By Harold Gwin
James Rhodes believes that Youngstown’s national and international image has been enhanced by its relationship with boxer Kelly Pavlik, despite media focus on negative factors in the city’s history.
No other boxer has had the emphasis put on their hometown like Pavlik, the middleweight boxing champion, said Rhodes, a Simon Research Fellow at the University of Manchester in England.
As part of his fellowship studies, Rhodes is examining the relationship between Pavlik and Youngstown.
“It’s a great story. That can only be a positive thing,” he said. It brings positive attention to the city, showing someone who works hard and succeeds, he explained.
Youngstown has benefitted from that focus, but the long-term effect is uncertain, Rhodes said, pointing out that a boxer’s career is a short one.
He spoke to about 40 people at Youngstown State University Thursday as part of the Center for Working-Class Studies lecture series.
Most of the national media attention has focused on the fact that Pavlik is from Youngstown, describing the city as a tough place that fell on hard times when its steel mills closed decades ago, yet a community with a strong, blue-collar spirit to get back up and fight when you’re knocked down, Rhodes said.
There’s been a lot of negative publicity about Youngstown, with national media photos of closed, decrepit steel mills and empty streets, some of it used as a backdrop for stories about Pavlik, he said. But Pavlik’s rise to boxing prominence, and his image as a tough, blue-collar fighter, has improved the city’s image in spite of that negative approach, he said.
It’s a story line Pavlik didn’t seek, Rhodes said. He’s a boxer, and that’s a lot of weight to put on his shoulders, he said, noting there is an element of using Pavlik to improve the city’s image.
People outside the area have a fascination for Youngstown, Rhodes said, adding, “There’s still a massive pride to be from Youngstown.” He’s found a strong sense of self and community here, he said.
Getting knocked down and getting back up — as Pavlik has done — resonates with people here, he said.
Where, at one time there was a local reluctance to associate Youngstown with the closed steel mills of the past, posters by local artists depicting the boxer now take pride in that past, frequently showing working steel mills with smoke coming from their stacks as a backdrop for the fighter, Rhodes said.
Sport, be it football or boxing, has become a way to commemorate that value of toughness, a way to celebrate the past, he said.