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IF YOU train for a fight by hitting a giant tire with a sledgehammer, you will naturally be disappointed if, come the actual event, your opponent is more animated than the vulcanized rubber normally at your disposal. This happens sometimes when boxers get confident chopping wood or chasing chickens or tenderizing sides of beef and presume that such old school training methods have carryover benefits in the ring. The look in their eyes when the competition is not brought in on a meat hook says it all.
So give Kelly Pavlik credit for his adjustment at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas last Saturday night, when Jermain Taylor, who had fought like a giant tire in their first meeting, looked more like the sledgehammer in the rematch. Pavlik was surprised at Taylor's refusal to take his beating. (After all, the middleweight champion had publicly suggested that Taylor had suffered neurological damage in their violent encounter in September, which was stopped in the seventh round.) In fact, it took Pavlik exactly half the 12-round fight to register just how well Taylor's neurons—and fists—were firing. And then a couple more rounds to do something to rescue his own Rocky-like career.
"Game plans change," said Pavlik, the fighter from Youngstown, Ohio, who likes to get ready for fights by moving Rust Belt leftovers around. "I had to use my brain." So instead of waiting for Taylor to recline on the ropes and make an easy target, as he had in their first fight, Pavlik pursued him, ripping jabs, all the while mindful of Taylor's rediscovered explosiveness. Only by winning the final two rounds—the 11th with the biggest punch of the night, a crumpling right to Taylor's body—did Pavlik get away with a decision and his box-office appeal. (His WBC middleweight title was not at stake, as Taylor insisted on a catch-weight of 166 pounds.)
So the 25-year-old Pavlik remained unbeaten (33--0, with 29 KOs) and held on to his star status as the Midwest Rube with a Steel Driving Punch. (The best story of fight week was of Pavlik standing in line at the casino buffet with the other tourists.) His popularity with fans, after two successive action-packed wins over the division's previous hero, is now certified. He could easily become the sport's next superstar, especially if he returns to his knockout ways. (Saturday's fight was the only one of his last 10 bouts that didn't end prematurely.)
On the other hand, the defeat does not doom the 29-year-old Taylor, the 2000 Olympic bronze medalist, who had been the object of some revisionist history. His last four fights before this one signaled a decline, whether in desire or ability. Was he an overproduced sensation? His effort in the rematch, which bespoke a new training regimen, suggests there's still some grit there—the same stuff that got him out of poverty in Little Rock and into the national starlight.
Probably there won't be a third meeting, not for a long while anyway. Taylor, who held the middleweight title for two years after beating Bernard Hopkins, is moving up in weight for good, and Pavlik, a compulsive worker, plans on staying put, making as many defenses as he can in his heralded division. You should be able to hear him banging that tire again any day now.
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