Pavlik: Pressure to perform

By Joe Scalzo

Pavlik wants to silence critics with dominant performance tonight

Over the past year, Kelly Pavlik has been called everything from boxing’s messiah to an overhyped media creation.

Before his loss to Bernard Hopkins, he was being mentioned with the best middleweights in history. Afterward, his critics — particularly on the Internet — were quick to tear him down, gleefully picking at his flaws while shouting “I told you so!”

“I don’t pay much attention to that stuff,” Pavlik said. “I know it’s out there.”

Still, Pavlik (34-1, 30 KOs) enters tonight’s middleweight title fight against Marco Antonio Rubio (43-4-1, 38 KOs) with a giant chip on his shoulder, eager to show the boxing world that his first pro loss was an aberration, an off-night against a legend that will ultimately look like a speed bump on the road to an otherwise terrific career.

“I know it’s important for me to go in there and win convincingly and win dominantly,” Pavlik said of tonight’s fight. “For the fans, for Youngstown and also for me.”

To rebuild his confidence — and his image — Pavlik’s handlers chose the perfect opponent, a hard-punching (and highly punchable) Mexican who was so eager for a title shot he was willing to travel to the lion’s den. About 7,000 fans are expected tonight — the biggest crowd in the arena’s history — and Rubio is the unquestioned villain.

“We’re here to fight Kelly Pavlik,” said Rubio, “and not his fans.”

Rubio, the WBC’s No. 1 mandatory challenger, is considered a gutsy, less-talented version of Pavlik. Since moving up to middleweight, he’s won nine straight bouts and he knows tonight might be his only shot at a world title.

“This would change his life,” said Pavlik’s trainer, Jack Loew. “I know because I’ve been there.”

Loew has spent this week predicting a Pavlik knockout, something Pavlik (as always) has avoided.

“A ‘W’,” Pavlik said, when asked for his prediction. “That’s all.”

But Pavlik knows a solid victory wouldn’t be enough, image-wise. If he’s going to show the boxing world that he’s worthy of the hype heaped on him the last two years, he needs to completely dominate Rubio.

(Or, as Pavlik said into a TV camera, “I have to beat the ‘beep’ out of him.”)

“That’s what it boils down to,” Pavlik said. “If it’s a long, boring fight or if people say, ‘Oh, it was kind of close and Pavlik edged it out by a couple rounds,’ that’s not going to look good.

“If not a knockout, I need to beat him convincingly all 12 rounds with the commentators saying Rubo’s corner should throw the towel in. That’s how dominant this fight has got to be.”

Pavlik was pursuing a similar outcome against Hopkins, only to be derailed by an elbow injury during training camp, a bout with bronchitis in the days leading up to the bout and a stubborn refusal to postpone the fight. Pavlik thought he could win at less than 100 percent — he says now he was at 50 percent fight against Hopkins — and paid dearly for it, as the 43-year-old dominated all 12 rounds en route to an easy victory.

Members of the Pavlik camp have been kicking themselves ever since.

“In boxing, the perception has changed,” said Pavlik’s promoter, Top Rank chairman Bob Arum. “When somebody loses a fight, people look at him like something tragic happened. Years ago, fighters won, they lost and they came back.

“It was no big deal.”

But Arum admits a fighter’s first loss — particularly for someone like Pavlik, who had been 34-0 — is often telling.

“Sometimes the first loss is very tough to take,” he said. “The one thing I’m worried about is if he becomes over-eager. The danger is, in order to redeem himself, he goes out and is bombing with this guy.

“If Rubio lands a bomb on you, it could be a long night. But Kelly is talking about boxing and then going for the bomb. If he does that, he’ll be OK.”

Although Rubio hasn’t fought as many big bouts as Pavlik, he has held several international and Mexican titles and he’s experienced with the highs and lows of the sport. He’s not quite as good as, say, Hopkins or Jermain Taylor, but he’s a step up from Gary Lockett, who Pavlik dominated last June in his first (and only) title defense.

“I’ve had a couple losses, important losses, but I’ve always come back,” said Rubio. “I’ve proven myself in the boxing community. I left home to become a world champion but if it doesn’t happen, my career is long term. I don’t focus on one fight as a make-or-break for my career.

“I’m relaxed. Kelly has to impress and prove himself. I just have to do my job.”

Pavlik said he feels the pressure — both from the fans and on his career — but he’s dealt with the pressure before. He said he’s ready to do it again.

“I can promise you,” Pavlik said, “I’ll go home Saturday night with my belts.”

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