Pavlik has long defied the critics

Kevin Iole

LAS VEGAS – About an hour before he was to fight what to that point was the most significant bout of his life, Kelly Pavlik was leaning back in a folding chair in his dressing room at the FedEx Forum in Memphis, Tenn.

His feet were perched on a chair in front of him when a couple of Top Rank employees walked into the room.

Pavlik's fight that night with power-punching Edison Miranda was critical for the company. A win by Pavlik would vault him into a title shot against middleweight champion Jermain Taylor, who was defending his belt in the main event against Cory Spinks.

A win also would also give the company another potential star to market. The stakes were high and the employees were a bundle of nerves.

"What's wrong with you guys?" Pavlik asked as he noticed the two nervously pacing the room.

What was wrong with them were the 24 knockouts among Miranda's 28 wins and the knowledge that one big right hand from the Colombian could crush the company's hopes of developing Pavlik into a pay-per-view and ticket-selling attraction.

Pavlik, whom Top Rank CEO Bob Arum said was being used by HBO as "cannon fodder" for Miranda, went out and dominated the bout, earning himself a shot at Taylor's title by stopping Miranda in the seventh round.

Arum then was so giddy when Pavlik knocked Taylor out in the seventh round on Sept. 29 to win the WBC and WBO belts that he suggested the lanky slugger could become one of the greatest middleweight champions ever.

Arum essentially repeated himself the other day. When he did, I shot a glance at Thomas Hearns, who looked to me like he was about to lose his lunch.

I stood back a few extra steps from the ex-welterweight, ex-super welterweight, ex-middleweight, ex-super middleweight and ex-light heavyweight champion as I went to ask him about what Arum had said.

He appeared nauseous, and, well, you can never been too careful.

Hearns insisted he greatly admires both Pavlik and Taylor, who will meet in a non-title bout on HBO Pay-Per-View on Saturday at the MGM Grand. It's just that, well, neither of them are Marvin Hagler or Roberto Duran or Sugar Ray Leonard.

Or, for that matter, Thomas Hearns.

"I look at these guys, and I make comparisons," Hearns said. "I try to think what the outcome would have been if I had to fight these guys. I really don't see that they would have been much threat to me. These guys are good. I think they're real good. But they're nowhere near the same class we were."

The thing is that few boxers ever were. And the great thing about Pavlik is that he realizes it.

He's 32-0 but has much to accomplish if he even is to be the Fighter of the Decade, let alone one of the great fighters ever.

Pavlik isn't the type to get caught up in what others say, even one so instrumental to his career as Arum, the Hall of Fame promoter. Pavlik grinned impishly when the subject of Arum's greatest middleweight ever comment was broached.

"It's a hell of a compliment, and that's how I choose to take it," Pavlik said.

He would go no further. Pavlik understands it would take nearly as long to rattle off Hearns' professional accomplishments as it did for him to knock out Taylor.

And that's saying nothing of the extraordinary accomplishments of great middleweights such as Hagler, Leonard, Carlos Monzon, Jake LaMotta, Sugar Ray Robinson, Stanley Ketchel, Harry Greb and Bernard Hopkins.

There will come a time when he can compare himself to others, Pavlik said. Wisely, he realizes that time is not now.

"I still have a lot to prove to people," Pavlik said. "I'm by no means established as this great champion. I won the title. It was a great accomplishment, but it was the first step. It took me seven long, hard years to get this title. Now I have to go out and defend it."

And that's why he'll drop back to middleweight after this bout, which is being contested at a weight limit of 166 pounds as per a clause in the contract that Taylor insisted upon prior to the first bout.

Arum wants to match Pavlik with Irishman John Duddy, who is hugely popular in New York but of limited ability, in the summer. Later in the year, he hopes to pair Pavlik with IBF champion Arthur Abraham.

"There are a lot of good options out there for him," Arum said.

Pavlik, though, doesn't want to consider options at this point. He'll be the middleweight champion regardless of the outcome because the belts won't be on the line, but he doesn't want to make his first title defense coming off a loss.

So while everyone has been concentrating on the thunder in his right, Pavlik has been working on further improving his jab. It will be the jab, and perhaps not the right hand that knocked Taylor out, which will be the key punch for Pavlik on Saturday.

In their first fight, the signficance of the jab was lost in the firestorm of right hands that each man threw – and landed. But Pavlik's jab enabled him to slowly close the distance and get into position to connect with the fight-ending right.

"A lot of people get the idea that Kelly is just a brawler because of the power he has and all the knockouts he's gotten, but the truth is, the kid really is a good boxer," trainer Jack Loew said.

Taylor clearly realizes that. So, in an effort to reverse the outcome, he fired Hall of Famer Emanuel Steward as his trainer and replaced him with his long-time amateur coach, Ozell Nelson.

Loew has taunted Nelson repeatedly – When's the last time you remember a promotion without Floyd Mayweather Sr. where the trainers were trash-talking each other? – and said that because Taylor makes a lot of amateurish mistakes, he's happy to see the guy back who taught him those mistakes.

The closest Pavlik comes to such bold talk is when he's explaining how any potential adjustments Taylor may be considering by bringing in Nelson will affect the outcome.

"He's been saying he's going to come out and bang with me, but that could all change with one good right hand," Pavlik said.

One good right hand, as anyone who saw the first fight realizes, is all that is needed to end the fight. Former lightweight champion Ray "Boom Boom" Mancini, like Pavlik from Youngstown, Ohio, thinks Taylor is going to have a hard time finding a place to be where he's safe.

"Kelly is the best puncher in the division since Tommy," Mancini said. "And he's real tall, and with those long arms he has, he makes the ring get real small real quick. There's nowhere to go."

If he wins again, he won't be the best middleweight ever in anybody's mind but perhaps Arum's, but he'll go a long way toward convincing his skeptics that he's more than a skinny kid who happened to get lucky.

Taylor has two wins over Hopkins and has worked harder for this fight than he has for any bout in years.

"I truly believe my guy is going to come back and win this fight because of all the blood and sweat and plain hard work he put in," Taylor promoter Lou DiBella said. "But if Kelly is able to do it again, you have to give him credit. Beating Jermain Taylor twice is no insignificant thing. If can he do that, you have to concede that he's pretty damn good."

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