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There have been few middleweight champions in history similar to Kelly Pavlik.
He's tall – nearly 6 feet, 3 inches – with a 76-inch wingspan as well as punching power that is the envy of light heavyweights. Pavlik, 28, is still young but is not without boxing skills. He's not just a brawler who has relied upon the thunder in his hands to win 36 of his 37 professional fights.
He's already taken on a collection of the toughest middleweights the game has to offer and on Saturday at Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City, N.J., he'll defend his World Boxing Council/World Boxing Organization belts against highly regarded Sergio Martinez in the main event of an HBO-televised doubleheader.
Yet, Pavlik strangely finds himself in the position of fighting for redemption on Saturday.
His reputation has somehow been tarnished and he's been forced to defend himself against absurd allegations that he ducked Paul Williams.
"You wonder sometimes what people think," Pavlik said. "It gets to be tough, but there's nothing I can do about it, so I try to ignore it and go out and do my job."
Pavlik's fall, if you can call it that, began in 2008 when he made the highly unwise choice to fight Bernard Hopkins in a catch weight bout when he was ill. He was then 26 and filled with bravado and took the stance that the show must always go on.
But he couldn't train properly and fighting a crafty, wily veteran like Hopkins at anything less than 100 percent is a recipe for disaster. And, of course, disaster struck. Hopkins routed Pavlik that night, removing a lot of shine from a guy who had to that point known nothing but bright lights and success.
"Hopkins is a great, great fighter and I have nothing to be ashamed of losing to him, no matter the circumstances," Pavlik said. "But there are two issues that people seem to conveniently forget. One, was how sick I was and yet I still went up and fought 10 pounds higher than my weight.
"And two, that fight was not supposed to be against Hopkins. It was supposed to be against Paul Williams, but Williams pulled out and we wound up taking the fight with Hopkins to make up for it."
Things only got worse for Pavlik after the Hopkins fight. He met his mandatory challenger, Marco Antonio Rubio, in a fight he had to take or be stripped of his WBC belt. The sanctioning bodies are vile and disgusting and manipulate the rankings more for political purposes than competitive ones.
Ben Roethlisberger deserves to win a Man of the Year Award more than Rubio deserved a championship shot, but it was hardly the first time a deserving champion was forced to defend his belt against an uninspiring and undeserving contender.
Boxing would be a much better sport if men like WBC president Jose Sulaiman, WBA president Gilbert Mendoza and their ilk disappeared, because they continually mandate these horrific matches that provide them with a steady stream of income while forcing champions to make tough decisions.
Pavlik had to decide between giving up his belt, which he'd worked his entire life to gain, or defending it against Rubio.
He opted, as most do, to defend it. He took a far lower payday than he would have had he fought Williams, the most attractive opponent at that time, or Winky Wright, and he clubbed Rubio in nine one-sided rounds.
"It was a bad year in 2009," Pavlik admits. "But there was really nothing I could do about it. I think my reputation speaks for itself. I fought [Edison] Miranda when there was no one lining up to fight him. It was the same thing with [Jose Luis] Zertuche and [Fulgencio] Zuniga. These were all tough, hard guys and I fought them all.
"Rubio, no disrespect to him, but he was a mandatory, and we all know about mandatories. I didn't have much of a choice about him."
About a month after that bout, Pavlik developed a staph infection in his knuckle. It got so bad that he nearly died as a result and it twice forced him to pull out of scheduled bouts with Williams.
The second time was when he was signed to fight Williams on Dec. 5, but a doctor told him he'd need two more weeks. He asked for the time, but Williams and his team opted to go in a different direction.
It's hard to blame Williams, because his career was being put on hold due to Pavlik's health issues. Still, it's not like Pavlik was ducking the fight. He willingly signed to fight Williams and would have done so on Dec. 5 had his doctor cleared him.
Yet, Williams moved on to fight Martinez in a compelling bout that would become the 2009 Yahoo! Sports Fight of the Year. That left Pavlik on short notice to fight Miguel Espino in what was essentially a tune-up bout.
He's going into this fight with Martinez needing an impressive performance to remind the world that it wasn't too long ago that he was considered one of the game's rising stars and one of the 10 best pound-for-pound fighters in the world.
The fall from grace, if you want to call it that, puzzles his outspoken trainer, Jack Loew.
"It's really a shame what Kelly's gone through and where he finds himself," Loew said. "Other fighters have had a bad year or come off bad fights and they haven't taken half the ridicule Kelly has gotten.
"But while it [stinks], the bottom line really is I think it will work to our advantage. Kelly's got a lot of motivation for this fight and I think he's going to make a statement to all the people who may have forgotten [what he's done]."
Loew has always been Pavlik's fiercest advocate. He believes that Pavlik has the frame, the boxing skills and the raw punching power to ultimately be considered among the greatest middleweights of all-time.
He's got a long way to go to even get close to that discussion and he may never get there, because there simply aren't the kinds of opponents who are available to help him get into that mix.
Pavlik's promoter, Bob Arum, said the best middleweight he's seen in his nearly 50 years of promoting boxing has been Argentinean Carlos Monzon, who, like Pavlik, was tall, with long arms, good boxing skills and power.
Arum isn't about to compare Pavlik to Monzon, but said the perception of Pavlik can change dramatically with just one good win.
"A lot of people saw that Martinez-Williams fight in December and it was a great, great fight," Arum said. "Some people thought Martinez should have won and some thought Williams should have won, but it was a close fight that could have gone either way. But the point is, people saw that and know that Sergio is a very quality fighter and a very difficult opponent for Kelly.
"If Kelly goes out and fights the way he knows how and the way I know he can, he'll have a very impressive win and everybody is going to forget all of this negative [nonsense]. People have short memories. Kelly just needs to get out there and have a good fight and he'll be fine."
And that's exactly Pavlik's intention. He praises Martinez' speed and admires his toughness. But, he noted, Martinez gets hit a lot.
Against someone with Pavlik's power, that's not a good thing.
"My focus is there, my motivation is there and I'm ready to go," Pavlik said. "I know this is going to be a hard fight, but I've had an unbelievable camp and I just feel so ready. People are going to be surprised."
- Kelly Pavlik
- Bernard Hopkins