By Joe Scalzo
When Kelly Pavlik arrived in Oxnard, Calif., early last week, the first thing his new trainer wanted to know was: Are you here by choice, or by force?
“We had to know he’s focused to come back and that he’s not here because someone pushed him to do it,” said Robert Garcia, who will take over for Pavlik’s longtime trainer, Jack Loew.
The second thing Garcia wanted to know was: Are you still hungry?
“He’s got to come in here and be that kid who was hungry, the one who’s not going to be treated like a superstar,” Garcia said. “He won’t get that here. If we treat him like a celebrity, that will hurt him.
“Everybody here, whether they’re a world champion or an amateur, is treated the same way. No one is in any way special.”
Garcia got the answers he wanted. But Pavlik still needs to answer a bigger question: After the most difficult two-year stretch of his career — a run that included as many stints in rehab as professional fights (two) — does the 29-year-old former middleweight champion have anything left?
“He’s still young, he’s still got the skills and the talent and the power to be back on top if he does everything he’s supposed to do in the gym,” Garcia said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if, after one or two fights, we get something big and pull it off.”
This is a crucial moment in Pavlik’s career. Last fall, he caved to pressure in his camp (specifically from his co-managers, Cameron Dunkin and Mike Pavlik Sr.) and dropped Loew in favor of Garcia, who has trained several current or former world champions such as Antonio Margarito, Fernando Vargas and Brandon Rios.
Then, a few days before Christmas, he was arrested in Canfield and charged with operating a vehicle while impaired, failure to control and leaving the scene of an accident.
Garcia insisted Pavlik come to California to train, both to get him away from poor influences and from a city that magnifies his triumphs — and his failures.
Garcia is working on Pavlik’s footwork and head movement, skills Pavlik has allowed to decline as he became almost solely a power-based, straight-ahead fighter.
“He’s listening and hasn’t been complaining about anything,” Garcia said. “He’s doing everything he’s supposed to do.”
Pavlik, who declined an interview for this story, weighed 173 pounds when he arrived in California, prompting Garcia to wonder whether he can return to the middleweight division.
That’s a surprising development for Pavlik, who has struggled with his weight for years and fought his last bout at 169 pounds (one above the super middleweight limit). Pavlik beat Alfonso Lopez with a 10-round majority decision in a May 2011 bout, which came more than a year after losing his middleweight titles to Sergio Martinez.
“If he doesn’t gain a lot of weight when he starts his strength and conditioning, we might come down to 160,” Garcia said. “We’re planning on 168 and that would be perfect, but if as the weeks go by, we see the weight coming down, we’re doing 160 again.”
Pavlik (37-2, 32 KOs) has left Youngstown to train several times in recent years only to grow homesick and return each time. Considering Oxnard’s weather was sunny with highs in the 70s this week, it might take a few months before Pavlik longs for Youngstown again.
“He’s happy,” Garcia said. “He told us he loves it here.”
Which leads the final question: When will Pavlik fight again?
“We don’t want to push it,” Garcia said. “We aren’t thinking it will be any day now, but if he’s responsive and gets good progress as the weeks go by, we’ll talk to Cameron Dunkin.
“It might be March or May or April. It all depends on his progress.”