He was three months removed from his stunning, epic win over Jermain Taylor, a comeback seventh round knockout of the undefeated middleweight champion of the world. He wasn't supposed to be athletic enough to do it, and it certainly looked as if he was out of his league in the second round, when champion Taylor rocked, floored, and assaulted the Youngstown underdog.
With his instant classic KO of Taylor, he became a star, and he became middleweight champion of the world. The lanky power-puncher had reached the top of the sport in one of its most celebrated divisions. A February 2008 catchweight (164 pounds) rematch with Taylor produced another victory, and his first title defense against Gary Lockett was a cakewalk.
It was such a cakewalk, in fact, that Pavlik and his promoters at Top Rank probably knew that they couldn't hang around and take another easy fight, mandatory challenger or not. So they booked a date with a living boxing legend, Hall of Famer-to-be Bernard Hopkins.
Hopkins, one of history's great middleweight champions, fought Pavlik at a 170-pound catchweight, five pounds below where Bernard had been campaigning during his stint as light heavyweight champion of the world, and 10 pounds above Pavlik's usual fighting weight.
The old man, 43 on fight night, took 26-year old Pavlik to school. Various ailments have been brought up, chief among them a legitimate elbow injury suffered in training, and the fact that Pavlik may have been a bit under the weather. But I don't think there's anyone that blames the loss on that. Perhaps Pavlik's dead performance, but not the loss.
The loss was because Hopkins picked Pavlik apart, and Kelly could have been 110% that night and the same thing would have happened. Hopkins took away the straight right hand, Pavlik's deadliest weapon, and beat him from every angle. He was faster, he even appeared to be stronger than the young bull, and he mentally slaughtered Kelly in the ring that night. Kelly Pavlik, simply put, was no match for Bernard Hopkins.
Hopkins offered post-fight advice once he was done staring down media row after proving himself to be one of the all-time greats yet again. He wasn't supposed to beat Pavlik. He was too old. Period.
Since the loss, Pavlik has been out of the ring and almost totally quiet. As expected, he will move back to middleweight this Saturday night to take on another mandatory challenger, the little-known Marco Antonio Rubio of Mexico.
Rubio (43-4-1, 37 KO) last fought the same night that Pavlik did, beating fellow rugged Mexican Enrique Ornelas in a grueling 12-round split decision for a shot at the WBC title, one of the two (along with the WBO) alphabet trinkets Pavlik holds in addition to recognition as the true champion of the division.
The 28-year old from Torreón started his career in 2000 and has fought the vast majority of it in the Mexican rings, gaining very little notoriety in the United States or anyone else. The first time he lost was against Saul Roman in 2001, a loss he avenged in 2003 and one that has over the years proven to not be so bad, as both have gone on to respectable careers.
It was New Year's Day 2003, in fact, that Rubio evened the score with Roman. In 2003 alone, the slugger fought eight times, winning each fight. By the time he got to Kofi Jantuah in September 2004, he'd added four more wins. Jantuah knocked him out in 33 seconds.
Pavlik's corner has talked a good game about putting the Hopkins fight behind them. They've apparently put it so far in the past that they essentially refuse to discuss the fight, feeling it's unnecessary. On some level, they may be right. It was not a middleweight fight, and they found out that for the time being, Pavlik is better off working his tail off to get to 160 than dropping just a few pounds and fighting at 170 (Pavlik says he walks around at about 175).
They learned that, but the worry could be whether or not they take the beating as a sign that there are flaws in the young man's game and his offensive arsenal. Pavlik is a dynamite puncher and an underrated boxer. He knows how to set up his big shots with an overlooked, stiff jab, and he knows how to press a fight exactly where he wants it to go. And Marco Antonio Rubio is no Bernard Hopkins.
But now that the boxing world has seen a blueprint on how to not only beat but dominate Pavlik, trainer Jack Loew and everyone else associated with "The Ghost" damn sure know that everyone will try to incorporate at least pieces of Hopkins' gameplan into what they do against Pavlik.
Rubio may be no Hopkins, or even close to it, but he's not without danger, even fighting in Pavlik's hometown. Rubio can punch, as his 86% knockout rate will attest. He can also take a good shot, as he's only ever been stopped by Jantuah, who could bang and caught Rubio at the exact right moment with that left hook, and Roman, which came very early in his career. We saw him absorb and dish out a lot of punishment in the Ornelas brawl.
There are a lot of factors at work before and during every fight, especially on the championship level. Worse fighters than Rubio have beaten better fighters than Pavlik for various reasons. Kelly Pavlik cannot look past Rubio, and he cannot let himself become a victim of thinking he's in against an inferior opponent. Yes, he's a better fighter than Rubio, but that's assuming they're both at their best.
Pavlik has been dealing with not just the first loss of his career, but an embarrassing rout of a loss at that. When put into a big money fight against one of the living legends of the sport, he was outclassed. The Kelly Pavlik that picked himself up off the canvas against Jermain Taylor and wiped out that man's middleweight championship reign will manhandle Rubio this Saturday.
The Kelly Pavlik that was obliterated by 43-year old Hopkins? He might have some real problems with a gritty, tough guy like Rubio who has nothing to lose by going in there and going for the gusto.
Who's gonna show up?