Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Dreams to Remember

The Southside Boxing Club in Youngstown, Ohio ain’t much.

Just a big room with a ring, a few punching bags and a handful of young souls that toil away with big dreams that stay locked away in their minds.

Dreams that they have mostly kept to themselves.

Over the years lots of kids have dared to walk up to the door and peek inside Jack Loew’s dark little gym. A few of them even muster up the courage to step inside and maybe skip some rope or punch the heavy bag.

Then they just never come back.

When a scrawny little nine year-old named Kelly Pavlik, who had two older brothers that used to pick on him, wandered up to trainer Jack Loew, he looked like he might not ever come back either. But here is Kelly Pavlik nearly fifteen years later. He’s grown from a skinny kid into a man, he’s the #1 contender in the middleweight division and on Saturday night in Atlantic City he’s going to try and make good on a dream that he has mostly kept to himself for a lot of years.

Kelly Pavlik wants to become the middleweight champion of the world.

He didn’t come from much. Most people from Youngstown don’t. His father, Mike, used to work at Republic Steel which is long since gone. The city is now mostly a hollowed out shell of it’s former self. Huge, empty steel mills with broken down brick facades are rusted out skeletons that serve as nothing more than memories of what this thriving steel town used to be. The city has lost half of its population since the glory days, but Kelly Pavlik is still here. He still has his dreams and Youngstown will always be home.

He runs the same streets that he always has. Up and down the cracked avenues with the broken sidewalks. He jogs past modest homes with small front lawns separated by chain link fences that have American flags blowing in the wind. The people know who he is and they mostly leave him alone. They’ll wave or nod their head when he’s out doing his roadwork. A few will shout out, “Good luck, Kelly!”

The pull for him to leave Youngstown and set up shop elsewhere with a big named trainer in a big name gym in a big name city is still there. The out-of-towners and those who say they know better still whisper in his ear from time-to-time. They tell him he’ll never beat Taylor with a small town trainer who trains him out of a small town gym.

But Kelly Pavlik has never believed that.

Youngstown Mayor Jay Williams believes Pavlik's achievements rate high among the other sports heroes, like former lightweight champions Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini and Harry Arroyo who also bloomed from the same humble beginnings.

“I think this is a new chapter being written,” Williams recently told Pavlik’s hometown newspaper. “Kelly Pavlik represents, first and foremost, himself and his family, but also the city in an exemplary fashion.”

But Kelly Pavlik doesn’t listen to much of that kind of talk or let it go to his head. He’s still the same Kelly Pavlik who shared a small house with his parent s and two brothers, Michael, Jr. and Ricky. He’s still the same kid who is quiet and unassuming in a “boy next door” sort of way.

With Bob Arum’s Top Rank as his promoter, Bruce Trampler as his matchmaker, Cameron Dunkin navigating the tricky managerial world and Loew as his trainer, Pavlik has cut a path through the middleweights that has seen him go unbeaten in the last seven years while compiling a record of 31-0 (28) KO’s. At age 25, he seems to be peaking, with his most impressive win coming against the dangerous destroyer Edison Miranda in his last fight.

Just a few weeks after the Miranda fight, I had the chance to talk to Kelly Pavlik one-on-one. The first thing you notice about him is how soft-spoken he is. And polite too.

He has an honest way about him borne out of the blue collar work ethic that the rust belt of Ohio is know for. “The way my parents raised me is the same way I want to raise my daughter,” he said.

There’s no sense that he ever tries to be anything or anybody more than who he is and he has an honest way about him that is unusual among big time boxers. He doesn’t call attention to himself or sing his own praises or brag about what he can do or what he’s going to do. He doesn’t call other fighters’ names or wear fancy jewelry. With Kelly Pavlik, you realize right away, that what you see - is what you get.

He wants you to believe what he is telling you, because he believes it too.

“All I’ve ever wanted is a shot,” Pavlik told me at the Boxing Writers Association of America awards dinner at New York’s famous Copacabana Club back on June 8th.

He was dressed in a dark suit with a shirt and tie and he was sipping on a bottle of beer. He looked more like a young Wall Street guy out on the town after a hard week at the office than he did a brutal puncher capable of laying prizefighters out with one shot.

The scrapes from the fight with Miranda, the jaguar-like force from Columbia, had healed and faded away by then. Coincidentally, this was also the day the title fight was pretty much sealed by his promoter Bob Arum and Taylor’s promoter, Lou DiBella.

“It looks like it’s going to happen,” said a hopeful and relaxed Pavlik who has a temperament and personality that tells you he doesn’t get too excited about things that he has no control over.

The money has to be right, though,” he continued. “But I’m not greedy. I just want a fair share and I’ll be happy and we can get this thing done.”

He didn’t say much more than that. He didn’t brag that he was going to be the next middleweight champion of the world.

That’s a big dream, and one that Kelly Pavlik has mostly kept to himself.

September 2007

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