With the Super Six World Boxing Classic shining a consistent light on some of the division's best fighters over the last 18 months, the super middleweight division has become one of the hottest and toughest in all of boxing. The Showtime tournament has had its bumps along the way, but it has undeniably made bigger names of the fighters competing.
On May 7, another name jumped into the super middleweight game: Kelly "The Ghost" Pavlik, the former middleweight champion of the world. After a series of his own bumps and bruises outside of the ring, including a stint in rehab last year, Pavlik returned to the ring with a somewhat rocky performance against Texas club fighter Alfonso Lopez, surviving with a 10-round majority decision victory in a close fight.
Pavlik, now 29, looked pretty far from the fighter who climbed off the canvas to stop undefeated Jermain Taylor in 2007. And it begs the question: Can the Youngstown native really compete in a division filled with talented athletes in their primes?
Pavlik talked about his options recently, and had this to say:
"There are a lot of guys out there. You have [Lucian] Bute, [Carl] Froch. Basically you have the entire Super Six. It's going to be interesting to see what happens with the fights right now. Froch and Bute are great fights. [Andre] Dirrell is still out there. [Andre] Ward, depending on what happens with him and his next fight. It's loaded and I'm that guy to take big fights with the big names."
When he puts it that way, you really...start to wonder if he's got any significant future in this division. As I've said before, I like Kelly Pavlik. I admit there are things about him that are a bit off-putting, but when he's on his game, he's a damn fun fighter to watch.
And that entertainment value, combined with his name value, may be about all Pavlik has left in terms of being a top fighter.
Pavlik is not old, and he's not particularly beaten up. But he has questions about his ability to buckle down on his career, and professionally, there are other questions, specifically about his training and whether he was ever really quite as good as he appeared at one time.
Let's talk training. Jack Loew and Pavlik have a great relationship, and anyone can see that. Like many fighter-trainer relationships, they have terrific symbiosis on a personal level. Pavlik is, for all intents and purposes, Loew's only contender. And their relation is more father-son -- or at the least, uncle-nephew -- than fighter-trainer, it would appear.
But it has been an open question among observers for a while now: Is Loew really good enough to train someone with world class aspirations? His overly simplistic corner advice -- "double up the jab" in particular -- has been questioned and even mocked.
Would Pavlik be better off with a new lead man? It's hard to say. It could make him a better fighter, and no doubt he could use some freshening up in his approach. But would it be a problem for Pavlik to leave Loew behind, if he couldn't retain him in a secondary role?
As far as his talent, Pavlik has never been hard to figure out. At his best, he's a good, straightforward, workmanlike fighter who can throw a laser right hand behind a solid jab. He was a bit underrated as an inside fighter, perhaps in part due to his lanky from that makes him just look like he should stay on the outside and keep opponents at bay. Sure, when he can do that, it's to his advantage, but this isn't the Ohio club scene anymore.
So can he make real noise at 168?
Many doubt it. I think it's possible, but he's going to have to be better than ever, and that probably isn't realistic. Andre Ward would have almost everything in his favor, save for blunt power. Carl Froch is sort of like Pavlik, but a better version. If Andre Dirrell could just box, he'd frustrate Pavlik terribly. Mikkel Kessler is himself about to make a comeback, and I suspect most would favor him over Pavlik, if he's healthy.
The best matchup for Pavlik? If you ask me, it's Lucian Bute. Bute isn't wild about fighting in close, and his hands-down defensive style can give great openings to someone who shoots a straight right -- the southpaw killer -- the way Pavlik can. We've seen Librado Andrade, a lesser fighter than Pavlik, give Bute trouble. Of course, we've also seen Bute shred the same Andrade in a rematch, and his own laser-like shots, especially to the body, can put down anyone.
The toughest thing to figure with Pavlik right now is where he goes. Almost everyone notable in the division is tied up, but he needs a real fight. Where could he get one? Arthur Abraham is likely to return to Germany and rehab his image for a while. Sakio Bika is as tough to pin down as he is to fight. Dirrell is unlikely to go near a guy like Pavlik any time soon, whenever he does come back to the ring for more than sparring sessions.
So what can he do? He needs a test, and he needs to shake the rust that remains, and he might need a fresh start in his training camps, and he just might not be good enough to ever be a top fighter again.
I get the feeling Kelly Pavlik is going to reside at a fork in the road for a while, plotting about which direction he should take. In the meantime, there are young fighters ready to choose their path, who will wave to him as they pass by. He says he wants to get back in the race. But it just might not be in his immediate future.