By TK Stewart (Photo by Paul Gallegos)
All Kelly "The Ghost" Pavlik ever wanted was a shot. Saturday night he got it.
Looking every inch a champion in the making, Pavlik, all 6’2 1/2" of him, made the most of his shot. That shot was an appearance on HBO, which is the Holy Grail for any fighter, particularly a young contender. Compare it to the old days if you want to. A young, stand-up comedian knew he made it big when he would be invited to appear on the Johnny Carson Show to perform his routine. If he got a nod of the head from Carson it would be his stepping stone to the big time. Pavlik got the nod from HBO on Saturday night – now the big time is calling.
Hailing from the same championship streets of Youngstown, Ohio that former hometown heroes Ray "Boom Boom" Mancini, Harry Arroyo and Jeff Lampkin used to do their roadwork on, the 24 year-old Pavlik is upholding the city’s great boxing tradition by making his mark on boxing’s world stage.
In front of 7,100 electrically-charged fans at the Honda Center in Anaheim, California Pavlik shocked the masses of this Disneyland city when he short-circuited rugged Mexican Jose Luis Zertuche with two right hands, forcing the referee to jump in and perform an emergency rescue on the helpless Zertuche halfway through the eighth round.
Showing all the poise and confidence that you want to see in a young contender, Pavlik used a fade away left hand that disguised the two right hands that came in behind it. He threaded Zertuche’s chin like the eye of a needle with an unbelievably straight right hand bomb that did the real damage followed by a sharp, arcing, hybrid right hook/uppercut that was the finisher which put Zertuche down and out. The rugged Mexican came into the fight having never been stopped or off his feet in twenty-four pro fights, but stopped he was and this ending was as conclusive and final as any that you will see.
Zertuche, with his thick, black hair and handsome looks was "asleep on his feet" as Lennox Lewis put it. The end was reminiscent of the right hand that Thomas Hearns used to separate Roberto Duran from his senses back in 1984. Like Duran, Zertuche was out before he hit the floor.
Immediately after referee Raul Caiz, Sr. jumped in and tumbled to the floor with Zertuche, Pavlik put his gloved hands on his hips, looked straight into HBO’s camera and in a Clubber Lang-like moment said, "That’s where it’s at right there! Now I deserve my shot", followed by a less than confident, "At least I hope so."
With the victory, Pavlik’s record moves to a glistening 30-0 (27) KO. No opponent has lasted to the end of the ninth round with him and more importantly, with the win, Pavlik becomes the #1 contender in the WBC. The ranking should mandate that at some point in the not too distant future, middleweight champion Jermain Taylor will have to deal with Pavlik or be stripped of his title. However, in the Byzantine world that is the WBC it’s hard to say what Pavlik’s #1 ranking will mean - as heavyweight Samuel Peter has recently found out.
Whatever the case, it was an exciting, thrilling, fight and Pavlik answered most of the questions that the critics ask of young contenders. Zertuche was a difficult and tricky opponent who was not afraid to mix it up and go for broke. Whereas Zertuche’s punches were wide, like an 18-wheeler making a left-hand turn, Pavlik’s were straight and came right down the pike. Zertuche never showed any signs of wanting to quit and he went to war with Pavlik who obliged him every step of the way. Whether the combat was in the trenches or at long range, Pavlik seemed to have all the arrows in his quiver as he fired straight, accurate shots that snapped Zertuche’s head back and sent perspiration flying into the ringside seats.
In the hand-to-hand warfare, Zertuche also got his licks in and Pavlik’s chin was repeatedly tested but on this night Pavlik was not be denied and he walked through the big shots that Zertuche landed clean. Bob Arum, Pavlik’s non-stop promoter told the assembled media, "He answered the question, 'Can Kelly Pavlik take a punch?’ I think what you saw here in Southern California is something that you were not expecting. We put him in with a tough, hard-punching Mexican who's never been off his feet."
Pavlik, seeing through small nicks above and below his right eye, seemed to be able to hurt Zertuche with anything that landed and that was the real difference in this fight. Asked to comment on his own performance and that of Zertuche, Pavlik had this to say, "I’m a humble fighter and he hit me with some good punches…take nothing away from him, I mean the kid is a helluva fighter. He came to fight tonight but I just was a better man at the end."
Perhaps the only real knock on Pavlik’s performance was the fact that he let Zertuche off the hook and failed to finish him after decking him with a huge right hand for an eight count at the end of the sixth round. It was another punch that Zertuche never saw coming. Pavlik fought the seventh round too cautious and failed to jump on Zertuche when he was obviously weak in the knees and reeling around the ring on legs that weren’t getting the message from his scrambled head.
Throughout the fight, Pavlik’s trainer, Jack Loew implored his charge to "finish your combinations with the left hook!" Had Pavlik done that he may have finished Zertuche even earlier. Pavlik also needs to learn how to hold when he’s hurt as last night he attempted to clinch Zertuche on several occasions, but each time Zertuche managed to break free and land his own shots.
Afterwards, Pavlik, who was scraped, bruised and cut around his right eye was asked if this fight and his performance accomplished all that he wanted. Again, the young contender wavered between confidence and uncertainty. "Yes, I did. I think I did. I’m not sure. We’ll wait ‘til we get back and see what the critics say. But, you know we started off, we wanted to box a little more. But the first round once again I felt like I was in a little bit of quicksand you know? Every time I tried to move and get my rhythm going I just couldn’t do it and I was getting caught with stupid punches. So then after that, you know, like by the third or fourth round I started finding my rhythm a little bit and my balance was a little bit more fluid and I just was able to sit there and counter his mistakes and take my time a little bit more."
With his undefeated record still intact and his exciting HBO performance in the bag, Pavlik knows he’s on the doorstep of something big and it’s what he’s been fighting for since turning pro nearly seven years ago. Asked what he thought his next step on the ladder of success night be and who he sees on his radar screen Pavlik was non-committal, "Whoever, like I said earlier you know, anybody that’s in the way of me getting to a world title I’ll go and fight. So, I’m there for it."
They ended up taking Jose Luis Zertuche to the hospital in an ambulance while Pavlik was busy thanking his friends and family back in Youngstown. Critiquing himself, Pavlik, who is polite, thoughtful and well spoken had this to say, "You seen the changes that I made and how I adapted and that’s my corner you know - Jack Loew, Miguel and all the experience that I have. You adapt to the fight."
Zertuche presented Pavlik with a host of tough questions and he answered all of them. Pavlik’s eye is on the prize and it seems the fight he wants is with the middleweight champion. "You know you fight a style that the other fighter has and I think I did a good job of that tonight and within the other top level guys - as in Jermain Taylor – he makes enough of his own mistakes that I think I’ll only have to worry about one of them."
Tonight, the big time called - and Kelly Pavlik picked up the phone.
TK Stewart works for the Bangor Daily News. He can be reached at email@example.com