A symbol of strength and resilience to a city that has taken many blows, middleweight champion Kelly Pavlik (36-1, 32 KOs) enjoys an ardent fan base in his native Youngstown, Ohio. Known as "The Ghost" for his splintery build and chalky complexion, Pavlik was on the expressway to mega-stardom when the cagey Bernard Hopkins boxed rings around him in a non-title bout in October, 2008.
There are losses that fighters draw lessons from and then there are losses that take the heart out of a fighter. After the Hopkins' bout, there were worries that the Ghost would be haunted by the defeat and lose his swagger. Nevertheless, the courageous young champ was ready to jump right into the deep end again and defend his belt against the dangerous Paul Williams. That, however, is when things started to come apart - things like his left hand. Injuries forced Pavlik to postpone and ultimately cancel the Williams fight. Pavlik developed a staph infection in his finger and a near fatal allergic reaction to the antibiotic used to treat the infection.
After a short hiatus from the ring, Pavlik successfully defended his title with knockouts against Marco Antonio Rubio and Miguel Angel Espino. But neither of these contenders were regarded as serious threats. After the Williams cancellation and the easy and yet mandatory defenses, Pavlik's pugilistic stock tumbled.
Through no fault of his own, the last two years have removed some of the sheen from Pavlik's star. He will try to regain that luster when he snaps his jab at Sergio Martinez (44-2-2, 24-KOs) on Saturday night in Atlantic City's Boardwalk Hall. The fight will be shown on HBO.
Martinez was born in Argentina but now fights out of Madrid, Spain. After going almost seven years without a defeat, Martinez dropped a controversial decision to Paul Williams in September 2009. As sometimes happens in boxing, Martinez's loss worked to his favor. At the time that Martinez, a southpaw, was painting Williams with straight lefts and right hooks, many believed that Williams had matured into an almost unbeatable boxer-puncher. The 35-year old Martinez exposed Williams and in the process dramatically improved his boxing portfolio. Martinez is a former standout soccer player. He is speedy, slick, well coordinated, and brimming with confidence.
Regarding the bout, Pavlik made it plain,
"First, it's great to be back in boxing and in a big fight again. I have to tell you that there was a time when I was so sick with that allergic reaction to the antibiotics that I was just hoping to stay alive. It has been a long road, but the last two fights helped me get my timing back and now I'm 100 percent!"
Pavlik, whose pro-record includes two wins over southpaws, continued,
"I know this a tough fight. Martinez is crafty and quick but I think he looks faster than he is because he throws punches from weird angles. He moves a lot but he can't fight when he is backing up. And when he is ready to shoot, he'll plant that back foot. That's when I have to fire and beat him to the punch."
This compelling contest is a classic boxer versus puncher match-up. Many fans do not grasp that thick pecs and biceps do not a puncher make. Or at least not necessarily. The hardest hitters are often tall and rail thin because they have great leverage. At 6'2 ½", Pavlik is cut in this Thomas Hearns mode.
Emanuel Steward, who trained Jermain Taylor for his title fights with Pavlik, observed, "Kelly hits hard but he is not really a one punch knockout guy. He is tough and determined and has heavy hands. He keeps after you and wears you down. Because he is tall and his right is not at eye level, most boxers cannot really see it coming. They can't pick it up." And, of course, the punch that you can't see coming is the one that says goodnight.
Steward sees this as a very tough fight for Pavlik. He says, "Martinez is fast and Kelly does not have the best footwork in the world. It's going to be difficult for Kelly to catch him. But," warns Steward, "Martinez is smaller and Kelly is a big strong middleweight and that could be a problem for Martinez." To be fair, Paul Williams was also a big 160 pounder, but that not seem to trouble the 5'11" Martinez.
Prior to his victory over Roy Jones, Bernard Hopkins commented, "Kelly has to have something besides that right hand. You can't be great and be one dimensional." When Hopkins deconstructed Pavlik, he moved away from Pavlik's right and by doing so, forced the flustered fighter to throw his right across his front leg and so took away Pavlik's power.
Though he slides to both sides, Martinez will surely show more of that same movement. I asked Pavlik how he was going to keep the nimble challenger in his wheel house. "I have to cut him off," he insisted, "I have to step where he is going before he gets there and I have to keep my balance while doing it."
An immensely likable individual, Pavlik has his heart in the right place and his feet firmly planted, but to pass the exam posed by Martinez, he will need to get those feet moving and his hands pumping.
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