Time To Give A Damn About The Middleweights Again
By Jake Donovan from Boxing Scene
Raise your hand if you remember the last middleweight title fight you were actually looking forward to see.
Let me lend you a friendly assist; if you have any standards whatsoever, then that last moment came more than 2 ½ years ago.
It was when an undefeated contender named Kelly Pavlik peeled himself off of the canvas early to rally back and violently snatch the middleweight crown from the reigning undefeated champion, Jermain Taylor.
The fight was an instant classic, complete with a highlight reel ending and as fitting a changing of the guard as the sport had seen in recent memory.
Taylor was a man without an island heading into the fight, his popularity – and arguably his skill level – dramatically regressing with each passing fight. Pavlik, meanwhile, brought a traveling crowd by the thousands, with a large throng of fans making the eight-hour trek from Youngstown, Ohio to Atlantic City, New Jersey.
Saturday night will mark his third trip back to the East Coast casino town since scoring the career-defining win to ignite his middleweight reign. However, it will be the first time since his title-winning effort in which boxing fans genuinely and eagerly await.
The anticipation of this weekend’s contest as opposed to the foregone conclusion feeling heading into his previous three title defenses has everything to do with whom is standing in the opposite corner.
Title defenses against – in reverse order – Miguel Espino, Marco Antonio Rubio and Gary Lockett did little more than allow Pavlik to tread water. Taking on dangerous southpaw Sergio Martinez is anything but a sure thing, which once again has fans talking about the middleweight division.
Their bout will air live from the Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City (Saturday, HBO, 10PM ET), the first time in nearly two years that a middleweight fight has aired on their network. Even as Jermain Taylor’s popularity declined, he always had the backing of the cable giant. They were along for the ride for his entire reign, as well as several fights before and after his championship days
A grand total of one Pavlik title defense has been carried by HBO, his third round knockout of Lockett in June 2008. The bout was a mismatch on paper and in reality, but an investment was made in belief that it would lead to a possible showdown with Joe Calzaghe, whose father served as Lockett’s head trainer.
The fight never materialized, nor did Pavlilk’s backup plan – a proposed title defense against Paul Williams. He instead settled for a catchweight bout with Hopkins, a move that proved disastrous both in the ring and in the aftermath.
One loss should not kill a career. While Pavlik is far from dead and buried, the fact of the matter is that he’s been away from the spotlight for far too long.
He fought twice in 2009, both bouts headlining in-house Top Rank pay-per-view telecasts. The opportunity existed for Youngstown’s finest to appear on HBO, but a staph infection twice KO’d plans for another chance for the Williams fight to materialize. An October face-off suddenly became a December showdown, only to eventually become a pissing contest between the two camps, and with no fight at all to show for it.
The most recent postponement turned out to be the opportunity of a lifetime for Martinez, one that would actually provide the foundation for this weekend’s matchup.
Once it was revealed that Pavlik-Williams was a no-go but that the beanpole southpaw would get to keep his December 5 televised date, Martinez slipped in as the replacement opponent.
No title was at stake, but it hardly stopped the two best junior middleweights in the world from delivering the best middleweight fight since Pavlik-Taylor I, and easily one of the best fights that 2009 had to offer. Knockdowns were traded early, and the two went toe-toe the rest of the way through, only for Martinez to come up short on the cards in a bout many believed he should have won.
When hopes for a resurrection of plans for Pavlik-Williams were once and for all shot down, the hunt was on for another worthy opponent to allow Pavlik to make his way back to HBO. It was important to keep the date, as the middleweight fight will be preceded by a super middleweight bout featuring unbeaten Lucian Bute, who is being groomed for a future showdown with Pavlik, provided that both fighters win this weekend.
Luckily for Pavlik, the search for an HBO-worthy contender didn’t last very long. The money was made right for Martinez to remain six pounds heavier than his normal fighting weight, although he looked good enough in December to lead fans to believe than another changing of the guard could take place.
The other side of the equation is those who believe a healthy (read: injury-free) middleweight version of Pavlik is too much for anyone in his division, much less moving up in weight.
Whichever side you choose, neither answer is an absolute. Unlike his past three middleweight title fights, nothing is guaranteed once the opening bell rings.
What’s hoped for is a healthy meshing of their respective styles, which is often the case when you match a world class puncher-boxer (Pavlik) against a top-rated boxer-puncher (Martinez).
At the very least, that the fight is met with any interest at all is a considerable upgrade from the middleweight title picture in recent years. Given the rich history of the division, the rapid thinning of the herd left its king with few options.
A formidable challenges exists this weekend, which is all the reason in the world to allow boxing fans to once again give a damn about the middleweight division.
Jake Donovan is the Managing Editor of Boxingscene.com and an award-winning member of the Boxing Writers Association of America.