Speaking of his hometown, Kelly Pavlik said, “In Youngstown, when you’re on top, you’re on top. But when you let them down, you’re the worst person in town. It’s funny how that works. You don’t want to become the bad guy in the city for failing at something. But at the same time, it’s pretty neat to be that guy, to be in that situation.”
ON October 18, 2008, Kelly Pavlik entered the ring at Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City intent upon scoring a decisive victory over Bernard Hopkins. He didn’t have to knock Hopkins out. But he was committed to fashioning a triumph that left no doubt as to which man was the better fighter. “I want everybody to know that I beat Hopkins,” Pavlik said. “And I want Bernard to know that I beat him too.”
Pavlik was born and raised in Youngstown, Ohio. In 2008, the national economy was experiencing what Youngstown had endured for three decades. Since 1980, as jobs vanished, the city’s population had dropped from 115,000 to 80,000. It had the lowest median income in the United States among cities with 65,000 people or more.
Pavlik had stayed close to his roots. He and his wife lived with their 22-month-old daughter in Boardman, a community adjacent to Youngstown. And Kelly was the proverbial local boy made good. On September 29, 2007, he’d dethroned Jermain Taylor to become middleweight champion of the world.
After Pavlik beat Taylor, Youngstown and the surrounding environs embraced their new hero. Kelly threw out the ceremonial first pitch before Game 4 of the American League Championship series between the Cleveland Indians and Boston Red Sox, sat beside the legendary Jim Brown after presiding over the coin toss at a Cleveland Browns football game, and addressed the Ohio State Buckeyes before they took to the gridiron to play arch-rival Michigan. “These are teams I’ve rooted for my whole life,” he said. “It was awesome.”
Yet through it all, Pavlik maintained a self-effacing sense of humour. When a reporter asked, “Do you think that you can take the place of Oscar De La Hoya [as the face of boxing] after De La Hoya retires?”, Kelly answered, “It would be nice. But I’ve got a couple of things against me. First of all, there’s my looks.”
Indeed, Pavlik’s appeal was such that his promoter, Bob Arum (an ardent supporter of Hillary Clinton) prevailed upon him to endorse the New York senator in the 2008 Democratic presidential primary in Ohio. “I was at home and the telephone rang,” Kelly later recounted. “I picked it up, said ‘hello’, and someone said, ‘Hi, this is Hillary Clinton.’ I’m like, ‘Sure. Right. Uh-huh.’ She’s trying to convince me it’s really her, and I’m wondering which of my friends is jerking me around.”
A local Chevrolet dealer gave Pavlik an SUV in exchange for some autograph sessions and a local commercial. There was a $100,000 endorsement deal with Affliction, a fledgling clothing company. For a fighter who’d been doing landscape work for 10 dollars an hour a year earlier, it was a sweet turnaround. But after a while, the bloom started coming off the rose.
“I’m a simple guy,” Pavlik acknowledged. “I don’t like flash and the limelight too much. I like to do things around the house and spend time with my daughter, and there’s been a lot of times lately when I haven’t had any ‘me’ time. You’re supposed to go to the gym. Bust your butt. Go home. Fight. But I’m also supposed to be a role model. And do this charity. And please, visit this dying kid in the hospital; it would mean so much to him. And the next day, it’s an old man who’s dying or I go see children with mental disabilities. I don’t have time to do everything people want me to do. And if you don’t do everything that everyone else wants you to do, all of a sudden you’re an asshole.”
A victory by decision in a rematch against Jermain Taylor and a knockout of Gary Lockett raised Pavlik’s record to 34-0. The question then became, who would he fight next? HBO approved Arthur Abraham, Paul Williams, and Winky Wright as opponents, but none of those fights could be made. Arum offered Kelly a million dollars plus an upside to fight Marco Antonio Rubio on an independently-produced pay-per-view card. But Pavlik’s purse had been $2,500,000 for the Lockett fight and he wanted to stay at that level.
Thus, Team Pavlik looked to opponents in higher weight divisions. Pavlik vs Bernard Hopkins at a catchweight of 170 pounds followed. “Nobody has beaten up Hopkins,” Arum explained. “If Kelly can knock Hopkins out or beat the hell out of him, he’ll be on top of the world.”
Each fighter was guaranteed a $3,000,000 purse. And Kelly’s 160-pound title wouldn’t be at risk. “I respect Kelly Pavlik,” Hopkins told the media at the kickoff press conference. “I have nothing bad to say about Kelly Pavlik. He became middleweight champion of the world the right way. He earned it.”
“I want my legacy to be as great as Bernard’s,” Pavlik said in response.
The media was less kind. Eric Raskin of ESPN.com declared, “Paying to watch Hopkins fight is like paying to watch a pitcher hold a runner on first.” Steve Kim of Maxboxing.com wrote, “The problem in selling this fight is the specter of seeing Hopkins do what he does best, which is to take away his opponent’s preferred offensive weapon and suck the life and action out of any fight he’s involved in.”
In other words, the world expected a boring fight. And the near-unanimous assumption among the media was that Pavlik would win. Kelly’s assignment wasn’t just to beat Hopkins. Jermain Taylor and Joe Calzaghe had already done that. It was to beat Hopkins decisively, thereby establishing himself as boxing’s newest superstar.
That was a tough assignment. Pavlik was a middleweight. Within that realm, size and strength were his biggest advantage. And against Hopkins, he would be forfeiting that edge. A crucial element of Kelly’s fight plan would be to wear down Bernard with constant pressure. But in boxing, it’s hard to wear down a significantly bigger foe.
And more significantly, Hopkins would be the smartest, most skilled opponent that Pavlik had faced. “You know how I fight,” Kelly told fans at a rally in Youngstown. “You know my style. Nothing’s gonna change.”
That was the problem. Hopkins knew exactly how Kelly fought. “This kid is so fundamental,” Bernard told his trainer, Naazim Richardson, at the start of training camp. “If I can’t beat him, I should retire.”
Later, Hopkins added, “I got the book on Pavlik. Comes straight forward. Jab. Good right hand. Determined. Lots of heart. Slow. Not a skilled boxer. The last time I fought in Atlantic City was two years ago against Antonio Tarver. I was a 3/1 underdog and Antonio was going to knock me out. Do you all remember that? I’m not like any of those other guys that Pavlik beat. This fight is going to be two construction workers fighting on a pier when both of them is hungry but one of them is more skilled than the other. That’s my kind of fight.”
“Kelly has been in there before against athletes who boxed a bit,” Richardson told the media during fight week. “Bernard is all about fighting, and there’s a difference between a great athlete and a great fighter. Kelly has a shotgun for a righthand. But if you take away the shotgun, he ain’t got nothing. Bernard might not have a shotgun; but he’s got a switchblade, a razor blade, and a dagger. Bernard can’t play basketball. Bernard can’t rap. But Bernard can fight his ass off.”
That said; the image of Hopkins sucking air and stalling for time in the late rounds of his most recent outing against Joe Calzaghe convinced many that Pavlik was a lock. Kelly’s greatest perceived advantage was the age differential between the fighters. Bernard was 43; Kelly was 26. “There comes a day when every old dog has to be put down,” Jack Loew, Pavlik’s trainer, said. “This will be a good fight for six or seven rounds. But a fighter can back up and take shots for just so long. One way or another, whether it’s the referee or a towel from the corner or Bernard himself, this fight will end early. I think Kelly will stop him in the late rounds.”
As for the possibility of Hopkins seeking an edge by engaging in illegal tactics, Loew warned, “Don’t be surprised if we put Bernard’s nuts in this throat before he touches us low. We’re just as rough as he is on the inside.”
Joe Scalzo of the Youngstown Vindicator summed things up when he wrote, “Pavlik gets asked about his weight; Hopkins gets asked about his age. Pavlik gets asked about winning by knockout; Hopkins gets asked about losing his recent fights by controversial decisions. Pavlik gets asked about his next fight. Hopkins gets asked, ‘When’s your last fight?’ Not surprisingly, Pavlik is a 4/1 favorite.”
Indeed, rather than debate the outcome of the contest, some insiders openly wondered what would happen when (not if) Hopkins found himself in trouble. Would he (a) fight like a warrior to the point of going out on his shield; (b) foul to gain an edge and, failing that, be disqualified; or (c) feign injury and quit.
But Top Rank matchmaker Bruce Trampler sounded a cautionary note. When a conversation turned to big-money fights that lay ahead for Pavlik after he beat Hopkins, Trampler noted, “Before all that happens, ‘A’, Kelly has to win the fight, and, ‘B’, Kelly has to win the fight.”
Team Pavlik arrived in Kelly’s dressing room at Boardwalk Hall on fight night at 8.45pm. Several minutes later, Dr Domenic Coletta of the New Jersey Athletic Control Board came into the room to administer the final pre-fight physcal examination. Everything went according to form until Coletta asked, “Are you on any medication?”
“Bronchitis,” Kelly answered. That was a serious departure from the norm. “Did you have a fever?”
“A hundred and one degrees.”
“What have you been taking?”
Mike Pavlik (Kelly’s father) handed a sheet of paper to the doctor. “Here’s what they gave Kelly.”
Coletta scanned the list. Mucinex, penicillin (one shot on Wednesday night), and ciprofloxacin (500mg twice a day through the day of the fight).
“How do you feel now?”
Coletta finished his work and left. Over the next 10 minutes, Mike and Jack Loew exchanged bad jokes. Then Mike turned pensive. “This has been an incredible journey and I’m glad to be part of it,” he said. “But when it’s over, I won’t miss it. When your kids are little, you say, ‘When they’re older, I won’t worry about them.’ But you always worry. Little kids, little problems. Big kids, big problems.”
Arturo Gatti came into the dressing room to wish Kelly well. In previous years, Gatti had been the standard-bearer for boxing in Atlantic City. Pavlik hoped to become his successor.
Kelly began doing stretching exercises on the floor.
On a television monitor in a corner of the room, middleweight prospect Danny Jacobs could be seen disposing of a badly overmatched Tyrone Watson in the first round. HBO production coordinator Tami Cotel entered and asked Kelly to weigh in on the “unofficial” HBO scale. Kelly complied. One day earlier, Hopkins had officially weighed in at 170 pounds and Pavlik at 169. But those numbers were deceiving. Now, Kelly (wearing a track suit but no shoes) weighed 176 pounds. Minutes earlier, wearing sneakers, Hopkins had tipped the scale at 185. Bernard would have a considerable weight advantage.
The second pay-per-view fight of the evening (Marco Antonio Rubio vs Enrique Ornelas) began. Referee Benjy Esteves came in and gave Kelly his pre-fight instructions. “Are there any questions?” Esteves asked at the end. There were none.
“The Hopkins corner said they were concerned about rough tactics from Kelly,” the referee added.
That elicited a collective laugh from Team Pavlik. “All right; just keep it clean,” Esteves cautioned.
Rubio emerged with a split-decision triumph over Ornelas. John Loew (Jack’s son) went down the hall to watch John David Jackson tape Hopkins’ hands. Kelly took off his track suit, put on black ring trunks, and laced up his shoes. At 10.20, Jack Loew told the control board inspector, “Tell the Hopkins people I’m starting to wrap. If they want somebody here, fine. But I’m starting.”
Steven Luevano against Billy Dib (the final preliminary bout) began. Naazim Richardson entered the room and watched as Loew taped Kelly’s hands. When the job was done, Kelly moved to the center of the room and began shadow-boxing. More stretching exercises followed.
At 11 o’clock, Loew gloved Kelly up. Fighter and trainer began working the pads. It was Kelly’s first strenuous exercise of the night.
“Double jab,” Loew instructed. “That’s it. Chin down. Aggressive but patient.”
Kelly began to cough. “Stick to the game plan. Nice and easy… Double the jab. That’s it… Punish him. Hard to the body… If you hit him on the belt and he turns to the referee to bitch, jump on his ass.”
Each time Loew took a break, Kelly went into the adjacent bathroom, coughed, and spat out phlegm. The third time he did it, Mike Pavlik turned away in a corner of the room, pressed both fists against the wall, and took a deep breath. A very deep breath. “Christ,” he murmured.
There was a near-capacity crowd in Boardwalk Hall. Pavlik entered the ring first to a roar of approval. Hopkins, wearing a hood and black executioner’s mask, followed.
At the start of a fight, a boxing ring is like a chessboard with an infinite number of possible moves to be played. Bernard didn’t play with Kelly, but there were times when it looked as though he was. He did everything right and fought more aggressively than he had in a long time. The first two rounds set the pattern for the fight. Hopkins was faster. He moved in and out at will. Working off the absence of a left hook in Pavlik’s arsenal, he circled to the right to avoid Kelly’s right hand. Kelly’s jab wasn’t landing, which made his right hand even more ineffectual.
The best that could be said for Pavlik’s performance after two rounds was that he was one point ahead of where Joe Calzaghe had been at a similar juncture in his fight against Hopkins (when Joe was knocked down in round one and lost round two as well). The questions now were (1) could Kelly make adjustments as Calzaghe had done; and (2) could Bernard keep it up for 12 rounds. The answers were “no” and “yes.”
Pavlik simply couldn’t get untracked. There were times when it looked as though he was fighting in slow motion. Hopkins was in control from beginning to end. He found the holes in Kelly’s defense and exploited them with sharp precision punching. He was too big and too good. He outboxed Pavlik and he outfought him. He asked questions all night long and Kelly had no answers.
By round eight, it was clear that Pavlik needed a knockout to win. But Bernard is hard to play catch-up against and no one had ever knocked him out. In round nine, his punches opened an ugly slice on the outside of Kelly’s right eyelid. Finally, in round 10, Pavlik maneuvered Hopkins into a corner and landed a right hand flush. Nothing happened. “That’s when I knew the fight was over,” Naazim Richardson said afterward.
Hopkins outlanded Pavlik 172-to-108 with a 148-to-55 edge in power punches. Contrary to all expectations, he also threw more punches than Kelly in nine of the 12 rounds. Referee Benjy Esteves deducted a point from Pavlik for hitting behind the head in round eight and from Hopkins for holding in round nine. The judges scored it 119-106, 118-108, and 117-109. Hopkins fought a superb fight. No over-40 fighter had ever looked better.
“This was the best performance of my career,” Bernard said when it was over. “Better than Tarver, better than Trinidad, better than Oscar, better than my 21 defences. It out-does everything I accomplished. I am extremely happy tonight.”
Meanwhile, as Hopkins celebrated his victory, a markedly different scene was unfolding in Pavlik’s dressing room. “I felt weak,” Kelly told the members of his team gathered around him. “I didn’t have anything on my punches. I couldn’t get off; it just wasn’t there. He beat me to the punch all night long.” Kelly’s wife, Samantha, moved to his side. “Jermain Taylor is faster than Hopkins. And against Jermain, I never had that problem. The way I fought tonight, anybody could kick my ass.”
Tears welled up in Kelly’s eyes. He sat on a chair and began to cry. Samantha knelt at his knees and tried to console him. “You didn’t lose this fight,” Mike Pavlik told his son. “The loss was my fault. I should have pulled it when you got bronchitis.” Kelly shrugged. “I lost it.”
Domenic Coletta came in and administered a brief post-fight physical examination. Then it was time to decide what to do about the cut on Kelly’s eyelid. “We can do stitches now or a butterfly now and stitches in the morning,” the physician advised.
“Let’s get it over with tonight,” Mike Pavlik said.
“I’ll call ahead to the hospital,” Coletta offered. “They’ll have someone ready to stitch it up.”
At 1am, Kelly left the dressing room with his father and a paramedic at his side. As they walked to a waiting ambulance, Kelly was approached by several fans who wanted him to stop and pose with them for photos. Each time, he complied. “Good fight,” one of the fans said. “Actually, it wasn’t so good,” Kelly responded.
Kelly and his father got in the back of the ambulance with the paramedic. At 1.10, they arrived at the emergency room entrance to the Atlantic City Regional Medical Center. Kelly walked through reception into a small square room with a hospital-green curtain drawn across the door. He lay on the bed, and a nurse came in to check his blood pressure and temperature. A second nurse followed.
“How much do you weigh?”
“How tall are you?”
“Date of birth?”
“Four, five, eighty-two.”
Address… Telephone number… Social Security number…
“Do you have a headache now?”
At 1.20, Dr. Eric Wolk entered the room, introduced himself, and examined the cut. “I’m not a plastic surgeon,” Wolk said. “But I can do this. I’d tell you if I couldn’t.”
Kelly nodded. “That’s okay. I trust you.”
“It’s a very linear laceration. It will close up nicely.”
“My grandmother was a nurse. She sewed me up lots of times when I was a kid.”
Wolk filled a syringe with anesthesia. “We’re going to numb it first. Then we’ll irrigate it. After that, we’ll close it up.” At 1.30, the needle went in. “Is anything else bothering you?” Wolk asked.
“Just my feelings.”
Mike Pavlik patted his son’s leg. “This is my fault,” he said. “Every instinct, every intuition I had told me I should have pulled the fight when you got bronchitis.”
Wolk crafted seven stitches. “Can I take a shower when I get back to my room?” Kelly asked.
“No problem. Just don’t rub the eye.”
Kelly stood up. “Thanks, doc. I appreciate it.”
“Feel better,” Volk said.
Kelly took a deep breath. “I’ve lost once,” he told his father. “Hopkins is a legend and he’s lost five times.”
Father and son embraced. “I don’t care about the loss,” Mike said. “All I care about is that you’re all right.”
At 2am, Kelly and Mike Pavlik walked out into the chill night air. In five hours, the sun would rise over the Atlantic Ocean. Kelly’s face would be bruised and swollen. It would hurt to know that he’d lost an important fight. But he’d fought with honor. He’d finished on his feet. And he was still middleweight champion of the world, even though it didn’t feel like it at the moment.
Thomas Hauser’s most recent book – Staredown: Another Year Inside Boxing – was published by the University of Arkansas Press. In 2004, the Boxing Writers Association of America honored Hauser with the Nat Fleischer Award for career excellence in boxing journalism. In 2019, Hauser was selected for boxing’s highest honour – induction into the International Boxing Hall.