By Jake Donovan
Former undisputed middleweight champion Jermain Taylor returned to the ring after a 26-month absence with an eighth round stoppage of Jessie Nicklow in their Showtime-televised main event Friday evening at Morongo Casino Resort & Spa in Cabazon, California.
A string of losses – all but one ending in frightening highlight reel knockout fashion – forced Taylor out of the Super Six tournament and the sport altogether, coming to the realization that he needed to change quite a few things in his career if he was to ever again step foot in the ring.
The first change came in his training methods, as the 2000 U.S. Olympic bronze medalist made a conscious decision to drop back down to the middleweight limit. Taylor hadn’t fought at the weight since losing his lineal crown to Kelly Pavlik in their Sept. ’07 thriller that saw both fighters on the deck but Taylor slumped in the corner by fights end.
It was believed that a move up in weight was the next logical step, but the results proved disastrous. Taylor dropped three of his four fights at super middleweight, the lone win coming in Nov. ’08 against former Olympic teammate Jeff Lacy, whose own career was – and remains – in a tailspin.
Following the win were a pair of eerily similar last-second knockout losses to Carl Froch and Arthur Abraham, competitive fights that ended in brutally disastrous fashion for Taylor.
More than two years after being laid out in the closing seconds of the 12th round of his Super Six Stage One bout with Arthur Abraham, Taylor came into the ring at a slender 161 lb.
The weight was his lightest since his first bout with Pavlik more than four years ago. It appeared to be a good fit as his jab was back to its jackhammer form right from the opening bell against Nicklow, who at 159 lb. seemingly dwarfed in comparison.
With his first round in more than two years out of the way, Taylor loosened up in the second round. The Arkansas native came out throwing, scoring with jabs and overhand rights while Nicklow just moved and kept his hands pinned to his chin.
By the third round, Taylor was landing at will, with his confidence gleaming. Nicklow was peppered with power shots, enough of which busted up his nose. Still, the Maryland native enjoyed his best round of the fight to that point, even if not enough to win.
Action slowed considerably in the fourth, to where trainer Pat Burns – reunited with Taylor after being relieved of corner services more than five years ago – questioned if Taylor injured his right hand, having spent the entire round almost exclusively behind the jab.
He wouldn’t admit it at the time to his trainer, but confirmed after the fight that all wasn’t well with the power hand.
“I think I hurt it early on in the fight,” Taylor would admit when questioned afterward why he stopped throwing right hands after being so effective with the punch early on.
Still, the corner exchange was enough to motivate Taylor to get busy, coming out firing in the fifth and sixth rounds, though two rounds that saw the normally clean fighter receive a tongue lashing from referee Ray Corona. Taylor worked the body in the fifth, but drew a warning when the tail end of a double left hook combination strayed below the belt.
A far worse turn of events transpired after the bell to end the sixth round. Nicklow motioned towards Taylor though the two were separated by the referee. For reasons only he can – and to his credit, did – explain, Taylor responded with a stiff left hand to Nicklow’s grill, resulting in a point deducted from his scorecard.
“I never fight like that. I just got a little frustrated and I'm sorry,” Taylor stated after the fight, revealing the sequence simply as a kneejerk reaction. “I'll never do that again and I apologize to all of my fans.”
Taylor has always been nothing if classy throughout his pro career. The statement confirms those sentiments, as does his overall performance. Back to work he went in the seventh, targeting the body with ferocity as he was slowly breaking Nicklow down. The journeyman was ready to go in the eighth, and Taylor went straight to work. A rare combination from the former middleweight king backed up Nicklow, who kept his hands pinned to his head as Taylor threw three more power shots.
Referee Ray Corona decided that it was enough to pull the plug on a fight that seemed to just get going. At the very least, Nicklow deserved the right to fight his way out or at least go out on his shield, while Taylor deserved a more satisfactory ending.
Instead, the fight came to an abrupt end, much to the dismay of the intimate but rabid crowd on hand, chanting “Bulls*it” over the early stoppage, which came at 0:36 of the eighth round.
Taylor picks up his first win in more than three years as he advances to 29-4-1 (18KO). Nicklow falls to 22-3-3 (8KO) snapping a four-fight unbeaten streak while effectively performing the role he was expected to play in the fight.
With the win secured and his comeback fight in the books, the obvious next question is where Taylor goes from here and how soon – or slow – he is moved along in the comeback tour.
The first fight back was certainly going to have its share of issues, but Taylor seemed pleased with the overall results.
“Jessie Nicklow is a tough kid. He came to fight,” Taylor insisted afterward. I felt rusty but grew comfortable as the fight went along. I'm just trying to have fun in there.”
What most fans would like to know is what happens when a higher quality opponent catches him clean. Taylor didn’t seem too concerned about his ability to absorb, believing he boasts the equalizers to carry him through any pending situation.
“I guess we have to figure out when we get there. That jab is back on. It's working out. I'd like to come back whoever there is to fight. I don't care about a timetable.”
All that mattered on this night was winning. Taylor managed to do just that, and look good in the process – a rare win-win scenario for one of boxing’s good guys.
Andre Dirrell ended a 21-month absence from the ring with a second round knockout of Darryl Cunningham in a battle of Michigan super middleweights. Dirrell (20-1, 14KO) scored two knockdowns in the second round, the latter prompting Cunningham’s corner to jump on the ring apron and surrender.
The bout was Dirrell’s first since being forced to exit the Super Six tournament due to injuries suffered in his 11th round disqualification win over Arthur Abraham.
In the televised opener, Cuban export Luis Garcia cruised to an eight-round shutout over Alexander Johnson in a battle of unbeaten light heavyweight prospects. Scores were 80-72 across the board for Garcia, who was fighting for the first time in 13 months.
Garcia - who now fights out of Cork, Ireland – advances to 12-0 (9KO). Johnson – who hails from the outskirts of Washington, D.C. – falls to 12-1 (5KO), citing a stomach ailment in between rounds, which for the most part explains his lack of effort.
In the final bout before the television camera began rolling, unbeaten heavyweight prospect Mike Perez cruised to a 10-round decision over battle-tested Friday Ahunanya. Scores were 100-90 across the board for Perez (15-0, 8KO, a stablemate of Luis Garcia, who appears in the televised opener.
Unbeaten Puerto Rican lightweight Jose Pedraza scored a fifth round knockout over .500 fighter Herbert Quartey. Pedraza scored the bout’s lone knockdown in the fifth round, a sequence that proved to end the fight. Quartey recovered but was in no condition to continue, prompting the stoppage midway through the fifth of their scheduled eight-round bout.
The full undercard report can be found here:
Jake Donovan is the Managing Editor of Boxingscene.com. Follow Jake on Twitter at twitter.com/JakeNDaBox or submit questions/comments to [email protected] .