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Taylor-Pavlik: “And NEW Middleweight Champion of the World . . .”
Kelly Pavlik (photo: Holger Keifel)
By Thomas Hauser
For most of the world, a prize fight is a sporting event, entertainment, a show. For a fighter, each bout carries the potential to be a crucial turning point in his life.
Kelly Pavlik is a fighter, a self-described “skinny white kid from Ohio.” He has a thin muscular body and knows one way to fight: going forward, punching. In high school, he worked odd jobs to get the money to go to amateur tournaments. More often than he cares to remember, he was bussing tables in a Youngstown restaurant when his high school classmates came in for something to eat after a school dance.
On September 29th, years of sacrifice paid off for Pavlik, when he dethroned Jermain Taylor at Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City to become middleweight champion of the world.
Pavlik was born on April 4, 1982. His father, Mike, was a steelworker, who now works as an insurance agent for AIG. His mother, Debbie, is a cook at Hardee’s. The family has Slovak, Sicilian, Irish, and German roots.
Kelly lived at home with his parents until autumn 2006. He now lives in Boardman (a Youngstown suburb) with Samantha Kocanjer and their sixteen-month-old daughter, Sydney.
When Pavlik was nine, he took up combat sports. At first, he experimented with martial arts. “But it was dull,” he says. “There was no contact; so after a while, I wanted to try boxing. My parents were against it. I had to fight tooth and nail to get them to let me do it. Finally, they gave in and my mom took me to the gym.”
The gym was the Southside Boxing Club; a converted pizza joint where a Youngstown native named Jack Loew taught children to box. “I loved it from the start,” Kelly remembers. “When coach finally let me fight, I went to war with everybody in the gym.”
Pavlik’s first amateur fight came at age nine in a Golden Gloves competition between Youngstown and Steubenville. His opponent was 11-year-old Anthony Batisella (the Ohio State Fair Junior Olympic Champion and a “veteran” with thirty amateur fights to his credit). Kelly won a three-round decision. Thereafter, he kept improving. “I was tall and awkward,” he remembers. “At age nine, I already wore size twelve shoes. I couldn’t do the Ali shuffle because I kept tripping over my feet. But I loved boxing. In other sports, you have teammates who help carry the load. The best thing about being a fighter is, when you win, you know you did it.“
Over the next eight years, Pavlik compiled an amateur record of 89 wins against 9 losses. He was never knocked down or given a standing-eight count. He also played high school baseball (he was a catcher) and football (running back and cornerback). “But I didn’t have the size or speed to make it in football,” he says. “And in baseball, no matter how good you are, it’s almost impossible to make it to the top level. I was good in boxing and I was winning, so I figured why not get serious about it.”
“I really didn’t think he’d turn pro,” Mike Pavlik says of his son. “His mother and I thought he’d tire of it, and that would have made us happy. Now, as a father, there are times when I just sit there and smile; I’m so proud. But there’s also a terror and fear in seeing your son in combat. And make no mistake about it; boxing is combat.”
Pavlik turned pro in 2000 with Cameron Dunkin and his father as co-managers. Top Rank (his promoter) was grooming him for stardom and put him in showcase bouts on the undercard of De La Hoya-Vargas and De La Hoya-Hopkins. But a fighter’s career moves slowly in the early going, and Kelly was further hampered by tendon problems in his right hand. To supplement his income, he washed dishes and took other jobs. Until the start of this year, he did occasional landscape work for ten dollars an hour to help make ends meet.
Then, on May 19, 2007, Pavlik’s life changed. He knocked out Edison Miranda in seven rounds. That performance silenced a lot of doubters. Suddenly, Kelly was no longer a protected white kid. He was the mandatory challenger to middleweight king Jermain Taylor and, in the eyes of his fans, “Heir Apparent” to the middleweight throne.
Meanwhile, Taylor was struggling. Jermain won the undisputed middleweight championship on July 16, 2005 with a 12-round decision over Bernard Hopkins. Five months later, he duplicated that feat and seemed poised for superstardom.
Taylor is skilled in the ring, handsome, and likeable, with a gift for charming people. “I’m sorry I’m late,” he told reporters at the kick-off press conference for his 2006 fight against Winky Wright. “I was chasing my daughter around. I had to take her to day care, and she was tough to catch.” Then he observed, “This is weird. I’m used to being up here arguing with Bernard Hopkins. Winky came over and shook my hand. I didn’t know what to do."
But by then, Taylor had done something self-destructive. After his second victory over Hopkins, he’d allowed himself to be separated from one of the mainstays of his success as a fighter. Pat Burns (who had trained Jermain from his first pro fight) was at odds with Ozell Nelson (the “father figure” in Jermain’s life). At Nelson’s urging, Burns was dismissed and Emanuel Steward was brought in to work with Jermain.
When Burns was removed, Taylor lost the boxing voice that he trusted most. His subsequent performances reflected Pat’s absence. Against Wright, Jermain fought without his usual fire and salvaged a draw. That was followed by lackluster victories over Kassim Ouma and Cory Spinks.
There’s a time-honored maxim in boxing that holds, “If a fighter isn’t getting better, he’s getting worse.” With each succeeding fight after Burns’s departure, Jermain’s performance declined.
The Taylor camp responded by noting that Wright, Ouma, and Spinks were all former champions and southpaws, which made them difficult to fight. But after a while, the whining about opponents’ styles wore thin. Wright, Ouma, and Spinks were also smaller men who had come up from 154 pounds to face Jermain. And the Spinks fight was particularly troubling. Against a smaller light-punching foe, Taylor had seemed to be out of shape and a bit gun-shy.
“Jermain has a lot of skills,” Naazim Richardson (who works with Bernard Hopkins) said after Taylor-Spinks. “But mentally, he wasn’t ready to be champion.”
“At one time, you had ten guys in the middleweight division who could have been the champion,” opined Don Turner (who trained Evander Holyfield and Larry Holmes). “Now the champion can’t even be a champion.”
Taylor wasn’t particularly bothered by criticism from the boxing community. “Let ‘em talk,” he said. But he was stung by criticism from the media in his home state of Arkansas; some of it cruel. One radio talk-show host in Little Rock went so far as to tell his audience, “We have Jermain Taylor with us today.” Then he introduced a cohort who imitated Jermain’s stutter.
In sum, Taylor was falling short of his fans’ expectations and, more importantly, his hopes for himself. It seemed as though the joy had gone out of fighting for him. His next career move was both perilous and obvious.
People wanted to see how good Taylor still was and how good Kelly Pavlik could be. Taylor-Pavlik would be a fight between the middleweight champion of the world and a hard-punching undefeated legitimate number-one contender. With one good win, Jermain could wipe away the residue of three disappointing performances and begin the process of restoring the lustre that had worn off his crown.
“It took longer than I thought it would,” Pavlik said when the contract was signed. “Longer to get on HBO, longer to be in the top five, longer to make good money. Seven years is a long time.”
When serious pre-fight training for Taylor-Pavlik begin, Jermain went to the Poconos, where he worked for eight weeks with Emanuel Steward, Ozell Nelson, and Joey Gamache. Pavlik trained in Youngstown, maintaining the same routine with the same people that he’d been with from the start.
Youngstown has gotten old. The city has a proud boxing tradition, having sired former champions Ray Mancini, Jeff Lampkin and Harry Arroyo. But it was hit hard by the economic downturn of the 1970s and never recovered. Steel mills closed and factories shut down. Unemployment is still high.
“I like training at home,” Pavlik says. “Everything I need is there. The gym, the Iron Man Warehouse (where he does much of conditioning work). I can walk out the door and go running. My whole family is nearby. Everything is the way I want it to be for me to get ready to fight.”
Pavlik’s training was overseen by Jack Loew, the only trainer that Kelly has ever had. Loew is also the owner and sole employee of a company called The Driveway Kings. He seals asphalt driveways for a living. One week before Taylor-Pavlik, he was sealing driveways in the morning before going to the gym.
As might be expected, there have been whispers about Loew . . . “He’s an amateur . . . He doesn’t know how things are done in the bigtime . . . Kelly needs a professional trainer.”
But Mike Pavlik, who fervently guards his son’s interests, said shortly before the big fight, “Jack Loew knows boxing. I’m not worried about that. And he understands Kelly very well, which is just as important.”
Loew, for his part, says, “Kelly has stuck with me and I’ve stuck with him through some rough times. I might not be good for someone else, but I’m good for Kelly.”
After Taylor-Pavlik was scheduled, the fighters were respectful of one another. “Kelly Pavlik is a fighter just like me,” Taylor said. “He comes to fight; no running, no holding.” Pavlik responded in kind, saying, “Jermain is a great fighter. He’s the world champion for a reason. He’s tough, he’s big, and he’s fast for his size. I’m looking forward to the challenge of being in the ring with him.”
Then things changed. Emanuel Steward began trash-talking, which isn’t his style.
“Pavlik is pretty much a media creation,” Steward declared. “Kelly had a good performance against Edison Miranda. But Miranda isn’t all that good and, against Kelly, he had a problem making weight. There is absolutely no way Kelly Pavlik is operating on the same level that Jermain is on right now, mentally or physically. He’s a basic right-handed fighter. Jermain will control him with his jab and knock him out in about three rounds.”
That was followed another Steward declaration: “Kelly Pavlik has never been in with a fighter on Jermain’s level. Kelly is a Versus fighter. Jermain is an HBO fighter. The smaller guys that Jermain fought were world champions. Kelly has fought a bunch of B-list smaller guys. This will be like jumping from junior high school to college for Kelly. Jermain Taylor will knock out Kelly Pavlik. It will be a tough fight for one round at most.”
Thereafter, Emanuel went into overdrive, proclaiming, “In all the years I’ve been training fighters, I’ve never had a fighter in better shape mentally or physically than Jermain is now. I’ll be honest with you. Even if I was Marvin Hagler or Sugar Ray Robinson, I wouldn’t want to be fighting this Jermain Taylor.”
And Ozell Nelson put his two cents in, saying, “This fight is going to be easy pickings. They better have Pavlik ready because, the way Jermain sees it, he’s going to break something off in Pavlik.”
Even Taylor strayed from form, declaring, “I plan on beating Kelly down. I’m supposed to say that he’s a great fighter. But he’s not. He’s slow. He doesn’t have a lot of head movement. The only thing I see good that he does is that he’s a strong fighter. Other than that, nothing. I’m going to whup him easily.”
One gets the sense that, if Taylor and Pavlik were neighbors, they’d be in each other’s home from time to time. One can imagine them sitting on the sofa, side-by-side, watching Ohio State play Arkansas in football. Their personalities seem to be compatible.
Pavlik is gracious and soft-spoken. “I’m pretty low-key,” he says. “I don’t care about flashiness. I like being at home or hanging around my parents house. I play softball and a little golf.” Taylor is also immensely likeable. “I try to keep a level head about all the attention I receive and never forget where I came from,” he told the BBC earlier this year.
But by its trash-talking, Team Taylor was casting its fighter as the heavy.
“Jermain is running his mouth, saying he’s going to break my face,” Pavlik said in response to the taunts. “I hope he comes to do that because he’s going to have to make it a fight to do that.”
In truth, an intelligent case could be made for victory by either fighter. Taylor’s partisans were bouyed by the fact that Jermain had faced off against present or former world champions seven times and survived three fights against Bernard Hopkins and Winky Wright. He’d never been on the canvas as an amateur or a pro.
Jermain would have an edge in hand-speed over his opponent. Add to that the fact that Pavlik doesn’t move his head enough and tends to bring his left hand back low after throwing his jab. Against Miranda, Kelly had showed he could take a punch. But could he take jab after jab and combinations?
Taylor had fought through adversity. He’d suffered a bad scalp wound against Bernard Hopkins. His left eye had been shut by Winky Wright. Each time, he’d emerged with the crown. His will is strong. He had gone twelve rounds seven times. By contrast, Pavlik had gone nine rounds once. Kelly had never heard the ring announcer say, “round ten . . . round eleven . . . round twelve.” By the time round ten rolled around against Jermain, Pavlik would have thrown a lot of punches. And word was that he was struggling to make weight. If the fight went long, rounds ten through twelve could be harder than Kelly anticipated. Taylor might even stop him late.
But the case for a Pavlik victory was equally strong. Pavlik has a solid chin and power in both hands. He was expected to hit Taylor harder than Jermain had ever been hit. “Kelly sees a hole in the dike, and he’s going to break through it with a sledgehammer,” Loew said. “The longer this fight goes, the worse it will be physically for Jermain.”
“Jermain is a great fighter, but I see him declining,” Pavlik added. “I don’t know if it’s the money he’s made or changing trainers or something else; but he seems to have slipped. It’s been a long time since he fought a natural 160-pounder who can hit, so we’ll see what happens when I’m firing away. We’ll see how he adapts when I’m throwing seventy or eighty punches a round with power on each shot. A lot of things can happen during a fight. Some of them are good, and some of them are bad. But they think I’m just a slow white kid, and I’ve got a few surprises for them.”
And then there were the intangibles, which seemed to weigh in Pavlik’s favor. Kelly was peaking mentally while, behind the bravado, Jermain seemed to have lost some of his belief in himself. Kelly appeared to be more comfortable than Jermain with who he is and where he is in his life right now.
“On their recent performances, I’ll go with Pavlik,” Joe Calzaghe observed. “Their skills are about equal. But boxing is a hungry sport, and Pavlik is a hungry fighter. Taylor looks as though he has lost the hunger for boxing.”
“Jermain is capable of beating Kelly,” Naazim Richardson offered. “But I think he’ll overreact to some of the negative things that have been said about him and fight a brave fight instead of a fight that gives him the best chance to win.”
That was Pat Burns’s concern. “If Jermain goes into the ring with the attitude that he can simply out-punch Kelly or out-tough Kelly, he’s making a mistake,” Burns said several days before the fight. “That would be giving up his edge in skills and playing into Kelly’s hands. There’s no secret to what Kelly does. He’ll come right at Jermain and pressure him from the start. Jermain isn’t a one-punch knockout artist. He hits line-drive singles and doubles, not home runs. If Jermain wins, it will be by chopping the tree down punch by punch. Kelly won’t fall with one blow.”
“I’d tell Jermain to box Kelly early,” Burns continued. “Don’t bang with him. Stay outside; pepper him with jabs. If Kelly gets inside, tie him up. Kelly is big and Kelly is strong, but Jermain can break him down with the jab and take control later in the fight. That’s what should happen if Jermain is in shape and has a good fight plan. But what I’m afraid will happen is that Jermain won’t be in great shape and he’ll abandon his jab. Believe it or not, Kelly might start to outjab him. And when Jermain drops his left hand, which he does no matter how many times you tell him not to, Kelly will land some big right hands over the top.”
Meanwhile, more than one observer was moved to note that Taylor-Pavlik seemed eerily similar to the first fight between Taylor and Bernard Hopkins. Only now, Pavlik was the challenger stepping up in class and Jermain was the big-time fighter speaking disdainfully about how he’d crush the favorite son of Youngstown, Ohio. He was talking down to Kelly the same way that Hopkins had talked down to him.
At a pre-fight press conference for Hopkins-Taylor I, Bernard had declared, “Jermain has the talent to take my place one day. One day. But not now; not against me.” At the final pre-fight press conference for Taylor-Pavlik, Jermain spoke virtually the same words about his opponent. And the Pavlik camp was getting angry.
“The people around Taylor can’t get any more arrogant than what they are,” Mike Pavlik said.
And Jack Loew declared, I’m tired of hearing how great Emanuel Steward is. I’ve never disrespected Emanuel Steward, but he’s disrespecting me. I like Jermain; he’s good for the sport. But I don’t think Jermain is a great fighter, and I think all this talking that Steward is doing is nothing but trying to build his fighter’s confidence. Jermain makes as many mistakes as Kelly does; sometimes more. If Jermain stands and trades with Kelly, Kelly will knock him out early.”
One day before the fight, the boardwalk in Atlantic City was a sea of scarlet, grey, and white (Ohio State football colors). Ohio had embraced Pavlik. The Youngstown Vindicator (Kelly’s hometown newspaper) featured a separate index labeled “Pavlik coverage” on the main page of its website. It was above the section for Ohio State football even though the Buckeyes were undefeated through four weeks of the season. General Motors planned to shut down the late shift at its plant in Lordstown (near Youngstown) on Saturday night because so many of its workers planned to stay home and watch the fight.
The fighters weighed in on Friday evening at six o’clock. Five thousand Pavlik supporters had journeyed from Ohio to Atlantic City, and a substantial number of them were in the Palladium Ballroom at Caesars to witness the ritual.
Prior to the Spinks fight, Taylor had experienced trouble making weight. Thirty hours before the weigh-in for that encounter, he’d tipped the scales at 169 pounds.
“This is my last fight at 160,” Jermain said after signing to face Pavlik. “I’ve been fighting at 160 since I turned pro. With my body frame, it’s too difficult and it’s not healthy to make 160.” But a revised training regimen had put Taylor on track to make weight for Taylor-Pavlik. On Thursday morning, he’d weighed 163. The final pounds would be lost through routine drying out.
Pavlik, by contrast, was struggling to make weight. At 6-feet-2-inches, he’s tall for a middleweight. His face is drawn with hollows around his eyes in the best of circumstances, and the rigors of reaching 160 were preying upon him. On Thursday afternoon at 4:30, he’d been on the roof terrace at Bally’s, wearing a rubber suit, hitting the pads with Jack Loew. From there, he’d gone to the steamroom, which he visited again at nine o’clock on Thursday night and also on Friday morning. As late as 4:00 pm on Friday (two hours before the weigh-in), he was checking his weight on the official scale at Caesars.
“Making 160 is harder now than it used to be,” Kelly acknowledged. “I don’t have the same bounce in my legs that I did before. It’s the last few pounds that drain a fighter. They’re the ones that hurt.”
Taylor weighed in at 159 pounds; Pavlik at 159-1/2. Then the fighters posed side-by-side, and Jermain flexed his biceps. They looked like mountains.
“I’m not impressed,” said Michael Cox (a Youngstown Police Department patrolman, who’s Kelly’s friend and would serve as the third man in Pavlik’s corner on fight night). “You punch with your body, not your biceps. Look at Jermain. He’s got biceps, but the rest of him is less developed than it was before.”
After the weigh-in, Pavlik began the process of replenishing his body with a dinner of steak and pasta. In the preceding weeks, Team Taylor had frequently referenced an encounter between Jermain and Kelly that occurred at the 2000 Olympic Trials. Jermain had won a decision in that fight, although, during the build-up to Taylor-Pavlik, he’d conceded, “To be honest, I don’t remember it.”
“It was a good fight,” Pavlik said, sipping from a bottle of water as he recovered from making weight. “Jermain won. I’m not going to take that away from him. But he was 21 years old with a lot of amateur experience, and I was a 17-year-old kid. I’m a grown man now.”
Meanwhile, Taylor was in a strange place. For his entire career, he’d been the darling of Little Rock, Arkansas. But Little Rock wasn’t supporting him for this fight the way Youngstown was supporting Pavlik. For the first time as a pro, Jermain would be entering an arena with the crowd overwhelmingly in favor of his opponent.
Emanuel Steward was playing upon that fact. Five days before the fight, he’d told Chris Givens of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, “The biggest factor in this fight is Little Rock, Arkansas, and the rejection Jermain gotten in that town. My advice to Jermain, the way to get even, is to be a winner. I’m going to be honest with you. I’ve never seen this animosity in a fighter in training before, and this isn’t even directed at another fighter. There’s so much tension because of the Little Rock situation. I’ve never had a fighter train with such focus and intensity. You can almost see he’s about to explode.”
It helps a fighter to have something larger than himself to flow into. When Taylor fought Hopkins, he’d felt as though the entire state of Arkansas was behind him. Now, in an effort to motivate him, he was being told that Arkansas had abandoned him. But that was a misreading of Taylor’s psyche. Unlike many fighters, Jermain isn’t fueled by anger.
On Saturday night, Kelly Pavlik entered his dressing room in Boardwalk Hall at 8:34. He was wearing a gray warm-up suit with a scarlet stripe down each leg and white piping. Mike Pavlik, Jack Loew, Cameron Duncan, Michael Cox, John Loew (Jack’s son), and Mike Pavlik Jr (Kelly’s oldest brother) were with him. Miguel Diaz, who has worked Kelly’s corner since his first pro fight, was already there.
The preliminary fights were underway. In the first bout of the evening, Ray Smith (one of Taylor’s sparring partners from Little Rock) had been knocked out by Richard Pierson (a Pavlik sparring partner). Then heavyweight Terry Smith (also from Little Rock) lost a six-round decision to Robert Hawkins.
“I got good news for you,” Diaz told Kelly. “Both of Jermain’s Taylor’s guys lost.”
The dressing room had seen better days. The industrial carpet was worn and the vinyl-topped rubdown table was scarred with discolored tape covering multiple gashes. But it was luxurious compared to some of Kelly’s past surroundings. For early pro fights, he’d dressed in storage rooms and hallways and fought in makeshift arenas like an old flea market with tiles missing from the ceiling.
Lee Samuel’s (Top Rank’s director of publicity) came into the room. “Seven years of hard work pays off tonight,” he said.
“Seven years for you guys,” Jack Loew told him. “Fifteen years for me and Kelly.”
A few minutes later, referee Steve Smoger entered and gave Pavlik his final pre-fight instructions. Dr. Sherry Wulkan of the New Jersey Board of Athletic Control administered a final pre-fight physical. When they were done, Kelly yawned. Then he began text-messaging friends.
“Oklahoma got beat pretty good today,” Loew said,
“Texas too,” Mike Pavlik added. Then Mike pointed toward the HBO television monitor by the door. “Too bad we can’t get Ohio State on that thing.”
Kelly stopped text-messaging long enough to pull up some college football scores. “Ohio State is losing to Minnestoa,” he said.
“What?” his father uttered in disbelief.
Kelly smiled. “Just kidding. The Buckeyes are up 14-0; 7:22 left in the second quarter.” He put down his cell phone and stretched out his legs on a folding chair in front of him.
“Who do you like next week; Pacquiao or Barrera,” Cameron Dunkin asked the group at large.
“Pacquiao,” Mike Pavlik answered.
Dunkin turned toward Jack Loew. “And you?”
“Really?” Dunkin said in surprise.
“Three years ago, I’d have said Barrera,” Kelly offered. “But the way they are now, I don’t see Barrera in the fight.”
Larry Merchant came in for a brief pre-fight interview. “I’ve waited for this for seven years,” Pavlik told him. “I just want to get in there and let my hands go. He’ll have to keep up with me.”
At 9:41, Kelly lay down on the carpet and began a series of stretching exercises. Ten minutes later, he stood up. “Time to put my soldier gear on,” he said.
Shoes first. Then his trunks; grey with red, white, and blue trim.
The conversation around the room was casual and low-key; what one might expect to hear in the gym before a sparring session.
Loew began wrapping Kelly’s hands. Throughout training, the muscles in the fighter’s back had been tighter than he would have liked. Now, as Loew wrapped, Mike Pavlik massaged his son’s back and shoulders.
Mike had been a constant presence in Atlantic City. Broad-shouldered with a shaved head, he looks as though he could bench-press the Empire State Building. He was enjoying the journey and, at the same time, looking after his son.
The odds had been virtually even in the days leading up to the fight, with the “smart” money on Taylor and the Youngstown money on Pavlik. In the past twenty-four hours, the professional money had come in, making Jermain an 8-to-5 favorite.
That was understandable. Kelly had struggled to make weight. He had a history of tendon problems with his right hand, and his nose had been banged up pretty good in training camp.
Jack Dempsey once observed, “Any nose hurts when it get hits.” Bleeding from the nose cuts off part of a fighter’s air supply. And a week earlier, Kelly had come down with a cold. His nose was still running a bit.
Michael Cox checked his cell phone. “Ohio State is winning; 23-7,” he said. “Nine minutes left in the third quarter.”
At 10:17, the taping was done.
“How are we doing?” Mike Pavlik asked.
“I’m very very confident,” Loew told him. “Nothing to do for this boy anymore but let him fight.”
Kelly gloved up and began hitting the pads with his trainer.
“Stay behind the jab,” Loew instructed. “Jab, right, jab, right.”
Each time, the follow right was a bit off target.
“Stay behind the jab and relax . . . There. That’s it. Double jab. Now let it go.”
The punches began landing with explosive power.
When the pad-work was done, Kelly alternated between pacing back and forth and shadow-boxing.
Miguel Diaz put Vaseline on Kelly’s face.
The fighter hit the pads with Loew one last time.
“That’s it . . . Wow . . . Nice and easy . . . Push him back with that big long jab. Double it up . . . There you go. Back him up and you win.”
“Two minutes and you walk,” Team Pavlik was told.
Kelly stood up and moved toward the door.
There had been no music; no shouting; no one calling out “What time is it?” Just quiet confidence and calm.
Michael Cox checked his cell phone one last time. “The Buckeyes won; 30 to 7,” he announced.
Mike Pavlik put an arm on Kelly’s shoulder. All that work, all those years; it comes together now,” he told his son. “You were born to be here tonight.”
Youngstown was in the house. That was clear as the fighters made their way to the ring. The crowd made it sound as though the bout was being fought in Ohio. There was a thunderous roar for Pavlik and loud boos for Taylor.
A lot of things are said in the days leading up to a fight. None of them matter once the bell rings.
Taylor came out aggressively in round one, going right after Pavlik. He was quicker than the challenger and his hands were faster. All three judges gave him the round. When the stanza was over, Jack Loew told his charge, “Control the pace. Be patient. Stay behind the jab. It’s a basic fight.”
Round two began with more of the same. “I was surprised,” Pavlik said later. “I thought he’d try to box me more, but he came to fight. He has hand-speed and he can punch.”
Definitely, he can punch. Midway through round two, Taylor timed a right hand over a sloppy Pavlik jab. The blow landed high on the challenger’s head. Pavlik staggered backward, and the champion followed with a 15-punch barrage that put Kelly down.
“I was scared to death,” Mike Pavlik admitted later. “That’s the worst feeling I’ve ever had in my life. I wouldn’t have cared if the referee had stopped it. To be honest; I was hoping it was over.”
“The first thing that went through my mind,” Kelly said in his dressing room after the fight, “was, ‘Oh, shit.’ But I heard the count. I was aware at all times. I told myself, ‘Get up; get through this.’”
Pavlik rose at the count of two, but there were 88 seconds left in the round. “I was shaky,” he admitted. “That right hand hurt. I’ve been knocked down before but there was never a buzz. It had always been a balance thing. This time, there was a tingle and my legs weren’t so good. I did what I could to survive. He hit me with some more hard shots, but I got through the round. Some guys quit when they get knocked down, and some get back up.”
There comes a time when a fighter has to dig deep within himself by himself. In the corner after round two, Kelly managed a weak smile. “I’m okay,” he told Loew. But he was bleeding from the nose and mouth.
“Stay on that double fucking jab,” Loew ordered. “There’s a lot of time left. You have ten more rounds to do your job.”
Then, incredibly, Pavlik won round three. The punches that Taylor had thrown in the second round seemed to have taken more out of the champion than the challenger. Jermain paced himself in the stanza rather than following up on his advantage. Pavlik threw 99 punches over the three-minute period, earning the nod on each judge’s scorecard.
The die was cast. Taylor was faster. He was ahead on points throughout the bout. But inexorably, Pavlik was walking him down with non-stop aggression behind a strong double jab. More and more often, the champion found himself having to punch his way out of a corner. When the fight moved inside and one of the challenger’s hands was tied up, he fought with the other rather than clinch. He made Jermain fight every second of every round.
“Jermain has a chin,” Pavlik acknowledged afterward. “I hit him with some punches, flush, right on the button early, and he didn’t budge. But then he started to wear down. In the fifth round, I thought I hurt him a bit against the ropes. But he came back with a right hand that came close to putting me in trouble again, so I reminded myself to be careful. In the seventh round, I hit him with another good right hand and his reaction was different. I saw his shoulders sag. There was that little buckle in his knees, and I knew I had him.”
When the right hand that Pavlik was referring to landed, Taylor backed into a corner again. Kelly followed with a barrage of punches. “Jermain went limp,” referee Steve Smoger said later. “He was totally gone, helpless.”
Smoger stepped between the fighters. Two minute and fourteen seconds into round seven, Kelly Pavlik was the new middleweight champion of the world.
It was an important night for boxing. Millions of fans saw Taylor-Pavlik because it was on HBO, not pay-per-view. There was lots of action. And Pavlik put on a show reminiscent of Arturo Gatti’s never-say-die, blue-collar, ethnic appeal. It’s rare that a fighter comes back to win after finding himself in the circumstances that Pavlik found himself in during round two. But Kelly did. Fighting him is starting to look like playing Russian roulette with five bullets in the gun.
“Boxing fans are hungry for a new guy to come around who goes in the ring and takes care of business and doesn’t shoot his mouth off in a negative way,” Kelly said last month. “When Ali was running his mouth, he had something to say. Too many of the guys today don’t say anything worth listening to and they aren’t even funny.”
Taylor never assumed the role of poster boy for boxing that was envisioned for him when he dethroned Bernard Hopkins. Maybe Pavlik will. But Jermain shouldn’t be written off too quickly. His best days as a fighter aren’t necessarily behind him. In round two, he was one punch away from beating Pavlik. All three judges had him ahead at the time of the stoppage. And the more Bernard Hopkins wins, the better Taylor’s two victories over him look.
Losing is part of boxing. Losing respect is something else. It would be a terrible injustice if Jermain were to lose the respect that he earned in the past with his hard work, courage, and blood.
A contract is already in place for Pavlik-Taylor II to be fought at 166 pounds with a fifty-fifty financial split between the camps. It’s possible that the fighters will opt for interim bouts first, but either one of them can force an immediate rematch. If and when that fight occurs, the outcome is not a foregone conclusion. However, for Jermain to win, he’ll have to get his house in order.
One doesn’t have to debate the issue of whether Emanuel Steward is a better trainer than Pat Burns. It’s enough to say that Burns was a better trainer for Taylor.
Burns was ousted because Jermain felt more of a personal obligation to Ozell Nelson than he did to Pat. But he had confidence in Burns as a trainer and relied on him emotionally as a fighter. In the ring, neither Steward or Nelson has been able to fill that void. The chemistry between Jermain and Emanuel simply isn’t there, and that might have been the determining factor on September 29th. It led to a situation where, deep down, one fighter believed in himself and the other didn’t.
Beyond that, it should simply be noted that Jermain Taylor has always been loyal to Arkansas. Now would be a good time for Arkansas to be loyal to Jermain.
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A NOTE ON A RELATED MATTER: After referee Steve Smoger gave Kelly Pavlik his instructions in the dressing room prior to Taylor-Pavlik, Mauricio Sulaiman came into the room. Mauricio is the son of WBC president Jose Sulaiman. In recent years, he has assumed an increasingly active role within the sanctioning body. He is now the WBC’s executive secretary and is in charge of the organization’s executive office in Mexico City.
In the dressing room, Mauricio approached veteran cornerman Miguel Diaz and told him, “If Kelly wins, I would like his trunks to present as a gift to my father.” Diaz relayed the request to Mike Pavlik, who responded, “No way.”
After the fight, Mauricio returned to the dressing room and renewed his request.
“Oh, man,” Kelly said. “These are my trunks. Next fight, maybe; but not this one. I just won the championship in these trunks. My blood is on them.”
More people were drawn into the conversation. One-on-ones followed. Some words were exchanged regarding the discretionary powers of WBC officials and their ability to make things easy or hard on WBC champions. Mauricio Sulaiman left Boardwalk Hall with Kelly Pavlik’s bloodstained trunks. In the wee small hours of Sunday morning, he was confronted regarding the matter and the trunks were returned.
“It was a misunderstanding,” Mauricio told this writer. “I was led to believe that Kelly wanted the trunks to be presented as a gift to my father because of his respect for my father and the WBC. When it was brought to my attention that Kelly wished to have the trunks back, I arranged quickly to return them.”
Federal law states, “No officer or employee of a sanctioning organization may receive any compensation, gift, or benefit, directly or indirectly, from a boxer [other than a sanctioning fee].” Violation of this law is a crime punishable by up to one year in prison and a fine of $20,000.
When a powerful WBC official makes a request such as the one Sulaiman made of Pavlik, there’s an inherent coercive factor at work. That’s why there’s a law against it.
Craig Hamilton (the foremost boxing memorabilia dealer in the United States) estimates that Pavlik’s trunks from his championship-winning fight could be worth as much as $25,000. The WBC received a substantial sanctioning fee for Taylor-Pavlik. That should suffice for everyone’s purposes.
This isn’t the first time that Mauricio Sulaiman has made a request of this nature. One hopes it’s the last.
Thomas Hauser can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.