Kelly Pavlik (right) cracks Miguel Espino (left) with a right cross in one of their many exchanges during their middleweight title bout on Saturday. The middleweight champ, who's had a frustrating 2009, seemed at home battling on the inside and gradually wore his gutsy challenger down to a fifth-round stoppage. Photo / Naoki Fukuda
Nobody in boxing is happier to see 2009 come to an end than Kelly Pavlik.
The year began with the middleweight champ looking to answer questions about his ability after his embarrassingly one-sided decision loss to Bernard Hopkins last October.
As it came to a close, even more questions were raised — about his health, his personal life and his willingness to face top opposition — after a persistent Staph infection in his left hand forced him to pull out of two scheduled bouts with Paul Williams amid rumors of substance abuse.
The hearsay and skepticism was enough to make Pavlik fighting mad and the 27-year-old champ took his frustrations out on Miguel Espino, stopping the game but overmatched challenger in the fifth round of a exciting brawl in front of his hometown fans at the Beeghly Center in Youngstown, Ohio, on Saturday.
Pavlik (35-1, 31 knockouts) was too big, too strong and just plain too good for Espino (20-3-1, 9 KOs), but the North Hollywood, Calif., native didn’t care.
Espino took the fight to Pavlik and forced the champ to engage in high-volume phone-booth warfare from the opening bell until the bigger man’s power and technique wore him down and forced his trainer John Bray to throw in the towel, ending the highly entertaining scrap at 1:44 of the fifth round.
Pavlik, who sported an abrasion under his right eye for most of the fight and absorbed his share of hard body shots and hooks from Espino, willingly engaged in the trenches until he zeroed in with uppercuts from both hands that twice dropped the gutsy challenger to his knee for nine counts in the fourth round.
Pavlik seemed at home, even happy, during the brutal infighting, grinning during exchanges in the third and fourth rounds.
He’s been itching for a fight all year and Espino, though outgunned, gave him one.
“I’m mad at myself because John had a perfect game plan,” Espino, a 29-year-old graduate of the first season of The Contender reality series, said during his post-fight interview. “As soon as Kelly hit me and I didn’t feel it that much, I said the heck with the game plan, let’s rumble. And that’s what I did.”
Espino got up and attacked Pavlik after each knockdown. He literally raced across the ring to Pavlik at the start of the fifth round but was soon dropped for a third time by yet another uppercut.
Bray did the right thing by forcing referee Steve Smoger to wave the fight off. His act of mercy prevented his fighter from getting seriously hurt.
Pavlik, who hadn’t fought since scoring a ninth-round TKO of Marco Antonio Rubio in February, will probably receive more criticism for having such a tough fight with a boxer who isn’t even considered a fringe contender in some circles of the industry, but he seemed satisfied to get some rounds in and have his mettle tested by Espino.
“I didn’t plan on doing it,” Pavlik said of the trench warfare, “but there was a little rust. No matter if I tried to fight on the outside (Espino) was determined. He came to fight and it came down to guts and glory.
“I had to give myself a gut check. It’s been a while.”
Pavlik could have fought a smarter fight but he said he wanted to test his chin and rehabilitating left hand.
“I don’t need to go in there and trade punches if I don’t have to,” he said. “He hit me with some good body shots, but most of the punches I could take. As the fight went on the rust started wearing off a bit. (I was able to) throw hooks, uppercuts, jabs and body shots and (my hand) held up.”
Fans who were surprised at how competitive Espino was in the first three rounds are probably wondering how well Pavlik would have held up against Williams.
Pavlik and his promoter Bob Arum would like to find out in 2010.
“Kelly had a contract signed by Kelly and by Paul Williams to fight on Dec. 5, but Kelly’s hand didn’t allow it to happen,” Arum said during a post-fight interview. “I say this to those loud mouths with Williams: Just initial the contract and we’ll do it first thing next year.
“That’s all they have to do. And if they don’t, let them shut their damn mouths.”
When asked whether he is targeting Williams in 2010, Pavlik replied “(He’s) the top name in the division, so that’s who we want.
“We wanted him (in 2008) but he pulled out of that fight,” he continued. “That’s why we jumped up two weight classes to fight Bernard Hopkins.”
The loss to the future hall of famer was the beginning of Pavlik’s problems, which have stagnated his once-promising career.
Saturday’s fun fight with Espino was a step in the right direction.
A showdown with Williams in 2010 would help Pavlik forget about 2009 and give him the opportunity to finally answer those questions.