Finishing second is usually better than finishing last.
In boxing, there is no difference.
Every time Kelly Pavlik steps into the ring these days can be described as a second chance. Until he manages a good performance in a title fight, it is likely also a last chance.
The 30-year-old Pavlik has taken quite a tumble since his days as, perhaps, the most exciting fighter in the world and one of the best pound-for-pound boxers. The former middleweight champion's drop was only partially due to losses to Bernard Hopkins and Sergio Martinez in a span of 18 months. The latter cost the Youngstown fighter the title he worked so hard for.
Often rumored to have a problem with alcohol, even during his time at the top of the middleweight division, Pavlik's stock plummeted more than one could have imagined after the loss to Martinez in 2010. A family intervention and two stints in rehab did not do anything to raise his status.
A big part of this is that Pavlik had become unreliable, in the ring and out of it. There was a time when you knew what you were getting with him: A fighter who would train his butt off and would win action-packed fights primarily because of his devastating right hand. Since those days, he's backed out of several fights (always citing injuries or infections) and there were times when even Jack Loew - his only trainer on his way to the top of the boxing world - could not locate him when he was supposed to be training.
When I was in Dallas for the Manny Pacquiao-Antonio Margarito fight - seven months after Pavlik lost his title - I was approached by someone from Top Rank, Bob Arum's group which promotes Pavlik. He basically told me that Top Rank was equally frustrated with Pavlik and that he was running out of chances. They felt they could not risk making Pavlik a headliner on a pay-per-view event because they couldn't afford to have him back out at the last minute.
That Top Rank has stuck by its fighter through all this is somewhat remarkable. We live in a country which roots for those who can overcome personal strife, provided they acknowledge their shortcomings. Pavlik never really admitted that he has a problem. Pavlik has blamed everyone but his perceived personal struggle for his fall from grace
He dropped Loew in favor of Roberto Garcia, one of the most respected trainers in the world and now spends a lot less time in Youngstown. While both could prove to be smart moves in the long run, one still wonders how far he can go holding hands with denial, how long it will be before these demons knock him out for good.
During a teleconference for a July 7 fight with Will Rosinsky (16-1, 9 knockouts) he was asked if he's 100 percent sober. Pavlik's response was typically evasive.
"Right now I am in training," he said. "You see people mentioning the last couple incidents, but that is a three-year-old question. I will talk about my fight coming up and the opponent I am fighting."
In his seventh-round TKO victory over Scott Sigmon on June 8, Pavlik (39-2, 34 KOs) showed more flashes of his former self than he has in a couple of years. Rosinsky should pose little problem next week at the Home Depot Center in Carson, Calif.
But every time Pavlik steps into the ring the pressure might be greater than it ever has been for him. As an up-an-coming fighter with a great punch, Pavlik could have easily overcome a loss and still reached the top. As a former champion with a lot of baggage, a loss to a lower-level fighter may mean the end of the road to his title hopes.
Said Arum: "He was on a roll in those days and it was one success after another. We hope to replicate that now. Let's see how he does in this fight - we expect him to do well and then we are going to step him up to a much bigger fight in his next fight in the fall. But it's one step at a time."
One step at a time should be Pavlik's motto. I hope step one is recognition and solution to his personal battles. He doesn't have to admit his problems to anyone, as long as he knows they're there and deals with them.
I actually root for Pavlik. I feel he had a tougher upbringing than he will ever let on. From my dealings with him over the years I feel that he, deep down, is a good person.
But, unfortunately, his biggest fight might not be in the ring.