LAS VEGAS – Kelly Pavlik's nickname is "The Ghost," but he only wishes he could vanish in his hometown of Youngstown, Ohio.
Pavlik, the power-punching World Boxing Council/World Boxing Organization middleweight champion, is all too well aware of the downsides of fame, of being a big fish in a small pond. He was born in Youngstown, raised in Youngstown and became a world champion while living in Youngstown.
"Probably going to die in Youngstown, too," he said.
A rich young man in a town which has the lowest median income in the country among cities with 65,000 or more residents – Census Bureau statistics in 2007 showed Youngstown's median income is just $21,850 – is going to garner attention.
And Pavlik gets more than his share.
While most of it is the simple stuff of hero worship, a darker side has emerged. Pavlik's career has taken a hit. A whisper campaign has suggested that he's hanging with the wrong crowd, that he's on the verge of financial collapse, that he's at odds with the people in his boxing career who helped make him successful, that he's ducking the tough fights.
He laughs off suggestions he's in financial difficulty.
"If I dropped dead today, at least I know my kids are set for life," Pavlik said. "That's the one thing I made damn sure of."
It's not often that a 27-year-old professional athlete at the peak of his powers ever considers his own mortality, but few come as close to death as Pavlik did in September.
He had a staph infection on the knuckle of the index finger on his left hand. It eventually worsened and developed into MRSA, a form of staph infection that is resistant to antibiotics and can be fatal.
He first felt a pinch on the knuckle when he was playing pickup basketball at home in March, not long after he had successfully defended his championship by stopping Marco Antonio Rubio on Feb. 21.
It was a small pinch, and he was in the middle of a game, so Pavlik simply wiped his hand on his shorts and kept playing. But he felt another pinch and looked at his hand. What had once looked like a tiny dot on his knuckle made by a pen had ruptured. Instead of blood, it was oozing pus.
Pavlik knew instantly that what he was seeing wasn't good.
It turned out he had developed a staph infection on the spot where he'd gotten a cortisone shot during his preparation for the Rubio fight. That would have been bad enough for someone who makes his living with his hands, but it worsened quickly. MRSA, which stands for methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, took it to a different level.
He was given medication both intravenously and orally. But Pavlik's luck was such that he was unknowingly allergic to Bactrim, an antibiotic he was taking to combat the MRSA. He was seeing a hand specialist in Cleveland, Ohio, in September when he noticed the doctor looking at his face more than at his hand.
Pavlik didn't feel well the day before he left Youngstown to make the hour-long drive to Cleveland to see the hand specialist. He was worse on the morning of the appointment, but he and his father, Mike, decided to make the trek anyway.
The decision probably saved his life.
"We were so lucky that we decided to go," Pavlik said. "If my Dad would have said, 'Kelly, you're not feeling well, you have the fever, let's go tomorrow or the next day,' to be honest with you, I probably wouldn't be here now. I was feeling worse and worse as we were driving up.
"I went to the hand doctor and he was looking at my hand, but I could see him staring at me. As he was kind of looking at me with this look, I got the shakes and the shivers and then I started swelling up, all right in front of him. My face was turning purple and the doctor said, 'Look, we'll worry about the hand afterward. Go upstairs to the infectious specialist right now.' "
Pavlik was admitted to the hospital. His heart rate reached 145 beats per minute and his blood pressure was dropping rapidly. His body temperature was 104.5. He had an anaphylactic reaction and was near death.
It was no joke.
But as he was regaining his health, he was forced to pull out of a planned Dec. 5 fight in Atlantic City, N.J., with Paul Williams, who is promoted as "the most feared man in boxing."
Pavlik had to pull out of a fight with Williams that was scheduled for Oct. 3 once earlier in 2009 because of the staph infection. The bout was rescheduled on Dec. 5 and Pavlik attended a news conference at Giants Stadium on Sept. 29, not long after he recovered from the anaphylactic reaction, to announce the bout's new date.
Pavlik, though, wasn't physically ready to fight. When he asked for two more weeks, which his doctors wanted, Williams and promoter Dan Goossen opted not to wait and chose to stay on Dec. 5 and fight Sergio Martinez instead.
Pavlik was mocked around the country for coming back on Dec. 19 to fight Miguel Espino, a fighter whom few had heard of and who was not considered a serious threat, only two weeks after he withdrew from a fight with the highly regarded Williams.
Pavlik was tormented by fans on Internet bulletin boards and social networking sites who had once heaped praise upon him after dramatic victories over men such as Jose Luis Zertuche, Edison Miranda and Jermain Taylor. The rumor mill worked overtime in Youngstown, suggesting he withdrew from the fight because of either a drug problem, an alcohol problem, because he was unhappy with the way he was being handled by his promoter, or a combination of all of them.
He scoffed at the thought he would duck Williams, but was bothered by what his family went through as a result.
"If you know the facts, you know that I wanted to fight Williams (in 2008) and he turned it down and that's why I wound up fighting (Bernard) Hopkins," Williams said. "I had to go up two weight classes to fight Hopkins. Williams was there, fighting as a middleweight, and he was rated so high by everyone and people said no one wanted to fight him, so I wanted that fight. I wanted to get in there with him. No way – no way – would I have ever ducked him. But he didn't take the fight (in 2008) and that's why I wound up fighting Hopkins.
"People did a lot of talking, but I didn't care. I could sleep well, because I knew the truth. But my family and friends, I felt for them because they had to go through all this."
Complicating matters for him when he pulled out of the Williams fight was that the sanctioning bodies were threatening to strip him of his championship.
He accepted the fight for $500,000 and most of the upside on the pay-per-view sales, which isn't expected to be a lot.
He made the unusual – if not unheard of – move of coming to Las Vegas to avoid distractions. He's fighting Espino in Youngstown, but training there would have been too much.
Pavlik needed to get away and work in peace without dealing with all that is going on in what was becoming an increasingly claustrophobic town for him.
"If I lived in a bubble and you rolled me in my bubble to church, there would still be somebody who would say, 'Oh my God, Pavlik was drunk and got in a fight in the church parking lot,' " he said. "It's not true, but someone says it, it gets around and it gets crazy. There are like three, four guys in the NFL right now who are from Youngstown. There's at least one who is in the Major Leagues who's from Youngstown, but they don't live here any more. I still do.
"I don't hide anything. I like to play darts and when I'm not training, I'll go with three or four of my buddies and play darts and have a couple of beers. It's what I like to do to relax. There are boxers who like to smoke crack. There are some who take [cocaine] and others who drink. Me, I like to have a few beers while having fun with my friends. But someone sees me and tells someone else, 'I saw Pavlik at the bar,' and all this [stuff] starts."
It's the price of fame. And though he wouldn't do anything any differently, and he's going to live his life the way he chooses, if he could buy anonymity, he'd do so in a heartbeat.
His reputation was built as a blue-collar guy who happened to have this exceptional gift for knocking men cold. As he's gotten more successful, though, the feel-good story has turned sour.
He's still the same man, he insists, hardly spoiled by his success. He doesn't wear flashy jewelry. He doesn't run with a gang. He visits the same haunts he did when he wasn't known anywhere but in Youngstown.
The fans in Youngstown, he said, are perhaps the best in sports. The majority, he said, are highly supportive and loyal to a fault. A small percentage, though, have taken a different approach.
"You hear I'm in rehab or an alcoholic or all this other totally crazy [stuff]," Pavlik said. "I love Youngstown. I'm living there because I choose to live there. I've been successful enough that I could go where I want to live, but I stay there. But that spotlight, and that small percentage of people, it gets tough.
"I honestly wouldn't wish fame on anybody. There are a lot of perks that come with it; a lot of perks. I'm well aware of that and I'm thankful for it. But there's a lot of bad and a lot of stress that comes with fame, too, especially in a small city."
He leaned back in his chair, grimaced and shook his head.
"In a small city, you carry the weight of their hopes and dreams, and they all rely on you," Pavlik said. "It's not like you're fighting out of New York, or even Vegas, where you just blend in. Youngstown is a small, small city and when you get some fame, everyone thinks they know you and thinks they know what you're doing.
"We have kids in our gym I'm helping my trainer with and I hope they become world champ. I hope they become successful. I'm rooting them on harder than anyone. We have a kid right now who's going to be making his pro debut. He's unbelievable. He's got more natural ability than you've ever seen. I'm trying to work with him and getting him up there."
There's a positive side in that for Pavlik, who is a genuinely nice and charitable guy who likes to help others. If he can play a role in advancing the fighter's career, it will have an unintended, but mush appreciated, side effect.
"If he wins a title and becomes what I think he can, no one would be happier than I would be," Pavlik says, chuckling. "Then at least there's someone who can get that spotlight away from me."