Middleweight champ Pavlik hopes to put lackluster 2009 behind him

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Tabbed, that is, until an almost jaw-droppingly swift fall from grace.

It has been less than two years since Pavlik won his second fight with Taylor. In that time he has defended his middleweight crown twice, in knockout wins over unheralded "contenders" Gary Lockett and Marco Antonio Rubio. But he failed in his test against light heavyweight champ Bernard Hopkins and could not come to terms on the only fight anyone really wanted to see: a matchup with heavy handed IBF middleweight champion Arthur Abraham. Most recently, Pavlik was forced to withdraw from a scheduled date with Paul Williams due to a lingering staph infection in his left hand.

"No question," Top Rank promoter Bob Arum said. "The shine has come off Kelly's career."

Pavlik's first attempt to restore that shine comes Saturday, when he steps in the ring for the first time since last February and defends his titles against Miguel Espino in Youngstown (9 p.m ET, Top Rank PPV). The opponent isn't especially challenging: Espino (20-2-1), a sparring partner of Julio Cesar Chavez Jr., has little power (nine knockouts) and has never fought for a major title. But for Pavlik, Espino represents the first step in what Arum believes will be a yearlong comeback.

"I feel I have to go out there -- especially after the layoff -- I feel we have to look good," said Pavlik in a conference call. "If there are critics now, there are going to be a lot more if I don't dominate."

Critics, who were few and far between when Pavlik first won the titles, have swarmed like vultures on Pavlik since the loss to Hopkins. His win over Rubio, the WBC No. 1 contender, was dismissed as a joke. And when Pavlik pulled out of the Dec. 5 fight with Williams and made the Espino fight for two weeks later, there were some who questioned whether Pavlik was ducking the fight.

"[The criticism] doesn't bother me because some people know absolutely nothing about boxing," said Pavlik. "They don't know how the sport works or what goes on in the sport. So the people that said he is now fighting two weeks later, they don't understand the story and have no idea what was behind it. I've got my own things I've got to worry about on the 19th and that's where my focus is right now, on that fight."

"It really makes me want to cry because people like that saying what they say [about Pavlik's injury]," said Arum. "They have absolutely no factual basis for what they are saying. We knew what Kelly went through physically and how close he was to not making it at all, not just to fight, but not making it at all, and to have those statements made. Like the genius that trains Williams [George Peterson] claiming that Kelly was faking the injury. When I hear that I feel so embarrassed for the sport. I'm 78 and I've put my whole life into this sport and to hear morons like that talk when they have no basis for what they are saying really makes me sad."

Indeed, there are some questions as to whether Pavlik should have agreed to this fight. He claims his hand is 100 percent but when pressed he admits that he still can't close it all the way and that the only reason he agreed to fight Espino was because he didn't want to risk being stripped of his titles.

"It has been crazy, the hand," said Pavlik. "The problem with the hand was time-consuming. People wanted to fight and everything was supposed to get done. After the first surgery we thought we would be ready to go. After I got the stitches out, it opened up again and the puss started coming out and they did a re-culture on it and an MRI and it got worse. Finally we were on a new antibiotic and that wasn't doing the job so we went back in and did another surgery and after that everything was fine. The infection eventually went away with new antibiotics. After it went away we got a new reaction from the antibiotics. That put me in the hospital for four days with a very serious problem. At the end of the day we had two major surgeries within two months of each other and the tendons were coming out of the hand. So we had irritation and stiffness and I had therapy to get movement back in the finger. We wanted to fight, that is the main thing. We told the people to push the fight back. We had to hurry up a little bit, pile everything into five weeks."

Arum said both he and Pavlik understand that Pavlik needs a monster 2010 to reclaim his career, which is why they are targeting a rescheduled date with Williams -- whose oft-mentioned status as "the most feared fighter in boxing" is a source of irritation for Pavlik -- and possibly a move up to 168 pounds to fight one of the emerging contenders there.

"My career has been in a little bit of limbo," said Pavlik. "[But] there are plenty of big fights in the future. I had a setback like everyone has. Football players get staph infections all the time, I got one and I will still fight twice this year. I still stayed somewhat active in '09. I know what we have planned for the future and know what track we are on."

• Lightweight champion Juan Manuel Marquez will return to the ring on May 1 at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, Golden Boy CEO Richard Schaefer told SI.com. Marquez, who lost a unanimous decision to Floyd Mayweather Jr. in September, would prefer a fight with former 140-pound king Ricky Hatton but Schaefer said if Hatton were not ready to fight again he would seek other opponents for that date. "I touched base with the Hatton camp on Monday," said Schaefer. "I think Ricky wants to fight again but we're done waiting around. Juan wants to stay busy and we are going to find someone for him to fight."

• Manny Pacquiao's health will not be a factor in his anticipated March 13 date with Mayweather, Pacquiao's trainer, Freddie Roach, told SI.com. Roach said the ruptured eardrum Pacquiao suffered in last month's fight with Miguel Cotto has completely healed and he is ready to begin a training schedule. "The only reason I opposed that date was because of the promotion," said Roach. "Manny is ready to go."

• The fans that packed B.B. King's in New York to see heavyweight prospect Tor Hamer in action on Wednesday left disappointed. Hamer, an undefeated former Golden Gloves champion at super heavyweight, scored a TKO of Mazur Ali in the first round when he tapped Ali's midsection with a soft right hand. When an out-of-shape Ali couldn't regain his breath, the referee waved off the fight. The result enraged promoter Lou DiBella, who shouted at Ali from the nearby press section. "That's an embarrassment," said DiBella. "That guy just came to collect a check."

• Schaefer told SI.com that he has whittled the list of Bernard Hopkins's next opponents down to two: super middleweight titlist Lucian Bute and cruiserweight champion Danny Green. Bute would have to move up to 175 pounds for the fight ("Bernard just can't make 168," said Schaefer) while Hopkins would move up in weight to face Green. In either fight, Hopkins will be going on the road: Schaefer said he has explored venues in Canada for Bute and in Green's native Australia.

• Still no official word on Jermain Taylor's plan to continue fighting in the Super Six tournament. DiBella, who resigned as Taylor's promoter after learning that Taylor would not retire, told SI.com he still believes that Taylor will choose not to fight. If he doesn't, and if the California State Athletic Commission medically clears Taylor to face Andre Ward, DiBella believes Showtime boss Ken Hershman should pull the plug on Taylor. "It's a tough position for [Hershman]," said DiBella. "But I think he should stop him." Hershman has not responded to multiple requests by SI.com for comment.

What now for Juan Diaz? Very uninspired performance against Paulie Malignaggi last weekend.--@awexle

I spoke with Schaefer about Diaz this week and he said Diaz would be dropping down to 135 pounds for his next fight. As listless as Diaz looked against Malignaggi, there are still a lot of major fights waiting for him at lightweight. One possibility is a rematch of his action-packed fight with Michael Katsidis, which could be for Marquez's alphabet title should Juan choose to vacate the belt. Both Schaefer and Diaz are in agreement about his future, though. Diaz needs to be at 135 pounds.

I can't imagine a world without Pacman-Mayweather discussions -- who should the winner fight?--@Justin_Nunez

If Shane Mosley defeats Andre Berto next month then it has to be Mosley. I've taken issue with Shane's behavior after the Mayweather-Marquez fight but there is no question that he is next in line to fight either Pacquiao or Mayweather. The one wrench that could be thrown in is that if Pacquiao-Mayweather is as close as many think it will be, there could be calls for an immediate rematch. And the money that could be generated from a rematch would blow any money Mosley could bring to the table completely out of the water.

Not to downplay Manny/PBF, but after that what's the biggest fight left to make?--@JayJayDean

There are a few fights I would like to see: Kelly Pavlik-Paul Williams, Wladimir Klitschko-David Haye, Vitali Klitschko-Nicolay Valuev, Chad Dawson-Lucian Bute, Juan Manuel Marquez-Ricky Hatton, Rafael Marquez-Israel Vazquez IV (which is set for May 22), Bernard Hopkins-Tomasz Adamek. Obviously Mayweather-Pacquiao is the must-see event of the decade, but there are plenty of great matchups that could be made for 2010.