Thursday October 28th, 2010

NEW YORK -- It has been six months since the world last saw Kelly Pavlik. April 17, to be exact. The public was left with the gruesome image of Pavlik, his face bloodied -- courtesy of the sharp hands of Sergio Martinez -- and body drained, shuffling out of a ring as a loser for the first time in his middleweight career.

Since then, the subject of Pavlik's career has risen to a CNN-level of debate. Experts have emerged from everywhere. Some pundits have suggested he was finished, that the blue-collar kid from Youngstown, Ohio, had reached his potential and only more years of punishment awaited him back in the ring. Others -- including Pavlik's father, Mike, and manager, Cameron Dunkin -- opined that a change in trainer was in order, that replacing Jack Loew, who had guided Pavlik since he was 9, with a more experienced hand like Freddie Roach or Manny Steward would revive the fighter's career.

Pavlik heard all of it, of course. It was impossible not to. The words, however, would fall on deaf ears.

"A lot of people that were talking don't know what they are talking about," Pavlik said this week in an interview with SI.com. "A lot of people said I had lost my confidence, that I was distracted. That wasn't the case. Fighters lose. I know what happened in the fight. I know why I lost. Big deal."

What Pavlik needed more than anything was a break. For the past 10 years, Pavlik had clawed his way to the top of the middleweight division. He fought four, sometimes five times per year trying to separate himself in a crowded field.

He was tired. His body just wasn't responding the way it used to. He fought Bernard Hopkins in 2008 with a serious case of bronchitis. He lost most of 2009 to MRSA, a sometimes-fatal strain of a staph infection that resists broad-spectrum antibiotics. The medication Pavlik did take caused an allergic reaction that left him hospitalized and bedridden, his fever spiking to 104 degrees and his body turning shades of red and purple.

When his health returned, he got back in the ring. Fighters always do. But slimming down to the 160-pound middleweight limit had become a problem. He reported to camp seven-and-a-half weeks before the fight with Martinez at 193 pounds. A week before the fight, he was 171 pounds. A time most fighters spend relaxing in a sauna, Pavlik spent on the treadmill. He ran 17 miles two days before the weigh-in. He was down to 164½ pounds the morning of the weigh-in. Sitting in a steam room was pointless; Pavlik's body was completely dried out. His cut man suggested soaking his body in ice water to open up the pores and expel any remaining liquid. That helped. He pulled on a sauna suit and started running again, burning precious calories off his 6-foot-2 frame.

It worked. Pavlik made the weight. But he knew he wasn't right. His body ballooned to 178 on the night of the fight. He felt good in the middle rounds, landing stinging jabs and flush right hands to Martinez's jaw. But by the ninth round, he was gassed. Of course, it didn't help that in the ninth Martinez opened gaping cuts under Pavlik's eyes, cuts that obstructed Pavlik's vision and left his face soaked in blood.

When it was over, Pavlik knew what he needed to do. He went back to Youngstown and shoved boxing out of his brain. He jetted off to Hawaii to celebrate his second anniversary with his wife, Samantha. He played with his two children. He golfed. He let boxing go.

"He needed it," Loew said.

Slowly, the hunger came back. By mid-July, Pavlik started thinking about working out. In August, he started playing basketball and cross training. And by September, he was ready to get back in the ring.

"There is a lot of things in boxing that you can get fed up with," Pavlik said. "That's why I took the summer off. It was never a question of, 'Do I want to keep doing this?' It wasn't that I didn't love the sport. There's a difference between losing hunger and falling out of love with the sport. I needed to get back that extra motivation where I wanted to get into the gym, where I wanted to spar and run."

What Pavlik didn't want was change. He knew his team needed a few tweaks. A new cut man was at the top of the agenda. And Pavlik needed a real nutritionist, one who worked specifically with boxers so that situations like what happened before the Martinez fight never happen again.

Loew, however, wasn't going anywhere. Pavlik says he never considered replacing his longtime cornerman.

"If it ain't broke, don't fix it," Pavlik said. "It pisses me off, really. People lose. Guys have lost five or six fights that are world champions. There was no need for a change. God forbid I lose one fight. That's the way it is, that's the way it's always going to be."

Loew says Pavlik wouldn't have to replace him, that if he thought someone else could do it better, he would step aside.

"If I felt that the Martinez fight was my fault, being as close as I am to Kelly, I would have stepped up like a man and said, 'Why don't we bring someone else in?' " Loew said.

The two will be together on Nov. 13, when Pavlik faces Brian Vera at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas, on the undercard of the Manny Pacquiao-Antonio Margarito fight. They have moved training camp two hours away from Youngstown to California, Pa., where Pavlik and his team cram into a seven-bedroom house that has a gym attached to it. There are no distractions. Friday nights are either spent at a five-lane bowling alley or cruising the local Wal-Mart.

"It got my mind back to where it's supposed to be before a fight," Pavlik said.

Pavlik doesn't know what his future holds. He will fight Vera at 164 pounds, right between the middleweight and super middleweight limits. He hasn't ruled out another run at middleweight. On Nov. 20, Pavlik and Loew plan to be ringside in Atlantic City, N.J., to observe Martinez's title defense against Paul Williams.

"Just to let them know we're still here," Loew said.

Pavlik has eyes on super middleweight, too. He says Lucian Bute and Andre Ward are in his crosshairs, while Loew would like to see Pavlik in a long-anticipated fight with Arthur Abraham.

First Vera, then the world, they say. Winning, you see, has a way of erasing bad memories. And, perhaps, restoring tattered reputations.

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