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Pavlik’s image most important outside ring

February 27, 2011
Ed Puskas

For years, Kelly Pavlik has been an object of pride in the Mahoning Valley.

Pavlik put Youngstown back on the boxing map as he climbed through the ranks and eventually became a world middleweight champion. This area - starved for something good to balance against crippling job losses, an epic economic downturn and the blight of crime and urban decay - seemed to look to Pavlik as a savior of sorts.

But even as he was winning fights and becoming a national and international figure in the ring, Pavlik was gaining almost as much notoriety for what was happening to him outside it.

A serious staph infection put Pavlik, 28, in the hospital and interrupted a title defense, but let's be clear. Not everything that was happening to him was completely beyond his control. Many of Pavlik's problems were the result of self-inflicted wounds - the kind a man can receive when he searches for answers or comfort at the bottom of a bottle.

Youngstown is a city, but at its heart it is a small town, especially for someone as well-known and recognizable as Pavlik. It wasn't long before his drinking exploits became the stuff of legend, whether or not all the stories had legs.

John D'Altorio, Pavlik's publicist, admits "maybe 50 percent" of the rumors about the fighter contained elements of truth. It didn't much matter that a good portion of what we heard might have been bunk. Perception is reality, especially when it comes to public figures and especially for a guy who has become the face of Youngstown.

There was an intervention in early 2010, followed by a stay at the Betty Ford Clinic. It didn't take. By September, Pavlik's family decided another intervention was needed. The fighter initially resisted, but relented and spent 60 days at The Ranch Recovery Center in Desert Hot Springs, Calif.

Pavlik has kept a low profile since returning to Youngstown, but D'Altorio got the word out earlier this week that the fighter would meet with local reporters on Tuesday afternoon at Loew's South Side Gym.

Some local reporters, anyway.

The Tribune Chronicle, I learned, was not invited because - according to D'Altorio - Pavlik is still upset about an editorial page cartoon that appeared on Dec. 5.

Cartoonist Rick Muccio depicted Pavlik in the fight of his life, against alcohol. The cartoon showed a dazed Pavlik having been knocked down by an opponent in the shape of a beer bottle, with a referee counting down the former champion. The beer bottle is saying, "I could make his career a ghost!"

Pavlik, of course, has long been nicknamed, "The Ghost."

It was a powerful statement about the boxer's battle to reclaim his career and perhaps the life he wants to have.

D'Altorio said someone sent the cartoon to Pavlik during his second rehab stint. He called it a cheap shot.

"He has a family," D'Altorio said. "His daughter goes to school now. Kids were showing that to her at school."

He said the newspaper's decision to publish the cartoon meant that representatives of our staff weren't welcome at Tuesday's news conference and would not be granted access to Pavlik "for now."

"Kelly knows it wasn't the sports department, but it's still the Tribune," D'Altorio said. "They should have run that cartoon by you before they ran it."

I asked D'Altorio what would happen if we showed up at the gym anyway.

"You won't get in," he said.

After we talked for a while, I thanked D'Altorio for calling me back - I suppose he didn't have to do that - and decided we'd show up anyway.

Sure enough, sportswriter Vince Taddei was denied entry. Photographer Dave Dermer got inside at first, but estimated he was there for just "15 seconds" before he was asked to leave.

Vince got the story anyway, thanks to the newspaper's relationship with WYTV 33 News. It was the lead story in our sports section on Wednesday.

I have mixed feelings about the cartoon. I understand why Pavlik and his people feel the way they do, but I also agree with Muccio and our newsroom leaders that the cartoon had intrinsic news value. It also should be noted that the Tribune Chronicle's editorial board does not need to clear Muccio's cartoons with me - even if they happen to be sports-related.

Besides, if the cartoon was presented to me and my opinion was sought, I might have greenlighted it for the reasons I mentioned previously.

It was a powerful image that attempted to put in perspective a real-life battle that afflicts many people, including - by his own admission and those of his family and friends - Pavlik.

I hope he defeats this opponent.

Pavlik has long been considered Youngstown's savior. His battle against alcoholism shows that he might instead be an all-too-human reflection of his city - a flawed, but perhaps determined figure who still has a shot at redemption.

Maybe it will come in the ring, but that's not the redemption I'm talking about, because I'm not rooting for Kelly Pavlik, the boxer. I don't particularly care about his career, or if he will one day allow me - or anybody else on our sports staff - to attend a news conference.

I'm rooting for Kelly Pavlik, the man.

I'm rooting for his wife and two children, because they're what is important.

They'll need him long after boxing's alphabet organizations and the sport's biggest leeches have moved on to someone else.



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