Ghosts along the Mahoning

Nick Baker

I hail from Youngstown, Ohio. It is a bizarre place.

It is a city whose reputation precedes it. And that reputation is not something to be proud of, at least on the surface.

Youngstown appears to be the quintessential post-industrial American city, and the landscape is highlighted by gutted factories and steel mills that experienced their disembowelment long before I took my first breaths.

It is a city that takes some sort of ironic pride in the fact that the city has held virtually every position from 1 to 15 on the list of America’s most dangerous cities, as if to say, “At least we’ve accomplished something.”

It is an abandoned den of corruption and organized crime.

My father was born to steel mill-working Ukrainian immigrants and lived on the outskirts of the east side. My mother was born and raised in an old neighborhood on the south side near what used to be an amusement park.

Going to either of these sites now is strange. They are rundown, beaten-up old neighborhoods that are checkered with boarded-up shells of houses and sketchy domiciles that make you think “traphouse.”

By the time my childhood rolled around, all the mills were essentially gone and traveling around the city meant seeing one industrial morgue after another.

An overbearing cloud of pessimism was virtually choking the city as well as anyone who lived in the Mahoning Valley.

This pessimistic mindset has always been reinforced by the outsider’s eye.

Yet people from Youngstown are defiantly proud of their home, even to a fault. A friend of mine proudly sports a tattoo of Ohio and right where Youngstown would be is a red, dripping “330.”

It seems counterproductive to glorify the city’s reputation for violence, yet it is an aspect of the Youngstown mentality that adds to its tough-as-nails sense of pride.

The city has a reputation as a fighter’s town.

This literal fighter’s reputation had been highlighted by the careers of professional boxers and Youngstown natives like former IBF lightweight champion Harry Arroyo and former WBA lightweight champion Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini.

The city is haunted by the ghosts of industrialization, the specters of a more prosperous time and place.

But on Feb. 21, one “Ghost” drew the spirit of this city out of hiding: the World Boxing Council/World Boxing Organization world middleweight champion, Kelly “The Ghost” Pavlik.

For those unfamiliar with Pavlik, he is a 26-year-old southsider who became the WBC/WBO middleweight champion in 2007 when he defeated heavily-favored Jermain Taylor.

He continues to train at the same gym under the same trainer as he did when he began boxing at the age of 9. Team Pavlik T-shirts carry the phrase “Defend Youngstown” boldly across the chest.

He takes home more than $1 million per fight yet continues to live on the south side, even moving back with his parents while in training.

On that cold February night, Pavlik put his belts on the line against Marco Antonio Rubio. This fight symbolized something unique to both the city and its most beloved combatant. It symbolized redemption.

Oct. 18, Pavlik had suffered his first professional defeat to ring veteran Bernard Hopkins in a non-title fight at a higher weight class. Pavlik went to Atlantic City, N.J., confident and strong. He left with a loss and was educated in the art of boxing by a man 17 years his senior. Pavlik left Atlantic City humbled and hell-bent on a decisive victory in the heart of the city he fights for.

Youngstonians witnessed a night that could only be understood by its residents. The city experienced a Cinderella-like one-night rebirth.

The fight brought 7,228 to watch their hometown hero fight for his redemption.

In the process, the city seemed to experience a powerful sense of redemption as well.

Pavlik entered the arena and the partisan crowed roared deafeningly. Random chants of “Kelly! Kelly! Kelly!” sprang up from all sides of the arena sporadically during the fight, and would eventually take on life as the entire facility united in enthusiasm.

When Pavlik got the upper hand, the arena rumbled from the whoops and cheers. When his foe Rubio landed a nice shot the arena eeked out a collective gasp followed by the silence of genuine concern.

Downtown, thousands more watched the fight in bars. The streets were filled with maniacal fans who felt connected to this event in a way that transcended the normal relationship between a city and its sports figures.

These people believe that when Pavlik says he fights for Youngstown, he is really fighting for each and every one of them. Pavlik has the heart of a humble warrior, and in a place like Youngstown that means more than can be put in words.

He is the ghost of the city, its spirit incarnate.

I’ll be forever grateful that I was a witness to an event that uplifted an entire community in such a simple way.

Nick Baker is a junior magazine journalism major and columnist for the Daily Kent Stater. Contact him at [email protected].