Arturo Gatti need not worry. The house he built—Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City, NJ—is in good hands. Newly crowned WBC and WBO middleweight champion Kelly “The Ghost” Pavlik just let himself in and unpacked his belongings. Actually, he smashed down the front door at 2:14 of the 7th via his treacherous signature right, suddenly ending the reign of incumbent Jermain “Bad Intentions” Taylor.
2007 may be remembered as “The Year of the Ghost,” starting with his spectacular HBO debut in January against tough Mexican Jose Luis Zertuche (KO 8). In May, he followed with a seven-round shellacking of Colombian boogieman Edison Miranda. Both fights had some of the best give-and-take since, well, Gatti was Gatti. What took place last Saturday was the type of performance that leaves a permanent imprint on one’s psyche. I can’t imagine how JT feels?
If the southern gentleman from Little Rock, AR asked my advice, I’d tell him to hold his head high. He achieved more in his first professional loss—now 27-1 (17)—than in the majority of his victories. He fought valiantly, often intelligently; he demonstrated a terrific beard throughout most of the bout; and he gave even the most cynical fans everything they could possibly ask for
But the still undefeated—32-0 (29)—lanky warrior from the rundown rust-belt town of Youngstown, Ohio is that rare fighter who can transcend the sport. Blood and guts? More than you can find watching the entire Rocky series. A good punch? Like getting blindsided by an 18-wheeler. Personality? Take everything you hate about Floyd Mayweather, Jnr. and turn it inside out. And last, but, sadly, not least—ethnicity? Well, he claims to have earned his nickname because “you can’t hit what you can’t see.” But Ray Charles could find him in a crowd. So, intended or not, let’s assume his moniker serves as a double entendre for his alabaster complexion. Folks, if you’re white and can actually fight, promoters get weak and the knees. 5,000 Ohioans made it to AC. Presumably, after this fight, his popularity will grow exponentially.
The opening round was intense and competitive. I gave Pavlik (159.5) the edge because I thought he was dictating the fast pace. Later, upon watching the telecast, I heard Jim Lampley cite the Compubox numbers: Pavlik landed 43 of 89—his type of fight, whereas Taylor (159) is usually more reticent with his punches. All three judges disagreed with me.
Although Pavlik’s septuagenarian promoter Bob Arum might get weak-kneed at the thought of his contender, he was leaning towards knee replacement surgery as he watched the second from ringside. Pavlik was within a whisker of getting stopped.
In the first minute of the round Taylor looked over-anxious and uncomfortable. He wasted a lot of energy with needless motion. When he could’ve slipped a punch by moving his head an inch, he almost seemed to be trying to smell something on the canvas. Conversely, the challenger was steady, methodical, and displayed the better jab.
But a Taylor jab set up a downward arching right that caught Pavlik flush on the ear. For a second he seemed to take it okay, but then his legs buckled. The champ capitalized with a frenzied barrage of left and right hooks upstairs.
After absorbing ten second’s worth of power shots, and with legs not agreeing which direction they wanted to go, Pavlik finally kissed the canvas.
He got up quickly and took referee Steve Smoger’s 8-count. (Kudos to the New Jersey commission for going with this ref, one of the best around who, unlike most, understands his role—to stay out of it.)
Taylor went for the kill, loading up with the biggest bombs he could summon. Pavlik grabbed onto Taylor until Smoger tore them apart. Then a wide right caught Pavlik on the back of the head and had him doing a little Zab Judah jig.
In an amazingly display of survival instincts, Pavlik managed to hang on (with some help from Smoger whose inclination is stated above). He even regained his legs, to the point where he was attempting to bring it to Taylor. The champ was now spent, and the moment had slipped through his fingers. Had he brought some uppercuts, worked the body and refused to let Pavlik hold, he very well could’ve clocked out early with his belts around his slender waist.
Many in the industry already consider Taylor’s trainer, Emanuel Steward, a genius. Had the champ finished his mandatory challenger when the opportunity presented itself, it would’ve been like proving the Theory of Relativity. Since the fight was first made Steward told whomever would listen that the challenger was—relatively speaking—“average,” “normal,” basically out of his depth. JT would get rid of him in three, he kept telling the media.
In the myriad conversations I had with boxing enthusiasts, a precious few shared this opinion. Unless they were blatantly parroting the influential boxing man. Many saw Taylor winning, but not by early blowout. And damn if the professor from the University of Kronk wasn’t almost right!
But like my 9th grade algebra teacher always said when handing back one of my woeful tests, and I petitioned her for partial credit for answers that came close. “Close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades,” she’d say. Such was the case here.
Pavlik came out in the third renewed, seemingly more confident than ever. In the post-fight presser, he commented that after he survived Taylor’s onslaught, he knew the fight was his. And upon watching it on TV, I was floored by Kelly’s calm between rounds. He actually chuckled, politely, at the ringside physician who asked him repeatedly if he was okay.
“He caught me with a shot. I’m good,” he nodded and smiled, as if a waiter were asking him if he wanted a refill of coffee, instead of a doctor probing his pupils with a penlight. His nose was bleeding and possibly broken, a bad thing for a cardio machine whose objective is too always be busy.
Pavlik is cut from the same cloth of Arturo Gatti or Diego Corrales. In a sport that attracts only the bravest souls, they stand apart. They love fighting—even the parts that involve getting their faces smashed in and their livers squashed. Boxers are different. But this minority who truly mean it when they say, “Kill me or else,” are abnormal when judged against their coworkers.
Pavlik, who’d make a good-sized light heavy and has heavy hands that resonate like no other middleweight I’ve witnessed in person, is like one those goblins from a horror movie series—say, Jason Vorhees from Friday the 13th. He can’t be extinguished (at least not yet) and just keeps on coming. Though he may be a nice, soft-spoken guy, he must be the stuff of nightmares to his peers.
Kelly applied serious pressure on Jermain for the first minute of the third. He worked behind a jab that was stiff and long and straight. His feet never stopped taking small steps forward. When he absorbed a hard counter, he’d pause for a beat and then resume his steady march. When Taylor backed into the ropes, Pavlik unloaded—with plenty of snap on his shots.
Even though Taylor rallied well in spots during the last 30 seconds, all three judges rightly gave Kelly the round. He threw 99 punches—his kind of fight. And a big statement considering the dire straits he was in not long ago.
The fourth was closely contested. But Kelly was once again bringing the fight and dictating the pace. Taylor answered with some hard shots, but there was a slight air of desperation when he countered. He was demonstrating the heart of a champion just by keeping the relentless Pavlik off of him, while the other was simply fighting his fight. The momentum had swung the other way.
The fifth was a very good round for Taylor. He turned a brawl into a boxing match and finally got his jab working. When he got near the ropes, he didn’t lay on them but moved his feet and kept making circles. He also seemed settled down. He got hit by fewer rights and began to touch Pavlik’s body.
The champ even deliberately landed a hard blow after the bell, which was a wise statement to send. Problem was, Kelly gave him dap, as if to say “I like it when you do that, champ.”
The sixth was relatively close and calm, but I thought Pavlik had reestablished the pace and pressure. All three judges didn’t see it this way.
In what was to be the final round, Pavlik controlled the action with the jab and his perpetual forward movement. This set up the straight right that caught Taylor with just under a minute left in the round. It was the same right that detached Zertuche and Miranda from their senses. Taylor’s concrete chin had finally cracked. (Actually, the shot was in the region of the ear.) His expression went blank and his body looked for support on the ropes.
A born finisher, “The Ghost” attacked with clinical precision. Unlike Taylor when he had his chance, Pavlik coldly raised the man’s chin with uppercuts, the better to follow with hooks. The now former champ took a couple of these wicked shots flush and found himself slumped in the new champ’s corner. The ref jumped in front of him immediately to prevent any further damage—no count was given.
At first I thought Taylor should be given a chance to rise. Upon review, I realized Smoger’s reaction was completely sound.
To the surprise of many of the ringside press whom I polled, Taylor was winning the fight on all three judges’ cards: 58-55 twice (Guido Cavalieri and John Stewart) and 59-54 (Julie Lederman).
It was unfortunate that the fighters’ post-fight press conference wasn’t aired on HBO or perhaps ESPN, so that the general sports fan could see that boxers aren’t all ear-chomping reprobates. Both gladiators were honest, dignified, articulate and respectful towards each other.
The “loser” doesn’t usually get a homecoming parade, but Taylor deserves one. The new champ…I don’t think he’ll have much difficulty having someone buy him a beer at the local watering hole or finding a date when he’s not in training.
Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini, who attended the fight, is the most famous fighter and athlete to come out of Youngstown. Soon they’ll be calling him “Bam Bam.” That’s how big Pavlik might become.