No, I cannot forget where it is that I come from/I cannot forget the people who love me/ Yeah, I can be myself in this small town/And people let me be just what I want to be
Kelly Pavlik was three years old when John Mellencamp's Small Town became a hit in 1985. The lyrics of that hit, though, still resonate with Pavlik, a small-town boy who's become one of the biggest celebrities in the history of Youngstown, Ohio.
Pavlik for years had been a mini-celebrity in the struggling steel town, where there is a median household income of just $24,201.
But since winning the middleweight championship by knocking out Jermain Taylor on Sept. 29 in Atlantic City, Pavlik has gone big-time in his small town. As he prepares for a Feb. 16 rematch with Taylor in Las Vegas, Pavlik's handlers have had to limit his accessibility.
"Forget about him going to the grocery store, things like that," said his trainer and close friend, Jack Loew. "I had to put an end to that. He'd never get out. He would be in the first aisle and all of a sudden it seemed like half the city would find out he was there."
And so Loew has developed the unofficial job as bad guy in the Pavlik camp. When someone needs to say no, Loew is the man for the job.
That's meant no to autograph requests when he's on a treadmill and no to interview requests that break the routine of training camp.
"Even Sports Illustrated, we had to say no and put them on our schedule and not theirs," Loew said. "You know, for years we were dying to have anyone pay attention to us. I had been talking about Kelly for years, literally, and not too many people wanted to pay attention. We would have done anything to have Sports Illustrated acknowledge us.
"Now, they wanted to do something with Kelly, but it had to be on our schedule, because we could not disrupt what was going on in camp."
During training camp, Pavlik still sleeps on a couch at his parents' home where his father, Mike, cooks all of his meals. And while he's now in a salary bracket in which he can afford a vacation anywhere he wants, his mother, Debbie, says he usually ends them after two or three days because he misses Youngstown so much.
All he wants to do, she says, is hang out with his boyhood pals, play ping pong and swap stories.
"He's the most comfortable guy in his own skin I've ever seen at this level," said his publicist, Fred Sternburg.
Another fighter from Ohio once won a major world title and then imploded amid his own celebrity. Buster Douglas in 1990 in Columbus, Ohio, was everything that Kelly Pavlik is today in Youngstown, and more, when he beat Mike Tyson to win the heavyweight title. But after claiming the title, Douglas paid little attention to the things that lifted him to the improbable win over Tyson. His first defense was against Evander Holyfield and Douglas was quickly known as "Buffet Buster" in Las Vegas for his frequent stops at the all-you-eat buffets in town.
A plump and not-ready-to-fight Douglas was knocked out in the third round by Holyfield and largely never heard from again.
Pavlik, though, insists nothing of the sort will afflict him. The rematch will not be for the title, as it was contractually agreed prior to the first fight that if Pavlik won, the weight limit for the return would be 166 pounds.
Pavlik is now around 170 about two weeks from fight night and, he says, working harder than he ever has.
"I'm just as hungrier, maybe hungrier," Pavlik said. "My goal wasn't just to win the title and then that was it. I have a lot more I want to do. I still want to keep getting better." And so he tries as best he can to juggle his celebrity in his hometown with the demands of his job. Many in his camp cringe when he agrees to do an autograph signing to raise money for charity — "He's such a good kid and he hates to say no, but you don't want to expose him to the viruses and things that are floating around as he's trying to get ready for this fight," Sternburg says — but Pavlik is the type who has a hard time saying no.
That, though, is part of the reason why he is so beloved. He's a celebrity of a stature rarely seen in Youngstown, but he's still just one of the guys when he's at home. At the gym, his workouts are open to the public and frequently draw a crowd, which is in stark contrast to the off-limits workouts Taylor is conducting in the shadow of the Las Vegas Strip.
Pavlik is eager for the fight because he feels he can improve upon his title-winning performance. He's watched the tape of the fight 15 or 16 times, he says — "It never gets old," he says, laughing — and has picked up things he can do better in a rematch. "There were little stupid mistakes I saw that I don't want to make again," Pavlik said.
But he also gains confidence from watching the tape. He sees the fight and can't understand why he was trailing on all three scorecards at the time of the stoppage. He concedes the second and fifth rounds to Taylor, but says he believes he won each of the others.
He was jabbing, he said, and executing his plan well. And though he was knocked down and nearly out in the second round, that, he said, was not the best punch he took from Taylor.
"He kind of got me behind the ear and I lost my equilibrium," Pavlik said. "There were a lot of those back of the head shots."
Loew has never been worried about Pavlik's chin and said that while Taylor is strong, Pavlik took far better shots on the chin than the one that knocked him down.
"You get hit there and that's what happens," Loew said of the sight of Pavlik stumbling around after Taylor decked him. "But Jermain clipped him with some things right on the button and Kelly was fine."
His promoter, Bob Arum, dreams of the day when Pavlik becomes as big around the country as he is in his hometown.
In the days and weeks before the first bout, Arum predicted a Pavlik win with an almost evangelical zeal. He insisted a Pavlik win would invigorate the entire region and turn it onto boxing.
And now, Arum says, everything is coming to fruition. If Pavlik repeats his victory over Taylor, the small town is going to have to share its hero with the world.
"Kelly is the kind of guy anybody can root for, because he is as down to earth a guy as I've ever met, but he's one of the toughest SOBs you'd ever want to see when you put him into the ring," Arum said. "If you're around him for just a couple of minutes and didn't know he was a champion, you'd like him. He is a friendly, good guy and he just makes you laugh and have fun.
"But in the ring, he's a throwback to the middleweights of old and the way they used to fight. You know me and you know I know a good middleweight. This kid is unbelievable. He's the American Dream."