By Ja Lang G. Greene
Boxing is unforgiving and cruel. The sport shows no mercy towards the fighters, fans, and promoters that populate the sport. The stakes are always high; an unfocused pugilist can go from champion to chumpion in one night. There isn’t a 16, 82, or 162 game season to pad accomplishments or provide a sanctuary to individual inconsistency. Twelve rounds. One night. One fight.
Fighters once considered invincible, have been a made an example of by the sweet science because they decided to test fate and battle old age for an opportunity to stay on top. Witnessing a legend’s career brutally end oftentimes even makes the harshest critic of that fighter pay respects. After Lennon Lewis dismantled Mike Tyson by vicious KO, a large majority of the press praised Tyson for going out on his shield.
When a fighter retires, the public spotlight fades, the cheering stops, and his accomplishments become a distant memory. Not all of them are lucky enough to garner multiple multi-million dollar paydays to live comfortably post career.
Meldrick Taylor burst unto the national boxing landscape in 1984, by earning a spot on the Olympic team as a Featherweight. The United States boycotted the 1980 games due to government political differences, so the timing was perfect for media attention. At the age of 17, Taylor went on to display a sensational style that landed him a gold medal at the games. Shortly thereafter Taylor would leave the amateur ranks compiling a career mark of 99-4. Upon turning pro, Taylor quickly established superiority over a string of lesser fighters, racking up an 11-0 record with seven knockouts. The first test of his career would come against solid veteran Harold Brazier in May of 1986. After winning a unanimous decision in this fight, Taylor was included in the world boxing rankings.
Taylor would then reel off eight consecutive victories before landing a title shot against IBF Light Welterweight champion James “Buddy” McGirt in September of 1988. In a competitive fight that Taylor was clearly winning, McGirt was TKO’D in the twelfth and final round to secure his first world title. Over the next eighteen months, Taylor would fight four times and defend the newly acquired IBF strap twice to set the stage for a mega unification bout against WBC champ Julio Cesar Chavez.
The fight was set for March 17, 1990 at the Las Vegas Hilton. The buzz for this fight was tremendous as both fighters were widely regarded as players for the mythical pound for pound title. This battle had all the ingredients needed to make history; there was Lou Duva and Don King, undefeated US Olympian versus undefeated proud Mexican warrior, Richard Steele, and the fight was being broadcast on HBO (not ppv). Taylor entered the bout with a stellar 24-0-1 record while Chavez boasted an even more impressive 68-0 mark.
Once the fight began the artistry of Taylor became apparent from the outset. Taylor would use flurries of combinations to fluster Chavez and use the same dazzling speed to dance away once Chavez regrouped to counter. Taylor was displaying ring generalship at its best helping him to build a solid early lead on the judges’ scorecards. But even with all the sizzle, jazz, and sparks provided as the rounds continued to pass Chavez became more effective. Crushing shots to the body, uppercuts to the chin, Chavez started to land shots at will and even though he wasn’t winning all those mid to late rounds the damage inflicted by the heavier puncher was evident on Taylor’s swollen and bloody face. Heading into the last round of the fight Taylor was instructed in his corner that the fight was close and he needed to pull out the round. Chavez’s winning streak looked to be coming to an abrupt halt.
The excitement was brewing, Jim Lampley and Larry Merchant were beginning the coronation process stating that all Taylor had to do was stay away for three minutes and the greatness would his for the taking. Everyone watching felt Taylor had built enough of a lead that losing the last round wouldn’t cost him a decision. Why did his corner think otherwise? The round began and continued to be much like the tenth and eleventh, with Chavez utilizing his second wind and pressuring Taylor all over the ring. Why was Taylor standing toe to toe in the last stanza? Because that is a true warrior’s mentality; Taylor a native of Philadelphia didn’t know another way. With less than fifteen seconds to go Taylor was caught with a hard shot and dropped. Rising from the knockdown by count of three, with the aid of the ropes, everything seemed to be in place for a normal albeit dramatic finish.
However, when Taylor got up from the knockdown he looked back to his corner (where Duva had climbed to the top of the ring apron) instead of at referee Richard Steele. Steele then stopped the fight with two seconds remaining. Two seconds. The crowd was stunned, Lampley was yelling “unbelievable” and mentioning that Lou Duva was about to go “crazy.” Taylor had fought the fight of his life and the cruelty of the sweet science had taken away his shining moment with just two seconds remaining. This fight was later named “Fight of the Decade” by Ring Magazine.
Most believe that this loss is where the career of Taylor went into a rapid tailspin. However, ten months after the defeat to Chavez, Taylor would move up to welterweight and decision undefeated Aaron “Superman” Davis for the WBA title. Taylor successfully became a champion in two different weight classes. After defending that title twice, Taylor would accept a challenge from boxing hall of fame inductee “Terrible” Terry Norris for the WBC Light Middleweight title in May of 1992. Norris would blow out Taylor in four rounds to retain his title. Five months after this defeat Meldrick would drop back down to welterweight to make a defense of his WBA title and would subsequently be knocked out in eight rounds by Crisanto Espana.
After the end of 1992, Taylor would never regain the world class level of excellence he had once achieved, fighting fourteen times in the next ten years and winning only nine of those bouts. These losses included a TKO defeat to Chavez in a 1994 rematch.
As time continues to fade and the memory of Meldrick Taylor is limited to old dusty VHS tapes and website forum postings, it is important to give respect to a fighter, who in the midst of his prime, at the pinnacle of his career, did not take the easy way out and attempt to coast to a victory. Taylor went out on his shield and though millions of dollars in future paydays dissipated into thin air after the Chavez loss, the respect gained from the boxing community for his heart is eternal and priceless.
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