Two years ago, Jermain Taylor beat Bernard Hopkins twice in a row to claim the throne at middleweight. HBO and almost every other boxing outlet around painted Taylor as one of the new saviors of the sport. He was a gifted, young, charismatic, handsome, easy-to-like country boy out of Arkansas. He stayed humble and true to his roots. And he'd been able to fend off one of the kings of the sport.
That was then. Fast forward, and you'll see how easily perception changes. A hard-fought draw with Winky Wright led to two uninspiring wins over Kassim Ouma and Cory Spinks. Everyone questioned Taylor.
Along came Kelly Pavlik, a knockout artist with a heavy right hand. A humble, true to his roots kid out of Youngstown, Ohio, as midwestern as midwestern gets. I love the story as much as anyone. Shows up at a gym when he's nine years old, and sixteen years later, he's still got the same trainer, a guy who seals driveways in the afternoon.
Pavlik came to Atlantic City last night as an underdog challenger. Sure, he'd fought his way up the ladder impressively, knocking out almost every foe put in front of him, including stunning dominance of the favored Edison Miranda in May. But, to look at Pavlik, you can easily miss what makes him special. Leading up to the fight, Taylor and trainer Emanuel Steward both noted that they didn't see anything special about Kelly Pavlik, that he was an "average" fighter. Steward said it would be a tough fight for one round.
He was almost right. Taylor dropped Pavlik in the second frame of the championship bout, and looked like he was about ready to finish off his latest challenger. It was a strange feeling. Pavlik is a guy the public had gotten behind, and we watched him get battered by a faster, slicker, more athletic boxer. I thought he was done. I thought we'd seen "The Ghost" rise, and that we were about to see him fall. Maybe Taylor and Steward were right.
Instead, Pavlik survived, standing his ground and getting his legs back. He pushed forward. And five rounds later, he beat Jermain Taylor to the ground in the corner, sending shockwaves through the sport.
It's not so much that I didn't think Pavlik could win going in. It was that in the second round, it truly felt like he'd lost. The comeback was sudden, vicious, and calculated. Numerous times, Pavlik had backed Taylor into a corner, only for the champion to punch his way out, or calmly sidestep the predictable straight right hand. I noted during the fight that Pavlik's offense against Taylor was entirely centered on that one punch. I thought it was going to cause him to lose the fight. I was wrong. It's what won it for him.
Turns out I was missing something about Pavlik, too. When you watch Kelly Pavlik fight, it really doesn't feel all that often like you're seeing a world champion-caliber fighter. He's not very fast. He's pretty flat-footed. It doesn't look like he's hitting all that hard a lot of the time.
But now we've got two guys like that that you can argue are the hottest young stars in boxing: Pavlik and welterweight champion Miguel Cotto. The similarity? They are bulls. They come forward, come forward, come forward, and never relent. The gameplan doesn't change, no matter what happens. Cotto frames his work around a devastating body attack, Pavlik around the best straight right in boxing. They're both champions, but observing them, you wouldn't really think that to be the case.
Against Taylor, Pavlik did put in the best performance we've seen from him yet. While he slugged his way past Miranda, Zertuche, McKart, and everyone else, he was a different animal against the now-former champion. His jab was better than usual. His defense was much better than usual, even with the knockdown. Let's be clear: Jermain Taylor proved last night that his power hasn't left him. And Taylor fought well.
But even Steward was 100% won over by Pavlik. "He fought the type of fight that any of the previous middleweight champions would have had a rough time with. He's a big guy, but his defense is pretty doggone good, too. He was slipping punches. His jab was pretty good. He's not the fastest, flashiest guy, but he was very effective and very, very determined. He would have been a threat to anybody and I take my hat off to him.
"He's a big guy and he's strong and he just kept coming, coming, coming."
For Cotto, I think his only kryptonite is going to be a supremely fast, supremely talented boxer. Shane Mosley could fit that mold in November, or we may have to wait until we see a Cotto-Mayweather matchup sometime next year, which is entirely possible. Or, maybe, we won't see it at all.
Either way, I don't see a contending middleweight who has that skill set. A rematch with Taylor seems very likely. Had this been your average seventh round knockout, I'd question the purpose. But it was a sensational fight with two guys that brought the goods. Taylor admits his mistakes -- notably, punching himself out trying to KO Pavlik in the second round, swinging wild overhand rights instead of uppercuts -- and wants a shot to correct them. I can't imagine Pavlik ducking the contractual clause.
Pavlik may have to, sooner than later, take himself up to the super middleweight division. Super middleweight champ Joe Calzaghe, preparing for his monumental November showdown with Mikkel Kessler, congratulated Pavlik from his camp in Cardiff. "There is no doubt who the real middleweight champion is after tonight. The true world champion met the true No. 1 contender, and that's the way it should be. Now that Kelly has conquered his division, I would like to invite him to Cardiff for my fight against Mikkel Kessler, which will also serve as my formal coronation as king of the super middleweights. If Kelly is a true champion in search of new territories to conquer, he need look no further than Millennium Stadium on November 3, where the crown heads can meet to discuss the terms of battle."
For now, let's just let Kelly Pavlik celebrate his hard-earned, well-deserved victory. He's the new ruler at 160 pounds.
Jermain Taylor spoke to what we all learned last night. "Kelly is a hard puncher, but he's more. He's just a great fighter."
Now, like the one-time golden child Taylor, all Pavlik has to do is maintain his status. It's easier said than done. But, just like in the ring, I get the suspicion that handling the pressure will prove that there's more to Kelly Pavlik than often meets the eye.