Just so you know, we will FINALLY be back in action with round-by-round coverage and scoring with tomorrow night's middleweight title fight. It's been almost two months since we've had a fight to cover thanks to all the cancellations, reschedulings, and the fact that I don't care about Zab Judah enough to cover a Friday Night Fights card anymore.
The Taylor-Pavlik fight is one that has grown more exciting as it's gotten closer, at least to me. It's a really intriguing matchup of two guys at different points in their careers. Taylor is an unbeaten, respected and celebrated champion who has had to endure criticism. Pavlik is an unbeaten rising star with the hype machine behind him.
So who proves out as the real deal?
For Taylor, he's going to have to avoid Pavlik's power and the straight right hand. Taylor's last three fights have all been sloppy performances. The draw with Winky Wright was, as everyone knows, a prime example of the two Jermain Taylors. One is the guy that listens to Manny Steward and works to his strengths, keeping it in the center of the ring and using his athleticism and raw tools to control the bout. The other is the guy that gets backed up and popped. Taylor's low-held hands can be survived in a fight with Wright, Kassim Ouma or Cory Spinks -- none of those guys have the power to knock him out, even the aggressive Ouma, who's just too small.
Well, Pavlik's not a 154-pound fighter, and he punches like two Winkys. The Pavlik camp has openly noted that Taylor's tendency to drop his hands is something they plan to expose. You would think Taylor and Steward would be on top of that, and I'm sure they intend to be. But, with a lot of fighters, bad habits die hard. Taylor's bad habit could get him creamed on Saturday night.
I also have to wonder if Taylor and Steward's relentless dismissing of Pavlik's credentials is a mind game or not. No doubt Taylor thinks he's the better fighter. I don't think you can make a logical case that Pavlik is a better fighter than Taylor unless Pavlik beats him. It's just not there on the record. The best fighter Pavlik has beaten was Miranda, and it was a thumping to be sure, but Miranda is a one-dimensional, flawed fighter, and Pavlik's gameplan was perfect: Bully the bully. He said he'd do it, and he did it. He says he'll expose Taylor in much the same way, but Taylor ain't Miranda. We'll have to see how it works.
Steward has never really been a huge trash talker, so it's interesting to hear him trash Pavlik. Maybe he's just trying to inflate Jermain's confidence and get him back to being the guy that beat Bernard Hopkins twice, or maybe he thinks Pavlik is seriously just out of his league in this fight. There's also the chance that he simply has no respect for his counterpart, Jack Loew, who does driveways in the afternoons and works with Pavlik in the evenings.
Whatever it is, Steward has been pointed and sharp with his pre-fight comments:
"You can't compare the fighters he's faced to the fighters Jermain has faced. He's never been at the level he's going to be at this Saturday. ... This is a new league for Kelly Pavlik and he's not fighting those guys he's been used to seeing."
(After Bob Arum said Pavlik is a harder-punching middleweight than Tommy Hearns): "Please. Let's be real here."
Maybe Steward is entirely right. I don't know. I'm not sure Manny really knows, either.
As for Kelly Pavlik, I'm not really sure what his gameplan should be. Look, moving forward, backing his opponent down, and throwing lots of punches has obviously been effective for him thus far. At 25, he's younger than Taylor, and despite Taylor's disagreements, I would, indeed, give Pavlik the edge in punching power. But this isn't Zuniga or Zertuche or Edison Miranda. Miranda was clearly lost very early on once he realized that Kelly Pavlik really was coming straight at him and had no intention of backing down. You could tell after a round that Miranda wasn't going to win that fight without a huge knockout punch, which he never got himself into position to deliver. Pavlik had Miranda's number from the opening bell.
Taylor is -- in an enormous understatement -- a smarter boxer than Edison Miranda. He's fought three straight southpaws, all different styles, all that can give anyone trouble. Winky Wright is a chess master in the ring. Kassim Ouma is a fearless warrior. And Cory Spinks is just a slick pain in the ass for anyone he fights. I'm not changing my tune at all -- I still don't blame him for the Spinks fight because Spinks is who he is, and good at what it is he does, and I also still think he should have been able to knock out the undersized Ouma.
Now, he gets a forward-moving, right-handed puncher. Pavlik's not a total brawler, he can box. But his instinct is to throw the big shot whenever he sees half an opening. Defensively, Taylor has shown the type of skills necessary to stave off that kind of attack, and wait for his opportunity to pick off his opponent's chin. He hasn't scored a knockout in years, but Pavlik really is sort of perfect for him in regard to possibly finding his power again. Taylor's no light-hitting slickster. He's a boxer-puncher with great athletic ability and the natural abilities that a lot of guys would kill to have.
And it's 100% true: Pavlik has never been in the ring with anyone close to Taylor's level. Also, Pavlik has his own defensive problems. He was hit too often by Jose Luis Zertuche in January, a fight that I felt Zertuche made a lot better than it should have been -- or, more accurately, that Pavlik's defensive indifference made more interesting than it should have been. Miranda, as dominated as he was, still popped Pavlik several times and bloodied his nose.
If Taylor sits back, stays out of Pavlik's wheelhouse, and doesn't get backed down but doesn't engage Pavlik in a wild punch-off, he should be in the driver's seat. Jack Loew seems like a hell of a guy and someone with whom I'd like to have a beer and spend a couple of hours bullshitting, but unless we're all just wrong, he's outmatched by Steward.
And that, to me, is the real beauty of this fight. Boxing matchups work on many levels. It's compelling when the in-ring styles mesh, but it's just as compelling when the two fighters make for an interesting story. Taylor has been with world-famous Manny Steward, out in the Poconos. Pavlik has been staying with his parents in the decaying former steel city of Youngstown, Ohio, training with the guy that instructed him when he was nine years old.
It's a superstar facing a career crossroads and a hyped-up knockout artist (a likable, humble one, at that) facing a champion for the first time. This is a fight that works on all levels. And to be totally honest, I really don't know how it'll play out. There is nothing predictable about this matchup.
I'm sticking with Jermain Taylor, but the closer it gets, the better chance I give Kelly Pavlik. They met in Olympic trials when Pavlik was all of 17, and now they meet again. And I get the weird feeling that somewhere down the line, they could square off in a higher weight class for another title.