Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Sporting Life Heads To Y-Town

When I first informed Lisa, a new boxing fan, that I had purchased tickets to a major title bout, she assumed from having watched fights on HBO that a great long weekend trip to Las Vegas or New York was in her future. Her shoulders sagged a little when I told her that the venue for the Kelly Pavlik - Marco Antonio Rubio middleweight title fight was defending champion Pavlik's hometown - gritty and depressed Youngstown, Ohio. But Lisa was to discover that neither Vegas nor the Big Apple could match the electricity and excitement to be found in the old blue collar steel town on fight night - Saturday, February 21st. We found that everyone in town was heavily invested in the necessity of a Pavlik victory. Part of the reason is that Pavlik's rise to the top of the boxing world is about the only bright spot for a downtrodden community most often associated with long-closed steel mills, Mafia mobsters, and its bizarre now jailed congressman Jim Traficant. But the biggest reason Pavlik is adored is that he has remained fiercely loyal to his Youngstown roots: Kelly still lives with his parents in a working class neighborhood; his trainer and managerial staff are all Youngstown guys he has been with from the beginning. The most notable of these characters is his trainer Jack Loew. who also runs a driveway sealing business. Kelly's first loss last year in a non-title bout out of his weight class to the great but aging Bernard Hopkins sent unpleasant shock waves to the largely blue-collar ethnic populace of the Mahoning Valley. Was Youngstown's one bright star about to be extinguished? Would Pavlik be able to rebound against the tough Mexican fighter Rubio, the number one challenger? Rubio, who had previously been certified in Mexico as a nurse with EMT training, boasted in pre-fight bravado that he would be able to administer to Pavlik's wounds after giving the "Ghost" a beating at Youngstown's Chevrolet Centre, a tidy little 7,000 seat arena.

So we drove from Columbus to Youngstown on the afternoon of fight night. Lisa and I wanted to hit a hot spot in Y town for a pre-fight dinner so we could soak up the excitement. Our good German Village friend, Stefanie Martt, a Youngstown native, recommended the MVR (Mahoning Valley Restaurant), an Italian joint just north of downtown near the Youngstown State campus. We arrived at 5 PM and the place was already flush with raucous Pavlik supporters. We miraculously secured a table near the bar. Lisa ordered the "pasta Tressel" (so named in honor of coach Jim Tressel who coached Youngstown State to national titles before landing his OSU gig) while I opted for the MVR pasta (hungarian peppers and sausage). Delicious!. We noticed that many of the patrons, old and young alike, wore black Pavlik tee-shirts featuring a sepulchral grim reaper figure sporting boxing gloves (i.e. Pavlik- the "ghost"). The Pavlik team designed these tees specially for this fight. Businessmen who normally would not be caught dead in such death metal attire proudly showed them off. After dinner we hung around the bar and made friends with Joe Miller who bought us drinks and gave us the scoop. He assured us that we had chosen the perfect pre-fight location - that Coach Tressel himself as well as Kirk Herbstreit and other notables were dining in the back room. The MVR was also hosting Pavlik's post-fight victory (hopefully) party. Joe personally knew Pavlik's trainer Jack Loew, and virtually everyone around us could boast of a connection with the Pavlik team. He estimated that 75% of the diners would be at the fight, but most would avoid the preliminary bouts and show up just in time for the main event. We wanted to see the whole production so we reluctantly took leave of Joe and the MVR and headed to the Chevrolet Centre.

We arrived before the doors opened at 7:30 PM. While waiting in line, we were surprised to encounter my esteemed Thompson Hine-Cincinnati law partner Earle Maiman and his wife. Earle informed us that he is a serious boxing fan, and that his Pavlik-Rubio tickets were a family present. Our seats were good ($300 apiece).

Once inside the Chevrolet Centre, we observed most of the concession booths were peddling liquor. Jell-O shots were going fast at $1. We lingered a moment to check out the ring on route to our Row N floor seats. Set off by blue moody lighting, the ring seemed a tranquil place in sharp contrast to the mayhem shortly to follow.

We spotted Bob Arum, the event's promoter and mastermind of Top Rank Boxing . He seemed preoccupied which was understandable because the HBO telecast he was promoting would require juggling the Pavlik fight with a number of other bouts which were being contested at Madison Square Garden, including the Miguel Cotto-Michael Jennings WBO welterweight championship. The idea was that after the Chevrolet Centre undercard of seven fights was concluded, we would watch Cotto-Jennings on the big screen. Fight night would then conclude with Pavlik-Rubio. To help alleviate concerns over timing, Arum built some slack into the undercard with a couple of the fights slated for 4 or alternatively 6 rounds. If the early undercard fights ended quickly, then the later fights would be six round bouts rather than four. I am sure timing must have been a concern as most of the early fights on the card ended quickly by knockout. Most were mismatches of a promising fighter with an aging "has-been" or more accurately "never was." Have you ever wondered how it is that all the fighters in televised bouts have fabulous records? How can all the fighters be undefeated?. Lisa and I can now attest that fighters with such desultory records as 9-26 and 1-5 do exist and several were fighting in Youngstown on the undercard. But, perhaps inspired by the occasion, even the mismatched losers fought gamely. The most exciting fight on the undercard was local boy Jake Giuriceo's second round knockout of Michael Suarez. Giuricio's straight right hand sent Suarez to the canvas for a count of ten in both fighters' professional debut. The Youngstown fans also welcomed back Ray "Boom Boom" Mancini, the former lightweight champion circa 1982 who had the unfortunate experience of killing another fighter in the ring. Prior to Pavlik, Boom Boom had been Youngstown's greatest boxer and most notable athlete.

At about 10:15PM, the fans turned their attention to the monitors to watch Cotto-Jennings. It was over in four rounds with Cotto routing the Englishman. As soon as the Cotto fight ended, the decibel level in the Chevrolet Centre escalated in anticipation of the main event. You can't match the electric atmosphere of a big title fight, and the emergence of local hero Pavlik and his entourage into the arena caused total pandemonium. Pavlik is so white with bald head and alabaster skin and elongated frame that he does resemble a "ghost." Rubio, who from everything I have read is a nice guy, is definitely very unpopular in Youngstown tonight. Once the fight is underway, Pavlik quickly seizes control by bullrushing Rubio and backing him up to the ropes with a two-fisted attack. Pavlik scores several times to the roar of the crowd, and then Rubio manages to counter-punch his way off the ropes and out of trouble. This is a theme that is repeated throughout the fight: Pavlik pushing Rubio to the ropes and scoring as he does so, and then Rubio managing to extricate himself, but a little the worse for wear each time. After the fight Jack Loew indicated that the Pavlik camp's fight strategy had been to push Rubio back because the tapes had shown the Mexican had difficulty fighting effectively when moving backwards. Pavlik is winning most of the rounds although Rubio had good moments in round three and six. Although Pavlik is landing more punches, Rubio is still scoring on occasion and remains dangerous. The crowd's enthusiasm is tempered with concern that the fight could still turn against Pavlik. Finally in round 9, Rubio slows down. He is not counter-punching effectively and he is taking more and more punishment on the ropes. Pavlik is a 160 pound 6' 2" mongoose who is clubbing Rubio now with straight rights and uppercuts.

Still, it is a surprise when Rubio does not come out for the 10th round. His corner had seen enough. Despite the fact that the fight was very competitive, all three judges (including one that was a Mexican countryman of Rubio's) gave all nine rounds to Pavlik. The fight was closer than that to our eyes and it was certainly no mismatch like Cotto-Jennings. So everyone in Youngstown went home happy. Pavlik got redemption; Youngstown can still brag about its hometown-loving champ; even Rubio gained respect for a game fight. Lisa got her first taste of big time prize fighting and enjoyed it immensely. Youngstown proved an exciting venue for a great night of boxing.

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