Pride of Youngstown
June 4, 2008
Pride of Youngstown: A ‘Ghost’ Who Didn’t Vanish
By SEAN D. HAMILL
YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio — Called the Ghost early in his career for his ability to make opponents swing and miss, Kelly Pavlik, this city’s favorite son, has developed into a relentless power puncher with an iron chin. But still, he cannot shake the nickname, which now applies more to his complexion than to the straight-ahead, proficient fighter he has become.
In what has long been one of boxing’s glamour weight classes — former champions include household names like Sugar Ray Leonard, Marvin Hagler and Thomas Hearns — Pavlik has quietly and suddenly amassed two of the four middleweight belts.
Twice in the last year he has pummeled the middleweight champion Jermain Taylor, uncorking his lean, 6-foot-2 frame and 75-inch reach to ascend to undisputed champion in the 160-pound division. If you have not heard of Pavlik, it is not your fault. Attribute it to a boxer who refuses to abandon his beleaguered hometown and to a struggling sport that is not producing enough marquee names or worthy fighters in his weight class to allow him to elevate his story or his game.
His next opponent, the Welshman Gary Lockett, whom he fights Saturday night in Atlantic City, is seen by many in the sport as beneath Pavlik, despite being the No. 1 contender for one of Pavlik’s belts.
But if the 26-year-old Pavlik continues to win — perhaps even with an extra dose of style — he may be able to attract some big names from other divisions to cross over and fight him. And if he stays undefeated (he is 33-0 with 29 knockouts), he has the potential to transcend the glamour list of boxers.
“In a totally nonpolitically correct way of saying it: He’s white and a Midwestern kid,” said Bert Sugar, a longtime boxing journalist and analyst. “That gives him a constituency that a lot of other American fighters don’t have.”
In addition, Sugar said, “he has a great story; he’s wrapped himself in the fabric of his city and he’s a hero to Youngstown.”
“And we just don’t have heroes today,” he said. “For some reason, we’re out of the hero business.”
In Youngstown, a former industrial stronghold that has lost more than half of its population since 1960 — from 166,688 in 1960 to 81,520 in 2006 — after most of its mills closed, Pavlik is revered for staying home when he could have easily left.
Two weeks ago, while running stairs at the football stadium of Youngstown State University, more than 100 elementary school kids on a field trip spotted him from a long distance and started chanting: “Kel-EEE!, Kel-EEE, Kel-EEE!”
“He has brought pride back to Youngstown, in a town that doesn’t have a lot of good to talk about,” said Nades Rafeedie, 36, owner of Mickey’s bar on Market Street in the city. “You see these guys making their money and usually they’re off to Las Vegas and California. He stayed.”
Before the March Democratic primary in Ohio, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton competed for Pavlik’s endorsement — Clinton won his endorsement and the primary.
Pavlik has that local hero status in part because money has not changed him. Even though he will gross $2.5 million from the Lockett fight and is earning thousands more from an increasing stable of endorsements, he still lives in a very modest home with his longtime girlfriend, Samantha Kocanjer, 25, and their 2-year-old daughter, Sydney. He remains a regular, laid-back jokester devoid of ostentation and bling.
Pavlik learned how fleeting economic security can be as an 8-year-old who watched his father lose a good steel mill job. “He’s still Kelly,” said Lori Greenwalt, the manager of Civics, the local bar Pavlik frequents with friends and family, “even if he is the champ.”
The boxing trainer Jack Loew, a no-nonsense Youngstown native and part-time driveway sealer, said Pavlik did not stand out when he started training at the gym as a 9-year-old. Loew said he was tough and brave but “nothing special.”
To show how far Pavlik has come, Loew keeps an enlarged photo above the inside of his club’s front door of his 15 amateur fighters in 1992, all posed after a fight night. They are all wearing the red and black warm-ups of the South Side Boxing Club — except Pavlik, whose skills did not yet warrant the issuance of official gear.
It was the night of Pavlik’s first fight, and Loew matched him up against someone with 24 fights on his résumé.
“He beat the hell out of him,” Loew said of Pavlik’s first win. “He smacked him around the ring.”
In the photo, Pavlik is beaming with the look of someone who has found his calling. Boxing was satisfying in a way that made sense to Pavlik.
“It was the one-on-one aspect,” Pavlik said. “Not being selfish, but you win by yourself. If you lose, there’s no one to blame. It’s everything you put into it.”
It would be six years, though, before everything would really click for Pavlik, who was all gangly legs, arms and size 14 feet at age 16 when everyone realized he could hit with surprising ferocity and force.
Pavlik soon stopped the dancing that earned his nickname and began pounding and dropping everyone who came his way. In 1998, he won the National Junior Golden Gloves. In 1999, when he was 17, he won the United States National Under-19 title. By 2000, he was fighting for a spot on the Olympic team, narrowly losing to Jermain Taylor, who went on to win a bronze medal for the United States.
People started paying attention. Pavlik signed with Top Rank’s Cameron Dunkin, one of boxing’s top managers. Two long-accepted rules of boxing are that fighters have to get more experienced trainers if they are to make it to the top level, and that they have to get away from home for training camp.
Pavlik did not buy into either notion.
“Kelly is an extremely loyal person,” said his father, Michael Pavlik Sr., who is a manager for his son. “And he’s in a comfort zone. He rolls out of bed and he’s here training in two minutes.”
That did not stop Top Rank’s matchmakers and other luminaries in boxing, including Ray Mancini, a friend of the family and a Youngstown native, from trying to persuade Pavlik to leave home and go with a big-name trainer.
Dunkin, Pavlik’s lead manager, said he fought for years with Top Rank’s matchmaker, Bruce Trampler, over the issue. Pavlik finally agreed to train in Las Vegas before a couple of fights in 2004 and 2005, but he “was “miserable,” Dunkin said.
Then, in October 2005, he knocked out the contender Fulgencia Zuniga in the ninth round.
“After that, the heat was sort of off,” Dunkin said, “because he fought a solid guy and won.”
He has trained in Youngstown for his last seven fights.
“I have everything I need right here,” Pavlik said. “And you do have your real fans, your real true fans.”
One of the quirks of his training regimen is that he still sleeps on the couch in his parents’ Youngstown home, leaving his family members at their suburban Boardman home. This is mainly so his father can keep an eye on his diet. Then he is off to the pleasantly shabby, one-room storefront of a former grocery story where he has trained with Loew for 17 years.
Ultimately, Dunkin explained, Pavlik would like to have a chance to unify all four major middleweight belts, which would mean fighting the German boxers Felix Sturm, who holds the World Boxing Association belt, and Arthur Abraham, who holds the International Boxing Federation belt. Because neither are big names in this country, Pavlik may instead move up a weight class to 168 pounds and fight the undisputed and undefeated super middleweight champion, the Welshman Joe Calzaghe (45-0).
But first there is Lockett, who has a 30-1 record with 21 knockouts but is four inches shorter than Pavlik. Even though Lockett is the No. 1 contender in the division, the British press is calling this fight his “Rocky moment” because he is a relative unknown.
When Pavlik is not training, he devotes several days a week to local charities, helping with fund-raisers or meeting with sick children.
Last year, after the first Taylor fight, he added a tattoo on his back, depicting an angel crying and hugging the world, over the phrase “Lift Our Spirits.”
“She’s tired of everything going on in the world today,” Pavlik said of the angel, conceding the tattoo reflects how he feels sometimes when he realizes he cannot help everybody in Youngstown. “But I’ve never seen anything near what they did for me when I came home from the first Taylor fight. People in Youngstown are on their feet again. It’s just awesome to see that again.”
His goal, he said, is to be so successful that he’s “mentioned in the same breath as the Hearns, Leonards, Haglers, Durans, Benitezes.”
“I want to be there,” Pavlik said.