Kelly Pavlik doesn't owe anything to anyone.
He doesn't owe anything to Youngstown.
He doesn't owe anything to boxing.
He doesn't owe anything to his trainers.
He doesn't owe anything to you.
Aside from his wife and kids, Kelly Pavlik only owes himself.
As a sports nation, America loves to build up its heroes. It loves to hold its athletes on a pedestal. That way, when the pedestal comes crashing down, everyone can say "I told you so," and mock the person they put there.
Hypocrisy in a lot of ways is the American way. It's no different in Youngstown or the Mahoning Valley. The same people that all wanted to have drinks with Kelly, hang with Kelly, get their pictures with Kelly, have Kelly endorse whatever product they were shucking, are all the same people who are berating him for this "drinking problem" all while sucking down their own cheap swill from the comfort of their living room or in their favorite watering hole.
No, Kelly Pavlik might not be a role model for your kids, but then again he never professed to be. He worked his butt off, took punch after punch after punch and scratched and clawed his way to the top.
He did that. None of us did. He won the titles. None of us did. Sure, we cheered him on, but he did it because he wanted to. Kelly Pavlik would've won those belts if he was from Montana, Russia, Guadalupe or the Moon. Nothing was going to stop him from getting there. He was a Lowellville kid with a punch that could shake the foundations of a skyscraper, and he could take a brick to the head and still keep going. It all spelled success.
Did he drink? Yep. Did he drink a lot sometimes? Yep.
So did most of us while we watched him fight. So did half of Youngstown when he won the belt in Atlantic City and were drunk off their collective butts screaming, hooting and hollering all up and down the Atlantic City Boardwalk after he became Youngstown's golden boy.
Problems with his hand led to downtime. Downtime led to his other hobby - the bottle. He admitted it in a recent SI.com story.
When he returned to defend his belts, things were out of whack.
The Miguel Espino fight looked like it was rushed just so he didn't lose his titles because it had been nearly a year since he defended them. Espino got crushed in a lopsided affair. And before Pavlik even set foot in the ring for the title defense against Sergio Martinez, his accolades were seemingly already gone. They were for all intents and purposes an afterthought. Because truthfully his non-title bout loss to Bernard Hopkins, the rumors, the articles, the message boards and social networks had already beaten down "The Ghost" long before Martinez did.
The speculation continued. The rumors became even more highly exaggerated.
You would've thought Pavlik had Rocky Balboa as his manager and fired him.
The plot laying out in his real life was just as bad as the fifth Rocky movie.
The way so many people in Youngstown turned their backs on him, you would've thought he was trafficking children. Get the point? It was insane.
Local fans were actually booing him after his win over Espino. They payed to boo him. People that only months before held him in the highest of regards.
But this wasn't the big screen, it was for real. A huge sect of Youngstown suddenly hated Kelly Pavlik.
Maybe Pavlik hit the heavy bag too many times, tweaked his hand on a punch during a spar and it caused his injury which escalated his drinking and set everything in motion for him to purchase what he himself called the "Bar-V" - a caravan that he could have someone safely navigate around town without drinking and driving.
Alright, so the "Bar-V" wasn't exactly a great public relations move. Purchasing an actual bar in nearby Struthers probably wasn't either. But most people in Youngstown and most of the Mahoning Valley would've done the same thing given the same situation. Throw a big pile of money at someone who has never had it, build them up to be the biggest celebrity in town on top of all the fame, and notoriety, and damn near anything could happen.
A friend of mine and a long-time Pavlik supporter from his very early days said "It's the curse of Youngstown. How much money do you really need to live here? Once you get the belt, you're set. You get your couple big paydays, eventually you lose, but in time people let it go. They only remember the good parts. You lose a lot of that drive to get you there when all that money comes in and you become an instant celebrity. Everyone wants to buy you a drink. And you're from here, you grew up here. All of the sudden it's like a whole new world. Almost everyone in Youngstown would've done the exact same thing if they were in Kelly's shoes."
He was dead on.
And so Kelly partied. So what? He had a ride. He wasn't hurting anyone.
Did his haters get a ride from the Covelli Center after getting plastered at his fight while booing him?
He might not be the saint that this article is making him out to be, and I'm not professing that he is, but he's not the devil that a lot of people think he is either.
Everyone loves a good redemption story. Pavlik is already immortal in Youngstown. He's arguably bigger than Ray "Boom Boom" Mancini. He's bigger than all the former Mahoning Valley champions, and in a lot of regards, probably always will be.
Time will pass, and people will forget those problems regardless of what happens from here on. He'll be welcome at any local fight, any local sporting event, at anything he wants to go to, because he was the champ. He earned it, and those that truly look at his journey from start to present can appreciate just how hard he worked and the positive attention he brought to the Mahoning Valley.
Now comes his journey back. May 7 seems to be step 1 if they can pull it off. A sober, focused and healthy Pavlik would likely demolish whoever he faces in his first fight since rehab.
From there, it's on him. He sounds hungry. He sounds angry more than anything. There's a tone to his voice. A swagger to his step. He's got a lot of that fire back. Proving people wrong has sobered up a lot of people, and resentment is a powerful emotion that can lead to drastic changes.
What I want, and what I still feel a whole hell of a lot of people want in the Valley, is for Kelly Pavlik to be the one to say "I told you so."
Irony? Yep. And it would be so, so sweet.
E-mail B.J. Lisko at email@example.com