Once upon a time -- a time that today seems so long ago -- Kelly Pavlik was the next face of American boxing. He was young and powerful with a blue-collar background that made him easy to identify with.
Those days are gone, however, faded by losses, personal problems and bad business decisions. The latest: Pavlik (37-2, 32 KOs) has elected to pull out of Saturday's super middleweight fight with Daryl Cunningham (23-2, 10 KOs) in Pavlik's hometown of Youngstown, Ohio.
"Top Rank is very disappointed at Kelly's sudden decision to discontinue the rebuilding of his boxing career," Top Rank president Todd duBoef said. "Kelly's team specifically outlined a strategy for Kelly to return to the ring in an effective fashion. Kelly's team gave us their objectives and we set them on a course, which began last May with Kelly's fight against Alfonso Lopez and was to continue on Saturday against Darryl Cunningham. It seems Kelly has derailed this plan."
Here's my understanding of what happened: Pavlik took the fight with Cunningham for short money -- Showtime's ShoBox series, usually reserved for young prospects, would have paid him around $50,000 -- with the understanding that he would make more in a lucrative showdown with Lucian Bute on the network later this year.
However, in the past few weeks the 29-year-old Pavlik has not been happy with the terms of the Bute fight (around $1.35 million), feeling his status as a former middleweight champion and one of the most popular American fighters in the sport warranted more money than he was being offered. In addition, Pavlik has told people close to him that he was not interested in facing Bute in Montreal, where the fight would easily generate the largest gate.
Pavlik seemed to confirm this on Tuesday when he told Youngstown television station WFMJ: "the fight is off and the Bute fight is not going to happen. I'm not going to fight a southpaw for peanuts."
Pavlik's actions are puzzling. His promoter, Bob Arum, and manager, Cameron Dunkin, are smart and experienced boxing businessmen who have invested a lot of time and money in Pavlik's career. This
Since October 2008, Pavlik has lost to Bernard Hopkins and Sergio Martinez while his only wins have come against journeymen Marco Antonio Rubio, Gary Lockett, Miguel Espino and Alfonso Lopez. He has mixed in two stints in rehab for an alcohol problem and recently had the police called to his home after a scuffle with his brother. Pavlik's popularity in Youngstown has waned -- ticket sales for the Cunningham fight had been slow -- and his lack of success the last few years has pushed him off the national radar.
Part of Pavlik's problem is that he refuses to accept his decline in popularity. In interviews, Pavlik frequently calls himself the moneyman in the division, saying that the top 168-pounders will have to come to him for a big payday. That is simply not true.
While Pavlik, 29, is still marketable, he is far from the biggest name in his weight class. Bute (29-0, 24 KOs) is undefeated and a huge draw in Canada, where he routinely brings in 20,000 fans to his fights. He recently inked a three-fight deal with Showtime and could be in line for a mega money HBO-backed showdown with Hopkins next year.
Carl Froch's busy style in the ring and swagger outside it has caused his popularity to spike, while former U.S. Olympic gold medalist Andre Ward may be the most skilled of them all. While it's unlikely any of them would pass on the chance to fight Pavlik, they certainly don't need him.
Here's the truth: Against Bute, Froch or Ward, Pavlik would be an underdog. His power always makes him a threat, but he does not have the boxing skills to go 12 rounds with any of them. Part of that is on Pavlik, who has never evolved from the brawler who captured national attention with his knockouts over Edison Miranda and Jermain Taylor. Part of that is on trainer Jack Loew, who has not properly utilized Pavlik's long 6-foot-1 frame. The jab has never been a significant weapon in Pavlik's arsenal, a weakness that has led to Pavlik absorbing heavy punishment over the years.
There has been plenty of buzz within the industry that Pavlik needs to make changes. Many believe Pavlik should drop Loew -- or at least bring in a co-trainer to work with him -- and move out of Ohio and away from the distractions that come with being a young, wealthy star in his hometown. So far, Pavlik has resisted.
Would Pavlik's career be different if Emanuel Steward -- who successfully molded Lennox Lewis and Wladimir Klitschko (among others) into dangerous jabbers -- were in his corner? Would he be more focused if he left the microscope of Ohio for the boxing haven of Southern California?
The answer to both is probably yes.
Whoever is whispering in Pavlik's ear that he is still a star -- that he is still at the top of whatever division he weighs in at -- has got to go. Pavlik can still regain his place at the top but he must be humbled. He has to understand he needs the Cunninghams or the Andre Dirrells of the world before he is ready for the Butes, the Frochs or the Wards. He has to recognize he is more the Pavlik of 2007 than the one of 2009. He needs to get hungry again, to realize that he once again has a lot to prove.