Kelly Pavlik may be the man to put Youngstown, Ohio, back in the boxing spotlight – that is, if he ever gets a chance.
Since the 1990s, the western Ohio city has been in a virtual boxing depression. The retirements of former IBF lightweight champion Harry Arroyo and former WBA lightweight champ Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini had much to do with it.
During the last 30 years, Mancini and Arroyo scheduled plenty of shows in their hometown, but never faced each other. A whirlwind of “what ifs” still tickles more than a few imaginations with the grandiose thought of a Battle of Youngstown.
Pavlik has his own “what if” that isn’t based on a hometown fantasy. It’s a tangible the 23-year-old middleweight hopes to have in his grasp within the next year: A title.
At 24-0 with 21 knockouts, Pavlik is more than qualified as a contender. He’s even rated in the top 15 in all four major rankings. Unfortunately, he may have to make a name for himself beyond the knockouts.
The plan – as with any other fighter – is exposure. He will get quite a Friday as an undercard matchup with Daniel Neal (9-8-10) to the NABF champ Jose Armando Santa Cruz (19-0, 10 KOs) vs. Eleazar Contrera Jr. (24-9-2, 9 KOs) bout at Chicago’s Aragon Ballroom.
“The more you fight around the country, the more it builds you up,” Pavlik said. “I just kind of took that fight to keep busy. If they get 800 or 1,000 people, that many people there in Chicago is a big mandate.”
In some ways, Youngstown and Chicago have much in common. Both cities are desperately attempting to restore the fights to their former glory, but Youngstown stands to benefit the most if Pavlik succeeds.
“There’s not too much going on in sports right now,” Pavlik said of Youngstown. “We could re-energize the area if I could get home and fight again.”
Pavlik wasn’t above promoting himself at home before turning pro in 2000. He studied graphic design, and had his class time interrupted 75-80 days a year for amateur shows. His instructor allowed him to design fight posters and t-shirts to promote himself before his Olympic trial attempt in 1999.
He admitted he isn’t likely to test his design abilities anytime soon.
“Right now, it’s been five years and I probably wouldn’t know how to turn on the computer,” said Pavlik, noting his fight poster did fetch an A.
Very few Youngstown pugilists have made it back to the Windy city since Mancini’s 1981 unanimous decision over Al Ford and Arroyo’s anti-climactic, career-finale points loss to Vinny Letizia in 1993.
Pavlik knows his meeting with Neal isn’t going to single-handedly return his hometown to prominence. But as the current pride of Youngstown, he’ll take his opponent as seriously as if it were Jermain Taylor or Bernard Hopkins.
“I’m pretty much one of the only pro fighters in the area (to standout),” he said. “The pressure is on, and I don’t want to let down Youngstown.”