Pavliks see it through thick and thin

Kevin Iole

LAS VEGAS -- The several thousand fans who had traveled from Arkansas to support middleweight champion Jermain Taylor rose as one and roared their approval as Taylor landed a right hard above Kelly Pavlik's left ear. The punch sent the unbeaten challenger staggering around the ring and then down onto the seat of his pants at Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City, N.J.

The even bigger contingent from Pavlik's hometown of Youngstown, Ohio, let out an audible gasp as their dream of a third world champion from the city seemed to be crumbling in just the second round.

On one side of the ring, trainer Emanuel Steward arose from his chair, exhorting Taylor to finish the job. Across from the Hall of Famer, Pavlik trainer Jack Loew was urging Pavlik to relax.

And a few feet away but oblivious to any of the 10,000 or so others in the arena, Mike Pavlik was secretly hoping the fight was stopped.

Pavlik's father, who serves as his co-manager, said he can barely raise his eyes to the ring to watch his son fight. And when his son is badly hurt, as he was when he was challenging for the middleweight title on Sept. 29, Mike Pavlik said he wants to see the fight end as quickly as possible.

"I would not have cared if they had stopped the fight right then and there," Mike Pavlik said. "I would not have cared one bit. As all this was going on, it was a matter of a couple of seconds, but it seemed so long to me. I felt like I was the only person in that arena, me and Kelly.

"As a parent, I think it's natural to really want the best for your kid. I knew how much this meant to Kelly and I know how long he's been after this. But I couldn't watch him being pounded like that. It just makes you sick. I was thinking, 'Well, if he stops this, that's OK, because we'll get things straightened out and come back again some other time.' "

Referee Steve Smoger did stop that fight. But it wasn't until five rounds later when it was Taylor, not Pavlik, who was in need of saving.

Pavlik had just won the middleweight title of the world. And on Saturday at the MGM Grand Garden, he'll meet Taylor again in a non-title bout that is gaining considerably more hype than the first one did.

He'd been a pro since 2000, but it wasn't until recently that Mike Pavlik would even entertain the notion that his son was good enough to even compete for the belt, let alone win it.

Boxers who aren't fighting on big cards usually make very little money, though they face the same risks as those who make seven-figure paydays. Mike Pavlik quickly was wearying of the vagabond lifestyle – not to mention the risks to his son's health – after only a couple of years.

Pavlik went 11-0 in his first two years as a pro, winning all by knockout with none of the bouts going past the third round. But he'd fought in eight states in those 11 fights and was, at least in his father's eyes, treading water.

When he won four more times in 2002 but didn't seem any closer to the belt than he had when he debuted on June 16, 2000, in Indio, Calif., Mike Pavlik really began wondering whether they were chasing something that could never be caught.

"You know how many times we'd been out here in Las Vegas and I thought to myself a lot, 'What the hell are we doing here? How far is this going to go?'" Mike Pavlik said. "We weren't making any money and really, I had to starting asking myself, 'How much longer are we going to do this?' As a parent, you don't know how good he is. Other people may tell you he's good, but you don't know.

"People would say, 'Kelly can do this,' and 'Kelly can do that,' but honestly, it wasn't until about a year-and-a-half or so ago when I said to myself, 'Yeah, the kid can fight.' "

Mike Pavlik worked for years for Republic Steel until the mills closed and he lost his job. He worried about how he'd take care of his young family and took college courses with the hope that he'd find a new trade that would make him employable.

Kelly, the youngest of his three boys, was largely oblivious to the strife in his parents' lives. He was enamored by karate movies and Mike Pavlik said he'd happen upon his son in front of a mirror pulling karate moves.

He wasn't averse to trying the moves he had seen in the movies in an occasional street fight. So, when Mike Pavlik happened to see an ad in a local newspaper hucking a series of three boxing lessons for $20, he figured it was worth a shot.

"One of the assistants there came up to me and says, 'Are you sure he's never done this before?'" Mike Pavlik said. "And I just laughed and said, 'Well, he has, but not with any supervision."

He's come a long way from mimicking actors in a karate movie to being the middleweight champion of the world, but Mike Pavlik said his son remains the same unassuming sort he's been when he was largely ignored.

He sleeps on the couch at his parents' home during training camp – "Somebody's got to keep an eye on him," Mike Pavlik says, beaming – and hasn't changed his routine even though he's staying in a massive suite at the MGM Grand.

"This place is bigger than my place back home," Mike Pavlik said.

But despite the plush accommodations, Kelly is sleeping on a tiny couch in the common area.

"I'm just so lucky, because all three of my boys have turned out to be just great kids," Mike Pavlik said. "They're good people, and that's what means more to me than any title they might ever win. Kelly is the same Kelly he always was.

"He's an unassuming kid who I honestly don't think realizes what he's done. When you think of the thousands of guys who are professional fighters and to think that he's the middleweight champion of the world, he's on top, it's almost like a dream."

One punch from Taylor can turn his dream existence into a nightmare, but Mike Pavlik said his son is as calm as he can be as fight night approaches.

"Kelly has the greatest respect in the world for Jermain and what he's done as a middleweight champion," Mike Pavlik said. "Even when he's at home and there are no reporters around and it's just family and friends, he just talks very highly of Jermain.

"But he's convinced he's going to win this fight and that he's done everything he can do. That's why he's so calm. I can't take seeing him get hit, so I can't really enjoy the fight. And my wife won't even watch, but this is what he's dreamed of doing for so much of his life. You have to realize how lucky you are to have a dream as a kid and to be able to be living it as an adult."