By Thomas Hauser
Boxing has its own version of The Golden Rule: “Do unto to others as they would do unto you.” On October 18th, Kelly Pavlik
entered the ring at Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City intent upon scoring a decisive victory over Bernard Hopkins
. He didn’t have to knock Hopkins out. But he was committed to fashioning a triumph that left no doubt as to which man was the better fighter. “I want everybody to know that I beat Hopkins,” Pavlik said. “And I want Bernard to know that I beat him too.”
That fit with the plan. Hopkins-Pavlik was supposed to be about Hopkins becoming a building block in the Pavlik legend. Instead, things evolved the other way around.
Pavlik was born and raised in Youngstown, Ohio. The national economy is now experiencing what Youngstown has endured for three decades. Since 1980, as jobs vanished, the city’s population has dropped from 115,000 to 80,000. It has the lowest median income in the United States among cities with 65,000 people or more.
Pavlik has stayed close to his roots. He and his wife live with their 22-month-old daughter in Boardman, a community adjacent to Youngstown. “If people are waiting for him to move to Las Vegas or California, it ain’t gonna happen,” says Kelly’s longtime trainer, Jack Loew.
Within that millieu, Pavlik is the proverbial local boy made good. On September 29, 2007, he dethroned Jermain Taylor to become middleweight champion of the world. Another victory over Taylor and a third-round knockout of Gary Lockett followed. Not only was Kelly undefeated, he fought (as Tim Keown of ESPN: The Magazine
wrote) “like a Marine taking a hill.”
Pavlik never shies away from a challenge, is willing to go in tough, and is a nice guy to boot. He even has a self-effacing sense of humor. During a recent conference call, a reporter asked, “Do you think that you can take the place of Oscar De La Hoya after De La Hoya retires?”
“It would be nice,” Kelly answered. “But I’ve got a couple of things against me. First of all, there’s my looks.”
Pavlik’s success in the ring has made him a celebrity at home. After winning the title, he got some endorsements in the under-$10,000 range. That’s not big money. But if a fighter has been doing landscape work for ten dollars an hour (as Pavlik was in early 2007), it’s a start. Greenwood Chevrolet gave him an SUV in exchange for some autograph sessions and a local commercial.
Ohio State football coach Jim Tressel telephoned and asked Kelly to address the team. Cleveland Browns coach Romeo Crennel also called. Pavlik was invited to throw out the first ball for an American League Championship Series game between the Cleveland Indians and Boston Red Sox. “He was a little nervous about being in the clubhouse because he’s a big Indians fan,” Mike Pavlik (Kelly’s father) recalls. “He walked in there kind of meek. And when the Indians saw him, they rushed up to him.”
Later, Kelly told Joe Scalzo of the Youngstown Vindicator
, “Things like that make you start thinking, ‘I guess I did make it.’” Indeed, Pavlik’s statewide appeal was such that his promoter, Bob Arum (an ardent supporter of Hillary Clinton) prevailed upon him to endorse the New York senator in this year’s Democratic presidential primary in Ohio.
“I was at home and the telephone rang,” Kelly remembers. “I picked it up, said ‘hello’, and someone said, ‘Hi, this is Hillary Clinton.’ I’m like, ‘Sure. Right. Uh-huh.’ She’s trying to convince me it’s really her, and I’m wondering which of my friends is jerking me around.”
There were indications that Kelly could go national. An endorsement deal with Affliction calls for the fledgling clothing company to pay him roughly US$100,000 this year.
But there was also pressure. Ohio State has come up short in college football’s last two BCS championship games. LeBron James has been unable to lead the Cleveland Cavaliers to the promised land. The Cleveland Indians haven’t won the World Series since 1948. The Cleveland Browns have never won a Super Bowl. Kelly was expected to win every time he entered the ring.
After Pavlik knocked out Gary Lockett in June of this year, Jack Loew declared, “As long as Kelly stays in the middleweight division, this is what you’re going to see.” The question was, who would boxing fans see it against next? HBO turned down Marco Antonio Rubio, John Duddy, and Raul Marquez as opponents. It okayed Pavlik against Arthur Abraham, Paul Williams, and Winky Wright, but none of those fights could be made. Arum offered Team Pavlik a million dollars plus an upside to fight Rubio on an independently-produced pay-per-view card. But Kelly’s purse had been $2,500,000 for the Lockett fight and he wanted to stay at that level.
Thus, Team Pavlik looked to opponents in higher weight divisions. Joe Calzaghe wasn’t interested. Pavlik-Hopkins at a catchweight of 170 pounds followed. Each fighter was guaranteed a $3,000,000 purse. After paying twenty percent to his co-managers (his father and Cameron Dunkin), ten percent to Jack Loew, sanctioning fees, other expenses, and taxes, Kelly would walk away from the fight with more than a million dollars. And his title wouldn’t be at risk.
“When we looked and saw who was out there,” Arum explained shortly after the fight was signed, “we realized this was the best fight for Kelly, both from a money standpoint and a notoriety standpoint. A victory over Hopkins will put Kelly in good stead. Nobody has beaten up Hopkins. If Kelly can knock Hopkins out or beat the hell out of him, he’ll be on top of the world.”
But that was easier said than done. Hopkins is one of boxing’s most compelling personalities with skills to match. Bernard’s life story is well-known. In 1982, the year Pavlik was born, 17-year-old Bernard Hopkins
began a much-deserved 56-month stay at Graterford State Penitentiary in Pennsylvania. After his release from prison, he turned to boxing and lost his first fight.
“My friends were selling cocaine, which was big in the eighties,” Hopkins recalls. “They were driving Jaguars and Mercedes, and you know they wanted me to work with them.”
But Hopkins stayed clean. “You never can beat the system,” he says. “You can only beat individuals. But I learned how to work the system and beat the people who run it at their own game.”
A lot of people dislike Bernard. Patrick Kehoe has written, “Hopkins can desecrate a Puerto Rican flag and by implication the people for which it stands, invert the race card, and answer charges rightly leveled against his malice by streaming nonsensical rebuttals as if an arduous life gives him the license to say anything, anytime, anywhere.”
Old allies such as Bouie Fisher and Lou DiBella have been turned into enemies. After winning a split-decision victory over Hopkins earlier this year, Joe Calzaghe declared, “He was a complete ass. Some fighters pretend to be an ass before the fight. But there’s mutual respect afterward, always. That’s a great part of the noble art of boxing. Try to knock each other out in the ring but be gentlemen afterward. [After the fight] I gave him his respect. He then showed the same disdain and disrespect he’d shown before the fight, continuing with this delusional attitude that he’d won.”
Hopkins has a simple response for Calzaghe and everyone else who criticizes him. “I never second-guess my decisions,” he says “because I think long and hard about the decisions I make before I say ‘I do.’ For twenty years, other than boxing issues – and some say I’m right, some say I’m wrong about them – no one has had any reason to question Bernard Hopkins
. So love me, hate me, enjoy me while I’m here. Who are you gonna get a better sound bite from than Bernard Hopkins
There were plenty of sound-bites during the build-up to Pavlik-Hopkins. Surprisingly, few of them came from Bernard. At the August 5th kickoff press conference in New York, he told the media, “I respect Kelly Pavlik
. I have nothing bad to say about Kelly Pavlik
. Kelly Pavlik
became middleweight champion of the world the right way. He earned it.”
In response, Pavlik said, “I want my legacy to be as great as Bernard’s.”
Thus, this time, the sound-bites came from the Internet (the mainstream press having largely ignored the fight). For the most part, they were negative comments based on the belief that Bernard is now more belligerent outside the ring than in it.
Eric Raskin of ESPN.com opined, “Paying to watch Hopkins fight is like paying to watch a pitcher hold a runner on first.” Steve Kim of Maxboxing.com declared, “The problem in selling this fight is the specter of seeing Hopkins do what he does best, which is to take away his opponent’s preferred offensive weapon and suck the life and action out of any fight he’s involved in. If this were hoops, he’d be in the four-corners all game and slow the tempo as soon as the tip-off.”
“Sometimes the way I fight isn’t pretty,” Hopkins acknowledged. “I do what I gotta do.”
Naazim Richardson (Bernard’s trainer) concurred, saying, “A 43-year-old fighter is going to do the things he has to do. Muhammad Ali did the rope-a-dope to extend his career. Bernard has his tricks too.”
But the bottom line was, the world expected a boring fight. And the near-unanimous assumption among the media was that Pavlik would win. Ergo, Kelly’s assignment wasn’t just to beat Hopkins. Jermain Taylor and Joe Calzaghe had already done that. It was to beat Hopkins decisively, thereby establishing himself as boxing’s newest superstar.
That was a tough assignment. Pavlik is a middleweight. He fought the rematch against Jermain Taylor at 166 pounds because Taylor wasn’t willing to make the sacrifices necessary to make weight. But the night of their rematch, both men were really over-the-limit-middleweights.
Pavlik’s size and strength are usually his biggest edge. Against Hopkins, he would be forfeiting that advantage. A crucial element of Kelly’s fight plan would be to wear down Bernard with constant pressure. But in boxing, it’s hard to wear down a significantly bigger foe.
And more significantly, Hopkins would be the smartest, most skilled opponent that Pavlik had faced. “You know how I fight,” Kelly had told fans at an August 27th “pep rally” in Youngstown. “You know my style. Nothing’s gonna change.”
That was the problem. Hopkins knew exactly how Kelly fights. “This kid is so fundamental,” Bernard told Naazim Richardson at the start of training camp. “If I can’t beat him, I should retire.”
“I know that Kelly walks you down with his jab,” Richardson said the week of the fight. “I know that Bernard won’t be able to coast. Kelly will force Bernard to fight. An ass-whipping means nothing to Kelly. Whatever happens, he’ll keep trying and he punches hard enough that you don’t want to get hit. But Kelly is going to realize early that he’s in there with a fighter. He’s been in there before against athletes who boxed a bit. Bernard is all about fighting, and there’s a difference between a great athlete and a great fighter. Kelly has a shotgun for a right-hand. But if you take away the shotgun, he ain’t got nothing. Bernard might not have a shotgun; but he’s got a switchblade, a razor blade, and a dagger. Bernard can’t play basketball. Bernard can’t rap. But Bernard can fight his ass off.”
And Hopkins added, “Kelly Pavlik
wants to knock Bernard Hopkins
out. At least that’s what he says. But I got the book on Pavlik. Comes straight forward. Jab. Good right hand. Determined. Lots of heart. Slow. Not a skilled boxer. Anyone who thinks that I’m just showing up for a payday on October 18 is wrong. The last time I fought in Atlantic City was two years ago against Antonio Tarver. I was a 3-to-1 underdog and Antonio was going to knock me out. Do you all remember that? Now I’m a 4-to-1, 5-to-1 underdog. But I’m not like any of those other guys that Pavlik beat. This fight is going to be two construction workers fighting on a pier when both of them is hungry but one of them is more skilled than the other. That’s my kind of fight. It’s going to be a rough tough fight. I’ll take some career out of Kelly Pavlik
That said; there were a lot of people who thought that Hopkins would take a pound-for-pound pounding. The image of Bernard sucking air and stalling for time in the late rounds against Joe Calzaghe convinced many that Pavlik was a lock. The prevailing view was that Hopkins had bitten off more than he could chew and that he could no longer do what he’d done against Tarver. Jim Lampley spoke for many when he opined, “Bernard Hopkins
late in his career has become a master of the close decision loss.”
Pavlik’s greatest perceived advantage was the difference in age between the fighters. Bernard is 43; Kelly is 26. Freddie Roach (who trained Hopkins for the Calzaghe fight) recalled, “At one time during training for Calzaghe, we asked Bernard to go a few more rounds, and he said ‘no.’ He said he knew his body and he didn’t want to push himself anymore that day. Naazim said that had never happened before. And four times against Calzaghe, Bernard went to the wrong corner at the end of a round. I tried to talk to him about it after the fight, but he didn’t want to listen.”
“Bernard has had a great career,” Roach continued. “He doesn’t need the money. He has nothing to prove. I think he should retire, and I’d definitely rather that he not take this fight. Kelly Pavlik
is a big puncher. He’s a young strong guy, who backs people up well. Bernard isn’t going to be able to lull him into a slow pace. Maybe Bernard is crafty enough to outbox him; but not the way he looked against Calzaghe in the last fight. This is a dangerous fight. I’m a bit worried. My concern is that Bernard might get hurt.”
Jack Loew was in accord. "There comes a day when every old dog has to be put down,” the trainer said. “This will be a good fight for six or seven rounds. Then I see it playing out like Cotto-Margarito. A fighter can back up and take shots for just so long. One way or another, whether it’s the referee or a towel from the corner or Bernard himself, this fight will end early. I think Kelly will stop him in the late rounds.”
As for the possibility of Hopkins seeking an edge by engaging in illegal tactics, Loew warned, “Don’t be surprised if we put Bernard’s nuts in this throat before he touches us low. We’re just as rough as he is on the inside.”
Pavlik covered the remaining bases, saying, “I’ll go in there, throw punches, and make Bernard work all night. The weight is no big deal to me. At 170, I’ll have more energy and snap to my punches. Bernard is a good defensive fighter, but he’s not unhittable. Bernard gets hit, and I hit harder than Calzaghe. They say that Bernard gets in his opponent’s head, but I get in my opponent’s head too. I just do it a different way. Bernard will be thinking about me when he’s lying in bed the night before the fight.”
Joe Scalzo summed things up when he wrote, “Pavlik gets asked about his weight; Hopkins gets asked about his age. Pavlik gets asked about winning by knockout; Hopkins gets asked about losing his recent fights by controversial decisions. Pavlik gets asked about his next fight. Hopkins gets asked, ‘When’s your last fight?’ Not surprisingly, Pavlik is a 4-1 favorite.”
Indeed, rather than debate the outcome of the contest, some insiders openly wondered what would happen when (not if) Hopkins found himself in trouble. Would he (a) fight like a warrior to the point of going out on his shield; (b) foul to gain an edge and, failing that, be disqualified; or (c) feign injury and quit.
Even Hillary Clinton got into the act. The week before the fight, she telephoned Pavlik to thank him for his help in the primary and wish him luck. “The first call,” Kelly noted afterward, “I mean, who would believe that you’re sitting at home and Hillary Clinton calls. By now, it’s not such a shock.”
Meanwhile, as the fight approached, there was one final point to be considered. Pavlik had an 88 percent knockout percentage, but Hopkins had never been knocked out. In fact, Bernard had been on the canvas only twice in his career; both times against Segundo Mercado at high altitude in Ecuador in a bout that was declared a draw.
Thus, Top Rank matchmaker Bruce Trampler sounded a cautionary note when a conversation turned to big-money fights that lay ahead for Pavlik. “Before all that happens,” Trampler warned, “‘A’ Kelly has to win the fight, and ‘B’ Kelly has to win the fight.”
Team Pavlik arrived in Kelly’s dressing room at Boardwalk Hall on Saturday night at 8:45 PM. Several minutes later, Dr. Domenic Coletta of the New Jersey Athletic Control Board came into the room to administer the final pre-fight physical. Everything went according to form until Coletta asked, “Are you on any medication?”
“Did you have a fever?”
“A hundred and one degrees.”
“What have you been taking?”
Mike Pavlik handed a sheet of paper to the doctor. “Here’s what they gave Kelly.”
Coletta scanned the list. Mucinex, penicillin (one shot on Wednesday night), and ciprofloxacin (500 mg twice a day through the day of the fight).
“How do you feel now?”
Coletta finished his work and left. Over the next ten minutes, Mike and Jack Loew exchanged bad jokes. “That’s a new low, no pun intended,” Mike quipped after one particularly bad offering.
Then Mike turned pensive. “This has been an incredible journey and I’m glad to be part of it,” he said. “But when it’s over, I won’t miss it. When your kids are little, you say, ‘When they’re older, I won’t worry about them.’ But you always worry. Little kids, little problems. Big kids, big problems.”