Feature Story

Pavlik-Espino: Hard Roads, Hunger

Chris Farina/Top Rank
Chris Farina/Top Rank

By Bob Hough

Kelly Pavlik says he’s hungry for a big win. He thinks he needs one. Pavlik (35 31 KOs) returns to the ring December 19th in his hometown, Youngstown, Ohio, against Miguel Espino (20 2 9KOs), after a tumultuous stretch of rescheduling a fight with Paul Williams, battling serious health problems—which his promoter said were life-threatening—related to a left-hand injury, canceling a fight with Williams and making the Espino fight shortly afterward. “If there are critics now, there are going to be a lot more if I don’t dominate,” Pavlik said during a recent conference call to talk about the fight, which will be shown on pay-per-view.

If Pavlik’s been on an unusual path to where he stands, Espino has, too. To Espino’s surprise, fighting on the first season of The Contender, which aired in 2005 on NBC, led to… not much.

“I thought I was going to go to big fights after The Contender and get TV fights, but that wasn’t the case,” he said. “I had to fight local fights and in Mexico in little stadiums of 500 people.”

So be it; nothing like a big dose of low-payday humility to motivate a guy, Espino said.

“I kept working hard and look at me now,” he said. “We are fighting for the middleweight championship of the world.”

Pavlik enjoyed big-time success as Espino toiled in obscurity, ’til he faced a torrent of trouble. Bernard Hopkins hammered the Youngstown, Ohio fighter in October, 2008. After an easy fight in February against Marco Antonio Rubio, along came the hand woes.

“It has been crazy, the hand,” he said. “We’ve worked through that and it’s in the past. The problem with the hand was time-consuming. People wanted to fight and everything was supposed to get done.”

But everything came undone.

“After the first surgery we thought we would be ready to go,” Pavlik recalled. “After I got the stitches out, it opened up again and the pus started coming out and they did a re-culture on it and an MRI and it got worse. Finally we were on a new antibiotic and that wasn’t doing the job so we went back in and did another surgery and after that everything was fine.”

Fine for a little while, Pavlik went on.

“The infection eventually went away with new antibiotics,” he said, noting that he was treated at the Cleveland Clinic, one of the country’s top hospitals and a place where doctors won’t tell fibs for fights. “After it went away we got a new reaction from the antibiotics. That put me in the hospital for four days with a very serious problem. At the end of the day we had two major surgeries within two months of each other and the tendons were coming out of the hand.”

Pavlik’s promoter, Bob Arum, said the problem reached a life-threatening level.

“We knew what Kelly went through physically and how close he was to not making it at all, not just to fight, but not making it at all,” Arum said.

Contentions that it was all a scam were infuriating, he added.

“To have those statements made, like the genius that trains Williams, claiming that Kelly was faking the injury, when I hear that I feel so embarrassed for the sport,” said Arum, rarely if ever one to take an understated approach. “I’m 78 and I’ve put my whole life into this sport and to hear morons like that talk when they have no basis for what they are saying really makes me sad.”

Whatever’s said, business in the ring remains just that, Pavlik believes, which motivated him to grind hard in preparing.

“No matter the talk or not, I feel I have to go out there, especially after the layoff, I feel we have to look good and that’s the reason our training camp has been the way it’s been,” he said.”

Pavlik said his hand’s in good order; a minor matter won’t cause problems.

“The only thing with the hand right now is I can’t bend it the whole way, but I would say it is at 100 percent,” he said. “We are sparring ten-rounds, eight-rounds with different sparring partners, mixing it up and bringing in fresh guys and the hand is fine. At first, we were wearing 18-ounce gloves just to make sure it would be safe and the last couple of times went down to the regular size. The hand is feeling good, there is no pain and everything is fine.”

If there’s a silver lining, it’s that the struggles have refreshed Pavlik’s enthusiasm after 19 years of fighting.

I definitely feel hungrier,” he said. “I miss it. Boxing is what I’ve been doing since I was eight years old. When I take this time off that I have had off, I definitely got the hunger back and I feel excited and anxious.”

While Pavlik returns to a familiar spotlight, It’s Espino’s first time on the big stage. He’s thrilled by the opportunity.

“Any fighter that is in the ring has a shot,” he said. “He is the champ, but do I have a shot? Absolutely. Am I going in there to win? Absolutely. I am not going in there just to receive the biggest payday of my career just to say I fought the world champion and gave him a tough fight. I wouldn’t be in this game if I were to do that. I am going to Ohio, give the best performance of my life and God willing I am going to come back with the belts and that’s what I am training for.

Pavlik has no doubt about that, which led him to train in Las Vegas.

“We have to be focused; that’s why we went to Vegas for a couple of weeks, to get our head straight,” he said. “We got some good runs on the hills and we got back here and brought in more sparring partners. We go from morning to night, watching film and training all day in different gyms.”

That was the simple stuff, Pavlik said.

“The challenging part was getting better, not getting back to fight mode, to getting ourselves better and we did it,” he said. “No one knew how long that was going to take, not even the doctors. There was no telling how long it was going take before the hand would close. Getting prepared mentally for the fight was not the problem. I am hungry and that’s easy.”

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