Monday, February 12, 2007


Try following in the footsteps of a boxing hero like Ray Mancini and only then can you begin to understand the anonymous journey that Kelly "The Ghost" Pavlik has been traveling for the past seven years. Just when it seems like the people of Youngstown have stopped talking about their beloved "Boom Boom" - somebody will bring up Harry Arroyo’s name.

For Kelly Pavlik, the ghosts of Youngstown are never far away.

They all, of course, hail from that same Ohio town. A city rich with boxing tradition, it’s best known for the millions of tons of steel it produced over the years - and two lightweight boxing champions. Back in the 1980’s when Mancini and Arroyo were making their names and winning versions of lightweight titles the city had twice as many residents as it does now.

The blue-collar, working men’s crowds would spring to their feet in wide-mouthed glee when "Boom Boom" fought. Back then, the mills that built this region had yet to be shuttered entirely and Youngstown was a steel-making powerhouse. On the days when Ray or Harry fought, the people of Youngstown crowded around their televisions on Saturday afternoons, the barber shops were full of fight talk and the taverns were packed with back-slapping fight fans.

The great history of Youngstown boxing has not been lost on Kelly Pavlik and he hopes to follow in those same championship footsteps. "Their careers are an inspiration to me to win a world title and defend it a couple of times. I talked to "Boom Boom" a lot earlier in my career, and Harry Arroyo I talk to a lot. When I was nine, I went down to the Southside Boxing Club, where I train now, and Harry Arroyo was in there. I didn’t even know it was him until I left. My mom told me. I just kind of fell in love with the sport after that. He was a great guy, funny as can be."

Now, two decades later, Kelly Pavlik, a 6’2 1/2" tall, physical marvel of an undefeated middleweight is trying to forge his way in this cold, steel world called boxing. In 29 fights only three foes have lasted the distance with him. At 24 years of age he has already won as many fights as "Boom Boom" did in his entire storied career and he already has more knockouts. But back when Mancini and Arroyo were cutting their fistic teeth boxing was different. Boxers were developed into matinee-idols and their stories were told to large audiences on free network television and their pictures were splashed on the pages of daily newspapers across the country.

Mancini and Arroyo were both reared on the CBS Sports Spectacular weekend series and they were exposed to a mainstream America that came to love and root for them. The country was particularly taken with "Boom Boom" who became a fighter because he was too short to play basketball. He decided he was going to win the lightweight title for his father Lenny, a World War II veteran who had his own boxing career cut short because of a war injury. The nation watched with sympathy as Mancini went down swinging against the great Alexis Arguello in his first try at winning the title that Lenny never could. Later, we watched in shock as Duk Koo Kim went down swinging against "Boom Boom" – and then to his grave.

They don’t show boxing on the big three networks anymore and it’s rare that a newspaper will actually devote some of its pages to a boxer. As a result, Kelly Pavlik has been relegated to making a name for himself on cable networks like ESPN and VERSUS on late night boxing telecasts. But Saturday night on HBO, Kelly Pavlik is getting the chance to tell his story and fight his fight. If he wins and does so impressively, it won’t be long before a title shot will come and he’ll have the chance to become the third boxing champion from Youngstown.

Bob Arum has promoted all of them – Mancini, Arroyo and now Pavlik. Not lost in Arum’s sharp, money-smart mind is the fact the color of Pavlik’s skin is the same as that of Mancini and Arroyo before him – white. In the old economy of boxing, that used to mean a lot of green. Unfortunately, for Arum and Pavlik, that too has changed. The network suits that control boxing look at white fighters with the notion that white guys from the mid-west can’t fight.
For Arum, who believes he may have another Youngstown star on his hands, it’s been frustrating in trying to move Pavlik’s act onto a bigger stage. Last year he told Michael Rosenthal of the San Diego Union-Tribune newspaper that, "You can't say he's a white kid who can't fight. Why waste time with him on the network? Really, that's the reverse prejudice we have now. Not that the network people are bad people. It's just a perception. They judge people by their racial background. The general tendency is that white guys can't fight. It's much tougher for a white kid to break through, like a Kelly Pavlik."

Pavlik is highly rated by the sanctioning bodies that profess to have some control over boxing these days. He’s ranked #2 by the WBC, #3 by the WBA, #5 by the WBO and #8 by the IBF while The Ring magazine rates Pavlik as the #10 contender in its latest issue.

Speaking of contenders, Pavlik holds a second round knockout win over Grady Brewer who won "The Contender" reality television series tournament last year on ESPN. Although he was destroyed by Pavlik in 2001, Brewer lasted the eight round distance with current middleweight champion Jermain Taylor a year later.

Pavlik, who is as soft-spoken as he is hard punching has this to say about himself and his opposition, "Overall in the middleweight division, I think that with my strength at this weight that I’m among the top fighters. Some of the guys that I’ve fought…I’ve watched some of these other up and coming prospects fight the same guys and you see a lot of them struggle with these guys. With a lot of the boxing critics, I don’t get the credit because I’m not the Olympic medalist and didn’t make the Olympic team. It’s kind of frustrating at first, but it makes me work harder. I think I’m among the top three fighters at middleweight."

How far Kelly Pavlik will go in boxing is anyone’s guess. His career has gone slowly by today’s accelerated standards. He turned pro before Jermain Taylor did and he has more fights and more knockouts than Taylor does. However, he has nowhere near the recognition of Taylor nor has he achieved the big-time financial rewards that Taylor has enjoyed. Along the way his career had had stops and starts because of several hand injuries. It seemed just when he was on the brink of really getting some notice something would happen again to one of his hands. Luckily, those problems seem to be behind him and his career is gaining momentum.

Pavlik is a big middleweight who turned professional at age 18 only two weeks after graduating from Mahoning County Joint Vocational School. From the beginning he has possessed the punching power that has led to 26 pro knockouts. So far, nobody has lasted past the ninth round with him. "My amateur record was 89-9. I had a lot of hand speed and I was outboxing people then. When I hit 17, the power seemed to really come all of a sudden, and I had more snap to the punches and I was getting more and more stoppages. But I learned those basic boxing skills. I don’t have to go in there and slug and rely solely on power. I can box, too."

His punches come straight and quick and he gets the kind of leverage on his shots that make the comparison to the legendary Tommy Hearns inevitable. His pro debut was a third round knockout and he took out the opponent with a beautiful right hand bodyshot. ESPN boxing analyst Teddy Atlas, who saw that fight from ringside called the punch, "A beautiful right hand right between the arms, right in the solar plexus."

As Pavlik prepares to face a tough Mexican fighter named Jose Luis Zertuche at the Honda Center in Anaheim, California this Saturday night he and his manager, Cameron Dunkin are only looking forward. "Kelly’s ready for a title fight now" says Dunkin. "He’s in the top 10 and we’re pushing to get him into a mandatory position."

Pavlik’s last fight was a homecoming to Youngstown and he didn’t disappoint the hometown crowd in blasting out Lenord Pierre in only four rounds. Again, Pavlik displayed awesome punching power along with a veteran’s maturity. When asked to comment on the win over Pierre, Pavlik was matter-of-fact: "I’m a humble fighter, but I know with my power, most people I hit with those types of shots don’t get up."

Pavlik can virtually taste the title at this point of his career. He’s entering his seventh year as a pro and the fight against Zertuche will be his 30th . He’s hopeful about his future and feels that he’s in good hands. "I’m going to leave it up to Top Rank and Bob Arum. They’ve made hundreds of world champions. So I’m sure whatever road they have chosen for me is going to be the right one. But I’m hoping to get my shot against Taylor or Winky Wright."

Mancini was on hand to see Pavlik’s last fight in person and his praise of Pavlik was glowing. Mancini obviously feels a strong affinity towards Pavlik and there is excitement in his voice when he speaks of him. "I’ve known Kelly since he was 10 years old. His trainer, Jack Loew, and myself grew up together. Jack told me when he was 10 years old in the amateurs this kid is the real deal. He said, ‘Raymond keep an eye on him.’ I’ve watched him in the ring and he is. He can punch, he can box, he’s tough – tough as they come. A lot of heart, and I’m gonna’ tell ya’ this kid is gonna’ go. He’s the best prospect I’ve seen since Jeff Lampkin, you know, back in the 80’s. This kid is the real deal and I think he’ll be a champion very soon."

If that happens, maybe the people of Youngstown will stop bringing up the names of those ghosts from the past named Mancini and Arroyo. There's a new ghost in town.

January 2007

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