By Joe Scalzo
YOUNGSTOWN — There are a lot of no-names in the middleweight division. Aside from Kelly Pavlik, there are only two other big names.
Pavlik wants to fight at least one of them.
Following his fifth-round TKO of Miguel Espino on Saturday, Pavlik reiterated his desire to fight Paul Williams or WBA middleweight champion Felix Sturm.
“If we can’t get Williams, I definitely want Sturm, but right now I think Williams is definitely the better fight,” Pavlik said. “I think that’s the fight that the fans want to see. That’s the fight that I want.”
Pavlik was originally scheduled to fight Williams in October, but Pavlik’s hand injuries forced him to postpone the bout until December, then cancel it completely.
Pavlik said his hand was tender following Saturday’s fight but doesn’t anticipate any long-term problems.
“It’s nothing ice can’t fix,” he said.
He said he’ll take at least three weeks off, then resume training, provided his promoters can make a fight with either Sturm or Williams.
Williams is coming off a unanimous decision over Sergio Martinez on Dec. 5 in a “Fight of the Year” candidate. Sturm has not fought since earning a unanimous decision victory over Khoren Gevor on July 11.
Pavlik has repeatedly said he’d like to unify the middleweight belts, but Williams has a higher profile in boxing and that fight would garner more attention and money.
In the meantime, Pavlik needs to stay healthy, avoid negative headlines and work to get back to the form that made him one of boxing’s biggest names in 2007. His three middleweight title defenses have come against Gary Lockett, Marco Antonio Rubio and Espino, all lesser names.
Espino went toe-to-toe with Pavlik for three rounds before getting dropped twice in the fourth and again in the fifth, prompting his trainer, John Bray, to throw in the towel.
“I’m not going to let any of my guys get hurt,” Bray said.
When asked about the decision, Espino said, “I’m actually very, very angry at my trainer. He’s fired.”
Then he grinned.
“Just kidding,” he said. “Me and him, we’re like brothers. He did the right thing and he’s always looking out for me.”
Espino said it was obvious Pavlik wasn’t at his best.
“I would have to say, respectfully, no,” he said. “He seemed a little gassed. I honestly, respectfully, thought I hurt him a few times. He didn’t think I could hit. He thought he could bully me. But I don’t remember taking one step back.
“If there was ever the opportunity take a champion down, today was the day.”
“Was [Pavlik] at his best? No,” he said. “He was good. But, you know, here’s a guy who just came back from fighting an infection where he’s fighting for his life.
“So, was he 100 percent? Of course not. But still, a very strong, good champion.”
Pavlik said he had more rust than he was expecting but said he felt more comfortable as the fight wore on.
“It’s been a long time since I had a gut-check like that,” said Pavlik, who probably hasn’t fought such a physical fight since beating Edison Miranda in May of 2007. “We’ve still got the heart and the [guts] to get in there and take care of business and he brought that out of me tonight.”
Some of his rust was due to the layoff and some of it was due to his abbreviated five-week training camp, which didn’t leave him as strong or as fit as usual.
“It definitely wasn’t one of my better performances,” he said. “Lung-wise, I felt pretty good. I was a little muscle-weary, though, coming into the middle of the rounds but I always caught that second wind.
“We got through it.”
Now all the attention turns to Pavlik’s next fight. Pavlik’s handlers made it clear that the ball is now in Williams’ court. But there is plenty of bad blood between the camps, not just because of this fall’s postponements but also with Williams’ decision not to fight Pavlik in the summer of 2008.
“We’re looking for big things and we want to fight Paul Williams,” said Pavlik’s trainer, Jack Loew. “We didn’t back away from Paul Williams. We were unable to fight Paul Williams.
“He backed away from us last year.”
No matter what happens, Pavlik doesn’t have any intention of having another year like 2009. He won both of his fights, but too much went wrong outside of the ring.
“I’m definitely back,” he said. “We’re not going to have another layoff like that.
“We got the job done and now it’s a kick-start to 2010. We’re going to take care of all the big names again and make that statement again and get back on top.”