Undefeated middleweight contender Kelly “The Ghost” Pavlik of Youngstown, Ohio, punched his way into fistic prominence when he became the first man to stop former WBO junior middleweight champion Bronco McKart of Monroe, Michigan, at the Mohegan Sun Casino in Uncasville, Connecticut, on July 27.

The Top Rank promoted card was the first ever to be televised by the Outdoor Life Network (OLN), which has committed itself to more boxing programming in the future.

Their second show is scheduled for August 10 in Las Vegas and will feature 108-pound champion Brian Viloria and Irish middleweight sensation John Duddy. They are also planning to broadcast classic fights from the Top Rank library.

The announcers for the inaugural card were Bob Papa and Wallace Matthews, both of whom were very impressed with the 24-year-old Pavlik’s performance.

The 6’3” Pavlik, who trains at the Southside Boxing Club in his hometown, dropped McKart twice in the sixth round with powerful left hands.

When referee Ricky Gonzalez stopped the fight at the 2:45 mark, Pavlik improved his unblemished record to 28-0 (25 KOS), while McKart, who has tangled with the likes of Winky Wright (three times), Aaron Davis, Verno Philips and Travis Simms during his 14-year career, saw his ledger dip to 48-7 (31 KOS).

“He’s the real deal,” said McKart, whose face was swollen and  bruised.  

Pavlik, who has been promoted by Top Rank since turning pro in June 2000 after a successful amateur career, suffered the first knockdown of his career against the southpaw McKart.

In the fourth round, McKart landed a right hook and the off-balance Pavlik’s right glove touched the canvas.

Pavlik, who said that he slipped on some water in the ring, wasn’t the least bit concerned.  

“This was a convincing win,” he said before lobbying for a bout with undisputed middleweight champion Jermain Taylor, to whom he lost a decision at the 2000 Olympic Trials.

Top Rank matchmaker Bruce Trampler might have other plans for Pavlik, who is managed by Cameron Dunkin.

Two days before the McKart fight, Trampler was asked why he was putting Pavlik in with the durable and always difficult McKart, who is always very hard to look good against.

“We have a chance to fight Winky Wright, so I wanted to get Kelly some experience against a good lefthander,” said Trampler. “McKart is a solid guy who won’t fall down and will try to win. These are the kinds of fights that Kelly needs right now.”

Whether or not Pavlik is ready for a championship caliber veteran as tricky and savvy as Wright or a titlist as hot as Taylor is open to conjecture. But he can no longer be dismissed as a bomber who would fold as soon as he was significantly challenged.

For the first couple of rounds, an inspired McKart actually gave more than he got, but Pavlik never stopped coming forward throwing strong, tight punches.

“He’s a tough kid,” said Trampler. “He was a very good amateur and he’s been a good pro. Every fight that he’s been in, he’s learned something.”

Trampler is a New Jersey native who studied journalism at Ohio University in Athens, which is about three hours south of Youngstown. In the late seventies, the area was a fistic hotbed. There was a thriving club scene, and champions like Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini and Harry Arroyo emerged from Youngstown.

It was among that milieu that Trampler got his start in boxing. He still carries a torch for boxers and boxing from that area.

“We were hoping that Kelly could do some business at the box office,” said Trampler. “He’s a guy that people can care about. And I was thinking that he could, in effect, bring me ‘home’ again.”

Although Pavlik has had only a few fights in or near his hometown, he is undoubtedly a fan favorite there. With a knockout percentage hovering around 90 percent, it is hard to not get excited about him.

“Kelly is a real puncher, and there’s nothing that fight fans like more than punchers,” said Trampler.

Unfortunately the normally quiet and soft-spoken Pavlik doesn’t always limit his fighting to the ring. Last December he was arrested for slugging an off-duty deputy sheriff who was trying to eject Pavlik and some of his unruly pals from a Youngstown bar.

Although initially charged with felony assault, he was allowed to plead guilty to a misdemeanor a few months later. Anthony J. Farris, the chief assistant city prosecutor, conceded that the incident was an aberration that was perhaps brought on Pavlik’s frustration with the pace of his career.

“He’s not a guy who’s been in trouble,” Farris told writer Michael Rosenthal of ESPN.com. “I’ve been prosecuting cases here for 10 years and I’ve never heard anything bad about him. He’s not a troublemaker. In fact, we’re all proud of him. We want him to become champ.”

The next few months should set the tone for Pavlik’s future. Lou DiBella, who promotes Taylor, scouted Pavlik  at the McKart fight and came away impressed.

After the way Pavlik beat McKart, as well as the way he stopped the rugged Fulgencio Zuniga, who was 17-1-1, in nine rounds in his previous fight, promoter Bob Arum believes he is now a proven network commodity.  

However, added Arum in no uncertain terms, for a white fighter like Pavlik second guessing is to be expected.

“The general tendency is [to believe] that white guys can’t fight,” he told Rosenthal. “It’s much tougher for a white kid to break through. You can’t say, ‘He’s a white kid who can’t fight. Why waste time with him on the network.’ That’s the reverse prejudice we have right now. Not that network people are bad people. It’s just perception. They judge people by their racial background.”

HBO executives and analysts rightfully took offense to those comments. “Arturo Gatti and the Klitschko’s were white the last time I checked,” countered Larry Merchant.

It is also hard to forget that three of the four recognized heavyweight champions are white, which, if you think in those terms, makes WBC titlist Hasim Rahman the Great Black Hope.

Pavlik, as well as those closest to him, don’t think in those terms. Pavlik just wants to be recognized as a world champion, and is willing to go through hell or high water to make that happen. More than anything else, he wants a rematch with his amateur nemesis Taylor.

“I’ve been a pro for six years, and I am undefeated,” he said. “I’m willing to fight anybody. All I want is the opportunity to prove myself. That’s all that I’m asking for.”