Updated: April 16, 2010, 6:03 PM ET

Pavlik feels better than ever ahead of fight

Rafael By Dan Rafael
Sergio MartinezChris Farina/Top RankSpoiler? Abs-olutely! Sergio Martinez is used to being the underdog.

Middleweight champion Kelly Pavlik finally feels good.

It's been a rough couple of years for the Youngstown, Ohio, native because of a lingering staph infection in a finger. The infection severely weakened him and eventually resulted in two surgeries on his hand, two postponements of a much-anticipated fight with Paul Williams and a steady stream of criticism.

The last time -- before now -- that Pavlik felt 100 percent?

He estimates it "may have been" his February 2009 defense against Marco Antonio Rubio.

"But," Pavlik said, "it was probably the [Gary] Lockett fight."

That bout was all the way back in June 2008.

After the Lockett fight, Pavlik lost a lopsided decision at 170 pounds to Bernard Hopkins in late 2008, beat Rubio and finally got the infection diagnosed, treated and under control before returning Dec. 19 to knock out overmatched mandatory challenger Miguel Espino in the fifth round.

"Because it was on five weeks notice and coming off the hand injury, it was not fully healed, but we got through it," Pavlik said of the Espino fight. "We went in there and beat a mandatory and we stopped him, which is what we were supposed to do."

But before the Espino bout, the year had been difficult, mainly because the infection forced him to twice pull out of the fight with Williams.

"It was frustrating because we were doing everything we were supposed to do, but it was getting worse," Pavlik said. "I began taking antibiotics and was bedridden. It wasn't at the point [of wondering] if I was ever going to fight again, it was, 'When was it going to finally heal?' It was a frustrating 2009 and there wasn't much we could do about it."

The fight with Williams had been rescheduled for early December, but Pavlik wasn't ready, so Williams went ahead and fought a replacement opponent -- junior middleweight titleholder Sergio Martinez of Argentina.

Martinez (44-2-2, 24 KOs) wasn't well-known but he gave Williams everything he could possibly handle in a sensational action fight. Martinez wound up losing a majority decision, but made his point -- that he is also one of the best fighters in the world.

When Pavlik (36-1, 32 KOs) and his promoter, Top Rank, and Williams and his promoter, Dan Goossen, could not agree on how to put the fight back together, Martinez got the call and will challenge Pavlik for the 160-pound crown Saturday night (HBO, 10 ET) at Boardwalk Hall -- Pavlik's home away from home -- in Atlantic City, N.J.

"I'm feeling real good and I think it's the strongest I've been, and I'm anxious to get in there and do my thing," Pavlik said.

Opening HBO's strong split-site telecast, Lucian Bute (25-0, 20 KOs) defends his super middleweight title against Edison Miranda (33-4, 29 KOs) at the Bell Centre in Montreal.

Pavlik said he is happy to have the past couple of years behind him and looks forward to getting back into the ring with a highly regarded opponent.

"I went into this camp feeling great," said Pavlik, who turned 28 on April 4. "There are no 'ands' or 'ifs' about it. I was ready to get to camp. I am always playing basketball or doing something to stay active. I couldn't last year. For the Espino fight I was ready because we stay active. Going into camp this time was really a plus because I was ready.

"I don't have to worry about the hand being tender. Everything has held up great and there are no problems, knock on wood."

When Pavlik survived a hard early knockdown to rally to knock out Jermain Taylor to win the title at Boardwalk Hall in September 2007, he rocketed to stardom.

But following a decision win against Taylor in early 2008 in a nontitle, super middleweight rematch, Pavlik faced the obscure mandatory challengers in Lockett, Rubio and Espino while also losing to Hopkins.

The extended run of poor matchups, with the loss mixed in, hurt his standing and eroded his popularity.

Promoter Bob Arum, however, is convinced all will be forgotten with one good win against Martinez.

"The public is very fickle," Arum said. "They caught onto Kelly leading up to, and including, the Taylor fight. Then there has been a falloff -- his performance against Hopkins and the injury and so forth. But I am convinced, beyond any measure, that we are going to see the old Kelly Pavlik against Martinez, and as soon as we see that and as soon as the public sees that -- and thanks to HBO it will be a huge audience -- he will be right back on top and people will be clamoring for his next fight, whether it be against Paul Williams or Lucian Bute or somebody else."

Pavlik was particularly stung by criticism that he was ducking Williams when it was the infection that was giving him problems and forced him to postpone.

"It was a little upsetting to hear what people were saying, but I couldn't pay too much attention to that," Pavlik said. "I wanted to fight Williams and they said I was lying. The doctors had to prove that I wasn't lying and we couldn't make the fight happen."

That left Martinez, 35, as the clear choice as the best opponent available for Pavlik to fight.

"Other than Paul Williams, his is the biggest name in the division and the biggest fight for me to take," Pavlik said. "Even though Martinez lost to Williams on the judges' scorecards, he may be the better fighter. He may not have the name that Paul Williams has, but I'm definitely taking a chance and I'm proving to the people that I have always taken dangerous fights and have never strayed away from big fights. I went up two weight classes to fight Hopkins, after Paul Williams pulled out [the first time the camps negotiated the fight in 2008], so that goes to show I'm not hiding from anybody. The flak is going to be there, there is nothing I can do."

Whatever the grief Pavlik gets from some people, Martinez and his team give Pavlik credit for taking the fight, because other than Williams, Martinez has had no luck getting any significant opponents to face him.

"We know Pavlik didn't have to fight Sergio," said Lou DiBella, Martinez's co-promoter. "He could easily have gone out and fought somebody else. He knows Martinez is a tough opponent and we give him all the credit for taking the fight when he didn't have to, especially when he is coming off his problems. The kid's a true champion. He knows we are a tough opponent and we know Pavlik is a tough opponent."

Caballero hooks up with DiBella

Doug Murray/Icon SMITime to get paid: Celestino Caballero has hooked up with Lou DiBella.

Promoter Lou DiBella told ESPN.com that he's signed Celestino Caballero, the former junior featherweight titlist who moved up to featherweight and dominated Daud Yordan in his HBO debut on DiBella's card last week.

"We signed a multi fight deal. He wants big fights. That's what the deal is about," DiBella said.

Caballero had been promoted by Warriors Boxing, but was unhappy. DiBella and Warriors chief Leon Margules are good friends and Margules also serves as DiBella's attorney, so they worked out a deal for DiBella to sign him.

"It was an easy deal because Leon is my friend," DiBella said. "The relationship between him and Caballero had become fractured, so it made sense for everybody."

DiBella said Caballero is ready for a big fight in a talent-rich division.

"I think the fight he had with Yordan served its purpose -- anyone who doubted that he was one of the best fighters in the world, they saw that he is," he said. "I think that was the kind of fight he needed. For a guy in his early 30s, he's been underexposed. It was a good move for HBO to put him on because HBO is invested in the featherweight division. There is a lot of heat there and a lot of big fights with guys like [Juan Manuel] Lopez, [Yuriorkis] Gamboa, Chris John, Elio Rojas and even the winner of the Israel Vazquez-Rafael Marquez [fourth] fight."

Dan Rafael covers boxing for ESPN.com.


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