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Kelly Pavlik: One Mile In Ghost Town

8CN EDITORIAL FLASHBACK 2009

 

There are some special things that happen when a small town hero is born. They come in all forms and on many different levels. Youngstown Ohio has had its share of them including some great boxing champions Ray "Boom Boom" Mancini, Ernie Shavers, and Jeff Lampkin.  To this outsider it seems to be all but forgotten under the canopy of this hard worked steel town somewhere between Cleveland and Pittsburg.

 

It is just past 1 am and my cousin Eric and I have been on a bumper pool journey from Boston to Iowa City to see our good pal Max tie the knot. The party is over and we both are road worn and ready to grab a few hours of sleep.

 

Just ahead off route 76 we see the dim glowing valley of Youngstown city. I pull into a neon nook of activity directly off the highway.  It is mainly a truck stop, and two hotels.  A homegrown 24-hour adult video store/adult body spa and a Starbucks sign that is determined to kick the ass out of any other retail signage on the block... Only in America.

My plan has no plan other than to rest my eyes, and to take a mile of Youngstown into my blood.  I’d like to get a glimpse of what it’s like to live in a town that’s most famous person is a specter with two of the hardest hitting firsts in the world. 


Like boxing, life in the small town grind can hardly amount to a team sport. 
“It’s tough here, real tough,” a local responds to a casual “how’s it going” from this traveling nobody.

These five simple and defeated words could sum up Youngstown and perhaps this attitude is unconsciously driving their own destiny. Or is it?

It’s been going tough in Youngstown for decades. In the 1950,’s it was given the nickname Murder City and nationally known as a gangland with a specific delicacy for car bombings.  The city still has a crime problem but like any soulful city there lives a coalition of pride wranglers determined to make life in Y town a better one.

The roads are filled with faded traffic lines and award winning potholes so remarkable they could lay a picture frame on the street and call them art. I enter through the south side of town and wonder if anyone ever patched up those bomb holes. The sidewalks are lined with boarded up homes, closed businesses and a landscape that is in need of some serious sling blade action. My initial thought: A steel town with nothing left to steal.

The entire town is very quiet with a slow utter of life on this Tuesday morning.  I stop into a coffee shop to grab some brew.  Even the bakery shelves are in some serious need of caffeine as the donuts lay sparse, hung-over and lonely. And if they were talking this morning they would have definitely screamed, “Eat me and put me out of this misery.“

I was about to engage the server in  conversation regarding the where a bout’s of the South side Boxing gym as I spotted a black Hummer quickly  ramping into the parking lot and immediately  flipping a Uey  back out as fast as it came.  I could see a silhouette inside that resembled the middleweight champion of the world Kelly Pavlik coming off his weekend slaying of Welshmen Gary Lockett.

I was a little taken back that he would even be home and not relaxing someplace, well, nice… Whether it was the champ or not I chalked it up as a ghost sighting and put a notch in the cool factor belt.

To the naked eye one would never know that this beaten steel town lays nest to one of boxing’s brightest celebrities with an even brighter purse match.  To some in town they are simply too distracted surviving to notice Pav’s success and to others the ghost is creating a revolution of fans who are hometown heroes in their own right.

There is a huge sense of pride on the faces of Youngstown’s young and old. As if to say, “that’s right. We don’t have much but we got the champ and that’s everything to us! “And from this boxing fans perspective I concur.  Pride goes a long way; in fact, it goes all the way, if you have passion and the desire to win. 

After all, the town was purchased for a little over fifteen grand back in the day and became a major mill town to be reckoned with.  It could be that again and sometimes it takes a hero to get people on their feet and work for it like Pavlik, like some of the town folk who have been inspired in the glow of the ghost to do Younsgtown and themselves better.

Enter Phil Kidd another hero of the Mahoning Valley. Kidd is the leader of the “defend Youngstown movement which isdedicated to the advancement of the city of with supporters numbering in the thousands to include civic leadership, the business community, and concerned citizens nationwide.

You see their t-shirts all over the city and of course the international recognition on the back of Pavlik when he enters the ring. The star power has certainly helped the cause and the world is taking notice.  I had the chance to talk to the 28 year crusader who started the movement by solitarily holding a defend Youngstown sign in the center of town. 

When I was talking to Kidd the puzzling mystique of this place really started coming together.  This town is not only tough in the ring but fights everyday outside the ring for better life.  And they too are tough as nails. 

He is passionate about changing Youngstown and as he put it, “Youngstownis a lot like the first Pavlik Taylor fight. As Pavlik went up against one of the best pound for pound fighters of recent time, he was brutally bashed to floor in the second round only to shake off the cobwebs, go to war for five more rounds, and win by knockout. 

"It’s like Youngstown is in its third round but having been knocked to the canvas some 30 years ago when the mills started closing up. “


It's passionate people like Kidd make my bad days seem more doable.  This guy eats, sleeps, and drinks for the cause.  If not for the passion in his voice then promise of PBR’s, Jameson and good convo alone will bring me back to this place.

I continue down past several boarded up bar rooms and social clubs. From the distance, I see another slightly dilapidated bar, The East Side Civics and Athletics Club.  A neon beer sign reads WE BELIVE IN GHOSTS, DO IT AGAIN KELLY!  A warm feeling came over me. I don’t know a time where anyone actually gave two craps about a local boxer aside from my neck of the woods where Brockon MA is fighting for a monument to Rocky Marciano. 

There are several cars in the lot so I decide to check it out. It’s around 10 am. A woman sits on a stoop nearby looking defeated from a Tuesday all nighter.  The smoke from her dying cigarette wraps around her finger like the ghost of wedding ring as she struggles to aim it towards her lips.  I hear voices inside and the clanking of bottles. 

The door is locked with a sign that read’, this club is for members.  It’s reminiscent of the prohibition era.  I think of my self as a casual observer rather than a reporter so I respect the rules, put another notch on the cool factor belt and move on. 


I still have to find the South Side Gym where Pavlik throws down .I was starting to get frustrated and hopped over to a near by gas station. As luck would have it, I see who looks to be the second half of the dream team, Trainer Jack Lowe getting into his Lincoln town car. 

I ran over just before the door closed and asked if he was Jack. He smiled and said yes.  I told him who I was and what the hell I was doing on foot 600 miles from Boston. We exchanged a few words and had a chuckle about the above-mentioned “adult spa.”  Jack invited me to the gym after they open at 3 pm that day. Unfortunately, I had to get moving so an outside glance would have to do for this trip. 

About a half mile down the road I finally land on Erie St. I was expecting the South Side Gym on some street corner in the run down-town part of the city but there it was quietly nestled in another overgrown suburban neighborhood where the median home value is around 43K.The simple red free standing brick building was keeping to itself without boasting the bad ass-ity of its 41-0 champ who makes this his battle home.

A slip mat with the images of Pavlik and Loew donned the steps and a handwritten paper sign politely telling tell guest to first gain permission to take photos.  I personally find boxing gyms a beautiful place so I was indeed a little bummed out that it was on lockdown.

As I exit the city of the ghost drive and reflect.  I see news paper clippings in so many of windows of the homes and business. Each one weathered by the sun and looking as if it was hung decades ago when the town was flourishing and the world of prize fighting was atop the sporting world throne. At this moment in the boxing history, it is the nation of Ghosts and the residents of Youngstown itself who are truly king.

 

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