Kelly Pavlik: The Last White Hope?

“You know, in life you get knocked down from time to time. Sometimes you don’t know its coming.”

Hillary Clinton, March 2008, Youngstown Ohio

Boxers are defined by their geography. The late Joe Frazier wasn’t just a Philadelphia fighter, he was Philadelphia in a fighter. Juan Manuel Marquez is Mexico City’s Aztec pride and its unforgiving slums.

Kelly Pavlik was Youngstown. The former middleweight champion, who announced his retirement last week aged 30, wasn’t flashy. He was consistent. He was bruising. Though he was well conditioned enough rise off the canvas and stop Jermain Taylor in 2007, we never glimpsed a deltoid or an abdominal beneath Pavlik’s skin. He wasn’t built for show.

Pavlik’s relationship with Youngstown at times bordered on abusive. Everyone wanted to buy the champ a beer. Eventually, the champ became an alcoholic. When Pavlik decided to restart his career in 2011, he fled Youngstown for California, dumping the man who had trained him since childhood, Jack Loew, for Robert Garcia.

But through his rise and his too few years at the top, “The Ghost” also found himself defined by the colour of his skin. He was a white working class hero. A great white hope. Not as Darwinian as Jim Jeffries and the others who fought Jack Johnson to “defend the honor of the White Race,” or as obvious as Gerry Cooney being told to “do it for America,” but a white hope nonetheless. That’s what people meant when they talked about his “crossover potential.”

It’s doubtful Hillary Clinton thought much about this history when she invited Pavlik to go on the stump with her in Ohio in her 2008 Democratic primary campaign against Barack Obama. In any case, she lost.

Pavlik, too, didn’t live up to his potential. His life slowly spiraled out of control after losing a non-title bout to Bernard Hopkins. He defended his championship just four times, eventually losing it to current champ Sergio Martinez. After just a handful of comeback fights from that loss, Pavlik is retiring.

“Why take the chance of medical problems? That’s a big part of it. I also don’t think the drive is there anymore. I’m moving on to a new chapter in my life,” Pavlik told ESPN’s Dan Rafael.

Today Paulie Malignaggi, the #10 welterweight, is the only white American ranked in the top 10 of any division by the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board. There’s a black man in the White House and a white Ukrainian man with the heavyweight belt around his waist. A Filipino supernova was the most popular boxer in the world for years. But race still matters in boxing. Ask the Mexican-American fans in Houston or the Nuyoricans at Madison Square Garden.

Maybe Pavlik won’t be the last great white hope, but it might be a while before we see another.