Two undefeated middleweights with itchy trigger fingers are about to shoot it out when challenger Kelly “The Ghost” Pavlik stands two feet away from middleweight champion Jermain “Bad Intentions” Taylor.

Middleweights explode like no other fighters.

Arkansas Taylor (27-0-1, 17 KOs) faces his first true middleweight time bomb when Pavlik (31-0, 28 KOs) brings his vaunted firepower to Boardwalk Hall on Saturday Sept. 29, in Atlantic City. The showdown between 160-pounders will be televised on HBO and is promoted by Top Rank and DiBella Entertainment.

Pavlik, 25, has burned and pillaged his way from the coast of California to the East Coast like a modern day General William “Tecumseh” Sherman. Though few boxing fans west of the Mississippi River know the opposition he’s faced, the fighters he left in his wake were feared and avoided by others in the middleweight division.

It’s time for the ultimate middleweight test.

“Middleweights are exciting because they fight with the speed of featherweights and have the power to knock out heavyweights,” said Larry Merchant, HBO’s long-time analyst.

Can anyone argue otherwise?

From the late 1890s to the present the 160-pound middleweights have proven time after time they harness the best of all worlds in prizefighting.

It probably began with the gangly and unseemly Bob Fitzsimmons whose bony features and anorexic-looking frame didn’t prevent him from landing the famous “solar plexus punch” that enabled him to become the first middleweight to capture a heavyweight world championship. That happened in 1897 against Gentleman Jim Corbett in Carson City, Nevada.

Though big Jim Jeffries clobbered him twice to wrest the title away, Fitzsimmons continued to beat up men much bigger.

Another middleweight who stood toe-to-toe with men twice his size was Sam Langford. The Boston five-feet, six-inch boxer fought more than 200 bouts including several Hall of Fame heavyweights that include Jack Johnson, but he fought as low as lightweight. In 1903 he fought lightweight champion Joe Gans. Later he fought middleweights, light heavyweights and dwelled in the heavyweight division for years until he retired in 1926.

Stanley “The Michigan Assassin” Ketchel was another middleweight who could care less about size. He proved it when he accepted a fight against Jack Johnson and dropped the world champion when they fought in 1909. But the knockdown infuriated Johnson so much that he jumped up and walloped Ketchel with some whirlwind punches. But for a few seconds it looked like another middleweight was going to do what other heavyweights were unable: beat Johnson.

A year later both Ketchel and Langford battled for six furious rounds to no decision. They set the watermark for middleweights.

Mickey Walker was another middleweight who tried his fists with bigger heavyweights. Like Langford he was not quite five-feet, seven-inches and could mug an opponent or out-box him. As a heavyweight he battled Jack Sharkey, Max Schmeling, King Levinsky and Johnny Risko. He fought Sharkey to a draw at Madison Square Garden in 1931.

Later the boxing world saw middleweights like Archie “The Mongoose” Moore and Ezzard Charles wreck heavyweights when they moved up in weight.

Middleweights are plain dangerous and should be registered as deadly weapons.

The western path

After fighting seven years professionally Ohio’s Pavlik meets Taylor, 29, for the WBC and WBO middleweight titles after taking a western path to the middleweight challenge.

Raised in Youngstown, Ohio, Pavlik it was in the flaming hot desert sands of  Indio on June 16, 2000 that he made his pro debut. It was the day before the huge showdown between Oscar De La Hoya and Sugar Shane Mosley.

That night the temperatures were a sweltering 103 degrees after the sun disappeared and the tall middleweight emerged before a crowd who knew nothing about him. They were anxious to see hometown hero Antonio Diaz fight Argentina’s Omar Weis. Pavlik was merely a preliminary bout to keep the fans from yawning.

“I remember it was hot,” said Pavlik (31-0, 28 KOs).

Maybe it was the overwhelming heat or perhaps it was the pro debut jitters that made  Pavlik look rather slow and lethargic that night in stopping his first opponent Eric Tzand in the third round. It was the beginning of a slow gradual process of California and Nevada fight cards that last several years.

It took nearly a dozen fights before Pavlik’s hometown even got a glimpse. He had been traversing the western states like the pony express. Knockouts in Wisconsin, Colorado, Nevada and Tennessee came before small popcorn-size arenas until he occasionally hit Las Vegas fight venues.

“He’s a good kid who paid his dues all the way to the top of the middleweight rankings,” said Top Rank’s Bob Arum. “Kelly accomplished it just like the fighters from the 70s and 80s, like Marvin Hagler and Tommy Hearns.”

Pro debut at the Garden

Middleweight champion Taylor hasn’t exactly enjoyed a red carpet life either. Growing up in Little Rock, Arkansas without a father tested his childhood decisions on right and wrong. But the only boy among women in the Taylor family found solace inside a boxing gym.

The steely-eyed Taylor survived the rough streets and lack of a father through the amateur boxing program that helped him become an Olympian on the 2000 team that went to Australia. It was there he won the bronze medal as a light middleweight.

That medal shot him to the top as an Olympic hero and DiBella Entertainment signed Taylor.

The prize for Taylor was fighting his pro debut in the Taj Mahal of boxing arenas Madison Square Garden in New York City.

Taylor powered through decent competition in the early going with wins over Grady Brewer, Marcos Primera, Nick Cervera, Alfredo Cuevas and Alex Rios.

Beginning in 2004 Taylor’s bad intentions were spent on middleweight contenders like Alex Bunema whom he captured the WBC Continental Americas title with a seventh round technical knockout. Then it was former junior middleweight titleholder Raul Marquez who slugged it out for nine rounds with Taylor. Then came former middleweight champion William Joppy in 2004 that lasted the entire 12 rounds.

Taylor’s crowning moment came on July 16, 2005 against undisputed middleweight champion Bernard “The Executioner” Hopkins in Las Vegas.

Despite a severe lack of experience Taylor became the first fighter to defeat the Philadelphia warrior in more than 12 years. It was a very close split-decision that was awarded to Taylor who jumped to an early lead and managed to hang on as Hopkins rallied in the latter rounds. Though bruised and battered, Taylor was ecstatic as he and his team celebrated later that night around pool at the MGM Grand.

Five months later Taylor repeated the verdict in another close fight with Hopkins. The middleweight championship was his.

“He beat a guy twice who’s going into the hall of fame,” said Lou DiBella of Taylor’s victories over Hopkins. “All he’s done is beaten quality fighters.”

In his next three fights Taylor has seemed to hit a funk as smaller fighters in Winky Wright, Kassim Ouma and Cory Spinks that have been able to figure out the swarming style that gained him a title. Now he’s back to square one with Emanuel Steward training him.

Now comes the hard-hitting Pavlik. Forget that he’s a white middleweight; he’s the number one middleweight contender with a blue-collar lunch pail style that leaves fans hungering for more.

“This is the kind of fighter Jermain prefers,” DiBella says.

Under the radar

Pavlik’s last five opponents have been prizefighters that only a few hardcore boxing fans would recognize who fly under the radar of the casual boxing lover. But in boxing camps around the country they’re fighters that others avoid if they want to continue in the sport with health intact.

When Pavlik stepped in the ring against Colombia’s Fulgencio Zuniga in 2005, that fighter’s only loss came against junior middleweight titleholder Daniel Santos.

In the very first round Pavlik was suddenly dropped by a Zuniga left hook and it truly looked like the Ohio fighter was about to find his conqueror. But that night Pavlik showed much more than just power punching prowess and boxed his way to victory with a gritty determination that was never shown before.

After nine rounds of jabs and crosses to the eye of Zuniga, a cut forced the Colombian’s corner men to halt the fight despite protest from the muscular fighter. Pavlik captured the vacants NABF title that night.

“He was a strong guy,” remembers Pavlik.

Perhaps the biggest test came last January 2007 against Mexico’s little-known Jose Luis Zertuche. The former Mexican Olympian had warred twice with Colombia’s Zuniga and had engaged in a slugfest with power-hitting Carlos Bojorquez. Many boxing insiders consider Zertuche the toughest middleweight you never heard of.

“Zertuche was a guy who fought rugged fighters all through his career. He was a rugged fighter that no one else wanted to fight. He had pretty good hand speed and could hit,” said Pavlik of Zertuche. “In the end we just wore him down. He was a guy you didn’t want to take chances against.”

It was a horrific war with both boxers unleashing murderous punches that sounded like bombs landing. Ringsiders looked squeamish as both bludgeoned each other.

After five breathless rounds of pounding, the hard bricks Pavlik was firing began to wear down Zertuche’s resilience. A right hand pulverized Zertuche in the sixth round but he rose before the count of 10. However at the end of the round he couldn’t find his own corner. Two rounds later another right strafed through Zertuche’s guard and down he went for good. After the fight the ultra-tough Mexican was taken to the local hospital for observation. He hasn’t returned to the ring since.

Four months ago Pavlik was paired against the tough-talking Edison Miranda, a master of self-promotion who packed some wallop. After seven rounds Miranda became the second hard-punching Colombian middleweight to feel Pavlik’s power.

Miranda was beaten so severely all he could say was he was sorry for the insults he hurled at Pavlik.

So what does Taylor think of Pavlik now?

“I don’t mean to talk bad about him, I’m just saying what I see,” explains Taylor. “I just don’t see him on my level.”

It’s business as usual for Pavlik.

“That’s an advantage for me if that’s what he thinks,” Pavlik says.

Now the two middleweights who have never lost meet in the ring.

“This is a title fight,” says Pavlik.