The Long Road Back for Kelly Pavlik

With the news today from ESPN's Dan Rafael that Kelly Pavlik will be leaving rehab tomorrow, the former middleweight champ's manager Cameron Dunkin and father Mike both sound encouraged by his progress.

Dunkin, though, is not trying to talk boxing just yet:

Kelly wants to box. Mike said all he does is talk about it constantly. He wants to mend his ways and accomplish so many other things in boxing. He's very motivated to fight again. I said, 'Let's take it one step at a time.' There's no pressure on Kelly and no rush.

Dunkin also says that Bob Arum has told him Pavlik has a spot on May 7 (Pacquiao-Mosley) if he wants it. That would not guarantee something that seems competitive on paper by any means. After all, Pavlik was slated to face Brian Vera, a tough punching bag sort of fighter, on the Pacquiao-Margarito card before canceling and entering the rehab facility to treat alcohol-related problems.

It's been a rough couple of years for Pavlik, who was celebrated as a new American star when he climbed off the canvas and took the middleweight crown from Jermain Taylor in September 2007, a thrilling, instant classic fight that had many in and around boxing buzzing about the future of the hard-punching Pavlik.

He seemed to have close to a total package. He had a blistering right hand, and maximized the effectiveness of the ol' 1-2 combination. His overall boxing skills were solid. He was tough, as he had plowed through big-punching bully Edison Miranda and gotten up from being floored against Taylor. And his personality was affable and charming in public, and Emanuel Steward (then Taylor's trainer) probably helped with that, as he almost defiantly shot down Pavlik as a quality fighter, then was made to eat his words. Steward made Pavlik a better underdog than any HBO video package ever could have.

"Great white hopes" in boxing make me laugh. For one thing, seriously, it's 2011 -- who besides idiots cares what color someone is? But identifying with someone because of similar backgrounds is no problem to me, and you can see where Pavlik had additional upside. Just as Miguel Cotto has the Puerto Rican fans, Manny has the Filipino fans, and the great Mexican warriors always enjoy tremendous support, here was Kelly Pavlik, a white kid from a broken and battered industrial town in Ohio, sitting on top of the world. In Youngstown, he was a hero. And you can see the potential in marketing, at least in theory, with this "Working Class Hero" figure showing that dreams really can come true if you work hard enough. And the rich boxing history of the city -- with natives such as Ray "Boom Boom" Mancini, Greg "The Flea" Richardson, and Harry Arroyo -- didn't hurt, either. In Youngstown, Pavlik could be royalty.

Of course, Kelly Pavlik found out the hard way that this can all change in the blink of an eye. There are a lot of people in the world, especially in these "small towns" or mid-sized markets, who like to see a fellow do well, but not too well. On the way up, Pavlik was showered with praise, celebrated in his local markets, and encouraged along the way. As a star, things changed, as they often will. It seemed many times that Pavlik's best idea could be to get the hell out of Youngstown and go somewhere where he could be left alone. Maybe a truly small town, where he could buy a piece of land with a nice little house, and the elderly neighbors might stop to talk to him while he got his mail for the first time. "What do you do for a living?" they might ask. "I'm the middleweight champion," he'd reply. They would find that to be just lovely, and honk at him when they saw him mowing his lawn after working out at the gym.

Or maybe he could just go to a big city where he could blend in and be left alone. Sure, someone would recognize him on the streets sometimes, but instead of seeing "that asshole who thinks he's so much better than the rest of us" that they used to play darts with, they'd just be excited to ask for a picture with the middleweight champion of the world.

Instead, Pavlik stayed in Youngstown. After numerous cases that he and his family and Dunkin and Arum tried to play off, the world found out the truth. Pavlik was, indeed, badly struggling with alcohol dependence, and would have to check into rehab. This came after such notable incidents as Pavlik putting his hand through a window at his house, the cancellation of three fights thanks to staph infection, and two losses against top-tier opponents who just seemed to have him outclassed, frustrated, and ready to give up on himself at various points of their fights. Flu bugs and all sorts of other ailments were blamed for his lackluster performances against top competition.

In the end, though, it seems you can put the blame squarely where the so-called rumor mongers and "haters" in Youngstown had been trying to tell us. I personally received a few tips over the last few years from people in Youngstown (or who claimed to be, anyway) who said that I should believe the rumors, because Pavlik wasn't in a good way. None of these people seemed malicious with their intent, weren't recounting specific stories of a drunken Pavlik stumbling down city sidewalks or the like. They just wanted to confirm that it wasn't all bullshit, as the Pavlik camp wanted to claim. There was a lot of truth to the rumors. I didn't go with any of those because I didn't want to accuse a man without proof. Then the proof came, from the same folks who had spent years trying to deny anything was wrong.

When Pavlik entered rehab, I immediately thought of Ricky Hatton. Like Pavlik, Hatton was a once-celebrated figure whose career had crumbled in major fights, and led him on a path of binging that became problematic when it was exposed in public by a friend of the fighter's, who had video of him snorting cocaine. This led to shame, embarrassment and the revoking of Hatton's fighter's license in the UK.

Unlike Ricky, though, Kelly Pavlik hadn't necessarily been outed, at least not with video evidence on the internet. Pavlik, through the support of his family, promotional team, and friends, finally faced his problems. It can't be easy for a guy like Pavlik to finally publicly admit there's a serious problem. He'd denied it so long, and so vehemently. But once he did, even as just an observer, it felt like a cloud lifted a little from over Kelly Pavlik's head.

I don't want to say Pavlik is 100% "fixed" and that his life will be rosy from here on. Those who have dealt with addictions or have known someone who has know that it's never easy.

He does have one notable supporter: Bernard Hopkins. Hopkins, of course, handed Pavlik his first loss back in October 2008. After the fight, there was a scene where Hopkins got close to Pavlik, and gave him sincere words of encouragement. The HBO cameras caught the moment, and I don't mind saying I felt something very real and largely foreign to me as a boxing fan.

Hopkins told BoxingScene.com's Keith Idec, "I wish him well. ... I said things in the ring to him that night that I meant. I still think he has great talent and I think that he can compete at the elite level. I wish him the best."

It's going to be a tough row to hoe out there for Kelly Pavlik, but he seems to have a good support unit. With his family, Cameron Dunkin and Top Rank behind him, a new year could ring in a renewed fire for "The Ghost." If Kelly Pavlik shows the same heart and desire in coming back to boxing's elite that he did joining it, I've got no reason to believe that Kelly Pavlik can't be successful. And as a Kelly Pavlik fan, I can only hope that is the case.

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