Taylor Walked at the Right Time

In an announcement that was growing overdue, Jermain Taylor said Tuesday that he would no longer be participating in the Super Six World Boxing Classic. For those who had Taylor’s best interests in mind, it was a sad but necessary decision for the former Middleweight Champion to make.

Given the circumstances, there was no way around it. Taylor had been brutally knocked out in his last two fights – both of them coming in the final seconds of bouts Jermain had accounted himself well in during the early going. And that was really the problem. Each devastating defeat served as a prime example of why Taylor needed to get out of the sport.

At his best, Taylor had the tools to sit atop pound-for-pound lists seemingly for years to come. His jab was one of the best in the sport, and he had the size and power to impose his will over most middleweights in the world.

But he never seemed to find the focus to put all of his weapons together and fight a disciplined, twelve-round fight. The underlying reason was that he lacked the stamina to do so. And opponents were beginning to take notice and design their game plans around it.

In his two-year reign as middleweight king, Taylor was a regular target for critics. Some saw the potential in him and gritted their teeth as they watched him squander it by fighting indecisively. Others saw a mental block that prevented him from following the instructions issued by his corner men, including Pat Burns, Emanuel Steward and Ozell Nelson. Still others shook their heads in disappointment over some of his choices for opponents.

And then there were those that refused to accept him based on his first three fights for the middleweight title – arguably the three most difficult fights any newly-crowned middleweight champion had ever undertaken in succession.

Taylor won the Middleweight Championship from Bernard Hopkins in the summer of 2005. At the time, Hopkins was considered the number one fighter in the world, had made 20 successful defenses of the title and was beginning to attract a national fan base. Some fans reacted negatively to Jermain, believing he was being groomed by HBO to change the guard and usurp the throne. It wasn’t a bad theory, as Hopkins was 40 years old and surely eyeing retirement already.

For two-thirds of the bout, Hopkins showed his age by refusing to throw punches. Taylor pushed what little fight there was and won seven of the first eight rounds. It wasn’t until the last four rounds that Hopkins got into his rhythm and began lighting the young challenger up with big shots, including a monstrous head butt that concussed Taylor and cut him wide open on the skull.

In spite of Bernard’s increasing pressure, Taylor stayed on his feet and survived to the final bell, where he won a split decision and took the title. Hopkins debated the decision, as did his fans, who all seemed to have forgotten that a boxing fight is scored by rounds, not damage dealt.

In any event, the demand for closure was there, and Hopkins got a second chance. The rematch was a similar story, with one major difference. Whereas Taylor had faded badly in the late rounds of the first fight, he came on strong to end the second bout, winning a crucial eleventh round to deny Hopkins’ late comeback and earn a unanimous decision.

After Hopkins, Taylor’s next defense came against the consensus number two fighter in the world, former undisputed Junior Middleweight Champion Winky Wright. In a back-and-forth battle between the world’s best two middleweights, Taylor used power punching to break through Wright’s usually impenetrable guard and bust up the challenger’s face. The official verdict was a draw, though Taylor easily could have been given the nod.

After three close decisions in a row, with many critics claiming he deserved to lose all three, Jermain looked to get in an easier defense against another junior middleweight, former titlist Kassim Ouma. Taylor dominated the smaller Ouma but was unable to knock out or even drop the durable African. Jermain had to settle for a unanimous decision in his hometown of Little Rock, Arkansas and again heard it from the critics.

When a rematch with Wright failed to materialize on account of Winky demanding too much money, Taylor made an odd choice of opponent, agreeing to defend the title against yet another junior middleweight, Cory Spinks. Spinks had been the undisputed Welterweight Champion two years earlier and had won a title at junior middleweight as well, but critics now had the ammunition to accuse Taylor of avoiding bigger, more legitimate threats to his throne.

In an embarrassingly uneventful fight, the much bigger Taylor fought tentatively and thus was unable to knock out Spinks. He ended up winning a split decision, though he deserved a unanimous decision out of the nip-and-tuck affair. Fans booed throughout the fight, voicing their dissatisfaction with the champion’s performance.

By that point, Taylor had no choice but to take on the biggest visible threat to the middleweight crown – the hard-hitting and also undefeated Kelly Pavlik, who punched his ticket by blasting out Edison Miranda on the undercard of the Spinks fight.

Despite dropping Pavlik early in the fight and nearly having the challenger out, Jermain was unable to finish the job. Pavlik climbed off the canvas and came back to knock Taylor out several rounds later, giving Jermain his first professional loss in the best middleweight fight of the decade.

Prior to losing to Pavlik, Taylor had put a clause in the contract obligating Pavlik to give him a rematch at 166 pounds. Pavlik defeated Jermain a second time – this time by unanimous decision. Taylor boxed well in the fight but was inactive for long stretches. He was twice hurt by Pavlik’s punches and finished the fight hanging on more than fighting.

Now competing as a super middleweight full-time, Taylor rebounded from defeat with a dominant win over former Olympic teammate Jeff Lacy. After that, he set his sights on undefeated WBC Champion Carl Froch. Taylor dropped Froch early but, in a near-repeat of his first performance against Pavlik, tired late in the fight and was knocked down and out in the twelfth round with just over ten seconds left.

Having lost three of his last four fights, many boxing pundits were scratching their heads when Taylor’s participation in the Super Six World Boxing Classic was announced by Showtime. Already viewed as the least likely to win the tournament, Taylor was pitted against the undefeated and heavy-handed Arthur Abraham. Jermain held his own through the early rounds, but Abraham took over by the mid-rounds and again laid Taylor to rest with under ten seconds to go.

This time, Taylor was rushed to a hospital, having suffered a concussion and experienced short-term memory loss.

The episode of Taylor dropping out of the tournament is particularly refreshing in that Taylor’s promoter, Lou DiBella, and his manager, Al Haymon, both encouraged the decision. Though they stood to make big money from Taylor’s remaining fights in the tournament, DiBella and Haymon cared more about seeing Jermain get out of boxing with his health intact.

Taylor has a lot to be proud of. In addition to becoming the Middleweight Champion, he was never totally outclassed in a fight and never embarrassed himself in the ring. Every opponent who beat him had to work hard, and nearly all of them had to fight heroically to do it. Few retired fighters can make that claim.

And compared to current Middleweight Champion Pavlik, Taylor’s resume looks like something out of a storybook. Whereas Taylor’s five defenses all came against former champions and titlists, two of them among the top two fighters in the world at the time, Pavlik has only managed to defend his title three times, against opponents who had no business being in the ring with him.

Taylor also faced three southpaws in a row; Pavlik has yet to defend his title against one. And finally, Taylor fought three undefeated fighters after becoming champion, including Pavlik. Kelly should take a page out of the book of the man he beat to become champion and learn a lesson from Taylor, a real Middleweight Champion that fought the best and gave a good account of himself both in and out of the ring.

If this is indeed the end, Jermain should hold his head high.

Tags: , , , , , ,