- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 4, 2008

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio — Framed newspaper headlines cover the walls of the Eastside Civics Athletics Club:

“Valley In His Corner”

Youngstown’s Fighting Chance”

“A Boxing Savior”

Pretty heady stuff for one of the club’s champion dart players.

Kelly Pavlik, a middleweight boxing champion when he’s not beating people at darts, will carry all that and more into the ring Saturday night in Atlantic City against challenger Gary Lockett, who at 10-1 enters as an overwhelming underdog.

Pavlik carries not just the hopes of Youngstown, the Mahoning Valley and beyond but perhaps the hopes of the sport of boxing as well.

Pavlik, 26, was relatively unknown in his eight-year professional career until he put a beating on highly regarded Edison Miranda in an HBO bout in May 2007, stopping him in the seventh round.

Four months later Pavlik stunned middleweight champion Jermain Taylor, stopping him in the seventh round as well - and coming off the canvas in the second round to do it. Pavlik then defeated Taylor convincingly in a rematch in February.

Suddenly, boxing, on life support on the American sports scene, got a shot of adrenaline - an exciting new world champion, a fighter with a heart and a devastating punch who has knocked out 29 of the 33 opponents he has faced and beaten.

And, by the way, Pavlik is a white American champion, virtually a museum piece in the sport.

There hasn’t been a white American champion of note in 20 years - since, coincidentally, lightweight champion Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini came out of Youngstown. And there hasn’t been a white middleweight champion of note since Joey Giardello more than 40 years ago.

Pavlik has the weight of race and geography on his broad shoulders.

“Nobody was paying attention to him before,” boxing analyst Bert Sugar says. “The best thing you could say about him before was that he was white. Now he is the franchise out there in Ohio. He has brought pride to an area that has been through hard times.”

Those nobodies who weren’t paying attention to him included the folks at HBO, who since have embraced Pavlik as one of the cable network’s boxing stars.

Pavlik didn’t ask for any of this. He doesn’t see himself as a savior of anything. But he understands why it happens.

“There is pressure,” Pavlik says after a recent workout at tiny Southside Boxing Gym, where he has trained since he was 9. “We really hadn’t had much in Ohio.”

True. The nearby Cleveland Indians haven’t won a World Series since 1948, and the Cleveland Browns haven’t won a title in the Super Bowl era. The Cavaliers have LeBron James, but the franchise never has won an NBA title.

So Pavlik, a favorite among Indians players, has become a one-man sports franchise in Northeast Ohio.

“But when something happens with the Browns, they have a whole roster of players to blame,” Pavlik says. “With boxing, it is just me.”

So far, nothing has gone wrong - save for the time his father, Mike Pavlik Sr., left their paychecks in an Atlantic City hotel room after the first fight with Taylor.

But Pavlik’s presence resonates beyond just the rooting interest of Youngstown, as blue collar and working class a city as anywhere in the country 40 years ago, a city that like so many in the Midwest has been hit hard by the loss of manufacturing jobs.

The images of today’s Youngstown are boarded-up storefronts and abandoned steel mills - and Kelly Pavlik signs.

“It is weird what has happened to me in boxing, from not bothering with me to being called a savior,” Pavlik says. “There is a story line here in Youngstown, the way the city is. HBO has caught onto it and latched onto it. So I have become their story line, though all I am doing is just doing my job. I could care less about the story line. I just train and put my body through the most I can put it through. If they want to roll with all this, that is fine - whatever the story line is.”

The story line, as Pavlik called it, is even more enhanced because he is anchored in Youngstown. He doesn’t go to Las Vegas or some mountain resort to train. Pavlik has a remarkable training regimen that includes sparring, running, swimming, weightlifting and sessions at the Iron Man Warehouse, where athletes work out by turning over 1,000-pound truck tires and using fire hoses for pull-ups.

Pavlik’s moved up, but he hasn’t moved out.

He stays at his parents’ modest two-bedroom house, along with his two brothers, while he works out. He still is the same guy who plays darts in the league at the Eastside Civics Athletic Club. He trains at the same gym, a former pizza parlor, in which he began this path to glory 17 years ago. And he is trained by the same man, Jack Loew, the “Driveway King” of Youngstown, who began training him in that gym.

“He is a superstar here,” Loew says. “He don’t see it. It’s hard for me to even see it. This area, it means so much to people here. It is huge. He is a franchise.”

The franchise’s trainer also seals driveways for a living.

“I got some driveways scheduled for Tuesday afternoon [after the fight],” Loew says.

Loew is another element of the story line that has such an old-school attraction. Most fighters leave their first trainer behind, lured away by the bigger, more experienced names. But Pavlik has stayed with Loew.

“He has been approached by a lot of trainers, but Kelly never gave it a second thought,” Mike Pavlik says. “There is a bond between him and Jack that started when Kelly was 9 years old, since he has been there. Sometimes they don’t even have to speak to each other to know what each other is thinking.”

The family, the trainer, the city. All help keep Pavlik in the place he needs to be - not as a savior for a sport or a town but as the guy who still plays darts at the local bar and still is trained by the driveway king of Youngstown, Ohio.

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