Believe what you want about Kelly Pavlik.
For years, the former middleweight champion decried the intense scrutiny he received from the good folks in his hometown of Youngstown, Ohio. Pavlik, perhaps the most popular athlete in his city's history, would routinely moan about the "rumors" that surrounded him.
Those rumors always seemed to involve Pavlik being drunk and found in the seedier parts of town with some less-than-desirable figures.
When Pavlik did two stints in rehab last year to try to overcome alcoholism, the rumors didn't look so much like small-town gossip as much as the denials of a deeply troubled man.
Fortunately for Pavlik, he received treatment for his disease before he was personally, professionally and financially ruined. He said the last time he had a drink was Nov. 2, the day before he began a 60-day rehabilitation stint after a family intervention.
"I just needed to kick it in the ass before things started going bad, to where I started losing my money, to where I started losing my family, losing my house and things like that," Pavlik said Friday on a conference call. "Unfortunately, that's one of the horrible things that come with the consequences that come with addiction. I didn't want it to get that far.
"I worked too hard in my life to get where I am now that I didn't want it to get out of control to that point. Boxing has been a very big part of my life since I was nine years old. Alcohol isn't."
But during that nearly hour-long conference call that ostensibly was to discuss his May 7 non-title bout against unbeaten Alfonso Lopez in Las Vegas, Pavlik sounded very much like a man in denial. He never used the words alcoholism or addiction and tried to minimize the issues he faces.
"Everything has been going fine," Pavlik said. "There's no concern with me right now. That's the least on my mind. There are so many other things out there and everything is going as smooth as possible." Pavlik is hardly the hero that his boxing promoter, Bob Arum of Top Rank, painted him to be during the conference call with boxing media. A hero is someone like former NBA star John Lucas, who overcame his own problems with addiction to successfully help others deal with their issues. Pavlik has only been sober for a few months and has still much to prove.
Pavlik is a guy who has repeatedly denied his problems or blamed them on others. When he finally came clean, he resorted to minimizing his problems instead of admitting that battling alcoholism is the most significant fight of his life, not to mention the most difficult.
"It would just take a bonehead to go out there and ruin any situation or opportunity that I have right now," Pavlik said. "I think I treated my [alcoholism] at an early stage. It didn't get to the point where I couldn't function without alcohol. It just got to the point where I got in the party mode and it kept escalating."
Pavlik struggled to say he is an alcoholic in an interview with Chris Mannix of Sports Illustrated shortly after his rehabilitation stint ended. He clearly needs the support of those who are closest to him, most notably his family, but also his manager, promoter and trainer. They can't ignore skipped training sessions or late arrivals. There were many red flags before that there was a problem and those closest to him need to be brutally honest with him.
He's still the biggest star in a very small city. And he's still a young guy with a lot of talent who clearly could win world titles in at least two more weight classes.
Pavlik is 36-2 with 32 knockouts and his losses have come to Bernard Hopkins, an all-time great, and Sergio Martinez, the second-ranked fighter in the Yahoo! Sports pound-for-pound poll. It's hardly like he's in a slump.
Thus, the concern that arises is how he'll handle the success if he gets back to the championship level and everyone in Youngstown wants to buy him a drink again.
His reaction is going to determine whether these rehabilitation stints have worked or whether they've just been window dressing.
He should blow through Lopez with little problem in a bout set for a maximum of 171 pounds. If he gets through that bout, Arum plans to have him campaign at super-middleweight for the time being.
Pavlik always has been big for a middleweight and making the division's 160-pound limit finally became more than his body could bear. He said he walks around between fights as high as 195 pounds, which would make getting to 168 dicey, let alone 160.
"We wanted to train like a fighter again, instead of training five times a day, four times a day, and four of them being about just trying to get the weight or keep the weight down," trainer Jack Loew said. "It's great just getting our running in and our physical conditioning in and going to the gym and spending more time working on boxing. "We had more rounds sparring for a 10-round fight than when we fought a title fight because he's had so much energy. His step is back and it's just the old Kelly back. It feels good and it's a very comfortable weight for him. That's a huge key for him."
It's good only if by "the old Kelly," Loew is referring to Pavlik the boxer. If he's referencing Pavlik the man, that's a bit scary.
Even in the best of circumstances, with the strongest support system around one, fighting alcoholism is tedious, difficult and, most importantly, a lifelong process.
And until Kelly Pavlik admits that to himself and accepts it as fact, the rumors will keep floating. And the wise folks will know that they're probably more than just rumors.
- Kelly Pavlik