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Forged to Fight

Feb. 11, 2008
Feb. 11, 2008

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Feb. 11, 2008

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Forged to Fight

A proud son of Youngstown, Ohio, and the sport's most exciting new force, middleweight champion Kelly Pavlik still draws his strength from the grit and soul of the Steel Valley

AT CIVICS: This is basically a walk-in scrapbook, with the additional advantage of a liquor license. The walls of the Youngstown, Ohio, establishment are covered in framed newspaper pages, all of them narrating the career of a South Side scrapper, pale and bony (so pale, he's called the Ghost), who grew up around the corner. PAVLIK BURSTS ONTO SCENE reads a 2001 headline from The Vindicator of Youngstown. KEYSTONER AREA BOXER IS GETTING A W. PA. FOLLOWING is from a month earlier. PAVLIK SET TO FIGHT JULY 1 AT CAFARO FIELD. And on and on they go, wall after wall, a fight here, an appearance there, some bit of news, a ray of hope. No act of aspiration unpublished.

This is an article from the Feb. 11, 2008 issue

The confidence of the display, while cheerful in its hometown style of support, is also staggering when you think about it.

Maybe in the wee hours, as the walls form a boozy diorama, it makes some kind of sense. PAVLIK'S PRIME TIME IS NOW. But in the light of day, or as much of it as can seep into the joint, it ought to seem presumptuous. It was barely 30 years ago that a generation of men in this town set out for work in the morning, not a care in the world, and found the gates at Sheet and Tube, one of the world's largest steel mills, padlocked. Black Monday, it's still called. In Youngstown taverns, in the light of day anyway, when there are still plenty of cares and the beer has yet to do its work, they know better than to trust in tomorrow's headline.

And yet they keep coming, those headlines. SUCCESS HASN'T CHANGED THE CHAMP, hanging on the wall, right over by the Ping-Pong table Kelly Pavlik plays on when he stops by. Last Sept. 29 in Atlantic City, Pavlik, after getting up from a second-round knockdown, stormed back in one of the year's most exciting fights to knock out middleweight champion—and well-groomed attraction—Jermain Taylor in the seventh, generating a whole new collection of clippings. VICTORY BRINGS CELEBRITY STATUS. Youngstown has had its champions before (Ray Mancini comes to mind), but it's been a long time since there's been this much to root for, this much to write about, this much to read. And as the rematch with Taylor looms (Feb. 16 at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas), Civics' archivists are once more at the ready.

The 25-year-old Pavlik may be getting this ink not so much because he's from Youngstown but because he is Youngstown. Mancini went off to make movies back in 1985, and who can blame him for leaving. But Pavlik is so grounded in Youngstown that it's difficult to sort the city from the son. He not only returns to his hometown after each win, but he also comes back to Civics, for darts and (when he's not training) beer. This is partly because the ambience suits him but mostly because it's four minutes away. That is, four minutes away from everything—gym, home, parents. His fans find the triangulation quite reassuring.

The day Pavlik returned from Atlantic City (somewhat delayed, his father having left a $666,750 check on the hotel nightstand), he was met at the Ohio state line by a strobing fleet of police vehicles, which then led him in triumph back to Youngstown. The clipping from that day hangs at Civics, of course. KELLY! KELLY! Pretty big type too.

IN THE SOUTHSIDE: Every day at three o'clock the door to the Southside Boxing Club swings open and about two dozen kids crowd in. They jostle under speed bags, peck away at the heavy bag and bump scrawny elbows in the room's one ring. The copper-and-tin ceiling above them continues to flake away, and it is not hard to imagine sheets of toxic snowfall settling on their narrow shoulders during a workout. A bell marks their little lives in boxer's time—it rings for every round.

About 16 years ago, one of those kids was Pavlik, who arrived with typical promise. Which is to say, none in particular. The kids come and go, their dedication waning as adolescence arrives, and Jack Loew had no illusions about developing a meal ticket among them. A former Golden Gloves middleweight, he ran the gym as a hobby, something to do when he was done sealing driveways for the day. He can't say that he thought much of Pavlik when he arrived, because the lie would be on the wall right behind him—a team picture for some long-ago local tournament shows everybody dressed in matching sweats. Except for Pavlik, who didn't even rate the Southside duds.

"He was a tough kid, though," says Loew, 48. "All balls." In time Pavlik became the class of Youngstown and, nearly, the U.S. But the fighter got edged in the 2000 Olympic trials (by Taylor, who went on to take the bronze medal in Sydney) and was forced to take a harder and longer climb to the top. Everybody could see he was a banger, but he was hard to match. Pavlik, without a pedigree, was fighting at Cafaro, not Caesars. "Six years into it," Loew says, "we hadn't made $25,000 a fight."

Predictably, there were calls (even from his manager, Cameron Dunkin) to dump Loew and get a big-time trainer, and just generally get this show on the road. Pavlik never once entertained the notion. And, anyway, if a fighter keeps knocking out people who've never been knocked out (his last three opponents), the money has to come, no matter who's training him.

Now, of course, both Pavlik (who's 32--0, with 29 KOs) and Loew are golden. Loew has used his share of the proceeds to upgrade his driveway-sealing equipment (he was doing jobs two days after the first Taylor fight) and install central air at his house. Pavlik sunk some change into a basement remodel. "Although," he says, "I never dreamed oak paneling was that expensive."

ON THE COUCH: The house he grew up in barely accommodates the middleweight's wingspan, but this is where the 6'2 1/2" Pavlik retires after each day's workout whenever he's preparing for a bout. Every day, he visits his fiancée, Samantha Kocanjer, and 20-month-old daughter, Sydney, at the house he owns (four minutes away) but ends up here each night, where his father, Mike, can supervise his diet. Pavlik eats the supper his father has prepared—chicken and broccoli, usually, with cabbage soup for a late-night snack—then crashes on the living room couch.

Mike, who worked at Republic Steel before it closed in the 1980s, admits it's a little strange. "Took 25 years to get rid of him," he says. But neither Mike nor Debbie, Kelly's mother, seems to mind having him back that much. "He's the sweetest guy in the world," Mike says, "until you try to get him to go away." And nobody does that. Pavlik doesn't leave for a fight until the final week and, to the consternation of his trainer and small traveling party, often books red-eyes home immediately afterward.

Coming back a city savior has placed some demands on him, of course, and he has been seen on the Ohio State sideline, at Cleveland Browns Stadium and in not a few ads for local businesses. (He's riding free wheels thanks to one of them.) And he has continued his involvement in the community—running in a relay for the American Cancer Society, making personal visits to critically ill patients. But at the end of each day, having made his training circuit, this is where he lands. "Sometimes," he says, "I don't even lie down on that couch, and I'm already fast asleep."

AT THE IRONMAN: Perched on a lip above Steel Valley, where a chain of abandoned mills and foundries, each one now a rusted link, winds for miles along the Mahoning River all the way to Struthers, is the Ironman Warehouse. The gym, a foundry of sorts itself, stands sentry to one of the greatest abandonments in this country's history. Nearly a third of the city's population, and about all of the economy, just disappeared during the 1970s and '80s as the steel industry departed for nonunion shores. It's hard to picture the bustle now, but Wilson Avenue, just outside, was a row of rowdiness, bar upon bar, open for all but two hours each day, to better service three shifts of thirst. Imagine the scene: Workers from U.S. Steel, Republic, National, Inland disgorged at once, a camaraderie enforced by prosperity.

It was a time, all right. At night the trains banged away, the hollow noise a comfort to all. In the mornings the townspeople brushed carbonite off their cars, actually grateful for the grime. Everybody made a great wage, right out of high school, and nobody's mother or wife ever had to work.

That's gone of course, not coming back. The postapocalyptic feel—the ruins remain untouched—has scared most everyone away. In the Ironman, where Pavlik shares his training with a few fellow survivors, the implements of exercise are arrayed pretty much the way the valley is organized, as so much salvage. There are lengths of heavy chain, railroad ties, a fire hose, rope, hunks of rock and, instead of a shiny Cybex machine, a row of construction-equipment tires. One of Pavlik's trainers here, Paul Dunleavy, is preparing to run a marathon, if this helps explain anything, by running through town with a log on his back.

Pavlik is drawn to just this kind of industrial-age workout. For some time he kept a huge tire of his own and banged it back and forth across his yard with a sledgehammer. He feels this accounts for his explosive force. At the Ironman he tips a 400-pound tire on end, or pushes it back and forth with a partner. Should he feel like hitting it, there's a sledgehammer at hand.

If the drills seem odd, they also feel right. That Pavlik has fashioned the remains of this blasted area, the Ghost's town, into the tools for his success—whether it's the necessary refuge of Civics or a found tire in his yard—provides more cause for optimism here than even his title. They took just about everything down, but a scaffolding of hope somehow remains. And Pavlik is still out there in the night, maybe so others might sleep easy again, banging the steel.

Youngstown has had its champions before, but it's been a long time since there's been THIS MUCH TO ROOT FOR.
"He's the sweetest guy in the world," says Pavlik's father of his son, "until you TRY TO GET HIM TO GO AWAY."

EXTRA

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PHOTOPhotograph by Simon BrutyFAMILIAR HAUNT Pavlik, known as the Ghost, learned to box at the Southside gym in Youngstown and still trains there.PHOTOAL BELLO/GETTY IMAGESPOWERFUL PAYBACK Pavlik avenged his 2000 Olympic trials loss to Taylor with an explosive KO that made him the champ.PHOTOAL BELLO/GETTY IMAGES[See caption above]PHOTOSIMON BRUTYTREAD MILL In the Ironman gym, Pavlik has built his fitness with a relentless—and decidedly old-school—regimen.