Friday July 29th, 2011

Boxing is a dirty business.

Kelly Pavlik may be about to find out just how dirty.

On Aug. 6, Pavlik (37-2, 32 KOs) will face Darryl Cunningham (23-2, 10 KOs) in Pavlik's hometown of Youngstown, Ohio (10:30 p.m. ET, Showtime). It's a perfectly legitimate fight for Pavlik: It will be just his second bout at 168 pounds and just his second overall in the last 17 months. Cunningham, 36, has a nice record, little power and even less of a chance of making it to the final bell.

That fight's not the problem. The next one is.

Pavlik, you see, is being groomed for a showdown with super middleweight titleholder Lucian Bute, possibly as soon as the end of 2011. Let me rephrase: Nine months out of alcohol rehab -- and weeks removed from a brawl with his brother, Michael, that ended with police swarming Pavlik's Canfield, Ohio, home and media speculation that perhaps Pavlik had been drinking -- Pavlik is tuning up to be tossed into the ring with arguably the top 168-pounder in the world, a high-skilled, heavy-handed body puncher who has knocked out his last six opponents (and currently ranks No. 11 in SI.com's latest pound-for-pound ratings).

You see where I'm going with this?

Pavlik isn't ready for Bute. Not now, maybe not a year from now. In his first fight at super middleweight, Pavlik looked average in a 10-round decision win against unheralded Alfonso Lopez. His timing was off, he couldn't put together combinations and took far too many punches. He won a majority decision -- respected judge Adalaide Byrd scored the fight even -- mostly because Lopez wasn't skilled enough to capitalize on Pavlik's mistakes.

So what if Pavlik flattens Cunningham inside three rounds, you ask? It's irrelevant. Cunningham has been handpicked to take a punch and collect a paycheck. What Pavlik needs is some hands-on experience against opponents who will fight back. Give me Pavlik-Glen Johnson, a fight Johnson promoter Lou DiBella would make in a heartbeat. Or Pavlik-Sakio Bika. Both Johnson and Bika are ranked in the top 10 by Ring magazine; it's doubtful Lopez or Cunningham would rank in the top 50. Let Pavlik get comfortable at an uncomfortable weight before feeding him to a man who eats 168-pounders for breakfast.

That's what Bute does, really. Sure, over the next few months you will hear all about Bute's weaknesses. Twitter accounts will link to YouTube clips of Bute's first fight with Librado Andrade, where if not for a favorable count from a hometown referee, Bute would have been knocked out in the 12th round.

Pavlik's trainer, Jack Loew, has already gotten into the act. On a recent conference call with reporters, Loew called Bute "the whole package" but questioned what would happen when a big puncher like Pavlik socked him on the chin. The better question is how will Pavlik counter Bute's relentless assault on his midsection and will he be able to stay vertical when Bute lands his patented uppercut on his chin.

None of this matters, of course. It's an argument that will fall on deaf ears. Pavlik's promoter, Top Rank, has invested a lot of money in Pavlik -- these small shows in Youngstown don't turn much of a profit -- and they want to make some of it back. Pavlik-Bute would bring a big license fee from Showtime, sell a lot of tickets in Montreal or Atlantic City and generate plenty of interest on a press tour. Despite his recent fall from the top, Pavlik is still a marketable commodity and Top Rank will walk him to the ring with Bute like a lamb to the slaughter.

Pavlik and his team should wise up, fast. The public skirmish with his brother suggests there is still some instability in Pavlik's life. At 29, he has plenty of time to rebuild his career. The Super Six tournament has made 168 pounds an attractive division with an overflow of viable opponents. Pavlik says he wants big names, he wants world titles ... well, he can have all that. But he has to be patient. Pavlik thinks Bute is his ticket back to the top when really all Bute represents right now is early retirement.

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