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Pavlik does his family, hometown proud

Boxing was not the path chosen for their youngest son by Mike and Debbie Pavlik of Youngstown, Ohio.

“If we’d raised him to play golf or tennis,” Mike says, “I’d love it. I’d be a lot happier now.”

At least Mike can bear to watch, never straying too far from training camp or trips that take his youngest into the limelight all over the country.

Debbie never watches.

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“She won’t even listen, even when his fight’s on TV,” Mike says. “If there are people upstairs watching, she’ll go into the basement and do wash, where the machine will drown out all the noise.”

When her son reached the pinnacle of his career last September in Atlantic City, N.J., she had been enticed as far as the hotel but stayed in the room.

“I called her on a cellphone from the ring,” Mike says. “She asked what happened. I told her to just listen, that all that noise meant her son was now the middleweight champion of the world.”

Boxing has many parents, especially fathers, who treat their children as meal tickets. Mike and Debbie treat theirs like somebody they want to be able to reach old age with normal mental faculties.

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“The sooner he gets out,” Mike says, “the better I’ll feel.”

Sooner is going to be awhile for Kelly Pavlik. The top echelons of boxing are hard to reach and too intoxicating to walk away from easily.

At the moment, Pavlik is in that top echelon. He vaulted there, somewhat unexpectedly, on Sept. 29 when he dethroned Jermain Taylor. It wasn’t so much that Pavlik won, but how he did it.

Taylor, the pride of Little Rock, Ark., held one or more of boxing’s alphabet soup middleweight titles going back to August 2003. He had cemented his reputation with two wins over Bernard Hopkins and another over Winky Wright. He took the ring against Pavlik with a record of 27-0-1 and even had a win over Pavlik in the Olympic trials, en route to his bronze medal in Sydney in 2000.

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Few paid much heed to Pavlik’s 31-0 record going into that one. Nor the 28 knockouts, often against fighters who were supposed to clean his clock and ended up, instead, passing time on their backs.

In the second round of their first fight, Taylor did what he was expected to do. He caught Pavlik with several devastating punches and knocked him down.

Then Pavlik did what he wasn’t expected to do. He got up. Further, in the seventh, he destroyed Taylor, leaving the champion slumped in the corner, referee hanging over him protectively, after a barrage of punches.

Many called it the fight of the year.

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Now, five days before Pavlik-Taylor II on Saturday night at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, perceptions have changed.

Pavlik has become a hard hitter from the hard streets of Youngstown. Residents of this shot-and-a-beer town now make a ritual of celebrating Pavlik’s shots with a beer. Or several. They had a parade when he beat Taylor in September. If he does it again, they may have a stampede. Between bars.

Youngstown appears to be as much of the story these days as Pavlik himself. Some towns get down on their luck. Youngstown hasn’t had any for about 30 years now.

Once, in the ‘70s, you could look down the Mahoning River and see steel plants as far as your eye could travel. As lore has it, Youngstown once produced more steel than any place in the world, even more than nearby Pittsburgh.

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Mike Pavlik went to high school for one year, then quit to work in the steel mills.

“The money was just too good,” he says.

As lore also has it, the Mahoning was among the more polluted rivers around, and it wasn’t only from steel mills.

“Lot of dead bodies,” says Kelly Pavlik’s friend and corner man, Mike Cox.

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“And an equal number of cement slabs to keep ‘em there,” says Kelly Pavlik.

With money came the mob, and battles over territory.

“The New York mob had Pittsburgh,” explains Cox, who is also a Youngstown policeman. “The Chicago mob had Cleveland. So they went to war over who got Youngstown.”

Then came Black Monday, a day back in the late ‘70s when the first mill closed, followed soon by the others. Now, nobody fights over Youngstown. It once had a population of 180,000. Now, it’s closer to half that.

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During a recent HBO special -- the new thing in boxing designed to make people think they are viewing a documentary when, indeed, it is an ad for the pay-per-view telecast of the fight -- Pavlik refers to his hometown as “cruddy.” With him, that is honesty and affection.

“It’s where I need to be, around friends, and so my daughter can be close to her grandparents,” he says.

He plays darts, is obsessed with golf, trains in the same gym where he first went as a 9-year-old and with the same trainer, Jack Loew, who was there then.

He hangs out with a small group of friends and goes to a bar named Civics where he can have some peace from the fans -- you have to have a membership to get in.

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“He’s loved in Youngstown, everywhere he goes,” says Cox, who has unofficial bodyguard duties. “But drunks are drunks.

“It used to be worse. When he first started as a pro, people used to challenge him. Guys would look at him and see this skinny white guy and think they could take him.

“When he had hair, it was even worse.”

When Pavlik is in training for a fight, instead of living at his home, just minutes away, with 21-month-old daughter Sydney and her mother, Samantha Kocanjer, he sleeps on the couch at Mike and Debbie’s place, with Mike’s dog, Mandy.

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If Youngstown is a “cruddy” place, it is also a place of pride for Pavlik.

“The first ice cream wagon was in Youngstown, Ohio,” he says. “You can Google it.”

Perspective surrounds Pavlik, unusual for boxers. His mother is proud and can’t watch. His father is always nearby, his tattered Kelly Pavlik cap in place out of love and superstition. Even one-time neighbor Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini, once world lightweight champion, watches him closely, telling him to be wary.

“Today, headlines. Tomorrow, bread lines,” Mancini says.

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Pavlik, at 25, has a perspective of his own.

“I know what kind of fight this will be,” he says. “There’ll be no joking around. I’ve worked seven years to get to this point, and I’m not going to give that up easily.

“I’m coming out of this one with a W.”

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Bill Dwyre can be reached at bill.dwyre@latimes.com. To read previous columns by Dwyre, go to latimes.com/dwyre.


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