Life's tough in Youngstown. Youngstown's Kelly Pavlik is tougher.
Here is the fighter, in the middle of the ring, on all fours. His head buzzes, his ears ring, his legs wobble. He's staring down at the canvas as the referee stands over him.
Here is the trainer, wondering if this is the way it ends. Standing in the corner, attempting to will his fighter to his feet with the power of belief, Jack Loew has one thought: All those bastards are going to think they were right.
The experts warned the no-pedigree trainer from Youngstown: Don't do it. Your boy has no business getting into the ring with Jermain Taylor, or any big-time middleweight, for that matter. They told him Kelly Pavlik was a cute story: White, working-class, Rust Belt hero gives the folks back home something to believe in. But cute stories are no match for world champions.
You'll see, he told them. Don't let his looks fool you. Beneath that placid demeanor—and prematurely balding dome—burns the competitive furnace of a champion.
And now … this? In the second round?
The trainer refuses to believe his eyes. Taylor's fists have feasted on Pavlik's defenseless face, connecting with such ease, Taylor can't believe his luck.
When Pavlik stepped into the ring under the bright lights of Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City in September 2007, Loew knew his fighter was ready for his first title bout. He had brutalized himself with unorthodox training for eight weeks, pushing vehicles, flipping 1,000-pound tires, swinging sledgehammers. They'd had to pay sparring partners $1,200 a week plus expenses (above the industry standard) just to come to Youngstown for punishment. One guy left at lunch the first day. "Keep the money," he called out as he headed for the door.
Loew also admits he was just a small-town trainer lucky to be in the gym when 9-year-old Kelly showed up, 16 years earlier.
Beating Taylor would validate both of them.
A hydrant of a man, Loew is smart, tough and self-deprecating. He waves away suggestions of his positive influence on Pavlik. "I'm just glad he picked my door," he says. He's made good money as Pavlik's trainer, but that doesn't keep him from his other job: sealing driveways, his straight-outta-Youngstown, one-finger salute to society's idea of success.
Like everyone else on Team Pavlik, Loew's been with Kelly from the beginning. Besides Jack, there's Pavlik's high school friend Mike Cox and Loew's old buddy John D'Altorio. Then there's the family: Kelly's dad, Big Mike, and older brothers, Rick and Mike Jr. They circle up tight.
Kelly was 12 when Loew got a call before a Junior Olympic tournament in Steubenville, Ohio. "Got an 85-pounder?" they asked. Jack looked at Pavlik and said, "Sure." Jack didn't have a uniform for him, but Kelly hopped in the ring and whipped a kid who'd had 24 fights.
That's the thing about Kelly: He has always exceeded expectations. At a Golden Gloves tournament in Cleveland, Kelly sat, hood pulled low, and waited for his bout. A group of black fighters started talking about who they were facing, and the one who drew Pavlik started laughing and mouthing at the white boy inside the sweatshirt. Kelly already had the nickname The Ghost—white, silent, hard to figure. They wouldn't let up. "I'd heard it all before," Pavlik says.
The fight started and ended in less than a minute. "Worst 45-second ass-whipping I've ever seen in my life," Big Mike says.
Twelve years later, more than 6,000 people— black, white, whatever—have traveled from "the Yo" to Atlantic City to watch Pavlik fight Taylor. His large following has surprised fight officials. But they don't understand; Pavlik is Youngstown's guy, same way Ray "Boom Boom" Mancini was before he upped and moved to California. People in Youngstown get tired of hearing people dump on their town for its violent crime and poverty rates. (CNN Money ranks Youngstown's median income as the lowest in the nation among cities with more than 65,000 people.) It's full of boarded-up buildings, rough neighborhoods and closed mills.
These Pavlik guys, though, they not only like Youngstown, they hate to leave. Loew says, "Every time we leave, I can't wait to get back to this s—hole." Cox, the bodyguard/cornerman, is also a Youngstown cop, a member of the Violent Crimes Task Force. He can tell you how tough Youngstown is: Someone once broke into his house and stripped it of all the copper wiring—with his police cruiser sitting in the driveway the whole time. He says, "I love this place. But it sucks." Youngstown, baby.
Pavlik's hometown might be raw, but it's real. It's where guys work for him and cheer for him because they care about him, not because they think there's money in it. They aren't hired hands; they're friends.
Eight weeks before every fight, Kelly leaves his wife, Samantha, and 2¬-year-old daughter, Sydney, at home and moves in with his parents. He sleeps on the living room couch in the 900-square-foot house where his title belts hang above a computer desk. He trains with Loew at the South Side Boxing Club, a converted pizza joint in an old brick building in a shaky part of town. South Side's nothing fancy: one ring, three heavy bags and two speed bags. Compare that with Pavlik's next opponent, Bernard Hopkins, who is training in Miami Beach for their Oct. 18 bout in Boardwalk Hall.
Before Pavlik's October 2005 fight with Fulgenico Zuniga, his promotional team at Top Rank moved him out to Vegas to train. He hated it, felt like he was living someone else's life. He told Top Rank's Bob Arum he would never do it again. Youngstown, baby.
Pavlik drinks beer and throws darts (his team routinely wins its league) at East Side Civics, a no-frills joint with $1.50 beer on tap and a dart room that's fluorescent and linoleum. The biggest crowd is outside on the patio, where you can smoke. The same $13 round of shots that Kelly buys for his friends at the Civics (the nickname used by locals) was $94 at the MGM Grand in Vegas. "Same stuff," he says, shaking his head.
By the time Taylor has sent Pavlik to the canvas, the Youngstown crowd has already drunk all the beer in Boardwalk Hall. That's the truth too: Every concession stand is sold out. Take the Civics on the road and they drink AC dry. You think they aren't proud? Youngstown, baby.
They love Pavlik in Youngstown. They see him running Rocky-style through Mill Creek Park—six miles in 31 minutes—and shopping at the grocery store. "He can live anywhere," Cox says, "and he lives here." That's empowering if you're struggling to make it work in a city that's struggling to make it work. The city's motto is "Defend Youngstown." Who does it better than Pavlik? His fists are an extension of all of them.
And now the referee's counting like a preschool teacher. Loew can hear the whispers: Pavlik's just another overrated white fighter.
So this is how it ends? With all those geniuses thinking they were right?
Kelly's trying to gather himself before the referee can call it off. He's thinking pretty clearly, considering the situation, and in those few seconds after he gets off the canvas, something extraordinary happens.
A spontaneous roar descends upon him.
He hears Youngstown. He feels Youngstown.
Here is the father, frantic, sick to his stomach, nearly paralyzed with fright. He wants to get Taylor's fists off Kelly's face. He wants to stand up and throw a white towel into the ring and hug his son and never let him do this again.
Kelly wasn't a dead-end kid. He had choices. He was a good high school baseball player with decent grades and an interest in architecture. College was a possibility. When Big Mike was growing up in Youngstown, there were no options; you finished high school and followed your dad to the steel factory. On a mill worker's salary, he and his wife, Debbie, bought a house and sent the boys to the Catholic school you can see from the back porch.
Then jobs started leaving and the mills started closing. Pretty soon, all the steel was arriving on a ship from Japan. Youngstown's population dropped from 115,000 in 1980 to 80,000 in 2008.
There were many times that Big Mike questioned this boxing life. Why were they traveling the country barely breaking even, fighting the undercards of big fights? Win or lose, they'd line up to have a security guard cut off their wristbands so that they didn't think about sticking around for the main event. Where was the payoff? Where was the dignity?
They've made the big time in Atlantic City, but Big Mike doesn't like it much better. Taylor is having his way, and Kelly's body is fighting gravity with the same intractable will that kept him going back to the gym every damn day from the time he was 9.
Big Mike is thinking of Debbie sitting in their hotel room. Debbie never watches her son's fights, but she watches the clock, waiting for them to end. Every minute lasts an hour. She is up there now, thank God. Heaven forbid she see this.
Here is the fighter, getting up. He lifts his gloves to his face and nods. Youngstown gets up with him, throwing a punch through the air.
"HE CAN LIVE ANYWHERE, AND HE LIVES HERE." THAT'S EMPOWERING IF YOU'RE STRUGGLING TO MAKE IT WORK IN A CITY THAT'S STRUGGLING TO MAKE IT WORK.
Here is the father again, watching his son try to stay upright for the last minute. A few more shots, and Pavlik is reeling across the ring on liquefied legs, like a drunk in search of a lamppost. Big Mike knows what Youngstown knows: The next 90 seconds will dictate the rest of Kelly's career.
Kelly knows it looks worse than it is. He moves around, he starts to get his legs back and takes a deep breath. At this moment, something shifts. He looks over to his corner and smiles. Big Mike sees the grin and yells out, "He's gonna be okay."
Kelly finishes the round. A doctor takes a look in his eyes. Kelly laughs. Now everybody knows: Kelly's got this.
It's over in the seventh. Pavlik drills Taylor with a straight right and an uppercut. Taylor is backed into his corner, crumpling under Pavlik's fists. Kelly fights the way he lives: no pretense, like a Marine taking a hill. The ref waves it off.
Pavlik sprints across the ring. He feels Youngstown again. They're in the arena and at the Civics and in their houses. They're tough, proud and underestimated—just like him—and the ones who matter most are hopping around in the ring. He's the middleweight champion of the world, and all the boys are here. Youngstown, baby.
Inside the scrum, Big Mike pulls his phone from his pocket. Somewhere outside Boardwalk Hall, in a quiet hotel room, Debbie answers. What she hears sounds like the inside of a jet engine.
"You hear that?" he yells.
It takes her a second to make it out.
It's Youngstown calling.
"Your son's middleweight champion of the world!"
She can hear the tears in Big Mike's voice.
Here is the fighter, beating Taylor again in February and destroying Gary Lockett in June. He's 34—0 with 30 knockouts, and he's moved back in with Big Mike and Debbie to begin training for Hopkins. He's 26 but says he'll call it a career after two or three more fights. "I'm not going to be one of those guys who hangs on," he says. "Even if I wanted to, the people around me wouldn't let me."
He's made a few million with his fists—including the $800,000 check Big Mike accidentally left in the hotel room after the first Taylor fight—and he redid the basement in his 1,200-square-foot house. There's a dartboard and a big-screen and a place for the guys to hang out. "This guy's so down-to-earth, it's hard to believe," Loew says.
Pavlik's prize possession is the riding mower he bought at Sears to trim his 60-by-90-foot lawn. "I went all out," he says. "Got the Zero Turn, baby."
There's also an all-terrain vehicle in the garage, purchased last winter. One morning, after a heavy snowfall, Big Mike woke up and saw Kelly plowing the driveway with a blade attached to the ATV. About an hour later, Loew looked out his window and saw the same thing.
His friends tell him to enjoy his money and spend a little. "But what if something happens to my hands?" he asks. They tell him to talk a little more, pump up his pay-per-view buys with some smack talk. He refuses, saying, "Anytime a fighter talks crap, he's worried."
Youngstown is possessive, and a little bit scared. They have a lot invested in Pavlik. They wonder: Will he change? Will he leave the Yo? A private country club gave Pavlik its golf course for a day, and instead of just hitting the links with his buddies and family, he hosted a charity event.
"He ain't changing," Loew says. "If he buys a nice car, so what? But if they're waiting for him to move to Vegas or California, it ain't gonna happen."
Before the second Taylor fight, Top Rank got Pavlik a two-story suite in the MGM Grand. Way up high, great view of the Strip, huge bed on the top floor.
Kelly slept on the couch.
"What do I need with all that?" he asks.
Kelly Pavlik's success has revived the amateur fight scene in Youngstown. Click here to meet the five Salinas brothers, who trainer Jack Loew says are among the best boxers in the country.
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