AT CIVICS: This is basically a walk-in scrapbook, with the additional advantage of a liquor license. The walls of the Youngstown, Ohio, establishment are covered in framed newspaper pages, all of them narrating the career of a South Side scrapper, pale and bony (so pale, he's called the Ghost), who grew up around the corner. PAVLIK BURSTS ONTO SCENE reads a 2001 headline from The Vindicator of Youngstown. KEYSTONER AREA BOXER IS GETTING A W. PA. FOLLOWING is from a month earlier. PAVLIK SET TO FIGHT JULY 1 AT CAFARO FIELD. And on and on they go, wall after wall, a fight here, an appearance there, some bit of news, a ray of hope. No act of aspiration unpublished.
The confidence of the display, while cheerful in its hometown style of support, is also staggering when you think about it.
Maybe in the wee hours, as the walls form a boozy diorama, it makes some kind of sense. PAVLIK'S PRIME TIME IS NOW. But in the light of day, or as much of it as can seep into the joint, it ought to seem presumptuous. It was barely 30 years ago that a generation of men in this town set out for work in the morning, not a care in the world, and found the gates at Sheet and Tube, one of the world's largest steel mills, padlocked. Black Monday, it's still called. In Youngstown taverns, in the light of day anyway, when there are still plenty of cares and the beer has yet to do its work, they know better than to trust in tomorrow's headline.
And yet they keep coming, those headlines. SUCCESS HASN'T CHANGED THE CHAMP, hanging on the wall, right over by the Ping-Pong table Kelly Pavlik plays on when he stops by. Last Sept. 29 in Atlantic City, Pavlik, after getting up from a second-round knockdown, stormed back in one of the year's most exciting fights to knock out middleweight champion—and well-groomed attraction—Jermain Taylor in the seventh, generating a whole new collection of clippings. VICTORY BRINGS CELEBRITY STATUS. Youngstown has had its champions before (Ray Mancini comes to mind), but it's been a long time since there's been this much to root for, this much to write about, this much to read. And as the rematch with Taylor looms (Feb. 16 at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas), Civics' archivists are once more at the ready.
The 25-year-old Pavlik may be getting this ink not so much because he's from Youngstown but because he is Youngstown. Mancini went off to make movies back in 1985, and who can blame him for leaving. But Pavlik is so grounded in Youngstown that it's difficult to sort the city from the son. He not only returns to his hometown after each win, but he also comes back to Civics, for darts and (when he's not training) beer. This is partly because the ambience suits him but mostly because it's four minutes away. That is, four minutes away from everything—gym, home, parents. His fans find the triangulation quite reassuring.
The day Pavlik returned from Atlantic City (somewhat delayed, his father having left a $666,750 check on the hotel nightstand), he was met at the Ohio state line by a strobing fleet of police vehicles, which then led him in triumph back to Youngstown. The clipping from that day hangs at Civics, of course. KELLY! KELLY! Pretty big type too.
IN THE SOUTHSIDE: Every day at three o'clock the door to the Southside Boxing Club swings open and about two dozen kids crowd in. They jostle under speed bags, peck away at the heavy bag and bump scrawny elbows in the room's one ring. The copper-and-tin ceiling above them continues to flake away, and it is not hard to imagine sheets of toxic snowfall settling on their narrow shoulders during a workout. A bell marks their little lives in boxer's time—it rings for every round.
About 16 years ago, one of those kids was Pavlik, who arrived with typical promise. Which is to say, none in particular. The kids come and go, their dedication waning as adolescence arrives, and Jack Loew had no illusions about developing a meal ticket among them. A former Golden Gloves middleweight, he ran the gym as a hobby, something to do when he was done sealing driveways for the day. He can't say that he thought much of Pavlik when he arrived, because the lie would be on the wall right behind him—a team picture for some long-ago local tournament shows everybody dressed in matching sweats. Except for Pavlik, who didn't even rate the Southside duds.
"He was a tough kid, though," says Loew, 48. "All balls." In time Pavlik became the class of Youngstown and, nearly, the U.S. But the fighter got edged in the 2000 Olympic trials (by Taylor, who went on to take the bronze medal in Sydney) and was forced to take a harder and longer climb to the top. Everybody could see he was a banger, but he was hard to match. Pavlik, without a pedigree, was fighting at Cafaro, not Caesars. "Six years into it," Loew says, "we hadn't made $25,000 a fight."
Predictably, there were calls (even from his manager, Cameron Dunkin) to dump Loew and get a big-time trainer, and just generally get this show on the road. Pavlik never once entertained the notion. And, anyway, if a fighter keeps knocking out people who've never been knocked out (his last three opponents), the money has to come, no matter who's training him.