Between September 2007 and April 2009, while Youngstown’s Kelly Pavlik reigned as the world middleweight boxing champion, journalists consistently presented him not only as being from Youngstown, but as reflecting its essence. Obviously, representing a diverse, multi-racial city through a white working-class male boxer excludes many of those who call Youngstown home. At the same time, these representations reveal not only a continuing media fascination with Youngstown but also troubling ideas about what it means to be working class today.
It’s not unusual for sports writers to attach a single narrative to a boxer. Thirty years ago, they defined former world champion and Youngstown native Ray ‘Boom Boom’ Mancini through the story of his effort to win a belt for his father, Lenny, who had failed to get a title shot after returning from World War II. As Pavlik rose through the ranks, the media latched onto a traditional rags to riches narrative. This story- not one of his own choosing- defined him as a fighter restoring pride in his ‘down and out’ hometown. Yet even as he’s been cast as representing a comeback for the city, Pavlik has been hailed as a ‘throwback,’ a nostalgic symbol of a previous order, where working-class men, not just fighters, were straightforward, uncomplicated, and tough. Much has been made of his ‘old-school’ training methods: swinging a sledgehammer and flipping truck tires. For the boxing press and for many in Youngstown, Pavlik spoke to the idea of an ‘authentic’ working class that reflected a ‘real America.’
Similarly, the fact that he was the son of a former steelworker, trained by a driveway sealer in an old pizza-parlor on Youngstown’s Southside made his a story about a ‘blue-collar’ guy from a ‘blue-collar place.’ Sportwriters often reserve the term ‘blue-collar” for white fighters in the United States. Prior to his world title victory over Jermain Taylor, Pavlik’s promoter Bob Arum described him as the ‘ultimate blue-collar warrior.’ Similarly, the local newspaper, the Vindicator declared that ‘Pavlik followers have blue-collar fever.’
Of course, Youngstown has long been identified as firmly blue-collar. Writing in Sports Illustrated in 2008, Richard Hoffer described how Youngstown, and industrial America, used to be:
It’s hard to picture the bustle now, but Wilson Avenue…was a row of rowdiness, bar upon bar, open for all but two hours each day, to better service three shifts of thirst. Imagine the scene: Workers from U.S. Steel, Republic, National, Inland disgorged at once, a camaraderie enforced by prosperity…Everybody made a great wage, right out of high school, and nobody’s mother or wife ever had to work. That’s gone of course, not coming back. The postapocalyptic feel — the ruins remain untouched.
As John Russo has argued here, sports are one of the few fields in which blue-collar values and identifications are positively valued. Carlo Rotella, Professor of English at Boston College, has argued that boxing in particular is intimately associated with industrial labor through its emphasis on working with the hands. We see this in representations of Pavlik that draw on Youngstown’s working-class culture and history. Such associations are especially important as blue-collar places and people are being reshaped by the effects of de-industrialization.
Many older Youngstown residents see the city moving away from its blue-collar roots. Mike Pavlik Sr., Kelly’s father, who worked for 19 years at Republic Steel, commented that Youngstown is “a blue-collar town, it’ll always be a blue-collar town, you know, it’ll never be a white-collar town, until all the baby-boomers are gone and then it might turn over to a white-collar town.”
Following a period of inactivity, fights against what were regarded as ‘lesser’ boxers, and a recent defeat, Pavlik’s stock has fallen both locally and nationally. In the wake of this, the tendency to present blue-collar places as outdated has revealed itself more clearly. Media coverage of places such as Youngstown often contrast romanticized and simplified ideas of the ‘past’ with a present in which such cities are portrayed as relics of a bygone era. During 2009, following Pavlik’s withdrawal from a potential fight with Paul Williams due to a serious staph infection, rumors escalated regarding his lifestyle. Within these stories, Youngstown– previously held up as the source of Pavlik’s strength, determination and resilience — was now seen as the problem. In a February 2009 article on the website Boxing Insider asked, ‘Will the poverty-stricken city of Youngstown end up being not only his ultimate inspiration but also, tragically, his inevitable downfall?’
On April 17th in Atlantic City, Pavlik lost his world titles to the Argentinian southpaw Sergio Martinez in a twelve-round decision. Where Pavlik had previously been glorified as a ‘throwback’ due to his come-forward fighting style and his sheer determination and aggression, his style was now described as outmoded. Pavlik, some suggested, lacked the skills to effectively compete in boxing’s new economy, represented by Martinez, the slick, skilled, ring-technician. David Greisman, writing for Boxing Scene, explained Pavlik’s defeat this way:
Kelly Pavlik, child of the steel city of Youngstown, Ohio, is blue-collar, workmanlike, punching in and punching out, a man with sledgehammers in his hands. Sergio Martinez, product of the Latin America country of Argentina, is machismo in motion, fluid on his feet, confident in conquest, a swashbuckling swordsman whose fists become blades.
Power against speed.
Will against skill.
Pavlik was bigger and stronger. Martinez was smaller but sharper. He cut Pavlik, and then he cut him down to size’
For others, the defeat was evidence that Pavlik must change. Writing for The Sweet Science, Springs Toledo declared that both Pavlik and Youngstown suffered from a failure to ‘diversify.’ He stated that while the ‘laborer’ and his ‘blunt instruments’ had initially been enough to bring Pavlik success now, ‘Pavlik has gone as far as he can go without making fundamental adjustments to his machinery.’ Instead, he must ‘realign his equipment to meet styles more sophisticated than simple punchers and over-eager athletes’, in much the same way that Youngstown too must adapt; ‘new initiatives are developing technology-based companies with some success. Kelly “The Ghost” Pavlik wants to become a part of the renewal plan.’
Stories about Youngstown and Kelly Pavlik reveal the extent to which working-class bodies and places are seen as outmoded and outdated. In her study of the closure of the auto industry in Kenosha, Wisconsin, The End of the Line, Kathryn Dudley notes that the loss of industry marked a shift from the ‘culture of the hands’ to the ‘culture of the mind.’ Within this new order, white collar values and education are now prized at the expense of physical strength and toughness. The value shift was written on the landscape of cities such as Youngstown as abandoned factories were torn down or refurbished as offices or museums. And it’s reinforced by the emphasis on universities, like Youngstown State, as the keys to revitalizing deindustrialized cities and on higher education as ensuring a better economic future for both the community and its residents.
All of this highlights a growing ambivalence about what it means to be working class. Like the working class itself, the boxer and his city are romanticized through the lens of the past and marginalized in the present. While recognized for their past prosperity and accomplishments, they are increasingly presented as peripheral, occupying a position on the margins of national culture, unable or often unwilling to adapt to the demands of the new, ‘post-industrial’ economy.
But both Pavlik and Youngstown, like the working class itself, exist in the present. They are not simply relics from a previous time. They are individuals and communities that continue to fight for a more prominent position in America’s economy and its imagination. Kelly Pavlik’s story is not just local, nor is the story of Youngstown itself. They are stories about America today.
James Rhodes is a Simon Research Fellow and sociologist from the University of Manchester. He is also a Visiting Scholar at the Center for Working-Class Studies.