YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio -- His hand has healed. Now Kelly Pavlik is going to work on his image.
Pavlik was throwing jabs with his left hand recently, three days after he was supposed to fight Paul Williams in defense of his middleweight title belts. A staph infection in a finger on his left hand forced Pavlik to twice cancel fights, creating a backlash within the boxing community and even among his most ardent supporters.
Now Pavlik (35-1, 31 KOs) is healthy again and preparing to face Miguel Espino (20-2-1, 9 KOs) on Dec. 19 in a pay-per-view title defense in Pavlik's hometown on the campus of Youngstown State University. It will come nearly 10 months after his last fight, a win over Marco Rubio on Feb. 21, and end what has become the longest layoff of his career. It also will put to rest fears that Pavlik would never fight again.
"You get a lot of keypad pushers that sit at home on their computers and get in these blogs and they write that my career is over," Pavlik said. "But they don't know the difference between a left hook and a fishing hook."
Jack Loew, Pavlik's trainer, has heard all the criticism -- even from fans in Pavlik's hometown. His camp addressed rumors that Pavlik had entered rehab for alcohol abuse and was dealing with personal problems. All the rumors, they say, are false.
"I don't understand it," Loew said. "Here's a kid that has done more for charities in this town than any other boxer -- any other athlete -- ever has. Because he's turned down two fights and then schedules this fight, everything kind of blew up and went the opposite direction we thought it was going to go. So many people have turned on him. It hurts me because I've known him since he was 9 years old."
The fight against Espino is mandatory -- Pavlik would have lost his WBO and WBC belts had he again refused. Still, he wasn't healthy when he agreed to the fight in October. He didn't begin hitting a heavy bag until about two weeks ago, forcing him to cram a typical eight-week training camp into about five weeks.
His hand has responded better than anyone could have hoped, considering he needed two surgeries and still couldn't make a fist with his left hand in late October, prompting the second cancellation of the Williams fight.
"I'm glad they forced it on us. We needed to get back in the ring," Loew said. "Even two weeks ago, we weren't 100 percent ... I was worried. We had our work cut out for us. But he responded again like the champ he is."
Espino, who appeared on the television reality show "The Contender," is ranked third by the WBC. He is a couple of inches shorter than the 6-foot-1 Pavlik, who said Espino has a lot of heart and seems to be in great shape.
"But he has a lot of flaws," Pavlik said. "He gets hit a lot. He seems like he has a good chin. He takes a lot of punches."
Should he beat Espino, Pavlik wants to work out another deal with Williams for next year. Williams kept the Dec. 5 date and won by majority decision over Argentina's Sergio Martinez in a fight that left the Pavlik camp unimpressed -- Loew said the way Pavlik's hand has responded the last couple of weeks, he could have beaten Williams.
"I'm glad he got the decision," Pavlik said of Williams. "I had Martinez by two rounds, maybe three rounds."
Pavlik said he wanted to push the fight with Williams back to around the end of January, which would have given his hand enough time to properly heal. Williams agreed once to push the fight back from October to December, but gave up when Pavlik canceled a second time. Pavlik doesn't believe Williams will sign to fight him again.
"I want to fight him, but it probably won't happen," Pavlik said. "Here's a kid that went from fighting for $1.5 million in Atlantic City at the Boardwalk Hall in front of maybe 10,000 had he fought me, to fighting Martinez in the ballroom above that for $1 million less than he would've made. Paul Williams needs me after this fight. I don't need Paul Williams. But I still want to fight him."
Pavlik is hoping a strong performance against Espino will end what has been a difficult 14 months that began with a stinging loss to Bernard Hopkins on Oct. 18, 2008, the first loss of his career. Then came the win against Rubio, followed by 10 months of uncertainty surrounding his left hand.
"Medically, it was tough," Pavlik said. "Just when we thought we had it, something else came up. Then after surgery, it turns into MRSA and gets worse and worse. Every time we thought we had it beat, there was a reaction. But the hand feels great now. We're ready to go."