Friday night fights at Saxon Hall in Youngstown, a catering hall that hosts more weddings than boxing matches. Undisputed world middleweight champ Kelly Pavlik is in attendance, but no one would fault a visitor for not noticing. The 11-year-old phenom on the card tonight has a bigger entourage than Pavlik. Thin, bald, clad in jeans and a black T-shirt, the champ is sporting every piece of jewelry he owns, both of them -- a wedding ring and a watch. Pavlik blends in so well he'd be lost in the crowd if not for the VIP seating. Only the steady flow of well-wishers to his table gives away his status as a hometown hero.
These fans represent just a fraction of those who will be there, in person or in spirit, when Pavlik steps into the ring to fight Bernard "The Executioner" Hopkins on October 18. In Youngstown, sports fans break into two camps: loyal to either the Browns or the Steelers. But, as with Ohio State, everyone loves Pavlik. At just 26, the fighter is Ohio's most recent championship franchise, backed behind the scenes by a camp called Team Pavlik - a collection of family, trusted lifelong friends and powerhouse fight-game players that has become a civic institution. Team Pavlik has made Youngstown a destination, and the ring's bright lights are helping the rusty city shine.
When Pavlik wore a "Defend Youngstown" T-shirt in a documentary that aired on SportsTime Ohio, the T began selling in Cleveland. Then Midwest chic went viral after the shirt popped up in the pre-fight profile before his January 2007 HBO debut. Since then, stories in Sports Illustrated, The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times have all advanced the legend: Pavlik personally defends Youngstown, sledgehammer in hand, city on his shoulders, carrying it to a brighter future.
"Every boxer has a story," says Michael Pavlik Sr., Kelly's dad and general manager of Team Pavlik. "And this just happens to be Kelly's story, the city lauding him. The city's part of our team, Team Pavlik, the pride of having somebody on a world-class stage now, especially being from Youngstown."
But the champ will be the first to tell you that there's far more to his success than the fast hands that, along with his pale skin, earned him the nickname "The Ghost of Youngstown." Loyalty is very much a two-way street with Pavlik. It takes a team to raise a champion. ASIDE FROM THE FACT that he has curiously little visible muscle, Pavlik is built for fighting. His forehead raises straight up an extra inch as if fortified, intelligently designed to take a beating and keep the gray matter inside intact. It's certainly served him remarkably well.
Pavlik is one of best-spoken guys in the fight game. He can calmly lay out an articulate, cliché-free game plan for fights. He doesn't talk shit, but concisely calls it like he sees it. Take his assessment of Welshman Joe Calzaghe (46-0), who has been Pavlik's chief antagonist. Each boxer claims the other won't fight him, but Pavlik denies it more convincingly: "Calzaghe, I'd have to shoot him in the leg to get him to stop running from me."
He turned that wit on hometown fans last spring, at the peak - so far - of Pavlik mania. The Ghost called a press conference to announce his retirement. The shock was palpable; the choked-up local press begged Why? As Pavlik began answering the question, a gleam in his eyes sparked into a grin. His serene delivery faltered as he noted that it was April 1. Even his dad had fallen for it.
The announcement was unbelievably premature.
After earning an 89-9 amateur record -winning Golden Gloves, PAL (Police Athletic League) and U.S. National championships along the way - Pavlik went pro in 2000, after losing to Jermain Taylor in Olympic trials. "He said, 'No more trophies,'" recalls Pavlik's dad. "He said, 'If I'm going to fight, I'm going to get paid.' That was basically the conversation."
Pavlik and Taylor crossed paths again, in September 2007, in a bout that the Boxing Writers Association would later deem Fight of the Year. Taylor had won a bronze medal in the Olympics and was now the WBC and WBO middleweight champion. But the challenger had a lot to fight for too: With a 1-year-old daughter, Pavlik had more incentive than ever to keep his head attached. Early in, Pavlik proved he could take a punch, when he was knocked down - for the first time ever - in the second round. Then in the seventh round, Pavlik became the first man to knock Taylor out. He returned to Youngstown a world champion, greeted with a parade and a full hero's welcome.
In the February 2008 rematch, he showed he could think on his feet, rapidly adjusting to Taylor's newfound mobility and taking the decision. Pavlik also proved gracious in victory: After the match, Taylor's mother and sister thanked Pavlik for treating Taylor respectfully - not calling him out, putting him down or talking trash before or after either fight. They were learning what the crowds at home already knew. Family, friends, writers and fans all echo the same statement: Since making it big, he's the same guy, a regular guy.
In June, Pavlik handily defended the title against Gary Lockett - a stable mate of Calzaghe - in a bout that the Philadelphia Daily News' Bernard Fernandez described as "a three-round thrashing." After, ESPN.com's Dan Rafael wrote, "With Floyd Mayweather announcing his retirement, Oscar De La Hoya a fight or two from retirement and the American heavyweight star non-existent, Pavlik is the centerpiece of American boxing."
In his eight years as a pro, Pavlik has 36 wins (30 of them knockouts) and no losses.
Still, Pavlik the champ lives much like Pavlik the contender. After winning the title, he splurged, buying a ping-pong table and refinishing his basement - though he was thoroughly dismayed by how much oak paneling costs.
"I'm a simple person," says Pavlik. "Simple things keep me happy. I'm too busy to get into that Hollywood mentality. Maybe if I was raised different, I'd have a big head." BORN OF TOUGH CATHOLIC Rust Belt stock, Pavlik's training began, informally, at birth. He toughened up by grappling with two older brothers. He learned how to look for an opening - if not in a fight, then two hours later, when the opponent's back was turned. Martial arts movies piqued his interest in fighting, but karate was too restrained for his tastes. Boxing was cheaper, and he got to hit harder. He didn't like holding back.
"It's his nature to be such a competitive individual, but he's not competitive with other people," says his dad. "He's competitive against himself, even though he may be in the ring sparring against somebody [and thinking] 'I can do this better, I can do that better.' That's his makeup, his character."
The Italian-Slavic Michael is a couple inches taller, three times as thick and even balder; if you didn't know better, you'd rather fight Kelly. But, says Mr. Pavlik, Kelly learned how to fight from his German-Irish mother, Debbie, who ran a disciplined household. As Pavlik rose through amateur ranks, suitors started showing up … some would-be hangers on, some legit. Another Youngstown native and boxing champ, Ray "Boom Boom" Mancini, visited the Pavliks' house for a sit-down with Pavlik's dad at the kitchen table. The vet made a legit offer, but it didn't feel right. Pavlik and his dad passed.
And as Pavlik notched more wins, a line formed; people wanted in on the action. Even before it was formally know as "Team Pavlik," the young fighter's inner circle - his parents and longtime trainer Jack Loew - closed ranks. As Pavlik rose through Ring rankings, not everybody who wanted to be his new friend had the same goal.
"A lot of boxers make big mistakes in their career," explains Kelly. "People around them take advantage. So our concept for Team Pavlik was [that] everybody has a certain job to make sure Team Pavlik is going smooth, and nobody's coming in from the outside."
Pavlik's father was the ringleader, but even with Loew's experience, his sage advice wasn't enough to take Kelly to the top. In 2000, Pavlik signed with the Vegas-based Top Rank promotions company and manager Cameron Dunkin, the Boxing Writers' Association's 2007 Manager of the Year, who's handled 11 past and present world champions, including Danny Romero and Steven Luevano.
As needed, the team has added a PR agent, a scheduler, a web master and security. Pavlik's brothers and mother found roles (his brothers handle his schedule and make appearances on the team's behalf; Mom manages the growing merchandise business). Loew's son serves as a cornerman. Local auxiliary managers have come and gone.
Now the outer circle isn't much bigger than the inner circle. By the first Taylor fight, Pavlik had shaken off all connections where loyalty was questionable.
"People wanting to get close to Kelly aren't always looking for his best interest," says Michael. "Kelly keeps business as business, friends as friends. I'm very pleased."
Pavlik's father - who worked at Republic Steel for 19 years and has been an insurance salesman for the 18 years since - has always been his son's advisor and (technically) co-manager, though he's only been taking paychecks since 2007's Edison Miranda fight. He handles concerns on the local level, seeing that Kelly makes weight and remembers appearances for charities like the United Way, Akron Children's Hospital, the American Cancer Society and the Make-a-Wish Foundation. He says watching Kelly take a punch in the head is "the toughest thing in the world" and always keeps his experienced eye on the Team's long-term goal: Get Kelly in, then get him out while he's healthy. IN YOUNGSTOWN, YOU learn that good times can end tomorrow. The city never regained footing after September 19, 1977 - "Black Monday," when Youngstown Sheet and Steel suddenly announced massive layoffs, with much of the industry to follow. Trainer Loew hasn't completely abandoned his previous business, Driveway Kings. He still paves parking lots some weekends.
At 48, Loew resembles a football player from the '50s, with a stocky, bullish build, a buzzcut and push-broom mustache. He played football in high school before taking up boxing. He roughed up opponents on the way to an 18-1 amateur record. Though powerful, he lacked the finesse to be a great boxer. But he understood the science of the sport and how to teach it.
In 1989, Loew opened South Side Boxing Club at Erie Street and Lucius Avenue, in the withering working-class suburbs of Youngstown's South Side. He did more than his share to keep the sport alive in the city through the '90s, after WBA middleweight champion Ray "Boom Boom" Mancini - one of five boxing champions spawned in the former steel town - relocated to New York.
Loew and his gym developed a reputation: Even if they aren't natural athletes, Loew's kids work hard, don't quit and stay humble. Loew is excellent with hand pads, whether teaching combinations or simulating an upcoming pro opponent. He's a great motivator who knows how to get in a fighter's head, when to call bullshit on his work habits, when to ride him hard and when to step back. Working with no budget, Loew developed unorthodox workouts that have inspired a legion of comparisons to Rocky. Loew has kept generations of kids off the streets by giving them something productive to do after school. During the week, he'd take them to his home for dinner if they needed it. Weekends, they'd drive to Golden Gloves competitions as far away as Florida.
Kelly Pavlik grew up just a few blocks away. The first time he walked into South Side Boxing Club he was a rail-thin 9-year-old with no particular promise, but he had intangibles: As Loew told Boxing Forum, "He had a lot of heart and balls for a skinny kid." At 17, he started knocking kids out - no easy feat in amateur fighting, when boxers wear headgear and go only three rounds.
Loew trained Pavlik in the brick storefront, which is just one sweatbox of a room if you don't count the dungeon basement with a rickety wooden staircase, a row of dented lockers and a reeking toilet. Upstairs, fists pound black heavy bags like hammers, and the full-blast workouts sound like a construction zone. After 17 years, Loew knows Pavlik so well that he recognizes the smell of his sweat. He calls Pavlik the "once in a lifetime" pupil every coach wants. The feeling is mutual.
"He knows how to get you motivated," says Pavlik. "He'll tell you the truth right to your face. He'll say, 'You're going to get your ass whupped if you don't start training and do what you want to do.' He explains stuff to you. It's like [the difference between] a good teacher and a bad teacher. Some teachers, you can sit and listen to them talk, and the way they talk to a fighter, they can get in their head."
The Boxing Writers' Association and a handful of other organizations named Loew Trainer of the Year in 2007 and 2008 for his work with Pavlik (his stable also includes five other professionals and 35 registered amateurs). But he's still committed to his old-school methods.
At South Side, Pavlik strength-trains by slugging padded heavy bags with a concrete-filled aluminum bat. At nearby Ironman Gym, he pushes his SUV around the parking lot. Inside, he muscles around a 400-pound industrial tire. On the lawn, he executes his signature workout: He hoists a 17-pound sledgehammer over his head and whacks around an SUV tire, like he's playing some hellish variation of croquet. The hammer time is a South Side original; old-school fighters used to chop logs, but the jarring axe impact is rough on the arms. Seventeen years of pounding pugilism have left Pavlik with post-traumatic arthritis in his hands, one of many reasons the team plans just four or five more fights before Pavlik retires.
A year into his reign, Pavlik trains as he did before championships, even though he's now married with a 2-year-old daughter and another child on the way. Out of habit, convenience and superstition, he stays at his parents' house for his eight-week, pre-fight training. In the morning, he runs through Mahoning Valley parks. In the afternoon, he sweats at local gyms. He sees his wife and girl briefly during meal breaks. And then it's back to his folks' house, where he sleeps on the couch. (When he's in Atlantic City or Vegas for a fight, he crashes on the couch too; if he changes anything, things may change, and things are good.)
The low-tech workout, the two-bedroom house and the trainer you had in high school are all things you're supposed to ditch when you reach the big time. Pavlik went pro in 2000; despite his growing undefeated streak, his agent, promoter and lawyers leaned on him to get a guy who was a bigger name than Loew, who had never taken a fighter further than an undercard at Connecticut's Mohegan Sun. In 2005, Pavlik dismantled Fulgencio Zuniga, and the bloodletting finally broke his handlers' will. They quit bugging him to drop Loew.
"There was times when people wanted me to pull away, go with another trainer," recalls Pavlik. "And my thing was, 'If it ain't broke, don't fix it.' I want to be comfortable, mentally comfortable, having [Loew] as my trainer. All up-and-coming fighters eventually leave their trainer and go to other ones, and the outcome is no good."
Loew is only a little surprised that Pavlik stayed with him.
"He's a loyal kid," says Loew. "He's a Youngstown kid throughout. I owe him the world." EAST LIVERPOOL, OHIO. Calcutta Health Care retirement home's grand reopening party. Pavlik's making his last public appearance before going into training. Fans started showing up at noon, claiming spots for the 5 p.m. autograph session.
The crowd ranges from newborns to octogenarian retirees. They're loaded with boxing gloves, laminated posters and action pictures. The group hits all the demographics. A guy in a Larry the Cable Guy hat. Women wearing football T-shirts. A worker in paint-stained jeans. A middle-aged office executive in nylons and a pantsuit. Two husky teenage girls holding hands. A pool salesman in a blue button-down shirt. Nurses from the wound care unit. A man twice Pavlik's age who will tell him it's an honor to meet him. For most of the two-hour appearance, the line gets longer, wider and deeper. This is the Team Pavlik Nation.
Robert Taylor, a tattooed former middleweight, brought his infant daughter to take a picture with the champ. He runs down a list of acts and qualities that have endeared Pavlik to fans: "He's not afraid. He's not going to back down. He's going to give you exactly what you want in the ring. He comes from a small town, and he gives back to his roots. He takes his daughter to Chuck E. Cheese and still spends time with the fans … I've seen people at pawn shops on Market Street before fights, selling things. They have nothing, and they work overtime, a double shift, to go see him."
And these are just Pavlik's working-class fans. By virtue of his complete lack of posturing, Pavlik has earned rock-star appeal. In July, Pavlik joined the Foo Fighters onstage at Quicken Loans Arena, invited by mainman Dave Grohl. (The champ led the crowd in an "O-H" Ohio State chant.) He gave a celebrity interview to Pantera/Down frontman Phil Anselmo. (Pavlik's a metal fan and listens to hard stuff like Lamb of God.)
He's a favorite with artists and fellow athletes. He visited OSU's locker room before last year's Michigan game. He'd been on the sidelines with the Browns. When he first visited the Indians clubhouse, CC Sabathia jumped and hugged him. Membership in the sports fraternity is the perk he relishes most, though he'd probably give it up if he could mow his lawn or get a cup of coffee without being interrupted for an autograph. Pavik's fans will follow him to the ends of the earth. Even to New Jersey.
The growing Pavlik Nation loves a good road trip, and they travel well. At the first Taylor fight, Youngstown took over Atlantic City, drinking the Boardwalk Hall bar dry and winning heavily at Caesar's during the victory celebration. Capacity for the upcoming Hopkins fight is 12,000, and the casino expects at least a third of those seats to be filled with fans who made the eight-hour trip from Northeast Ohio.
"I'd say, [Pavlik's] last couple fights, East Coast fans have taken to him like they did with Arturo Gatti," says Caesar's Palace spokesman Christopher Jonic. "I haven't seen anything like it in some time, 4-to-5,000 people traveling for a fight, arriving by the busload, since ... Well, I can't remember." AT YOUNGSTOWN'S Chevrolet Centre, the pre-fight pep rally for Pavlik-Hopkins has drawn a swarm of media to town. Last-minute planning landed the event in the early afternoon, on the first week of school. Three hours later, and the crowd of 600 might have tripled. Still, kids, thugs and suburban moms turned out to watch Pavlik, Hopkins, their trainers and promoters talk up the fight. It could be a rager.
It's not a title fight, and neither fighter was the other's first choice, but Pavlik-Hopkins has the makings of a potential classic. It's a perfect match for the Halloween season: Kelly "The Ghost" Pavlik (34-0, with 30 KOs) versus Bernard "The Executioner" Hopkins, (48-5-1, with 32 KOs). HBO Pay-Per-View is carrying the match, which means fewer viewers, but it's more money and more prestige.
At 26, Pavlik is in his physical prime and has momentum on his side. The same year Pavlik was born, Hopkins, now 43, was sent to prison, where he served five years of an 18-year sentence on a grab-bag of felony convictions. Rehabilitated, the future hall of famer had a 10-year run as middleweight champ. October marks his 20th year as a pro, but the living legend is on the slide and is 3-1 in his last four fights. He's faced off against some of the greats, including Oscar De La Hoya, Félix Trinidad and Roy Jones Jr. In April, he lost The Ring light heavyweight championship to Calzaghe, who now plans to retire rather than fight Pavlik.
"A true fighter wants to fight the best," says Hopkins. "Kelly Pavlik is a true fighter. Kelly proved it. He got it the old-fashioned way. [But] I think he's dealing with a Harvard graduate, and he's from community college if you look at the résumé of the guys I fought."
They'll fight at the catch-all weight of 170 - 10 pounds higher than Pavlik normally fights but six less than he normally weighs. Hopkins, a fleet-footed and devastating counterpuncher, is confident he can dance around Pavlik's heavy-footed plant-and-punch delivery. Pavlik says he and Loew have that covered.
"We're not going to fight him at a 43-year-old pace," says Pavlik. "We're going to make him fight at a 26-year-old pace. We're going to throw our 100 punches a round. If he thinks he can get away with throwing his 27 punches a round and keep up with us, it ain't gonna happen. I think you'll see the difference once the sixth round comes around."
That's when all that time with the sledgehammer comes in handy. Pavlik wants to unify the middleweight titles then go down in history as one of the modern great middleweights, in a league with Hopkins and Marvin Hagler. More important, he wants to get out while the getting's good, spend time with family, settle into a role as some kind of business owner or investor. But while the spotlight's still on him, he'd like to bring it to Northeast Ohio some Saturday night.
Team Pavlik wants to stage a local fight, maybe something at Cleveland's Quicken Loans Arena, possibly Youngstown's Stambaugh Stadium. (If 5,000 fans will make the trip to Atlantic City, Chevrolet Centre, with a capacity of 7,500, would disappoint more than it would hold.) A Northeast Ohio Pavlik fight seems inevitable at some point, though talks for a June bout at the Q fell through. Pavlik may fight again in February; if he can't line up a unification fight against IBF middleweight titlist Arthur Abraham - whom Loew has dismissed as a "paper champion" - the odds are better for Ohio.
Only LeBron has more pull for out-of-town sports fans. The kind of fight that would take place in Northeast Ohio might be a better payday for the state than for Pavlik - in dollars and, more important, prestige. Even without a fight and the influx of cash it brings, Team Pavlik makes Youngstown a place where something is happening.
"Kelly put Youngstown on the map, worldwide," says his dad. "I've had people e-mail me and say they saw the Kelly Pavlik story and they're considering moving their business to Youngstown. I would love to see that happen. A blue-collar town is the best place to live."
Kelly knows that Team Pavlik and their fights, whether they're professional or amateur, won't revive the local economy. But they're a spark that could catch.
"It could," says Pavlik. "I don't think about it that way. I don't think it's me alone that can help Youngstown. Everybody else has kind of [put that on me]. I do as much as I can. If I fight, and if I can help somebody out by using my name, I try."