Middleweight champ Pavlik ready for the ring
Everything seemed to be lining up perfectly for the blue-collar kid from Youngstown. He had battered Jermain Taylor, beaten him again in an immediate rematch, and had turned his attention to cleaning out the middleweight division.
The only thing Kelly Pavlik's cleaned out this year has been his left hand. Twice.
His year has been about as bumpy as the worn-out roads around Jack Loew's South Side Boxing Club, where the scrawny 160-pound titleholder has been preparing for his return to the ring on Saturday night against unheralded contender Miguel Espino.
Pavlik began 2009 with an uninspiring defense against a mandatory challenger, then had two fights canceled, before rumors began circulating about why he hadn't been fighting.
The answer, it turned out, was a staph infection on the knuckle of his hand.
``It's been crazy, the hand, we have worked through that and it's in the past. The problem with the hand was just time-consuming,'' Pavlik said earlier this week. ``At the end of the day, we had two major surgeries within two months of each other.''
That's the short version of what happened.
Along with the surgeries to clean out the stubborn infection, there were failed antibiotics and a severe allergic reaction that put Pavlik in the hospital for four days and left his family wondering whether he might live, let alone fight again.
He finally got out of the hospital and began running, even announcing a fight with feared puncher Paul Williams for Dec. 5. Then Pavlik realized he couldn't make a fist.
He wanted the fight to be pushed back, but Williams had grown weary of the delays - the fight was originally scheduled for October - and chose to take on someone else. Pavlik figured he'd wait until January and make sure everything healed before stepping back into the ring, then was told the sanctioning bodies might strip him of his titles if he didn't defend them .
Into the picture came Espino, who was plucked out of training camp in Mexico and will fight for the WBO and WBC belts at the Beeghly Center on the campus of Youngstown State University.
``We're giving this kid an opportunity of a lifetime,'' Pavlik's trainer Jack Loew said, ``a fight that could change his life like it did for us against Jermain.''
Espino (20-2-1, 9 KOs) acknowledges that he's never faced anybody like Pavlik, whose thudding punches have reduced several contenders to rubble. Espino said he's ``grateful and humbled'' for the chance to fight for a belt, even on short notice in the champ's hometown.
``I am fighting for the world title, so there is nothing to be other than excited,'' Espino said. ``He is the champ, but do I have a shot? Absolutely. Am I going there to win? Absolutely.''
Pavlik (35-1, 31 KOs) prefers to train in Youngstown, where he can stay true to his humble roots. But there was so much controversy and negativity surrounding his injury and the repeated delays that he gave up and headed for Las Vegas, where he spent a couple of weeks ``getting our head straight'' in a somewhat secluded camp.
Pavlik understands that in a sport booming in popularity, helped along by the charisma and success of Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Manny Pacquiao, that any American champion - especially in the iconic middleweight division - will have the spotlight shining brightly on them.
Not that it's ever easy in a small city where everyone knows your face.
``It didn't really affect me,'' Pavlik said of the constant rumors, of alcoholism and drug abuse and worse, none of it substantiated. ``At the end of the day, I feel good. I know what I have accomplished. The people that know about the sport know the truth.
``There is talk that goes on, my career has been in a little bit of limbo,'' he added. ``I definitely feel hungrier. I miss it. Boxing is what I've been doing since I was 8 years old. When I take this time that I had off, I definitely got the hunger back.''