KELLY PAVLIK CALLS IT A CAREER
By Joe Scalzo
Before he was a Ghost, before he was a champion, before he was in Sports Illustrated (for good reasons, but, yes, also for bad) and before he woke up on Saturday morning and realized the day his wife had been praying for had finally arrived, Kelly Pavlik was just a skinny blond 9-year-old on the city’s South Side practicing karate moves in front of a mirror while his father looked on and smiled.
It was 1991 and, before Pavlik became the next Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini, he was pretending to be the next Bruce Lee. But with his two older brothers training at the nearby gym and his dad looking at a $50 investment in karate equipment before his son had a single lesson, the future middleweight champion of the world stepped into the Southside Boxing Club.
It would be another 16 years before he stepped into history.
It was worth the wait.
On a magical night in September, 2007, inside a 78-year-old arena on the historic Atlantic City boardwalk, Pavlik bounced back from a second-round knockdown to deliver a seventh-round knockout of Jermain Taylor, winning the middleweight title in front of the most rabid group of boxing fans this side of the Philippines.
“Nobody gave us a snowball’s chance in hell,” said his former trainer, Jack Loew. “It was one of the single greatest moments of my life.”
Afterward, Pavlik’s promoter, Bob Arum, gathered with a group of reporters at a nearby hamburger joint and said he thought Pavlik was going to finish his career as the best middleweight in history.
But, as one boxing writer pointed out, he finished as a damn good one.
About a month ago, Arum began to hear rumblings from the Pavlik camp that the 30-year-old fighter was considering retirement, a surprising development for a fighter who, in December, seemed headed for another title shot.
Thanks to a new trainer (Robert Garcia), a new training site (Oxnard, Calif.) and a new weight class (super middleweight), a “rejuvenated” Pavlik had won three straight fights over a 31/2-month stretch in 2012 and told anyone who listened to he wanted to fight for another belt.
He almost did. Super middleweight champion Andre Ward, considered one of the two or three top pound-for-pound fighters in boxing, agreed to defend his titles against Pavlik on Jan. 26 in Los Angeles. But Ward suffered a shoulder injury that postponed the bout, then canceled it, and suddenly Pavlik took a step back and wondered whether a 30-year-old husband and father of two young kids should continue in an occupation only slightly safer than chainsaw juggling.
“California kind of rejuvenated me,” Pavlik said in a phone interview Saturday. “But I wanted to fight for a world title. Not knowing when my next fight was going to be ... well, I hate to say it this way, but after you’ve won a world title, if it’s not a world title fight, in my opinion it’s almost a meaningless fight.”
Pavlik’s wife of 41/2 years, Samantha, had pleaded with him for years to retire. (Unlike Pavlik’s mother, who refused to attend fights or even watch them on TV, Samantha sat ringside at his fights, but spent most of the time wincing, praying and staring at the floor.) In the days after he won the world title, Pavlik’s camp had targeted 30 as his retirement age because, like Mancini before him, Pavlik knew his style of fighting (straight-ahead, power against power) didn’t lend itself to a Bernard Hopkins-esque career.
Two weeks ago, Pavlik sent a text to Loew, his estranged trainer, with some kind words and a vague reference to retirement. Loew showed it to a reporter and said, “I don’t know what to make of it.”
On Saturday, he found out. After 42 professional fights over 12 years, Pavlik (40-2, 34 KOs) made it official. His camp reached out to ESPN.com’s Dan Rafael, one of the two or three most respected boxing writers in the country, to break the story, which appeared on the website at 3:42 p.m.
An hour later, in a phone interview with The Vindicator, Pavlik said there wasn’t one overriding reason for his retirement, but cited his family (“It would be selfish for me to stick around with my health on the line,” he said), his luck (he has never been knocked out and his 194 career rounds are low for a fighter with 42 bouts) and his desire (“I don’t have the same drive anymore,” he said).
“This is not a sport, like baseball, where you can do it even if your heart is not in it 100 percent,” he said. “This is a sport where you’re getting your head smashed in. I’ve been fortunate enough in my career to not get beat badly.
“I talked to my parents, my friends, my wife and they were all very supportive of this decision, which is always good. It makes it easier.”
While Pavlik’s legend was sealed with his win over Taylor, he leaves behind a complicated legacy.
For every high — a memorable win over Edison Miranda in May 2007, a rematch victory over Taylor, a victorious title defense over Marco Antonio Rubio in front of a then-record crowd at the Chevrolet Centre and a fan following that exceeded every boxer not named Manny Pacquiao — there were lows.
Pavlik’s well-documented alcohol addiction damaged both his reputation (Pavlik often found himself in this newspaper for all the wrong reasons) and his career (some of his handlers felt his struggles to make the 160-pound limit came, in part, because of his fondness for beer).
He also struggled with back and hand injuries (he saw specialists for both), a 2009 staph infection that threatened his life (and prompted him to cancel two bouts, a not-uncommon occurrence later in his career) and a bout with bronchitis that sapped his energy in his first career loss, which came by unanimous decision to Hopkins in 2008.
“Certainly, personal problems are part of his story,” Yahoo boxing writer Kevin Iole, who has written extensively about Pavlik both inside and outside the ring, said in a phone interview Saturday. “I have to think those personal problems were affecting him around the time when he was winning the title and they certainly affected him after he won the title.
“You have the sense from him that he could have been more.”
Rafael agreed, calling Pavlik a “damn good fighter, a legit world champion” but adding his legacy doesn’t stack up to recent middleweights such as Hopkins, Marvin Hagler (who Arum promoted) or Thomas Hearns. And when Rafael published his rankings of the sport’s best super middleweights earlier this month, Pavlik’s name wasn’t on it.
“As good as Kelly is, I think deep in his heart he knows he’s not as good as he was,” Rafael said. “He’s still good, but he’s not that caliber fighter. Would he still be able to beat those second- and third-tier super middleweights? Probably. But can he beat one of the top one or two guys in the world? I’m not sure.
“If you don’t think you can beat the very best, why hang around? Boxing is not a sport to be pretty good at. If he thinks it’s the right time, how can anyone argue with that?”
Loew was Pavlik’s first trainer and, for his first two decades, his only trainer. Loew took Pavlik’s natural gifts (big hands, natural power, large frame) and used them to develop Pavlik into a boxer good enough to make the Olympic trials, sign a professional contract with Top Rank at age 18 and win his first 34 fights.
Although the two had an acrimonious split in November 2011, Loew said he’ll remember Pavlik “as the funnest kid I’ve ever been around.”
“We had a great time together, he stuck by my side and we accomplished things in boxing that trainers work 50-60 years for and never get,” Loew said. “We had our differences at the end and I think we would both probably take back a lot of the things that happened, but I wish him nothing but the best for the rest of his life.”
And, Loew said, he’s glad the rest of Pavlik’s life is beginning now.
“I think he made the best decision he could make at this point,” Loew said.
Arum agreed. Pavlik’s daughter, Sydney, is 6 and his son, Kelly Jr., is about to turn 4. The Hall of Fame promoter wants them to know their father as he is, and not as what he’s seen too many boxers become.
“The tendency for too many athletes is to continue when, medically, it’s not smart to go on,” Arum said. “I applaud a fighter, or any athlete, who puts his health and his future ahead of his athletic career.”
In time, most observers believe Pavlik’s problems will fade from memory and he will be remembered as one of the greatest — and most popular — fighters in the history of a city that has plenty of both. During his peak, his name became synonymous with his city, representing the blue-collar work ethic and no-nonsense style of its citizens.
Once written off as a future ghost town, Youngstown became The Ghost’s town for half a decade, and both sides benefited.
“Being at the first Taylor fight and seeing all those fans from Youngstown, I’ll tell you what, that was one of the most memorable moments of my career,” Pavlik said. “I had, by far, the best fans. Better than the NFL teams. I’m not exaggerating. I was blessed to have them in my career.
“I feel very fortunate.”
And with that, 21 years after he began, Pavlik hung up his phone.
And his gloves.