ON September 29, 2007, Kelly Pavlik challenged Jermain Taylor at Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City for the middleweight championship of the world.
Pavlik was born in Youngstown, Ohio, in 1982. His father, Mike, was a steelworker who left the mills to take a job as an insurance agent. His mother, Debbie, was a cook at Hardee’s, an American fast-food restaurant chain.
Kelly compiled an amateur record of 89 wins against 9 losses. He worked odd jobs to get the money to go to tournaments. More often than he cares to remember, he was removing dirty dishes from tables in a Youngstown restaurant when his high school classmates came in for something to eat after a school dance.
Pavlik turned pro in 2000. He had a thin muscular body and knew one way to fight: a crowd-pleasing style of go forward, punching. But a fighter’s career moves slowly and Kelly was hampered by problems with a tendon in his right hand. To supplement his income, he washed dishes and took other jobs. Until early 2007, he did occasional landscape work for ten dollars an hour to help make ends meet.
On May 19, 2007, Pavlik’s life changed. He knocked out highly-touted Edison Miranda in seven rounds. That performance silenced a lot of doubters. Suddenly, Kelly was no longer a protected white kid. He was a 31-and-0 fighter with 28 knockouts and the mandatory challenger for middleweight champion Jermain Taylor.
Taylor had won a bronze medal at the 2000 Olympics and turned pro under the aegis of promoter Lou DiBella. Pat Burns, a former Miami cop with an extensive amateur coaching background, was brought in to train him. Under Burns’s tutelage, Jermain won his first 23 pro fights. Then, on July 16, 2005, he eked out a narrow split decision over Bernard Hopkins to claim the undisputed middleweight championship of the world.
There was a parade in Taylor’s hometown of Little Rock, Arkansas, to celebrate his triumph. Thousands of fans attended a rally at the end of the route. “That was the best feeling I ever had,” Jermain said afterward. “It was amazing that all those people came out just for me.” Then came a trip to New York for a meeting with fellow Arkansan Bill Clinton. “Anywhere I go,” Jermain said, “restaurants, clubs, wherever; they don’t charge me. Of course, when I was broke and needed it, no one gave me anything for free.”
On December 3, 2005, Taylor decisioned Hopkins in a rematch. He seemed poised for superstardom. But a corrosive factor was at work. Taylor had grown up without a father. And a Little Rock resident named Ozell Nelson had filled the void, playing a pivotal role in Jermain’s early life. He’d even taught him the rudiments of boxing. Now Nelson and Pat Burns weren’t getting along.
After Taylor won his rematch against Hopkins, there was sniping that Burns had a “white slave-master mentality” and wasn’t a top-notch trainer despite his having overseen Jermain’s transformation from a raw amateur to middleweight champion of the world. There was a lot of money to be made off Taylor now that he was a champion, particularly if Burns’ salary were to become available for redistribution. Taylor owed much of his success as a fighter to Burns. But in his mind, Nelson had saved his life. After the second Taylor-Hopkins fight, Burns was replaced by Emanuel Steward.
Steward was a legendary trainer and deservedly so. One doesn’t have to debate the issue of whether he was a better trainer than Burns. It’s enough to say that Burns was a better trainer for Taylor.
Steward brought Taylor to the Kronk Gym in Detroit to train and introduced him to a lifestyle that wasn’t a good fit. Nelson was given an expanded role in training camp. Jermain’s next three performances reflected Burns’ absence. He fought without his usual fire against Winky Wright and salvaged a draw. Lackluster victories over Kassim Ouma and Cory Spinks followed. As he readied to face Pavlik, his record stood at 27-0-1 with 17 knockouts. But he was a vulnerable champion.
A logical case could be made for victory by either fighter. Taylor was undefeated in seven fights against present or former world champions. He would have an edge in hand-speed over Pavlik. Also, Kelly didn’t move his head enough and had a tendency to bring his left hand back low after throwing his jab. Against Miranda, Kelly had showed he could take a punch. But could he take jab after jab and combinations?
Moreover, Jermain had fought through adversity. He’d suffered a bad scalp wound in his first fight against Hopkins. His left eye had been shut by Winky Wright. Each time, he’d emerged with the crown. His will was strong. He’d gone twelve rounds seven times. By contrast, Pavlik had gone nine rounds once. Kelly had never heard the ring announcer say “round ten . . . round eleven . . . round twelve.”
But the case for a Pavlik victory was equally strong. Kelly had a solid chin and power in both hands. He was expected to hit Taylor harder than Jermain had ever been hit.
Meanwhile, Pavlik’s hometown of Youngstown was squarely behind him. Once, Youngstown had been at the center of steel production in the United States. But the local economy had soured in the 1970s. Steel mills closed; factories shut down. The city had never recovered.
Now Youngstown had a hero to root for, a reason to feel good about itself. And the entire state of Ohio embraced Kelly. One day before Taylor-Pavlik, the boardwalk in Atlantic City was a sea of scarlet, grey, and white (the uniform colors for Ohio State, one of the nation’s top college football teams). Interest in the fight was so intense that General Motors planned to shut down the late shift at its plant in Lordstown (near Youngstown) on Saturday night because so many of its workers planned to stay home and watch the fight.
Pavlik entered his dressing room in Boardwalk Hall on fight night at 8:34 PM. He was wearing a gray warm-up suit with a scarlet stripe down each leg and white piping. Mike Pavlik, trainer Jack Loew, manager Cameron Duncan, Michael Cox (a Youngstown policeman), Jack’s son (John), and Kelly’s oldest brother (Mike Jnr) were with him. Cutman Miguel Diaz, who had worked Kelly’s corner since his first pro fight, was already there.
Loew was the only trainer that Pavlik had ever had. When Kelly was nine, he began learning the rudiments of boxing under Jack’s tutelage at the Southside Boxing Club – a converted pizza joint in Youngstown. Loew was also the owner and sole employee of a company called The Driveway Kings. He sealed asphalt driveways for a living. One week before Taylor-Pavlik, he was sealing driveways in the morning before going to the gym.
As Pavlik settled in the dressing room, the preliminary fights were underway. In the first bout of the evening, Ray Smith (one of Taylor’s sparring partners from Little Rock) had been knocked out by Richard Pierson (a Pavlik sparring partner). Then heavyweight Terry Smith (also from Little Rock) lost a six-round decision to Robert Hawkins.
“I got good news for you,” Diaz told Kelly. “Both of Jermain’s Taylor’s guys lost.”
The dressing room had seen better days. The industrial carpet was worn and the vinyl-topped rubdown table was scarred with discolored tape covering multiple gashes.
Referee Steve Smoger entered and gave Pavlik his final pre-fight instructions. Dr. Sherry Wulkan of the New Jersey Board of Athletic Control administered a final pre-fight physical. When they were done, Kelly yawned. Then he began text-messaging friends.
“Oklahoma [one of the top college football teams in the nation] got beat pretty good today,” Jack Loew said.
“Texas too,” Mike Pavlik added.
Mike pointed toward a television monitor by the door. “Too bad we can’t get Ohio State on that thing.”
Kelly stopped text-messaging long enough to pull up some college football scores. “Ohio State is losing to Minnesota,” he said.
“What?” his father uttered in disbelief.
Kelly smiled. “Just kidding. The Buckeyes are up 14-0; 7:22 left in the second quarter.”
He put down his cell phone and stretched out his legs on a folding chair in front of him.
Larry Merchant of HBO came in for a brief pre-fight interview. “I’ve waited for this for seven years,” Pavlik told him. “I just want to get in there and let my hands go. He’ll have to keep up with me.”
At 9:41, Kelly lay down on the carpet and began a series of stretching exercises. Ten minutes later, he stood up. “Time to put my soldier gear on,” he said. Shoes first. Then his trunks; grey with red, white, and blue trim.
When a fighter gets to the championship level, his dressing room reflects his preferences. Pavlik preferred low-key and quiet. The conversation around the room was casual, what one might expect to hear in the gym before a sparring session.
Loew began wrapping Kelly’s hands. Throughout training, the muscles in the fighter’s back had been tighter than he would have liked. Now, as Loew wrapped, Mike Pavlik massaged his son’s back and shoulders.
Mike had been a constant presence in Atlantic City. Broad-shouldered with a shaved head, he looked as though he could bench-press the Rock of Gibralter. He was enjoying the journey and, at the same time, looking after his son.
The odds had been virtually even in the days leading up to the fight with the “smart” money on Taylor and the Youngstown money on Pavlik. In the past twenty-four hours, the professional money had come in, making Jermain an 8-to-5 favorite.
At 10:17, the taping was done. “How are we doing?” Mike Pavlik asked.
“I’m very very confident,” Loew told him. “Nothing to do for this boy anymore but let him fight.”
Kelly gloved up and began hitting the pads with his trainer. “Stay behind the jab,” Loew instructed. “Jab, right, jab, right.”
Each time, the follow right was a bit off target.
“Stay behind the jab and relax . . . There. That’s it. Double jab. Now let it go.”
The punches began landing with explosive power. When the pad-work was done, Kelly alternated between pacing back and forth and shadow-boxing.
Miguel Diaz put Vaseline on Kelly’s face.
The fighter hit the pads with Loew one last time.
“That’s it . . . Wow . . . Nice and easy . . . Push him back with that big long jab. Double it up . . . There you go. Back him up and you win.”
An HBO production coordinator came into the room. “Two minutes and you walk.”
Kelly stood up and moved toward the door. There had been no music, no one shouting “You da man!” Just quiet confidence and calm. Michael Cox checked his cell phone one last time. “The [Ohio State] Buckeyes won 30 to 7,” he announced. Mike Pavlik put an arm on Kelly’s shoulder. “All that work, all those years; it comes together now,” he told his son. “You were born to be here tonight.”
Youngstown was in the house. That was clear as the fighters made their way to the ring. The crowd made it sound as though the bout was being fought in Ohio. There was a thunderous roar for Pavlik and loud boos for Taylor.
Taylor came out aggressively in round one, going right after Pavlik. He was quicker than the challenger and his hands were faster. All three judges gave him the round. When the stanza was over, Jack Loew told Kelly, “Control the pace. Be patient. Stay behind the jab. It’s a basic fight.”
Round two began with more of the same. “I was surprised,” Pavlik said later. “I thought he’d try to box me more, but he came to fight. He has hand-speed and he can punch.”
Definitely, he can punch. Midway through round two, Taylor timed a right hand over a sloppy Pavlik jab. The blow landed high on the challenger’s head. Pavlik staggered backward, and the champion followed with a 15-punch barrage that put Kelly down.
“I was scared to death,” Mike Pavlik admitted later. “That’s the worst feeling I’ve ever had in my life. I wouldn’t have cared if the referee had stopped it. To be honest; I was hoping it was over.”
“The first thing that went through my mind,” Kelly said in his dressing room after the fight, “was, ‘Oh, shit.’ But I heard the count. I was aware at all times. I told myself, ‘Get up; get through this.’”
Pavlik rose at the count of two, but there were 88 seconds left in the round. “I was shaky,” he admitted. “That right hand hurt. I’ve been knocked down before but there was never a buzz. It had always been a balance thing. This time, there was a tingle and my legs weren’t so good. I did what I could to survive. He hit me with some more hard shots, but I got through the round. Some guys quit when they get knocked down, and some get back up.”
There comes a time when a fighter has to dig deep within himself by himself. In the corner after round two, Kelly managed a weak smile. “I’m okay,” he told Loew. But he was bleeding from the nose and mouth.
“Stay on that double f***ing jab,” Loew ordered. “There’s a lot of time left. You have 10 more rounds to do your job.” Then, incredibly, Pavlik won round three. The punches that Taylor had thrown in the second round seemed to have taken more out of the champion than the challenger. Jermain paced himself in the stanza rather than following up on his advantage. Pavlik threw 99 punches over the three-minute period, earning the nod on each judge’s scorecard.
The die was cast. Taylor was faster. He was ahead on points throughout the bout. But inexorably, Pavlik was walking him down with non-stop aggression behind a strong double jab. More and more often, the champion found himself having to punch his way out of a corner. When the fight moved inside and one of the challenger’s hands was tied up, Kelly fought with the other rather than clinch. He made Jermain fight every second of every round.
“Jermain has a chin,” Pavlik acknowledged afterward. “I hit him with some punches, flush, right on the button early, and he didn’t budge. But then he started to wear down. In the fifth round, I thought I hurt him a bit against the ropes. But he came back with a right hand that came close to putting me in trouble again, so I reminded myself to be careful. In the seventh round, I hit him with another good right hand and his reaction was different. I saw his shoulders sag. There was that little buckle in his knees and I knew I had him.”
When the right hand that Pavlik was referring to landed, Taylor backed into a corner again. Kelly followed with a barrage of punches. “Jermain went limp,” referee Steve Smoger said later. “He was totally gone, helpless.”
Smoger stepped between the fighters. Two minutes and fourteen seconds into round seven, Kelly Pavlik was the new middleweight champion of the world. Taylor was ahead at the time of the stoppage 59-54, 58-55, 58-55 on the judges’ scorecards.
When Pavlik returned to Youngstown after the victory, a caravan of police cars and fire trucks met his SUV at the Ohio border to escort him home. And the perks kept coming. He was even the subject of a resolution passed by the United States House of Representatives praising him for his commitment and continuing loyalty to the Youngstown community.
But all good things come to an end. And in boxing, they tend to end sooner rather than later. Pavlik won a clear-cut decision in a rematch against Taylor. Then, after a successful title defense against Gary Lockett, he went up in weight and was outpointed by Bernard Hopkins. He returned to 160 pounds with knockout victories over Marco Antonio Rubio and Miguel Angel Espino. But on April 17, 2010, he lost his crown by decision to Sergio Martinez. Problems with alcohol and several stints in rehab followed. He retired from the ring in 2012 with a 40-2 (34 KOs) ledger.
“The main thing,” Kelly said later, looking back on it all, “is I won the world title. That’s something nobody can ever take from me.”
Thomas Hauser’s latest book – Staredown: Another Year Inside Boxing – is published by the University of Arkansas Press. In 2004, the Boxing Writers Association of America honoured Hauser with the Nat Fleischer Award for career excellence in boxing journalism. He will be inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame with the Class of 2020.