LAS VEGAS – Kelly Pavlik and Miguel Espino had just finished the obligatory nose-to-nose staredown for photographers at the conclusion of a news conference at the Las Vegas Hilton to hype their middleweight title fight on Saturday.
Pavlik nodded solemnly to Espino and began to turn away when John Bray, Espino's trainer, shouted to him.
Bray asked Pavlik to pose with Espino, because he wanted a photo of his own of the two of them together to commemorate the occasion.
Espino is the most unlikely of championship challengers. He was munching on a taco and drinking a soft drink in Mexico while helping Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. to prepare for a fight when his telephone rang.
At first, so hard was it to believe that he was being offered a fight against Pavlik in Youngstown, Ohio, for the World Boxing Council and World Boxing Organization middleweight belts, that he thought it might be a joke.
"I was like, 'Me? Fighting for the title?' " Espino recalled. "But as soon as I was sure they were serious, it was like, 'Hell, yeah.' I couldn't believe it."
Espino, 29, knows why he's here. He's not a big puncher and not a bright prospect. He wasn't brought in because of a series of big victories or because promoters were looking to challenge Pavlik.
Pavlik was to fight highly ranked Paul Williams on Dec. 5 in Atlantic City, N.J., but had to withdraw when a doctor wouldn't clear him for the date because he needed more time to heal from a MRSA staph infection.
So, while his promoter, Top Rank, looked for another big fight in early 2010, it needed to schedule him a bout quickly lest one or both of the sanctioning bodies would strip him of his belts. Pavlik was able to fight on Dec. 19, so promoter Bob Arum went about locating a potential opponent.
Espino was the guy.
He had some name recognition because of his stint on the first season of the reality series, "The Contender," that aired on NBC in 2005. He has a decent record – He's 20-2-1 with nine knockouts – and not a lot of power.
"I don't think they're bringing me in to win," Espino says quietly. "But that doesn't matter. The great thing about boxing is, when the bell rings, everything is equal. It's up to me and Kelly then who wins. And I know I have my chance."
He's the kind of underdog who tugs at the heart strings. His mother, 49-year-old Ana Garcia, is legally blind. He, along with his sister, supported her since her divorce from his father.
He's reticent to speak about it too much – "I don't want to give off the wrong impression or make anyone feel sorry for her," he says – but he understands his duty to aid the promotion.
He'll make a $100,000 purse on Saturday's fight, by far the largest of his career, and he's willing to do his part, even if he'd prefer privacy.
"He's such a great kid and he has such an incredible story," Bray said. "I'm always encouraging him to talk about it. He's worried about perception, but I told him, 'People are going to love you for who you are and what you've done.' How many young guys would put their lives on hold like he has to care for his mother? That's a great story."
Garcia suffers from retinitis pigmentosa, which has plagued her since she was a teenager. Espino notes that she has some vision, though not enough to watch his fights on television.
And he'd rather have it that way. She has enough problems, Espino said, and she doesn't need to fret about his safety.
He'll call her at the conclusion of the fight, as he always does. Her question won't be whether he won, but, rather, whether he's safe.
"She just wants to hear my voice, to know I'm OK," Espino said. "The rest, well, that really doesn't matter that much."
It will matter a little more, however, if he should happen to win. That would guarantee him another championship match and his $100,000 purse would increase exponentially, perhaps as much as five or 10 times greater.
He used the word "modest" several times to describe his living conditions. A win would allow him to secure a future, not only for himself, but also for his mother.
"You know, she did so much for us and she was such a great mother," Espino said, his voice quivering with emotion. "I'm just thankful I'm able to help her a little and to do what I can for her. Her life has been so hard, but she has a great attitude. She gets around and she does her thing. She doesn't let [her blindness] limit her and she always did everything for us.
"If I win this fight, it would help me to make her life easier. That's a very powerful motivation for me."
He spent some time earlier this year working with Bray's brother, Ben, doing stunt work for an upcoming movie. He enjoyed the experience and said it's something he'd like to try again.
His biggest stunt may be knocking off Pavlik, whose only loss came in a light heavyweight bout to future Hall of Famer Bernard Hopkins.
Bray believes, and sometimes one gets the feeling he believes more than the fighter. When that suggestion is made, Espino shakes his head.
"I know I'm not the favorite and I know most people don't know me and don't think I have a chance," Espino said. "But the important thing is that I believe I have a chance. Kelly Pavlik is a great fighter, but he's not unbeatable. I know that. I have to fight a great fight, but I know I can. It means so much to me and my family, that everything I have is going into this one fight. I know there are people who doubt me, but if you doubt me, you do it at your own risk."
- Kelly Pavlik
- Miguel Espino