By Graham Houston
This hasn’t exactly been a year from hell for Kelly Pavlik, but I’m sure the middleweight champion will not remember 2009 with a great deal of warmth. Pavlik entered the year after having suffered his first defeat, and a demoralising one at that, when Bernard Hopkins gave him a boxing lesson. The year didn’t start off too badly as Pavlik pounded Marco Antonio Rubio into defeat on a nine-rounds corner retirement in February. Nothing went right after that. A stubborn staph infection of the left hand led to inactivity and an HBO fight against Paul Williams was postponed, then cancelled. There were also rumours of Pavlik not exactly leading a Spartan lifestyle in his hometown of Youngstown, OH, which the fighter attributes to exaggeration and innuendo, what he calls the pressure of being a big fish in a relatively small pond. On top of all this, there was the suggestion that he used his hand problems to duck Williams.
So, Pavlik will no doubt want to give the sort of performance that will burnish a somewhat battered image when he defends his WBC and WBO middleweight titles against Miguel Espino in Youngstown on Saturday in the main event on a four-fight, two-city PPV show.
In the Pavlik camp, they bristle at any suggestion that Williams was somehow being avoided. The Espino fight takes place just two weeks after Pavlik’s rearranged, then cancelled, date to meet Williams, but his manager, Cameron Dunkin, tells me that the fighter’s left hand wouldn’t have been quite right by Dec. 5, the date of the Williams fight. The hand was responding to therapy, but my understanding is that Pavlik was still having difficulty making a fist with the left hand. Clearly, his camp wouldn’t want to put him into a fight with Williams if they didn’t feel he was 100 per cent ready.
Pavlik has been training in Las Vegas for this fight. Although he is a massive favourite to beat Espino, my impression is that the Pavlik team know the importance of getting it right at this slightly delicate stage of Pavlik’s career and didn’t want to leave anything to chance.
Espino is a game, willing type of fighter, but he looks outclassed and outgunned. The 29-year-old from Los Angeles hasn’t lost since he was outpointed by Peter Manfredo Jr. in the first season of The Contender, but he hasn’t faced anyone anywhere near Pavlik’s level. Espino easily stopped a former world champion, Alejandro Garcia, in his last fight, but it must be said that Garcia’s performance that night was exceptionally lacklustre. (Garcia’s sorry showing wasn’t Espino’s fault — he went out and fought hard, and did what he had to do.)
Pavlik’s predicaments make this fight a bit more interesting than it would otherwise have been, because there might be a perception that Espino is catching the champion at the right time. However, we shouldn’t forget Pavlik’s form before the Hopkins fight, when he was giving destructive displays.
I would put Espino on about the same level as Gary Lockett, and we all know what Pavlik did to the Welsh middleweight.
In view of Pavlik’s inactivity and various woes, I don’t expect him to wallop Espino in three rounds the way he did Lockett. I just can’t see Espino lasting too many rounds, though. He is not the most elusive of fighters and he has never had to face the Pavlik brand of firepower. I can see Pavlik getting his big right hands on target to force a stoppage any time after the start of the fifth round.