- Tim Struby
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It was a perfect evening in Atlantic City. The boardwalk was rife with couples quietly strolling and playing mini-golf, packs of 20-somethings primed for the evening's roistering and scalpers hawking overpriced tickets.
Right next door to one of Donald Trump's many monoliths, fans steadily streamed into the Boardwalk Hall, not to see past performers like Bruce (Springsteen), Bette (Midler), or (Andrea) Bocelli, but boxing -- the long-anticipated, undisputed middleweight championship of the world -- featuring reigning champion Jermain Taylor (27-0-1) against challenger Kelly Pavlik (31-0).
The match was threefold in it significance. First, it had all the makings of a barn burner. The pedigree of Taylor: Olympic bronze medalist, prized thoroughbred of promoter Lou DiBella's stable, a multifaceted fighter who possessed (when he chose to apply it) one of the sweet science's finest jabs. The blue-collar hero Pavlik: Olympic hopeful (he lost to Taylor in the 2000 trials), the Clydesdale of fighters -- a heavy-handed workhorse who had a reputation of rudely introducing opponents to his blistering right hand.
The fight fan's fight was made-to-order but not paid-to-order, as HBO executives used their foresight and agreed to air the bout free on their networks.
Second, the event marked the return of big-time boxing on the beach. Once the site of bouts such as Mike Tyson against Larry Holmes and Michael Spinks versus Dwight Muhammad Quai, the town had been, in recent years, relegated to Arturo Gatti cameos. The local hero certainly filled seats, but fights of significance had been few and far between.
Thirdly, the fight marked the rebirth of boxing itself: arguably the best nine-week stretch in the sport's history.
"I think everyone in boxing who is responsible has realized they have to do something to save the sport," Pavlik promoter Bob Arum said earlier in the day. "And I've never seen a period of fights like this in my life."
Promoters, managers, fighters and HBO, wary of the meteoric rise of MMA and their own sport's terminal illness, collectively resolved to form their own triage unit and sewed up some of the most titillating fights possible.
A week after Taylor-Pavlik, Marco Antonio Barrera looks to avenge the most one-sided whupping of his career at the hands of Manny Pacquiao -- a PPV event, even without a title at stake. Seven days later, the Diazes, Julio and Juan, face off. November begins with a European bang: Mikkel Kessler heads to Cardiff, Wales, to take on Joe Calzaghe's furiously fast hands, 43-0 record and upwards of 60,000 fans. Midmonth features indefatigable Puerto Rican Miguel Cotto and the still formidable Shane Mosley. And on Dec. 8, the piece de resistance -- Britain's favorite fighting son, Ricky "The Hitman" Hatton, facing boxing's purest talent, "Pretty Boy" Floyd Mayweather.
Three of the bouts are non-PPV offerings. Three feature two unbeaten fighters in their primes. The fact that the fights were made should set a permanent precedent. If the bouts live up to their potential, it should restore some of the sweet science's relevance.
As the Taylor-Pavlik fistic introductions began, the 10,127 spectators voiced their belief that the bout would serve as a positive portent. Deafening cheers filled the national historic landmark building, as the predominately Pavlik crowd greeted their man. An equally resounding chorus of boos met Taylor as he and his belt-hoisting entourage made their way to the ring. Yet all the fans agreed on one point: They came to see a fight.
Round 1 -- energetic and spirited -- brought the crowd to their feet. Round 2 nearly brought the house down. The fan favorite found himself against a machine firing on all cylinders, and a left hook, right, left hook combination sent Pavlik to the canvas. Even the Youngstown faithful who made the trip nodded approval. Yet despite a bloody nose and another near-knockdown, Pavlik somehow weathered Taylor's sustained assault. Round 3 saw Pavlik clear the wonderment from his eyes, and the gravity of the event appeared to sink in. His trademark assault -- an alarmingly straight stiff jab and a potent right hand -- started to land. A fight was to be had.
By the fourth, fifth and sixth rounds, the fighters settled. Pavlik worked perfunctorily, methodically stalking and landing. Taylor fired from all angles, and grew particularly fond of his left jab, throwing it with aplomb and abandon. Despite a revived challenger, the champion appeared to be in charge of his destiny (and through six rounds was ahead decisively on all three cards).
To the glee of the onlookers, however, and unquestionably the millions watching on standard cable, that situation changed drastically in the seventh. Pavlik caught his Arkansas counterpart in a corner and Taylor never came out. A right to the temple put him there, and a varied attack featuring two neck-snapping uppercuts forced referee Steve Smoger to stop the fight at 2:14 of the round. The Clydesdale outworked the thoroughbred and the soft-spoken, humble Ohioan -- the new, undisputed middleweight champion -- raised high his title belts. A perfect end to the night.
If this bout proves to be a sign of boxing's near future, well, all involved should be excited. Particularly the spectators. But as lovers of the sport have come to know -- and sometimes relish -- they will just have to wait and see.
Tim Struby is a features writer for ESPN The Magazine.
Kelly Pavlik's give-and-take war with Jermain Taylor is a catalyst for action-packed fights this autumn.