"I'm tired of being the puppet."
That was former middleweight champion Kelly Pavlik's opening statement when he unexpectedly called into a boxing radio show on Tuesday night to clarify why he pulled out of a scheduled fight on just five days' notice. Whether you think he has been fed bad advice and bad information, whether you think he has a misguided perception of his turnstile-turning worth at this phase of his career, you can't excoriate Pavlik for feeling the emotions he's feeling.
He thinks he's being used, abused, undercut and underappreciated. So he is taking action -- in the form of inaction.
The result may be that Pavlik just made a career misstep from which he'll never fully recover. But even if that's the case, you have to empathize with why he did it: He needs to feel like he's taking control of his life, on some level.
Pavlik is frequently described these days as a "recovering alcoholic," though there's plenty of debate going around as to whether he's actually (a) an "alcoholic," and (b) "recovering." He spent the better part of two months in rehab toward the end of 2010. We know that much. In exactly what condition he went there, and in exactly what condition he came out, only Pavlik and the people closest to him know.
Pavlik has recently blanketed himself in tattoos -- an action taken, some would say, to announce personal control over one's body. But his physical appearance is hardly the most striking change he has undergone. Three years ago, Pavlik was on top of the boxing world, the new face of the sport in America, an undefeated champion on the pound-for-pound lists. Now he's in danger of becoming a big-name "opponent."
He doesn't want to be anybody's puppet. Who does? Especially when you've been whisked away to rehab and purportedly are trying to walk a straight line against all your natural impulses, don't you need to feel some sense of control? That's why Pavlik isn't fighting this Saturday night.
He was supposed to face little-known Darryl Cunningham at the Covelli Centre in his hometown of Youngstown, Ohio, in the main event of a Showtime card. Assuming Pavlik won the tuneup fight (his second since losing his title to Sergio Martinez and going to rehab), he would have next faced highly regarded super middleweight beltholder Lucian Bute in Canada, where Bute is a massive draw.
But we learned on Tuesday morning that neither step in that progression would happen, and immediately the boxing world turned on Pavlik, mystified as to why he would bail out of a seemingly easy fight on such short notice.
So Pavlik called in to the Maxboxing.com East Coast Boxing Report to tell his side of the story. It was a fascinating 25 minutes, with host Alec Kohut mostly lobbing softballs and letting Pavlik speak his mind. Here are some highlights, followed by my reactions:
Pavlik: "If I pick my nose, everyone talks about it. Kelly Pavlik is still one of the biggest names in boxing."
Reaction: When you get your butt kissed long enough and by enough people, it skews your perception and makes it hard to recognize when the reality shifts. Yes, Pavlik is still a big name. But not an A-lister. And yes, his probing of his proboscis is a big deal in Youngstown. But outside that small pond, it's not necessarily newsworthy.
Pavlik: "I had not known until about a week ago the amount of money I was getting paid for this fight in Youngstown, and the amount of money I was getting paid to fight Bute in Canada."
Reaction: Why did Pavlik wait that long to find out his purse for the Cunningham fight?
Pavlik: "You paid me $350,000 to fight Miguel Espino. ... You pay me $1.5 million to fight [Marco Antonio] Rubio. You pay me $3 million to jump up two weight classes to fight Bernard Hopkins at light heavyweight. And then you turn back around and say I'm going to make 50 grand to fight a southpaw on five weeks' notice? It's not going to happen."
Reaction: Pavlik has every right to feel he's being undervalued (he also harped on his belief that Mikkel Kessler was offered much more to fight Bute than he was), but a fighter's drawing power changes over time. Pavlik apparently got spoiled by being paid so handsomely when he was on top.
Pavlik: "I don't need the money. I don't. I don't need the money that bad to go sell my career and my soul short."
Reaction: This sounds on the surface like a contradiction, that he's saying out of one side of his mouth that it's all about the money, then that it's not about the money out of the other side. But there actually is no contradiction. The dollar figures offered were a blow to Pavlik's pride; he doesn't need the money, but he does need the respect a higher pay grade carries.
Pavlik: "I gotta put [Bute] on a stretcher to win the fight [in Canada]. So for me to go over there is kinda like [promoter] Top Rank is cashing in on me."
Reaction: This seems to be at the core of what's bothering Pavlik. He feels Top Rank is setting him up to fail and just looking to make a final paycheck off of him. A guy seeking control of his life can't abide by that.
Pavlik: "I'm not trying to go out there and get my head beat in for nothing. I go get punched in the face for a living. Every day of my life. So if I don't get paid what I think I deserve, I don't do it."
Reaction: You have to side with Pavlik on this one. Outsiders can point their fingers and say that the working man in Youngstown would never turn down a million-dollar payday, or even a $50,000 payday, but the risks a boxer takes are unique. You can't deny him the right to say no. (Although Pavlik has to understand he might be damaging his future earning power and his fan base in the process.)
And then there was my favorite part of the interview: Pavlik was recalling the advice a friend gave him a few days earlier, and asked Kohut, "Can I say a cuss word?"
"Go ahead," Kohut responded.
"He said, 'It would be asinine for you to take the fight.'"
Reaction: Guess I'd better spell the word "a--inine" from now on, so as not to offend anyone.
All joking aside, Pavlik's reputation took a severe hit when he pulled out of the fight, and reactions are mixed now that we've heard his side of the story. He might be misinformed. He might be acting irrationally. He might be doing something he'll later regret.
But it's clear why he's doing it: With all that he's going through, Pavlik needs to feel what it's like to pull his own strings for a change.