ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. – With every fresh flurry of punches, the blue-collar dream of American boxing floated farther away, across the Boardwalk and into a watery Atlantic grave.
The dream was beautiful in its simplicity. It said Kelly Pavlik, the big-punching boy from the gritty streets of Youngstown, Ohio, had the tools to be the new face of a sickened sport and the talent and charisma to strike a blow for the working classes in these tough financial times.
But boxing is a business that cares little for such sentimentality. A sport where lives and livelihoods are on the line breeds a unique brand of inner strength among its exponents.
And when the man hellbent on destroying the dream is a chiseled warrior like Bernard Hopkins, then the fairytale can have its carefully crafted chapters torn and destroyed in an instant.
Pavlik's destruction on Saturday night was total. He ended the evening receiving treatment in a local hospital but the real damage was that inflicted upon the image of him as a superstar-in-waiting.
Hopkins surgically dissected the illusion that Pavlik was ready to impose his dominance upon the sport, and instead sent him scurrying back to the middleweight division with plenty to ponder.
There were stunned faces all around Boardwalk Hall on Saturday night after Hopkins won the most convincing of decisions, 119-106, 118-108 and 117-109. The hardened fans of Youngstown who made the trek East were hurt and muted, barely able to comprehend the severity of the beating their poster boy had received.
They will still love Pavlik because he is one of them. He looks and acts so much like an ordinary man. Yet on this night, Hopkins also made him look like an ordinary boxer.
The Executioner’s mask was in place for his ring walk, and with his triumph, Hopkins sounded the death knell for a potential super-fight between Pavlik and Joe Calzaghe or Roy Jones Jr.
Promoter Bob Arum had to admit through gritted teeth that he has an obligation to pitch Pavlik against middleweight contender Marco Antonio Rubio, hardly the kind of match that The Ghost’s camp was dreaming of before Saturday night.
Arum left Atlantic City having seen one of his marquee stars lose their '0' for the second time in three months. Following Miguel Cotto's defeat to Antonio Margarito in July, Arum no longer holds all the cards at either welterweight or middleweight.
Perhaps Arum should have foreseen the danger posed by Hopkins. Yet few others did, with most believing the 43-year-old’s reserves had been sapped and spent by a 20-year, 54-fight career.
Neither was Arum alone in believing Pavlik was the real deal. The Ohio native was both the victim and beneficiary of timing and circumstance – and boxing’s inherent need to hoist aloft a new face.
Whether Pavlik was simply not ready to be elevated to boxing’s top table or whether the pressure was too much, he could get nothing going.
Unlike Calzaghe he lacked the strength to keep Hopkins pinned in the clinches and time and again he ate his rival’s ferocious right hand.
Pavlik trainer Jack Loew talked of problems in going up in weight to 170 pounds, but in reality, this defeat was more down to a brain freeze that prevented him from ever letting his combinations go, combined with the excellence of his opponent.
"I don't think 170 pounds is our weight class," Loew said. "We took a shot at a legend. We will be back.
"He (Pavlik) is still the new face of American boxing. Come on, man, one loss is not the end of the world. I don’t think it weighed on his mind. He is a professional athlete and he got beat. That's all it was."
However, once Hopkins drew his thumb across his throat as he stood on the ring apron pre-fight, his focus never once left the ring. Pavlik though, seemed to shoulder the weight of the crowd and the section of society for whom he was made flag-bearer.
Once the 12-round dismantling was complete, Hopkins made his way across the ring and, in an uncharacteristic display of chivalry, delivered a pep-talk to a defeated and dejected Pavlik.
"Don't let this fight destroy you," Hopkins said, pushing his glove into Pavlik’s chest. "You are a great middleweight champion and you have great heart. Keep your head up and keep fighting.
"I don't want you to quit. If I have to, I will come to your house and take you to the gym."
Pavlik took the advice with grace, nodding solemnly and looking like a young man learning a valuable lesson from an old master.
Just like he had minutes earlier.