A CITY DEFINED BY A SPORT
By NICK MANCINI
Close your eyes and picture this. An arena is filled with a haze of smoke from cigarettes and cigars. The men are dressed in suits and wear felt fedoras. The women are wearing evening gowns and fur coats. Some are sitting. Some standing. But all are focused on the two men in the square ring.
The men are hitting each other. Hard. With each hit, a spray of sweat and sometimes blood flies off the body. The goal: Knock out the other guy or beat him so bad the judges rule in your favor.
That was a scene in the early years of boxing. Compare that to images of Youngstown in its heyday. The steel mills billow smoke. The workers toil at their jobs with their sleeves rolled up and sweat on their brows.
The toughness of boxing and the rigor of steel making are forever linked.
Youngstown has produced many boxers, some famous, some not. Ten of them turned professional and five of those won a world title.
Harry Arroyo, Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini, Greg Richardson Jeff Lampkin and Kelly Pavlik are the world champions.
Mike Cefalde, a local promoter, said Pavlik, Mancini, Arroyo and the others owe their success, in large part, to the area.
“It was just the environment of the city,” Cefalde said. “We had the steel mills and it was just a tough, hard working, blue-collar town. It was a tough place to live and we had to have a tough attitude to live in it.”
It’s pretty remarkable how many boxers have come from the city, said Pavlik in a telephone interview after finishing a round of golf.
“It’s not the biggest area and we have had some jobs leave and other things. It is pretty impressive we have produced the types of fighters that we have.”
Pavlik was the World Boxing Organization and World Boxing Council middleweight champion from 2007-09, successfully defending the titles four times.
More recently, Pavilk has fought three times between March and July, winning each time. He is riding a four-fight winning streak since moving to Oxnard, Calif., and working with trainer Robert Garcia.
Garcia is a former International Boxing Federation super featherweight champion and is considered one of the top trainers in the world.
Arroyo was the IBF Lightweight Champion from 1984 -85. Not to be outdone, Mancini held multiple lightweight titles throughout the 1980s.
When combining the three world champions’ records, it is no small feat. Arroyo, Mancini and Pavlik have a combined record of 109 wins compared to 18 losses. Of those 109 wins, 87 have come by a knockout.
Jack Loew, owner of Jack Loew’s Southside Boxing Club which has produced such fighters as Pavlik, Billy Lyell and Willie Nelson, said the area has always helped him stay busy, but he doesn’t have the same gritty fighters that he had at an earlier time and the turnover rate of kids is at an all-time high.
“Some kid gets punched in the nose, he’s gone,” Loew said. “It is not like the days of Kelly Pavlik — little bad-ass — I’d get his butt kicked and he would be back the next day wanting more. The kids that do that and stick around, they are workable.”
Loew said Youngstown’s blue-collar roots make for some tough-nosed fighters.
“It is the same thing we said about the Pavlik days and even the Mancini days,” he said. “I think it’s the way everyone is brought up. Just that hard-nosed, go out and get a job mentality and I think that carried over into sports.”
Local boxing fans agree.
Ron Acierno of Youngstown attends as many fights as he can and watches all the major fights on TV. He thinks the environment of the Mahoning Valley is what molds the local boxers.
“This area has been economically depressed for decades now and I think when one is in an environment like that, where jobs aren’t as available as they use to be, they look for other ways to make it in the world,” he said. “It’s very similar to the environment that many of the top boxers grew up in, many in families that had little to nothing – except a lot to fight for.”
Although Loew and others are seeing some changes in the dedication of aspiring fighters, some fans think that it won’t be long before the community sees another Pavlik or Mancini. The environment is just right.
Boxing fan Ryan Machingo, who grew up in Youngstown, remembers watching boxing, mainly the great rivalry between Mike Tyson and Evander Holyfield. “It is not a coincidence that Youngstown has produced this type of talent,” he said. “With the trainers that still have gyms in the area, I don’t see it stopping anytime soon.”
Machingo, who now lives in Columbus, still follows boxing, but with the recent struggles of Pavlik, doesn’t follow it as closely as he once did.
“When Pavlik was the world champ, the area hung on his every move in the ring; he was the king,” Machingo said. “I think if Pavlik could recapture what he had, he could reclaim some of his old glory and bring the city back up with him.”
Out of the five world champions, Cefalde said they all brought a different type of style to the ring.
“Boom Boom was more of a wear you down fighter; Greg Richardson was really slick in the ring and Kelly just had a ton of power,” he said. “They all brought something different in the ring and that’s what made them so great.”
Pavlik and Cefalde also have their own favorite memories.
“The [Marco Antonio] Rubio fight is my favorite memory,” Pavlik said. “That was my comeback fight.”
Pavlik was coming off a unanimous decision loss to Bernard Hopkins in Atlantic City when he stopped Rubio in the ninth round Feb. 23, 2009, at the Chevrolet Centre in Youngstown. Fans saw the old Pavlik in that fight, as he battered Rubio the whole fight.
Cefalde had to go back a few years for his favorite memory.
“My best memory of a fight in Youngstown was on July 24, 1982, at Mollenkopf Stadium in Warren,” he said. “There were 19,000 people there to see Ray fight. It was a great thing to see.”
Mancini defeated Ernesto Espana in the sixth round by a technical knockout to retain his World Boxing Association World Lightweight title.
Loew still has a solid group of fighters in his gym, including Alejandro “Popo” Salinas. Salinas is an amateur fighter who is currently a senior at East High School.
Loew said Salinas has one of the brightest futures he has ever seen.
“I have had other guys too, but Popo has it all,” Loew said. “He has that Oscar De La Hoya look, he can hit hard. For a 16-year-old, 128-pound-kid; I have never seen someone punch so hard. He has it all. He has the future in front of him, probably as far as he wants to go.”
Salinas has the chance to become another homegrown boxer who can hit it big. But hometown recognition comes with added pressure. Jumping on and off the sports bandwagon is a common occurrence, especially when it comes to a hometown guy.
William Fry, a psychology professor at Youngstown State University, said this pressure can affect an athlete’s performance.
“Obviously when you’re under the pressure of carrying the entire community, that kind of pressure is going to be even more,” Fry said. “But that applies to all sports. It is often better to be the underdog than to be the prohibitive favorite where everyone is expecting the win.”
Pavlik said there is definitely an added pressure.
“Knowing we were carrying the city sometimes, yeah it was definitely an added dimension of pressure,” Pavlik said. “But it was just great to have the crowds rally around us like they did.”
Acierno said boxing fans latch onto a fighter easily, especially with it being just one person.
“I think fans of the sport not only build a relationship with a fighter because of their style of fighting or the fights themselves, but the character they play when not in the ring,” he said. “I think the main reason we forget about boxers so quickly is mostly because of the mishaps they do outside the ring.”
Pavlik’s missteps are well documented. He has struggled with alcohol problems and had two stints in rehab for it. He took a year off from boxing and after some tune-up fights, was preparing for a super middleweight title fight against champion Andre Ward. But the fight was postponed after Ward was injured.
That showdown likely will take place in late February after being delayed because Ward hurt his shoulder while training.
Nowadays, kids looking to get into boxing in the area may have trouble, as Cefalde noted the amount of gyms has dwindled.
“Back then, there was a gym on every corner,” he said. “But now there are only about six or seven in the area, which makes it tough for kids to get a start on boxing.”
Loew said there are probably no more than five gyms in the area now and how it is tougher than ever to get kidsinto the gym.
“When I came home from school, I was outside playing until mom called me home,” he said. “Now, kids come home and it is computers and video games. I mean, even little kids who ride those little cars; they’re all electrical. We had to pedal those things. It was all exercise and it was always doing something.”
Loew does have advice for kids looking to get into boxing.
“Go to college and skip boxing,” he said. “It is a sport you better be 100-percent sure about. There aren’t any friends that can help you; there are no timeouts. It is a very tough sport, very demanding, in and outside of the gym.’”
TheNewsOutlet.org is a collaborative effort between the Youngstown State University journalism program, Kent State University, The University of Akron and professional media outlets including, WYSU-FM Radio and The Vindicator (Youngstown), The Beacon Journal and Rubber City Radio (Akron).