The Story of the Former King of the Middleweights: In-Depth with Kelly Pavlik
By Ian Aldous
In 2007, boxing was changing in North America. The fabled heavyweight division was void of any superstars from the U.S. and across the Atlantic, Europe was taking over. Attention was shifting to another of boxing’s storied weight divisions.
Kelly Pavlik, a blue-collar, down-to-earth middleweight from Youngstown, Ohio was on a thirty-one fight win streak, twenty-eight coming by way of knockout. A slew of top contenders including Bronco McKart and the dangerous Edison Miranda had been vanquished inside the distance. The hype train was gathering momentum and a title shot had been earned and thoroughly warranted.
Just the small matter of the undefeated unified world champion and consensus no.1 middleweight, Jermain Taylor stood between Pavlik and his dream. Prior to the contest, Taylor’s trainer, Emanuel Steward labelled Pavlik as being ‘overrated’. It turned out that he was anything but that. Dropped and stunned in the second round, the contender showed immense heart and skill to take control of the bout in the very next round before knocking out the then-undefeated champion in the seventh.
“It’s honestly crazy to think that it’s already been thirteen,” Pavlik said, referring to the amount of years since the fight took place. “I mean, it’s even scarier to think, you know, they say the older you get the faster time goes. It literally seemed just like yesterday when I was at the local news station doing the ten year anniversary and that was only three years ago.
“You know, for a while there after that fight people always brought up the second round and I was like: ‘Yeah, I wish that wouldn’t have happened’ The knockdown is what made that fight one of the top middleweight fights of all time and the fight was just amazing.
“I showed how hard I worked and the determination that I had to be able to go down like that and then come back, you know, the next round I threw 99 to 100 punches and I think that shows the will and everything that I had. It was a great fight; everything about it. After coming off a huge knockout victory over the most feared fighter in boxing at the time, Edison Miranda – I was still the underdog. It just seemed like I was fighting a lot more than just Jermain Taylor.”
The stunning upset earned WBC & WBO world championships as well as The Ring belt. He had become the best middleweight on Earth in his first title win. A rematch with the former champion was scheduled just five months later with no titles on the line. A catchweight of a few pounds over the middleweight limit had been agreed.
“That was Taylor, you know, because he was starting to struggle there, at middleweight,” the forty-two fight veteran explained. “I don’t know how much he was struggling but he wanted that at a catchweight and I would imagine because if I were to beat him, you know, he is probably going to move up anyways. So he had that at 164lbs, and I didn’t care. I like fighting. And I did whatever it took to fight.”
Pavlik proved the first battle was no fluke by this time outpointing Taylor in another competitive and captivating clash. He continued his blistering momentum with a title defence just four months later against Gary Lockett.
The overmatched British challenger was taken out before the bell sounded for the end of round three. The HBO commentary team lauded Pavlik as ‘rapidly becoming the centrepiece of American boxing’ in the immediate aftermath. Many spoke post-fight that Lockett failed to warrant sharing a ring with the middleweight king, such was Pavlik’s dominance.
“Gary Lockett could fight. He was a good fighter; you can see by his record,” he said. “Was he Jermain Taylor? No. But Gary Lockett was still a fight, but I just came off fighting (Jose Luis) Zertuche, who was dangerous, not a world beater, but he was a dangerous fighter that not many prospects at that point were going to take a chance fighting.
“Then I fought Edison Miranda who nobody was fighting and everybody was avoiding and I knocked him out. Then I fought Jermain Taylor for the world title and after I gave Jermain a rematch! I didn’t take any tune-ups between that. So for me to fight Gary Lockett, I don’t think there could have been any criticism at that point. It was a tough fight.
“He was a tough fighter and I did what I was supposed to do to, you know, a lot of guys, they go in with people like that between big fights and they struggle and I didn’t.”
Then, a brave decision to move up in weight and face the legendary multi-time world champion, Bernard Hopkins was Pavlik’s next assignment. His willingness to fight anyone was endearing, but was to prove his undoing when Hopkins did what he does best, and totally bamboozled Pavlik. This wasn’t the first or last time that Hopkins shocked the boxing world. Pavlik had finally tasted defeat after eight years and thirty-four fights.
“There’s another person I got a shitload of respect for is Bernard Hopkins,” ‘The Ghost’ revealed. “Going into that fight, I can pretty much say that that was (laughs) not me that night. There’s things I won’t get into. Because no matter what, you know, you would be saying I’m making excuses and everything. So it just was not my night and it was unfortunately against somebody like Bernard Hopkins, who is an all-time great. I mean, the guy is a guaranteed legend. I think he’s the best middleweight of all time and if not, should be mentioned in the top two.”
“So we did what we were supposed to do. I went up (in weight), I gave him a fight, but he was the better man that night. He fought good. But you know, one thing I will say, Jermain Taylor (and) Bernard Hopkins, he (Taylor) won twice, you know, and some think the first fight he lost, but it was still a close fight and he won the second fight.
“They were great fights that Taylor and Hopkins had and I beat Taylor twice – I knocked him out. So for Hopkins to go in and do what he did to me that night… I’m not saying that I SHOULD beat Bernard Hopkins because I beat Jermain Taylor twice. I’m not saying that. But there’s no way I got beat the way I did by Bernard Hopkins after beating Taylor twice. Like, it would have been more competitive. It goes to show you that that was not Kelly Pavlik that night.”
With his undefeated streak extinguished in such a flat fashion, fans were quick to label Pavlik as ‘damaged goods’ and predicted that his career was on a downward spiral.
They were too hasty. The unified 160lbs world champion dropped the ten pounds gained to fight Hopkins and successfully defended his crowns twice, again inside the scheduled distance. Then arrived the challenge of a highly-ranked super-welterweight from Argentina, Sergio Martinez. ‘Maravilla’ took Pavlik’s belts and began his three-year reign atop the middleweights. The 6’2″ Pavlik was beginning to outgrow the division he’d conquered.
“When they came up for the pre-fight interview and stuff, I had treadmills (laughs), I had a stationary bike and we’re trying to hide it from the Martinez camp, but when you’re in a small place like Atlantic City, I’m sure somebody was saying treadmills and stationary bikes was in my room.
“It was just hard, it was just super, super hard to make weight for that fight and sometimes I think the only regret with that fight was maybe (I should have been) just saying screw it and coming in a pound and a half over, and a pound and a half is the difference of like eight, nine hours on a treadmill when you’re already dried out completely, when you have nothing left to sweat.
“I’m taking nothing away from Sergio Martinez. Sergio Martinez is a fantastic fighter. His movement and everything in the first couple rounds was just hard to see and I think I was able to neutralize that in the middle rounds. I sort of, you know, won in those rounds convincingly and dropped him and I was up on the scorecards going into the round that I got cut and I could tell you this, the cut wasn’t why I lost the fight either.
“You know, no matter what, if he were to cut me or not he would have probably went on to outbox me in those last four rounds. Because I hit the wall you know, I wasn’t tired, cardio-wise. It was just muscle fatigue-wise. I was kind of done and Martinez is just a phenomenal fighter and he’s another one like Hopkins.
“If you ain’t on your A-game that night, it is going to be a long night and Martinez just capitalized, and fought a terrific fight and that was when Sergio was still in his prime.”
Martinez was a worthy successor to the former middleweight kingpin. His opportunity came by way of an intriguing battle between Pavlik and Paul Williams falling through. Williams, himself a former world champion would have been a stern test for Pavlik and one that fans would have thoroughly enjoyed.
“Yeah, I really wanted that. That fight came down to between promoters,” Pavlik said, in reference to boxing politics. “You know, fighters get the blame. You always hear it constantly and I could tell you right now, a little over 90% of the time, it’s not the fighter. It is those negotiations between the promoters. As a fighter, sometimes promoters have their own reason for doing what they do.”
The former top dog at middleweight made a permanent move to 168lbs and won four consecutive fights against solid competition during 2011-2012. Despite the success, he was heading for the exit door with his faculties and bank balance in a healthy state.
“2007 when I won the title, most fighters count down to their next big fight, like they can’t wait. I was counting down to the next big fight, but to also get out (of boxing). So I wanted the big fights, I wanted the paydays because I knew the bigger fights and bigger paydays, the quicker I can retire and be set. I was fortunate with that. Hopkins was a big one, and Martinez was a big one, on top of the rematch with Taylor and the first Taylor fight and Gary Lockett was a nice day too (laughs).
“When I left Jack (Loew, long-time trainer) and I didn’t leave Jack, you know, willing to (leave). That was more so pushed on by the promotional companies and everything. Okay, I went to Robert Garcia, and it was, it was a cool experience too. I’m taking nothing away from nobody else. It’s just, when you go somewhere different, you learn different things. That was cool as a learning experience and the stable that Robert Garcia had out there even at that time was huge. It was cool, but my heart wasn’t really there.
“You don’t really up and leave at the end of your career to go away from your family and everything when you have three world title belts sitting in your trophy case and you’ve got millions in the bank. Usually you up and leave your home at the beginning of your career when you’re like super hungry, and you’re trying to get to that point. So going out there, yeah, it was hard.”
“When the Andre Ward fight was mentioned and I’m not going to lie, I got totally pumped for that. Like, I mean, I was like kind of going back to the Taylor fight (mentally). That’s where I was at and I was getting excited to go back out to Oxnard and then that’s when Andre Ward ended up getting a shoulder injury and had to get surgery and everything, and he was out for a period of time. So with that being said, that zapped everything out of me.
“Before I made the final decision on retirement, we’re trying to figure out like, what were the big fights out there? And unfortunately, there wasn’t. There was no big fight. I was definitely dead set on retirement at that point.”
He walked away from the sport at the relatively tender age of thirty-one. So many outstay their welcome and fight well beyond their prime. Pavlik’s stellar twelve-year career had delivered The Ring, WBC and WBO world titles; forty wins with thirty-four by stoppage and just two defeats by way of decision at the hands of Bernard Hopkins and Sergio Martinez. His final record stood at 40-2. The itch to lace up the gloves did niggle at a time and had Pavlik contemplating a return from retirement.
“You know what, I would be lying to you, if I said I didn’t,” the thirty-eight year-old admitted. “Here and there, I would say, the first three years after retirement, I wanted nothing to do with boxing. I was just like – done. I didn’t want to deal with it or bother with it. Then I would say probably about after the third year, the fourth year, I was kind of like ready to get back out, not as far as fighting.
“I had that three years away, and I had a little too much fun. I could admit to that it was just one of those periods of time where I’m just kind of, like, (I need to) pull my head out of my ass, and get back on track. That’s when I started doing the podcast. I opened up my podcast and then I started getting involved with some gym stuff and helping people out. Then at that point, shortly after that, I bought my own gym and started making other investments and from there it has just been busy but fun.”
Life after boxing may have led Pavlik astray early on, but the pride of Youngstown is currently a content ex-fighter now enjoying life outside of the ring. He now co-hosts The Punchline podcast and, whilst on the phone to me was in Kelly Pavlik’s Mi Gym passing on his wealth of knowledge to the next generation of pugilists.
As a consumer of the sweet science, nothing gives me greater satisfaction than seeing a former fighter enjoying the fruits of their labour once the fighting has subsided. Kelly Pavlik gave his all to the game and left with his legacy intact. Despite all his success; he stayed humble and didn’t allow the fame to go to his head. This is how all good boxing stories should end, and thankfully, this one did.