Thursday January 3rd, 2008

Floyd Mayweather grabbed the boxing spotlight May 5 in Las Vegas and he has yet to relinquish it. With a less than stunning showing but more than decisive victory over Oscar de la Hoya that night, Mayweather kicked off a year in which he accumulated more than $50 million in ring performances. He also developed thousands of new fans for his slick footwork out of it (Or maybe you missed Dancing with the Stars).

For those reasons and several more, Mayweather would be a worthy choice for SI.com's 2007 Fighter of the Year. But he's not. That honor belongs to Kelly Pavlik.

Let the protesting begin.

Maybe it's because I have been saturated with Mayweather over the last six months. Watch Floyd dance. Hear Floyd talk. Hear Floyd talk about dancing. Hear Floyd dancing while talking. Or maybe it's because I view De La Hoya as more mercenary than fighter and Ricky Hatton as a hand-picked opponent well out of his (weight) class.

Mayweather is a terrific showman and standard bearer for a sagging sport. Boxing could could do much worse. But for me, this honor belongs to an old school pugilist, someone who stares across the ring at his opponent and says, "I'll swing at you, you swing at me, and let's see what happens."

Pavlik was barely on the boxing radar at this time last year, when he was gearing up for a middleweight showdown against Jose Luis Zertuche. Pavlik, 25, leveled Zertuche with an eighth round knockout.

Four months later he challenged undefeated Edison Miranda, and in the days leading up to the bout, Miranda ran his mouth, claiming the fight was between "a man and a boy." On fight night, the only thing coming out of Miranda's mouth was his mouthpiece, which he spit out in the sixth round after being knocked down for the first time in his career. Two more knockdowns followed before the referee mercifully stopped the fight before Pavlik could deliver the coup de grace.

Finally, on the biggest stage of his career and for the most distinguished titles he had ever fought for, Pavlik challenged another undefeated fighter, Jermain Taylor, for Taylor's WBC and WBO middleweight titles. It had all the makings of a Rocky-Apollo clash, the workmanlike Pavlik against the Hollywood Taylor. But in the end, it was Pavlik who delivered the Hollywood ending, surviving a brutal knockdown in the second round to deliver a series of punishing blows that sent Taylor to the canvas. He never got up.

Three fights in 2007. Three knockouts. Can it get any better than that?

Pavlik is a throwback, a fighter whose only goal when he gets into the ring is to make the three judges sitting ringside irrelevant. He hates decisions, which hasn't been an issue since he hasn't had one in more than three years. He steps into the ring looking for a war, knowing full well that, like in any battle, he is one well placed shot away from losing.

He fights for pride. He fights for his hometown of Youngstown, Ohio, the same place lightweight legend Ray Mancini hails from. It's the town that essentially shut down on the night Pavlik fought Taylor, with more than 15,000 residents making the trek from the Rust Belt to Atlantic City. He is a hero to them and, in many ways, they are heroes to him.

Maybe Pavlik will fall in love with his titles in 2008. Maybe after his mandated rematch with Taylor next month (where no titles will be at stake), Pavlik will line up a series of cupcakes to defend his belts against. I certainly hope not.

As I stood in Pavlik's dressing room following his win over Taylor, I gave him that opening. As he stood there struggling to breathe as a trainer shoved Q-Tips up his nose to stop the bleeding, I asked him if after such a tough fight he might be looking for something easier.

He said no.

"I want the belts," said Pavlik. "And I want to fight the best."

Getting the belts means calling out WBA middleweight champion Felix Sturm and IBF champ Arthur Abraham. And fighting the best means moving up in weight to challenge Joe Calzaghe, something Pavlik's trainer, Jack Loew, told me he was interested in.

Pavlik is on the verge of greatness, of becoming a leader in a sport desperately lacking them. For that, he deserves the honor.

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.