Pavlik to defend title against Espino

Middleweight champion Kelly Pavlik, forced to twice pull out of defenses against Paul Williams this fall because of a left hand problem stemming from a staph infection, will make his ring return Dec. 19, Top Rank president Todd duBoef told ESPN.com on Monday.

Pavlik, who will defend the world title against Miguel Espino, will fight in his hometown of Youngstown, Ohio, at the Beeghly Center on the campus of Youngstown State University.

"I'm very encouraged and excited that Kelly will be able to fight on Dec. 19," duBoef told ESPN.com. "I think it's imperative for his career. Activity is important. You never like to see a young guy not fighting regularly when he's in his prime. This year has been a curse of little things that happened. It's good for everybody, especially for him, to get a good fight under his belt on Dec. 19. Hopefully, if he's successful in defending his title he can go into 2010 with a clean slate."

Pavlik was supposed to defend the title against Williams in October in Atlantic City, N.J., in the main event of a major HBO card, but his hand hadn't fully healed from two surgeries necessitated by the staph infection on the index finger of his left hand. The fight was rescheduled for Dec. 5, but Pavlik was again forced to pull out in late October because he was still unable to properly train because he could not completely close his left fist.

Top Rank, Pavlik's promoter, hoped to delay the Williams bout until Dec. 19, but the Williams camp, already upset by two delays, elected to go in another direction. Williams kept the HBO date on Dec. 5 and will face junior middleweight titlist Sergio Martinez in a middleweight bout on HBO in Atlantic City.

Pavlik will fight two weeks later and headline a split site pay-per-view card. Top Rank was already planning a "Latin Fury" pay-per-view from Cancun, Mexico, on Dec. 19. Now, the card will have bouts from Mexico, including junior lightweight titlist Humberto Soto moving up to lightweight to face former titlist Jesus Chavez, as well as bouts from Youngstown.

Top Rank pulled off the technologically challenging feat of a split site card in February, when Miguel Cotto knocked out Michael Jennings to win a vacant welterweight belt in New York before the action shifted to Youngstown, where Pavlik defended his title by stopping Marco Antonio Rubio in the ninth round.

"We're fighting," said Cameron Dunkin, Pavlik's co-manager. "I have the contract here. The hand is good. He did therapy today and he ran today. The therapy, after three sessions, the hand has gotten much better. [The first] is still not closed all the way, but it's so much better. It's really good news. He just can't wait to fight. He really misses this.

"You can't help but have concern about the hand, but we've still got six weeks and that gives us enough time to be ready. He's been running and lifting weights because he was trying to push through for the fight with Williams on Dec. 5. He asked if Williams could wait until the 19th and it couldn't be done. We understood. Now he has another chance to go the 19th and he's going to go."

Espino (20-2-1, 9 KOs), 29, of Los Angeles, starred on the first season of "The Contender" reality series in 2004, but he hasn't lost since dropping a five-round decision on the series to Peter Manfredo Jr.

Pavlik (35-1, 31 KOs), who has been earning seven-figures for recent fights, will take a major pay cut, down to about $500,000, to face Espino. However, according to Dunkin, Pavlik is just anxious to fight.

"What I love is his enthusiasm," Dunkin said. "He's not even talking about the money. He's talking about fighting. He wants to win this fight and he still wants to fight Williams next year if we can make it happen."

Dan Rafael is the boxing writer for ESPN.com.