- Don Stradley
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The image of Youngstown, Ohio, as a withered metropolis pervades pop culture.
The city's decline has been chronicled in books and documentaries -- even in song. In 1995, Bruce Springsteen wrote and recorded "Youngstown" for his album, "The Ghost of Tom Joad." The song is an ode to the days when local men "made the cannon balls that helped the Union win the war," and smokestacks reached up to the heavens. The song's hero ends up broken and bitter, surveying the scraps of a once prosperous city.
But hard times seem to create fighting men, for since the local steel industry capsized in the 1970s, Youngstown has been home to four boxing champions: Ray "Boom Boom" Mancini, Harry Arroyo, Greg Richardson and current middleweight boss, Kelly Pavlik.
Still, there's a sense among some of the locals that the Youngstown angle has been overdone. Many of Pavlik's friends and neighbors will be perfectly happy if they never read another reference to Youngstown as an inhabited ruin.
"The documentary crews and the media have gone to the well once too often, "said Todd Franko, editor of the Youngstown Vindicator. "Even Springsteen's song is a cliché. I'm a huge Bruce fan, but he could've done an entire album about the [Mahoning] Valley, and written songs like 'Born to Run.' He did what everyone else does -- he picked one aspect of the city."
Much of Pavlik's popularity stems from his loyalty to Youngstown. Pavlik said in a recent interview with The Cleveland Plain Dealer, "Everything I need is right here in Youngstown -- including Jack." Jack, of course, is Jack Loew, Pavlik's longtime trainer.
"Youngstown is what it is," Loew told ESPN.com. "It's a blue-collar town. You won't find a lot of millionaires living here, but the economy isn't any worse here than [it is] anywhere else."
As for tough times creating fighters, Loew doesn't buy the idea. "It's a hard-knock town, but I don't think that has anything to do with making fighters," Loew said. "Even back when the city was thriving, we had good fighters."
Long before Ray Mancini's era, Youngstown was a fight town. Greats like Harry Greb and Johnny Kilbane fought in Youngstown rings, and in 1900 the great Irish heavyweight Peter Maher came to Youngstown to win by disqualification over a gent named Stockings Conroy.
Youngstown's homegrown talent included Tony Ziella -- better known as Tony Zill -- a lightweight who entertained fans throughout Ohio from 1913 through 1926. "Zill is a fast snappy boxer and can always be depended on for lots of action," The Lima Daily News once wrote. Later in life, Zill coached football at Mahoning Valley's Ursuline High School.
The welterweight division of the 1940s was spiced up by Youngstown's Tony Janiro, probably best known as the fighter Jake LaMotta (played by Robert De Niro) destroyed in "Raging Bull," causing another character to utter the immortal words, "He ain't pretty no more." But Janiro was no bum, retiring with a respectable record of 80-15-2 (20 KOs).
Lenny Mancini was a popular Youngstown pug, although he did most of his fighting in New York. Wounded during World War II, Mancini never lived up to his initial promise. Four decades later, his son Ray would win the WBA lightweight title and achieve stardom beyond that of any Youngstown fighter before him.
"The people in Youngstown know Ray from posters and folklore," Franko said. "This new generation gets to relive that feeling through Kelly. I'd say their popularity is about equal -- if Kelly hasn't already surpassed Ray."
Pavlik might equal Mancini in Ohio, but he might never match the Mancini mania that once swept the networks. Mancini was the ultimate TV fighter -- all action and all smiles -- and he fought at a time when boxing had mainstream cachet, helping him to become a household name. Still, Mancini's greatest feat might be that he helped put a friendly face on a community that the Saturday Evening Post once dubbed "Murder Town USA."
During the 1950s and '60s, Youngstown was so well-known for bloody gangland hits that car-bomb assassinations became known as "Youngstown Tuneups."
When reminded of the mob's presence in Youngstown, Loew responded with a long, knowing chuckle. "The car-bomb capital," Loew laughed. "I've managed to stay clear of that."
Fellow Youngstown residents are not as quick to laugh off tough talk about their tough city's past, and journalists quickly learn that the Rust Belt's image is a sensitive subject.
One week ago, city officials scolded Rolling Stone magazine for a recent story about a Youngstown couple found guilty of robbing an armored car company. Phil Kidd, a city official who also created Defend Youngstown, a group dedicated to Youngstown's advancement, accused Rolling Stone of "stepping on the face of a city attempting to rise up and address such issues [with crime]."
Todd Franko backed the city officials, saying the media has a knack for "swooping in and taking easy shots."
"I'll start with HBO and their Pavlik coverage," Franko said. "You don't have to work hard to find the rusty backdrop. It's a struggling city, sure, with crumbling buildings, but there are plenty of beautiful parks and gardens. Youngstown is as strong and vibrant as any community I've been in. Yes, you can find problems in any city. But the media treats Youngstown like it's some tomato-can opponent; they keep propping up one single aspect of the city and beating on it."
Youngstown's past, then, is like a birthmark: It might not be fair to focus on it, but it's almost impossible to ignore.
More than a century ago, Youngstown was already known for its rough atmosphere. Tent show preachers routinely visited Mahoning Valley to host all-night prayer meetings to save Youngstown's sinners from the rampant drug use, gambling and prostitution that had taken root. It was during this low-down era that Youngstown's first boxing idol, a scrappy featherweight known as James "Red Squirrel" Finnerty, came into prominence.
With his shock of red hair and his ability to fight like a ram for 20 rounds, Finnerty became a kind of folk hero in Mahoning County. News accounts of the day describe Squirrel as "fast and scientific," but he could also be quite vicious. According to an 1899 report in the Altoona Mirror, Finnerty's opponent, Jimmy Reeder, was left a beaten and broken man at the end of their bout, his "mouth bleeding and his eyes nearly closed."
Prizefighting was illegal in Ohio during the 1890s, so Squirrel was often harassed by local authorities. A report in an Iowa newspaper depicted the way he was literally hauled off to the Mercer County jail after an arrest in 1895: "The prisoner was handcuffed, and a rope sufficiently large to hold an elephant was fastened around his waist. He was tied like an animal and had to walk the entire distance behind the buckboard."
Squirrel was also a good storyteller, telling reporters he trained by hiring blacksmiths to pound his body with sledgehammers.
For his part, Pavlik pounds a truck tire with a sledge, a smarter and more efficient way to prepare for a fistfight.
If we do dwell on Youngstown's past, it's only because that's where the color is. In a way, Pavlik's followers should be glad that he comes with a built-in story, for that helps with the selling of a fighter.
In a perfect world, Pavlik could get by on talent alone. In our world, a backstory helps. HBO is the first to admit it doesn't sell fighters; it sells stories. Just as HBO milked the rough background of Mike Tyson, the death of Oscar De la Hoya's mother, and Floyd Mayweather's family squabbles, so it is that Pavlik's coverage will always include visuals of crumbling, dilapidated buildings.
Perhaps one day HBO will produce a segment in which Pavlik cavorts in Fellows Riverside Gardens, a beautiful Youngstown landmark. Until then, we can expect to see more of those old smokestacks and boarded-up windows. And that's probably fitting, for when Pavlik looks into the HBO cameras and shouts, "That's for Youngstown, baby!" he's not addressing the Youngstown Symphony.
He's talking to the folks who have remained in Youngstown through good times and bad, and like the middleweight champion of the world, have no intention of leaving.
Don Stradley is a regular contributor to The Ring.
Mention Youngstown and most Americans think of dilapidated buildings and a city that has seen better days. Kelly Pavlik is doing his part to give them something else to talk about.