Thursday February 17th, 2011

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio -- Are you an alcoholic?

The question lingers with Kelly Pavlik. And then lingers some more. Am I? Pavlik knew he liked beer. Beer with football. Beer with darts. Beer with his buddies who were just looking to blow off some steam. But an alcoholic?

"Well ..." Pavlik said, his voice trailing off.

Liking beer wasn't a disease, was it? The 28-year-old knew hundreds of people who liked beer as much as he did. Hell, if he was an alcoholic, so were most of the people in Youngstown. They drank just as much as he did.

Or did they? Maybe Pavlik didn't realize just how much beer he was drinking, didn't notice how three or four beers was suddenly becoming 10 or 12. Maybe he didn't realize the full effect his drinking was having on his family. Didn't realize how hard it was on his wife, Samantha, to not know if or when her husband was coming home at night. Or that his father, Mike, would unplug the phone before he went to bed so he could sleep without fear of getting that middle-of-the-night phone call telling him something happened to his son.

Maybe he didn't realize any of that then. But he does now. After two emotional, gut wrenching interventions and two stints in rehab, Pavlik has accepted certain truths.

"If you go by the program's definition, then yes," Pavlik said. "I am an alcoholic."

* * * * *

It's hard for Pavlik to pinpoint exactly when the drinking first became a problem. It could have been 2007, when he won the middleweight title with a stunning knockout of Jermain Taylor. That victory catapulted him to hero status in Youngstown. Everyone knew him. And everywhere he went, everyone wanted to buy him a drink.

"I would go out and no one would care what I was drinking," Pavlik said in a two-and-a-half hour interview with SI.com. "They were buying the drinks. After that, it became a habit."

"When he won the title, he was not prepared for what was coming," Mike Pavlik said. "He would walk into any establishment and the first thing you would hear is a guy across the room saying, 'Hey, get him a drink.' The only way I can sum it up is, it was crazy."

Crazy, yes. But out of control? Pavlik's family didn't start to see that until later, in 2009. That was a rough time for Pavlik. He fought twice that year, defending his WBC and WBO middleweight titles against Marco Antonio Rubio and Miguel Espino. But in between Pavlik battled a severe staph infection that hospitalized him that summer and cost him a lucrative fight with Paul Williams.

As the problems mounted, so did Pavlik's frustrations. He wasn't a big talker. Instead, he found solace in the bottle.

"I don't talk much," Pavlik said. "I don't get much off my chest when things are bothering me. [Drinking] was my way of venting. It would happen in spurts. There would be times everything was calm and good and, boom, there would be that spurt. It could have come from the littlest things. An argument or stress. Simple things, like pressure. Everybody hates losing. I was frustrated with myself. The last fight with [Sergio] Martinez. That's one of the things that haunted me. Why the hell would I take that fight at that weight? That bothered me. It bothered me when people said, 'Pavlik can't face guys like that.' And when I did drink, it was a go."

By the end of 2009, Pavlik's family had reached its breaking point.

"I was really concerned about his well-being, his health," Mike said. "For a parent, it was an ill feeling. You never want to see someone hurting themselves. I saw it coming. We couldn't head it off. Like he says, he keeps to himself and his way of venting was through the alcohol."

In January 2010, the Pavlik family organized an intervention. At their home in nearby Canfield, Ohio, Mike and Samantha, along with Pavlik's mother, Debbie, and a professional interventionist, confronted Pavlik. They pleaded with him to go to rehab. Pavlik agreed, and that night he flew to California and checked into the Betty Ford Center in Rancho Mirage.

His stint at Betty Ford, however, didn't last long. Pavlik was supposed to stay for 30 days. He lasted 20.

"I didn't get anything out of it and I didn't put anything into it," Pavlik said. "If I had to do something they assigned me to do, I just went through the process and got it done."

Back in Ohio, Pavlik quickly slipped back into his old habits. He wasn't a seven-day-a-week drunk. He didn't sit at home and pound beers while his wife and children slept. But he also rarely passed on an opportunity to go out.

"I was partying," Pavlik said. "It was something that was close to getting out of control."

In September, the Pavliks organized a second intervention. They brought back the same interventionist and, for the second time in nine months, begged Pavlik to get help. This time, Pavlik fought back. He stormed up and down the stairs. He glared at the interventionist as the stranger in his living room explained what Pavlik's drinking was doing to his family.

"I'm sitting there thinking, 'You can go f--- yourself,'" Pavlik said. "'In about 10 more minutes, I'm going to kick you out of my house.' "

He didn't, though. He listened to the interventionist. He listened to his parents, his wife. And he made a decision. He would go to rehab again. He would go for 60 days this time instead of 30. And this time, he would make it count.

"My decision came down to telling everyone to go screw themselves and do what I want to, or do I man up and get it done," Pavlik said. "It was a better choice to man up."

Said Mike: "There was always the chance of him telling all of us to go piss up the river. But he didn't. He stood up. After he left, I remember going home and saying, 'I don't know if I could have done that.' It's like leaving for the military. You have no idea where you are going or what you are in for or what they are going to do to you."

There was a new twist to this rehab. He wasn't going to Betty Ford this time. He was going to The Ranch. And if Betty Ford was a country club, The Ranch Recovery Center in Desert Hot Springs, Calif., was a hard labor camp. Days began at 6 a.m. with meditation, feelings groups and classes. Afternoons were spent doing "ranch projects," which included digging trenches for a riverbed, cleaning boulders off the mountain or straining dirt to build mounds for the riverbed. If you were lucky, you were assigned kitchen duty, where you were required to cook and clean in the cafeteria. In the evenings there were a few hours of down time before a required AA meeting.

Sleeping arrangements were cozy. Patients slept in bunk beds. At night, Pavlik would occasionally be awakened by the sounds of the hallucinations of a detoxing neighbor.

"One kid woke up in the middle of the night, got down on his hands and knees and was beating his bed," Pavlik said. "He was having dreams he was using again. It shook the whole my side of the room. His bunkee was panicking in the hallway."

Pavlik didn't like being there, away from his wife and two children. He sneaked in the occasional phone call, but for most of the first 30 days, he was cut off from everyone.

"When I first got there I was so f---ing mad, if you brought an elephant over there, I would have strangled the hell out of him," Pavlik said. "I was pissed about it. As time went on, I just said, 'F--- it. F--- it, I'm here. Nothing else to do. I can't mope and be pissed all day.' I worked out like an animal. I got through the classes. Some of them, I got something out of. The simple ones, where older guys came in and talked, telling you things that happened to them. And I had a lot of time to myself to think."

Pavlik's presence didn't go unnoticed. Early in his stay, Pavlik was watching TV in the common area. A patient approached him and held up a copy of a Sports Illustrated with a picture of Pavlik's bloody face after his fight with Martinez.

"He was amazed," Pavlik said. "I was kind of pissed. Of all the magazines that were there, you can't find a picture of me winning?"

It was hard, but it was supposed to be. In some ways, Pavlik wanted it to be. He didn't consider himself as sick as the drunks and junkies who populated the center. But he knew there were certain things about his life that he had to address.

"I got out of it what I could," Pavlik said. "As far as alcohol, I didn't really miss it. Once I was there, I was so pissed off being there that the last thing I wanted to look at was alcohol. That was the last thing on my mind. I'm not just saying that. I don't understand, everyone talks about how hard it is to want to use again, about how they have dreams about using. I don't have that. It's the least of my concerns. One point, when I was watching the Ohio State game there, it hit me for a split second that it would be nice to have a couple of beers and watch this game. That was the only time. But I did learn about spirituality, about outlooks on life. I learned about how to deal with things and cope with things without turning to the bottle."

* * * * *

Pavlik says his drinking never affected his boxing. His trainer, Jack Loew, disagrees.

"I started noticing the effect [of drinking] in our training a couple of fights ago," Loew said. "Really from the [Gary] Lockett fight [in June 2008] on, he was lethargic. It was nothing major. Being late to the gym. Postponing running until later in the afternoon. Kelly has always done what I asked no matter what he was doing the night before. But you could see it in the way he fought. Those fights looked real lethargic."

Loew says the drinking was not a cover story to explain Pavlik's pulling out of scheduled fights with Williams or last fall's fight with Brian Vera. Those injuries were legitimate. But he wonders, particularly with the rib injury Pavlik suffered before the Vera fight, if the drinking sapped his resolve to battle through the pain.

"When he hurt his rib, I think that was his itch to get out," Loew said. "I think he said, 'This is it, this is how I can get out of it.' He was on a roller coaster and he wasn't getting off."

Would the Pavlik of 2007 have pulled out of that fight?

"No," Loew said.

Loew has tried to push Pavlik away from outside influences. It's why Loew moved the last training camp to Pennsylvania, close enough for Pavlik to drive home but far enough that he has some distance between himself and his drinking buddies.

"We were trying to protect him," Loew said. "He was on a roller-coaster ride and he wasn't getting off."

It has been suggested that one way Pavlik can get his life back on track would be to move out of Youngstown altogether. Here, Pavlik is the biggest fish in very small pond. In the last year, as word of his drinking problem started to spread, so did the rumors. He was kicked out of bars. He was in a street fight outside a bar. He got in a car accident while driving drunk leaving a bar. Most of it was just that, rumors. But that didn't mean the local press wouldn't call to try to confirm the stories.

Indeed, the relationship between Pavlik and the local media has become adversarial. Pavlik believes he shouldn't have to respond to every rumor going around town. The local media believes he doesn't respond enough. Mike Pavlik said during one call with a local reporter that he was told the hounding "was the price of fame." During a recent interview, Pavlik's publicist, John D'Altorio, played a voice mail from an editor at a local paper. The message was sent just before Pavlik's fight with Martinez. In the message, the editor called Pavlik's refusal to give the paper's reporter access "bulls---" and said the paper "would draw our line, you can draw yours and it will be ugly."

"It's good that they write about me," Pavlik said. "But there is nothing else to write about in this area. It's sad but true. There is nothing else. The only way that paper will get out of a 20-mile area is if someone is driving down the freeway and it blows out the window. You would think they would shine a positive on things. We had guys from here starting in the NFL. Write about them. It's mind-boggling. Write something positive. There is no reason to threaten me."

So why not leave? Pavlik has a million reasons. Youngstown is affordable. His family is here. His friends are here. Nothing or no one is going to run him out of town.

"I'm a homebody," Pavlik said. "I've always liked being home, training at home. I like being around family and friends. This is where I'm comfortable. I'm not a person that likes to go to flashy restaurants. I like to go to places I'm used to. A lot of people get run out of here. Athletes that have been in the spotlight that up and left. I'm not going to get run out of somewhere I love to be. People are going to hate me whether I'm here or somewhere else. If I stay, I'm keeping myself happy."

Not everyone in Pavlik's life agrees.

"Do I think he should go? Yeah. Make a new start," Mike Pavlik said. "I don't want him to go. I'd go with him. I'm ready to go, too."

* * * * *

It's just before 2 p.m. and Pavlik is in Jack Loew's Southside Boxing Club. He works the mitts with Loew, which he does about three days a week. His punches are crisp but his timing is a little off.

"Just shaking off the rust," Pavlik said.

He's sober now, going on four months. He isn't going to AA meetings because he says he doesn't need to. He says he hasn't thought about drinking and has no plans to drink anytime soon. But he stops short of saying he will never drink again. See, there is a part of Pavlik that still doesn't believe he has a problem. There is a part of him that is still angry that his family forced him to go to rehab.

"To this day, I still feel there were other ways of going about it," Pavlik said. "It wasn't completely out of hand yet. There were other ways, simpler ways. Talking or communication. At the same time, it still wasn't a bad idea. What was it going to hurt for me to go to rehab? Sometimes you can learn more from other people than those close to you. It can be hard to communicate with those close to you."

His family can't predict what will happen next. Mike says his relationship with Kelly has changed, that the two talk more now. Loew says he sees an energy from Pavlik that he hasn't seen in years.

"He is setting goals again," Loew said. "He's got the hunger back."

But for how long? Right now, Pavlik is focused on his next fight, which he hopes to have on May 7 on the undercard of Manny Pacquiao's fight with Shane Mosley. But what happens after that fight? What happens in the months after, when boxing isn't right in front of him? Can he fight his inner demons? Can he resist the temptations? No one in Pavlik's life knows for sure.

"This is going to be about Kelly Pavlik stepping to the plate," Loew said. "He needs to grow up and realize he has a family and that he can't go to the bar every single night. We're seeing it now. We're seeing a lot of the old Kelly back."

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