Pavlik returns to proving ground

Kevin Iole
Yahoo! Sports

Winning isn't everything for middleweight champion Kelly Pavlik on Saturday, when he defends his World Boxing Council and World Boxing Organization belts against Miguel Espino at the Beeghly Center in his hometown of Youngstown, Ohio.

And it won't be the only thing, either.

This will be one of those rare times in professional sports where it also matters how he wins.

Pavlik is a better than 20-1 favorite to defeat Espino, a one-time contestant on the boxing reality series, "The Contender." Just scoring a win on the Top Rank pay-per-view fight won't be enough for Pavlik.

Kelly Pavlik
Kelly Pavlik

Kelly Pavlik hasn't fought since February.
(Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images)

At least, this time, against this opponent, after what happened this year, it won't be enough.

Pavlik needs an impressive victory. He needs to remind those who are accusing him of running from Paul Williams of his big-time punching power, of how not too long ago he was running the gauntlet of the world's best middleweights and ploughing through them one by one.

Pavlik needs a crushing victory to remind everyone that, just like President Bill Clinton once said, "I'm still relevant."

"I fought so often and against guys no one wanted to fight and then this happened and all of a sudden, everyone seems to have forgotten what I did," said Pavlik, who is 35-1 with 31 knockouts.

He developed a staph infection on his knuckle. It turned into MRSA, a severe form of staph. He developed an allergic reaction to the medications he was given to fight the MRSA and nearly died as a result.

He was, as he puts it, "touch and go there for a while," in terms of survival, yet he's been portrayed as ducking Paul Williams.

He hasn't fought since stopping Marco Antonio Rubio in February and has suddenly developed an unwarranted reputation among a few vocal fans as a coward.

He keeps a cool demeanor, but there's a pent-up fury that's going to be unleashed the moment the bell rings.

"I'll be pretty happy to be fighting again," Pavlik said with an impish grin.

Espino knows all too well what to expect. Pavlik is an aggressive fighter under any circumstance with knockout power in either hand. In a situation where he hasn't been able to fight and has gotten criticized heavily for it, Espino knows Pavlik will be more than eager.

One of his goals is to be prepared to match Pavlik's intensity and weather the early storm.

"I'm sure Kelly's going to be looking to knock my head off," Espino said. "I get it. He's a hell of a fighter and he's a guy who's always been willing to fight anyone just about any where. I'm pretty sure he's not happy about what's gone on."

Arum said he hoped to bring Pavlik back in March or April if he's successful on Saturday. One possibility would be Felix Sturm, who holds the World Boxing Association middleweight title.

Another, Arum said, is a move up to super middleweight to take on unbeaten Lucian Bute, the International Boxing Federation champion.

"We'll sit down and talk with Kelly and see what he wants to do and we'll get him a major fight," Arum said. "We're going to keep him busy. I know Kelly wants to fight and once people see him again, the fans are going to want him to fight."

Pavlik, though, is hardly eager to look ahead. He simply wants to get back into his comfort zone and fight.

By the time the bell rings, he'll only be a few hours short of a nine-month layoff. This is a guy who is used to fighting top contenders every three or four months. In a normal circumstance, he'd have at least two fights already since beating Rubio.

As it is, he's been forced to exercise the one thing that has been most difficult for the ultra-fit middleweight to work on: his patience.

He's more than eager to go. And his outspoken trainer, Jack Loew, has been doing his best to stir the pot, bringing troubled golf superstar Tiger Woods into the mix.

"Kelly is ready to drop Espino more times than Tiger Woods' trousers," Loew said. The easy-going Pavlik, though, isn't looking for smack talk. He's looking to smack someone.

"I have a huge hunger to get back into the ring," Pavlik said. "On Saturday night, it will be 'Bombs away!' Two fighters who only go forward. My strategy is simple: I will be leading with double and triple jabs to keep him on his toes.

"Once I land a big shot, it's going to be a whole new ball game. Winning is not enough. I need to be dominant and I need to be impressive. I know what the mission is and I have every intention of completing it."

He was the darling of the fans and media not more than two years ago, after knocking out Jermain Taylor to win the title before an adoring home throng.

Now, it seems, he's turned into an afterthought and has taken more abuse outside the ring than he's ever taken inside of it.

It's opened his eyes to the boxing business – "Typical boxing [expletive]," Arum said of the chatter he's ducked Williams, which Arum claims was started by Williams trainer George Peterson – and made him more determined.

"I thought I'd proven myself as the guy who would fight anyone," Pavlik said. "I was pretty much like, 'OK,' no matter who they asked me to fight. If they would have told me I was fighting King Kong, all I'd ask was 'When, where and what time?' I'm not sure why, something that was totally out of my control has changed all that.

"All I know is, I'm glad to be back fighting. It's what I do and it's what I love."

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