By Jake Donovan
Kelly Pavlik knew how much to apply in the ring for each of his two comeback fights this year.
His two round blitzing of Aaron Jaco this past March – his first fight in nearly 11 months – was all about letting the world know that he was back and taking the game seriously. Last month’s showing against Scott Sigmon was all about getting in some rounds and having fun, something that has been a new experience for the former middleweight champ.
The past several years have been rough on Pavlik (39-2, 34KO). A 2 ½ year stay as lineal middleweight king – met with criticism throughout – came to an end in April ’10, followed by a pair of stints in rehab for alcohol abuse. Intertwined with the series of downfalls was a false sense of entitlement, evidence that Pavlik was a long way from his happy place.
It’s a much different tale these days. Gone is the bitter, angry ex-champion stuck in a time warp. Today’s version is happier, enjoying life and the sport that made him rich and famous. This weekend is the biggest step back in his comeback tour, returning to HBO airwaves for the first time since his title loss to Sergio Martinez in April ’10.
Once a steady headliner on the Network of Champions, Pavlik humbly settles for the co-feature slot on this weekend’s Boxing After Dark show. His 10-round super middleweight bout with Will Rosinsky (16-1, 9KO) serves as the televised lead-in for the super bantamweight unification match between Nonito Donaire and Jeffrey Mathebula at the Home Depot Center in Carson, Calif.
The bout comes 29 days after his most recent ring appearance, the aforementioned win over Sigmon. While the HBO slot wasn’t waiting in the wings at the time, Pavlik still had every intention of immediately returning to the gym and staying ready for any opportunity that would come his way.
“I came out of the fight (with Sigmon) ready to go another 10 to15 rounds,” Pavlik insisted on Tuesday during an open workout at Fortune Gym in Los Angeles. “I came out healthy, that’s why we took this fight on short notice.”
The fight will be his third since returning to the ring this past March, after having fought just once in a 23-month span marred by making headlines for all the wrong reasons.
Pavlik’s fall from grace began towards the tail end of his reign as middleweight king. His popularity steadily declined from the days when hometown fans from Youngstown, OH would gladly embark in droves on an eight-hour road trip to Atlantic City, which quickly became his new stomping grounds.
The run began with his off-the-canvas middleweight title-winning knockout of Jermain Taylor in Sept. ’07, a seven-round war hailed by many as the Fight of the Year for 2007. It remains the crowning achievement of a respectable career. It’s not so much that the win stood the test of time, but that he never came close to duplicating the feat or living up to accolades during his 2 ½ year title reign.
A lopsided loss to Bernard Hopkins in their Oct. ’08 catchweight bout – his first pro defeat - was forgiven as Pavlik was fighting 10 lb. above his most effective fight weight. However, it would serve as his lone HBO-sponsored ring appearance for another 18 months.
The network didn’t exile him by any means, but the only action he saw during that stretch came on independent pay-per-view shows. The lone fight he had lined up for HBO was a planned middleweight title defense with Paul Williams that was twice postponed and ultimately canceled altogether due to a lingering staph infection so severe that Pavlik couldn’t even make a fist during training.
Perception is reality in the sports and entertaining world. All sports fans saw was a middleweight champ whose reign was largely unspectacular and doing little to live up to HBO blow-by-blow man Jim Lampley’s claim as “the centerpiece of American boxing.”
Nary a tear was shed when Sergio Martinez replaced Pavlik atop the middleweight perch in April ’10, though Pavlik’s downward spiral extended far beyond the ring. In fact, he has since won three straight, though none coming against the type of opposition to suggest he’s all the way back.
The rehab stints and reported run-ins with the law both hurt and helped the fallen fighter, though far more of the former when it came to the boxing business. His abruptly pulling out of a Shobox card in his hometown during Fight Week was the last straw for many, largely in part to the chain reaction that saw an opportunity to face then-unbeaten super middleweight titlist Lucian Bute pulled off the table.
2011 would close with Pavlik fighting just once – a ho-hum points win over Alfonso Lopez last May. The year ended with a reported drunk driving incident that resulted in damage done to two all-terrain vehicles as well as his own.
The most serious charges were eventually dropped due to a lack of evidence – a field sobriety test was never conducted to prove that the former champ was in fact under the influence. But the incident itself was enough to alert Pavlik that it was time for a new way of life.
Plans were already in place for a relocation to Oxnard. Boxing manager extraordinaire Cameron Dunkin planned to have Pavlik train with Robert Garcia, joining several other clients of his including unbeaten former lightweight titlist Brandon Rios. The aforementioned incident only helped expedite matters, as Pavlik was on a plane heading West shortly before year’s end.
“It was definitely important (to come out to Oxnard to train). I am not here to knock anybody or anything like that but I wasn’t going any further where I was,” Pavlik says of time spent far too long where everybody knew his name. “We had a meeting in New York with Bob and Cameron and we had this conversation and a move had to happen and it was very important.
“I am learning, hungry and rejuvenated to get back into it. You can never quit learning in this sport and I’m learning again and that’s very important. On the personal part, when I get out here I don’t have any distractions or headaches. I am able to focus on what I’m here to do and that’s been very important.”
Six months and two wins later, Pavlik’s career is slowly coming full circle.
There are slight parallels to be drawn between this weekend’s showdown with Rosinsky and his HBO debut more than six years ago, when he stopped Jose Luis Zertuche. As will be the case Saturday, the win over Zertuche took place in California in a co-feature capacity and was less about Pavlik’s immediate place in his division than it was about his potential upside.
Pavlik delivered big time that night, scoring the first of three knockouts in a year that also included upset stoppage wins over Edison Miranda and of course Taylor. It’s been a very long time since that Kelly Pavlik has surfaced. An impressive enough showing on Saturday would prove to everyone what he’s been saying for the past several months – that he’s back, physically and mentally.
“To be back on HBO is a big thing,” Pavlik humbly acknowledged prior to his open workout session. “It’s important to win and put on a good show.”
Several people - including Rosinsky (16-1, 9KO) himself – see the fight as Pavlik having everything to lose. Pavlik understands that viewpoint, but believes it to be little more than the usual gym talk and enters the fight with a far more positive understanding of what’s at stake.
“A lot of guys say that,” Pavlik says of Rosinsky’s insistence that all the pressure is one way. “I don’t see it as something to lose. If anything I’m going in with something to prove. It’s when I perform at my best. I’m not looking at this like it’s some easy fight. I’m going in there like it’s a world title shot.”
Such a fight could come soon enough with a strong enough showing on Saturday. Promoter Bob Arum has insisted that a potential title shot could come as early as the fall, though nothing definitive is in place. Those plans fall in line with Pavlik’s belief that the fine-tuning portion of the comeback tour ends on Saturday, win or lose. Win and it’s time to move on to the truly big fights.
Lose – and it’s simply time to move on.
“I am ready for the big fight now,” Pavlik insists. “I have been pro for 12 years now. I have been in the ring with Taylor twice, Hopkins, Miranda and Martinez – we’ve got our fights in and it has to be after this fight the big fights.
“On July 7 we have a game kid in front of us so I can’t even think about that right now. We’ve got to take care of business Saturday or we won’t be worrying about any of that.”
Jake Donovan is the Managing Editor of Boxingscene.com. Follow Jake on Twitter: @JakeNDaBox