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Kelly Pavlik's Improbable Comeback: Comparing 'The Ghost' and 'The Will of the Wisp'

Kelly Pavlik's back is still against the wall in boxing after another tumultuous year outside the ring. (Photo by Chris Trotman/Getty Images)
Kelly Pavlik's back is still against the wall in boxing after another tumultuous year outside the ring. (Photo by Chris Trotman/Getty Images)
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Sean Mills is back at Bad Left Hook this morning to compare Kelly Pavlik and Willie Pep. Yes, it sounds weird. Read on.

The things former middleweight champion Kelly Pavlik and former featherweight champion Willie Pep have in common probably don't go much farther than their nicknames. Willie's nickname is probably more fitting than Kelly's. A "will-o-the-wisp" is a ghostly orb; a flickering elusive light, which was the perfect metaphor for the fleet-footed Willie Pep. Meanwhile, Kelly "the Ghost" Pavlik was never impossible to touch unlike his ethereal moniker. Pavlik is a white guy, though, so his nickname is a type of ironic ridicule on par with a white rapper being called Vanilla Ice. Recently, Pavlik has been more ghost-like. A ghost because his career is dead.

Pavlik has faced a near (career) death experience before, having lost his title and gone to rehab twice. Then the big one hit, the real one. He inexplicably pulled out of a tune up with Darryl Cunningham four days before it was scheduled. This was the last straw for some fans. Others had already counted their last straw of course. Like when Pavlik looked utterly pedestrian against Alfonso López III. Still others were disappointed when multiple staph infections prevented Pavlik from fighting Paul Williams; which only seemed to matter so much because he had been utterly embarrassed by Bernard Hopkins.

Pavlik had pulled out of fights before the Cunningham match, but never quite like this. He seemed delusional when he claimed that he deserved more money even though he had already agreed to the purse within a multi-fight deal. It was a weak excuse or worse pathetic. Pavlik didn't even have the decency to come up with a dubious injury. He just refused to fight.

So they all started washing their hands of him. Not just the fans, but managers and promoters this time.

Top Rank's Bob Arum said, "I don't know why Pavlik does not want to fight and neither does his father or his manager. But I say this, if he doesn't want to fight, then why push him?"

Arum wasn't wrong. Nobody knew what was going on with Pavlik, least of all Pavlik himself who still struggled to own his recovery from substance abuse.

The tone of early reports were neutral like when Lem Satterfield of The Ring Magazine posted the news online, "Pavlik pulls out of Saturday's fight." Satterfield printed Todd DeBoef's statement expressing concern and confusion. Reporters didn't know quite what to make of the news at first. Boxers do pull out of fights, right? The fans were quicker on the trigger:

"Well, it was fun while it lasted, Kelly..." said Bar Kokhba.

"He is a lost cause!" said Anne Rutledge.

These along with more colorful words were used to pass what seems to be fair judgment, Pavlik would never fight again or if he did no one would take him seriously.

Pavlik's nickname proved a fertile opportunity for puns. Fight Hype offered, "The Ghost Disappears," while ESPN won the quip contest with: "Ghost Busted?"

That's not the end of the story, though, because on Oct 30th, Satterfield posted an interview with a hopeful headline, "Pavlik says he's ready for change."

Reportedly, new tricks and new structure are waiting for Pavlik when he begins with new trainer Robert Garcia in California. But, can an old dog learn new tricks? Can a leopard change his spots? Can a ghost find new life?

To decide the answers to these questions, I look for a hopeful example in the past.

And, in this way, I hope Kelly Pavlik will prove to be like his fellow ghost Willy Pep.

Willy was almost untouchable; he won 62 fights in a row before a loss and then won 73 in a row. It wasn't until a 1947 plane crash broke his back and left him a chest cast that there was ever any doubt as to his supremacy. His doctor told him he would never fight again, but more than that no one really believed he could. According to Pep, as he lay in the wreckage of the ruined plane among the other passengers some dying or dead, he heard paramedics talking about him. Their conversation was a chilling prophecy, which went something like this:

"Isn't that the champ?"

"Not anymore."

However, mere months later Pep would fight again. He would fight on until he was 44 years old with a final record of 229-11-1. This was prolific even among his contemporaries.

Naturally people should balk at the idea of comparing Pavlik to Pep. Their style and records are totally different, not to mention their personalities. The adversity Pep faced is different than what Pavlik faces today. But, I think there is a risk in assuming that his tribulations are incomparable. It is too easy to blame him for his troubles, to call them self-inflicted. The fact is that Pavlik has a substance abuse problem. The stigma attached to this disease is such that society often blames the victim for their weakness. We don't think of alcoholics as being able to heal. You don't suffer from alcohol dependency. You're an alcoholic. It's this impression of permanence that reminds me of Pep's back injury, because for many Pavlik's problem seems terminal.

Regardless of what happens next, some facts are clear. Pavlik has a lot of work to do in order to prove he can be a force in boxing. Lucky for him that once you make a name for yourself in the fight game, they'll give you more chances to fight if only to use you as a stepping stone.

Another quirk of boxing is that we tend to describe boxers in terms of other boxers with often absurd results. Announcer Howard Cosell once described Roberto Duran as a lightweight Rocky Marciano because he would fearlessly take punishment to beat up his opponents. During the HBO broadcast of Amir Khan's fight with Paul McCloskey, color commentator and trainer Emmanuel Steward described McCloskey as a type of Prince Naseem Hamed only minus the power and speed. These comparisons may be debatable, but it's also easy to see the connection.

I admit that it goes too far to expect anyone to see much of Willie Pep in Kelly Pavlik, but I still hope Pavlik can prove everyone wrong just like Pep did. He may never be quite the same as he used to be, but that doesn't prove he can't be a champion again.

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