YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio - Kelly Pavlik wants more than a victory when his long road back to the ring concludes tonight with his title defense against Miguel Espino.
“He needs a knockout,’’ said Pavlik’s trainer, Jack Loew. “We have to go in there and dominate this kid and let everyone know we’re back.’’
Pavlik (35-1, 31 KOs) is the reigning World Boxing Council and World Boxing Organization middleweight champion, but his last 14 months have been littered with disappointing performances, two cancellations, and a severe staph infection in his hand that left him hospitalized.
The fighter known as “The Ghost’’ has been nearly invisible since losing to Bernard Hopkins Oct. 18, 2008. His only fight since was a win against Marco Antonio Rubio in February. Even his promoter, Bob Arum, said Pavlik didn’t look good in the victory.
Now that Pavlik is finally healthy, Espino (20-2-1, 9 KOs) represents a chance for the lanky Youngstown native to reestablish himself as an explosive puncher.
“You hate to put that kind of pressure on him, but a knockout would help,’’ Arum said. “He’s had a terrible year. People are wondering how good he still is. Hopefully this fight will answer it.’’
Pavlik twice tried to postpone fights with Paul Williams because of the staph infection in a finger on his left hand. After postponing it once, he wanted to push it back again from Dec. 5 until January or February. Williams walked away, leaving Pavlik to continue training for a return to the ring in early 2010.
But faced with either fighting or being stripped of his belts, Pavlik hurriedly plucked the little-known Espino last month and dropped him into this title defense.
The 10-month layoff is the longest of Pavlik’s career. His return will come against a boxer best known for his brief stint on the first season of the television reality show “The Contender.’’ Espino’s loss on the show, a first-round knockout in 2004, is still his last.
Pavlik holds a decided physical advantage. At 6 feet 3 inches and 160 pounds, he measured in yesterday 4 inches taller and one pound heavier than Espino. His 78-inch reach is also 6 inches longer.
“A victory changes my life,’’ Espino said. “It’ll bring bigger and better things win, lose or draw. But winning? I’m an instant millionaire, no doubt.’’
Pavlik acknowledges he needs a strong showing against a heavy underdog.
“After the long layoff, if we go in there and look sharp and be dominant, that’s a big step,’’ Pavlik said. “I’ve had plenty of knockouts, so it’s not like I need one real bad. I just need to hands-down win the fight and be impressive in the performance. Sharp, crisp punches and winning every round. That will be a good night.’’