, “You go to a newsstand or a supermarket and you see Kelly’s picture in the sports section and it doesn’t sink in. You see him on the national news. This has definitely been beyond what I ever expected. You can’t prepare for this. There’s no courses to take and no literature to read.”
Now Mike was in his son’s dressing room before yet another battle for the middleweight championship of the world. “I’ll never get used to this,” he said. “I’ve been at every one of Kelly’s fights, and I’ve been nervous before all of them.”
“Which was the toughest for you?” he was asked.
“The first Jermain Taylor fight.”
Kelly looked up from his Blackberry. “I don’t know about you,” he told his father. “But Edison Miranda scared the shit out of me.”
The conversation turned to other sports, with Jack Loew joining in. “Who’s the greatest running back you ever saw?” the trainer queried.
“Jim Brown,” Mike answered.
“The greatest baseball player?”
“Mickey Mantle might not have been the best, but he was my favorite.”
At 9:30, referee Eddie Cotton came in to give the fighter his pre-fight instructions.
At 9:40, Loew began taping Kelly’s hands.
Manager Cameron Dunkin entered and, referencing a rival fight card in Connecticut, announced, “Paul Williams just knocked out Carlos Quintana in the first round.”
A champion dethroned.
At 9:55, the taping was done. Kelly sat down on the floor and began a series of stretching exercises.
Through it all, Mike Cox had stood quietly to the side. Cox is on the Violent Crimes Task Force of the Youngstown Police Department. He and Kelly are friends. On fight night, Mike serves as a cornerman and security guard for Team Pavlik. Now, on impulse, Cox dropped to the floor and did twenty-five push-ups. “Nervous energy,” he explained.
At ten o’clock, Kelly stood up and began shadow-boxing. Then he put on his protective cup and powder-blue trunks.
Cox and John Loew (Jack’s son) began the process of resolving how they’d carry Pavlik’s championship belts to the ring; who would carry which belt and how they’d hold them.
Mike Pavlik massaged his son’s shoulders and upper arms. “Feels like steel,” he said admiringly.
Kelly pointed to his biceps. “These are the wicks,” he told his father. “And these (holding up his fists) are the bombs.”
At 10:20, Daniel Ponce De Leon vs. Juan Manuel Lopez (the first HBO fight of the evening) began. Two minutes and 25 seconds later, it was over with Lopez (the challenger) winning on a first-round knockout. Another champion dethroned.
Kelly gloved up and began hitting the pads with Loew.
“Fight smart,” the trainer told him. “Double the jab. Right hand behind it. He’s gonna try to get close and come at you with an overhand right or hook. That’s all he’s got. Don’t let him in. Now if he comes in at an angle like this --“
Loew simulated a move he expected Lockett to make. Kelly turned, taking the angle away.
“That’s it; perfect. This guy wants to take everything you worked for away from you. Double jab. Right hand. Hook. There you go. One more time.”
Kelly looked sharp and very strong.
Cutman Miguel Diaz greased down Pavlik’s face.
An HBO production assistant came into the room and announced, “You walk in six minutes.”
Moments later, HBO production coordinator Tami Cotel entered. “You’ve got five minutes,” she said.
Kelly smiled. “Actually, it’s five minutes and thirty seconds,” he told her. “The other guy told us six minutes, and that was thirty seconds ago.”
Cameron Dunkin’s cell phone rang. “Unbelievable,” he murmured.
“What happened?” Miguel Diaz asked.
“Sergio Mora just won a decision over Vernon Forrest.”
Quintana, De Leon, and now Mora. Three champions dethroned in less than an hour.
“It’s your night,” Mike Pavlik told his son. “Hit him hard.”
“It took me seven years to get here,” Kelly promised. “I’m not giving it up now.”
The fight that followed had the look of a grown man beating up a boy. Pavlik was sharp. He hadn’t cut corners in training and, if need be, was in shape to go twelve hard rounds. “That’s just the way I am,” he said afterward. “How can you not get up for a fight when you know that someone is coming to punch you in the face?”
Meanwhile, Lockett was overmatched and everyone knew it. He didn’t have the boxing skills to outbox Kelly or the power to knock him out. He landed only one blow of consequence the entire night. “I made a dumb mistake in the first round,” Pavlik said afterward. “I got lazy with my jab, and he caught me with an overhand right. Other than that, I fought a good fight.”
Midway through round one, a jab followed by a right hand to the temple wobbled the challenger.
In round two, a hard right to the body followed by two sharp rights to the head put Lockett in trouble. He took a knee to temporarily avoid further punishment, rose, was subjected to further beating, and took another knee at the 2:41 mark.
At that point, the fight could have been stopped. But referee Eddie Cotton and Enzo Calzaghe let it continue until 1:25 of round three, when Lockett went down for the third time and Calzaghe threw in the towel. In less than eight minutes, Pavlik landed 66 power punches. It was a world-class performance on his part and a terribly one-sided fight.
At the post-fight press conference, Bob Arum (Pavlik’s promoter) called Kelly “a symbol of America” and “the best middleweight I’ve ever seen.”
“I never saw Sugar Ray Robinson,” Arum conceded. “But I saw Carlos Monzon; I saw Marvin Hagler; I saw Thomas Hearns. And Kelly Pavlik is better than any of them.”
That’s a bit hyperbolic. But right now, Pavlik is the best middleweight in the world and getting better. As Oliver Holt of The Mirror wrote, “He’s a proper champion; not just an alphabet-soup titleholder.”
Pavlik sets a fast pace and fights exciting fights. He’s learning to be relentless without being reckless. He’s likeable and someone who all boxing fans (not just fans from Youngstown) can root for.
Also, in terms of marketability, the color of his skin doesn’t hurt. Earlier this month, Thom Loverro of the Washington Times observed, “Pavlik is a white American champion, virtually a museum piece in the sport. There hasn’t been a white American champion of note in twenty years. And there hasn’t been a white American middleweight champion of note since Joey Giardello more than forty years ago.”
Arum would like to promote Pavlik against Joe Calzaghe at the Thomas and Mack Center in Las Vegas this autumn with the financial backing of Planet Hollywood. Conceivably, he could do it on pay-per-view in conjunction with Showtime rather than HBO. “Think about the synergy we could have,” the promoter says wistfully. “A countdown show on CBS; promos on college football and NFL telecasts.”
But the fight that Calzaghe really wants is against Roy Jones Jr in the United Kingdom at 175 pounds; not Pavlik in Las Vegas at 168. Thus, it’s more likely that Kelly will return to the ring against a less imposing foe, the most likely options being WBC mandatory challenger Giovanni Lorenzo, journeyman Marco Antonio Rubio, and John Duddy. Arthur Abraham is also a possibility if the IBF belt-holder survives a June 21st encounter with Edison Miranda.
“It doesn’t matter to me who the opponent is,” Kelly says. “My job is to fight. I just get in the ring and do the same thing every time. If they tell me to fight Godzilla, I’ll fight him.”
But Pavlik needs more inquisitors like Jermain Taylor and Miranda (not more sanctioning-body mandatory challengers) to prove his greatness. For now, it’s premature to be thinking about his place in history.
As for Gary Lockett; he’s now a line in the record book beneath Pavlik’s name. And someday, he’ll tell his grandchildren that, once upon a time, he fought for the middleweight championship of the world.
Thomas Hauser can be reached by email at email@example.com