The story of the retired athlete is often a sad one. Financial mismanagement, physical decline, mental health concerns and simply missing the sport are too often part of the tale.
One could argue that former boxers are more susceptible than most. Shorter careers, promotional issues and the toll of getting hit in the face have a long lasting impact after the fighter exits the game.
Kelly Pavlik has proven himself to be an exception.
When “The Ghost” fought his last fight in 2012 at age 30, many questioned the decision. A three-time world middleweight champion with a 40-2 record – his only losses to sure-fire Hall of Famers Sergio Martinez and Bernard Hopkins – conventional wisdom says he should have kept going.
At the time of his departure, Pavlik’s character was questioned. But a recent wide-ranging conversation with him shows that is a short-sighted view. As he told me, after the Andre Ward fight fell apart due to Ward’s shoulder injury, there were simply no big fights left.
Top Rank had moved him to California to work with famed trainer Robert Garcia. However, living away from his family in Youngstown, Ohio, and without a marquee event on the horizon, Pavlik found his heart for the sport slipping away. He had been a pro fighter for 12 years and was homesick. As he told me, “If you ain’t got it in your heart, don’t do this sport.”
“Most fighters move away early and that’s how they make their money,” he said. But after a year in California, Pavlik thought of the promise he made to himself and his children. “When I’m 50 years old, I want to be able to play catch with my kids.”
Knowing you can’t be half-in as a fighter, Pavlik took inventory. Do I have enough money? Can I make it last? Am I truly over the itch to fight? The answer to the first two questions was yes. By hiring a good financial manager, listening to the wisdom of his family, making wise investments and being generally frugal guy (he still shops at Wal-Mart), he knew he could take care of himself and his family.
Being from a blue-collar background, Pavlik admitted when the big money started coming in it was a shock to his system.
“It’s easy to fall into the trap of spending more as you make more,” he said. “As a young fighter, you feel invincible. You think the money will keep coming in.” He considers himself fortunate to have had good people behind him when he occasionally overspent, but more importantly, when given the advice to reign it in, he listened.
Now, did he get the itch to fight a couple of times over the past few years? Sure, but he scratched it by going to the gym, hitting the bag and doing some sparring. He doesn’t need boxing’s bright lights anymore.
In assessing his career, he felt he had done enough, had enough money, and could walk away in peace. So, he did.
Looking Back: The Jermain Taylor Fight
During our discussion, we reminisced over his first fight with Jermain Taylor. Pavlik walked in as the clear underdog. Both fighters were undefeated, but Taylor was the champion with consecutive (if controversial) wins over Bernard Hopkins.
Pavlik won the first round. In round two, Taylor scored a knockdown with a hard right hand. As Pavlik’s corner asked him what happened, I remember him looking up calmly and saying, “It was a good shot.” Pavlik told me Taylor’s knockdown punch was more of an equilibrium shot.
“I was mentally there, my legs were gone though,” he said. Referee Steve Smoger told him as long as he could hold on and throw punches, he wouldn’t stop the fight. He told himself, “If I get up, I’m going to win the fight.” About a minute and a half into the third round, he knew he had it.
“I think I stole his heart in that round,” he said. He looked at Taylor and felt he could read his mind. “Shit, I had him out and he just kicked my ass in this third round,” he imagined Taylor thinking. Pavlik threw close to 90 punches in the third and the discouragement on Taylor’s face was evident at the close.
Pavlik felt like his ability to get up, trade and apply pressure so soon after hitting the canvas did more to win the fight than Taylor getting gassed from trying for the knockout. In fact, he thought not only that he was going to win, but that he might be able to stop him. Which he did in the 7th round, with a brutal flurry that closed the show.
“I hit hard,” Pavlik told me. Jermain Taylor found out.
The State of the Sweet Science:
We also discussed his thoughts on the current state of boxing. While many believe it to be a fringe sport – and some even argue it’s a dying one – Pavlik sees it differently.
“Boxing is never going to die,” he said. “There may be some threats along the way, but it’s still the sweet science.” Our conversation turned to who might be the next person to carry the sport, a la Floyd Mayweather. While he agreed that no one has taken the mantle, he thinks GGG is close, and he’s also a big believer in the potential of Lomachenko. He particularly sees a great future in the welterweight division, with a substantial depth of talent including Porter, Thurman, Brook and Errol Spence Jr.
In assessing recent fights, Pavlik thought Ward/Kovalev was close, but couldn’t find the rounds for Ward. However, he doesn’t think the decision was a travesty, and in fact likes Ward a lot and finds him good for the sport. He just felt Ward did not do enough work. He said too many of the body punches Ward was credited for were “on the clinch.”
Pavlik was also impressed by Golovkin/Jacobs. He had GGG winning the fight, but said there was also a way to score the fight for Jacobs. He pointed out that GGG is 35 years old, and he detects a slowdown. He feels that fans underestimate the physical toll the sport takes on the fighter.
“People only see the glamorous part of boxing, the fights, but it’s the sparring that causes most of the head trauma and wears a fighter down. Not everyone is a physical freak like Bernard Hopkins,” he said. “Who knows when age will show up?”
The accumulation of punishment changes you, he said. Some boxers spar 30 rounds a week during a two-month training camp. The gloves may be heavier and they may be wearing head gear (which as Pavlik pointed out is more to prevent cuts), but he’s seen more people get hurt in sparring than he has on fight night.
“You may have sparred or been in a fight before,” Pavlik said, referring to fans, “but they are two different worlds.” Having someone heavily trained and trying to hurt you all night is a singular experience. In short, unless you’ve done it, you can’t know.
According to Pavlik, perhaps the biggest burden the sport now carries is promoters protecting their fighters and avoiding the match ups fans want to see. The effort to keep fighters undefeated stirs frustrations in the fan base and keeps boxing from expanding its reach.
Pavlik also has mixed thoughts on Pay-Per-View and whether the expense cuts off the average fan. While he does believe it has an impact, he thinks fans will find a way to see the big fights whether by hosting parties or going to sports bars. He thinks some recent PPVs would have been better off on broadcast or cable networks, but “as long as PPV keeps putting up the numbers, it’s hard to argue.”
Pavlik’s next goal is to open a gym in the Youngstown area, a place where people can learn the craft of boxing, but also get a standard workout with weights and cardio. He thinks the key to success is viewing it as a long-term investment rather than chase after a single star boxer. He wants to find a great location and create a space that serves anyone who want to get a quality workout at a high-class gym. Pavlik knows it’s a big investment, a gamble even.
“Boxing equipment ain’t cheap. Buildings ain’t cheap,” he said. What he needs to consider before taking on the project is, “Am I ready to be there at least five hours a day?” He wants to create a community and have fun, but also wants it to make money – a labor of love, but also a business.
As for the here and now, Pavlik isn’t sitting idle in retirement. Besides his investments, he recently started a podcast, “The Punchline,” with his friend James Dominguez. It’s a wide-ranging talk show that covers not only boxing, but whatever else these two longtime friends have in mind.
It’s a fantastic show, offering deep insights into the sport with humor and thoughtfulness, while highlighting the easy chemistry between the co-hosts. Pavlik and Dominguez are all in on this venture, having partnered with Ohio’s NEO Sports Insiders and starting their own YouTube channel as well.
Pavlik has been away from boxing for a long time. On April 8th, he and Dominguez went to the Lomachenko/Sosa fight, his first time in attendance as media. It was also the first big fight he had been to in five years.
When Pavlik thinks of where he is in his life and his turn to podcasting he says, “It’s my turn where I can state my side.” He clearly has a lot to say, and it’s well worth hearing.
You can follow The Punchline on Twitter @KPavlikPunchlin, on Facebook at PunchLineWithKPJD, and listen to previous episodes on Mixcloud and YouTube at youtu.be/LKv65OBtWY8