By Lee Groves

Twenty years ago today, Julio Cesar Chavez and Meldrick Taylor cemented their place in boxing lore by producing a spectacle for the ages. The fight itself had everything a boxing fan could ever want – action, skill, courage and drama – but its destiny proved to be even more than anyone could have imagined.

Referee Richard Steele’s intervention at 2:58 of the final round will forever be a source of controversy and debate, not just 20 years after the fact but for as long as the earth continues spinning on its axis.

One side believes Steele was correct because a distracted Taylor failed to react properly to Steele’s direct questions while others say that the referee should have granted Taylor the benefit of the doubt because of the short time remaining and his previous dominance.

Each side has its merits, which is why the issue will never fully be settled.

What is beyond question is that Chavez-Taylor I was a legendary fight as well as a transcendent event that can be divided into three equal parts – the preamble, the performance and the post-mortem. Each set the table for what was to follow and the result is instant recognition and reaction.

Just say the words “Chavez-Taylor I” to a fan, and one will receive an earful of opinion and occasionally outrage. That is the power and passion of boxing.

With that said, let’s begin the journey back in time.

The Preamble

On paper, Chavez-Taylor I was as magnificent a pairing as could be made, both physically and stylistically. They were an almost perfect anatomical match; the 5-7 Chavez stood a half-inch taller and his 66 ½-inch reach was just a half-inch longer than Taylor’s. This ensured that talent and fortitude, not structural advantages, would determine the winner.

The mixture of styles virtually guaranteed a long and punishing contest.

Although Chavez was capable of long-range boxing his reputation was built on aggression, determination, superb infighting, pinpoint accuracy and a granite chin. He proudly carried a national heritage shaped by the likes of Ruben Olivares and improved upon it in terms of technical prowess without compromising its thrilling tenets.

According to CompuBox research, Chavez averaged 60 punches per round – more active than the typical junior welterweight – but he landed at an extraordinarily high 50 percent rate.

Like Chavez, Taylor represented a proud boxing fraternity – the Philadelphia fighter. Like no other city in the United States, Philly fighters are an entity unto themselves. Shaped by gym wars that often are more brutal than most official fights, Philadelphia fighters possess all the technical nuts and bolts but they carry out their assignments with an extra lust for confrontation and combat.

And like Chavez, Taylor was the ultimate exponent of his fistic pedigree for he combined the speed of Tyrone Everett, the slickness of Bobby “Boogaloo” Watts and the desire of Joe Frazier. Just in case he forgot how to merge all of his gifts, he had another Philadelphia great in George Benton in his corner to offer fresh reminders.

Still, Taylor was his own man in many respects, for his style was built on hand speed, intelligent movement and activity.

A CompuBox study of Taylor’s recent fights revealed he averaged 85 punches per round and his 38 percent connect rate was above average given that volume. In other words, there was good reason why this fight was billed as “Thunder vs. Lightning.”

The 27-year-old Chavez and the 23-year-old Taylor were either at or very close to their prime, which inspired comparisons to Leonard-Hearns I, Leonard-Duran I, Pryor-Arguello I and the most recent superfight of this genre, Hagler-Hearns.

Each man was making the third defense of his respective 140-pound belt – Chavez the WBC and Taylor the IBF – but there was even more at stake than just their titles. Mike Tyson’s shocking 10th round knockout loss to James “Buster” Douglas just 34 days earlier created a gaping vacancy atop the pound-for-pound standings.

With both men firmly entrenched in the top 10, a win would create a compelling – and perhaps airtight – case for ascension.

Taylor entered the fight sporting a record of 24-0-1 (14 KO) while Chavez’s record was either 66-0 with 56 knockouts (according to HBO) or 68-0 with 58 knockouts (according to Chavez’s people). While the contents of Chavez’s ledger were in dispute, there was no argument that this promised to be a clash of styles and championship desires. It was clear that each man was willing to do what it took to impose his fortitude while also breaking the other man’s.

“My 'will' will probably figure out in this fight,” Taylor declared in HBO’s pre-fight package. “Chavez is a great champion; he’s determined and he has a lot of pride. See, I’m a fighter that rises to the occasion. If I have a challenge out there and somebody says I can’t do it and has doubts about me, I’m going to do it.

“I’m at the beginning of the prime of my career and I think I’m going to really excel in this fight. It’s going to propel me as the best fighter pound-for-pound in the world. It’s going to make me a superstar.”

Chavez, already a superstar, ironically said that humility played a vital role in retaining his stature.

“I’ve always had in my mind that in the ring every opponent is a champion and that I’m am a human being like anyone else and we are exposed to defeat,” Chavez said. “Fortunately, I’ve always prepared myself consciously 100 percent, as each one of my fights lead to bigger and more important fights, and I think that’s why I have remained undefeated.”

The indoor arena at the Las Vegas Hilton was filled to its 9,300 capacity, and hotel officials estimated that 75 percent of the tickets were sold to Mexican and Mexican-American fans that thirsted for a Chavez victory. They not only invested their hearts and souls but also their hard-earned cash as they drove up the odds from 8-5 to 11-5 in Chavez’s favor in the hours before the fight.

The strategies were no mystery to anyone. Chavez needed to apply pressure and unleash a consistent body attack to sap Taylor’s speed and strength while Taylor aimed to move in, out and side-to-side to keep Chavez off balance while piling up points with his machine-gun flurries. Throughout Taylor’s training, the fighter worked inside a ring with a circle drawn on the canvas within which Taylor had to remain. The ropes and corners were considered toxic territory, and with Chavez as the opponent that was wise counsel indeed.

HBO’s Jim Lampley concluded the pre-fight package by saying, “when champions meet drama usually follows.” He couldn’t have known how right he would be.

The Performance

As the fight began, Taylor stayed true to his strategy as he moved in small semicircles in both directions and flicked half jabs to establish range while Chavez stalked behind winging hooks. Taylor landed a sharp left hook that drove Chavez back for a moment, and then followed with a right uppercut-left hook to the face before darting out of range. Taylor’s trigger was always quicker and his two- and three-punch bursts stood in sharp contrast to Chavez’s singular offerings.

Chavez was a notoriously slow starter, a flaw of which he was well aware but didn’t do much to fix. He had scored just one one-round knockout since February 1982 – against Rodolfo Batta in October 1989 – and he used the opening session against Taylor to gather reconnaissance. He threw occasional jabs and landed a right cross or two while also testing his ability to cut off the ring.

While Chavez ended the round with an accurate right cross the opening session was a picture-perfect round for Taylor in terms of strategy and execution. He was disciplined and composed as he consistently beat Chavez to the punch, landing 33 of his 92 punches while Chavez could only score on one-third of his 27 attempted punches.

Chavez’s corner, accustomed to Chavez’s leaden starts, sought to reinforce their blueprint.

“You’ve got to respond immediately,” trainer Cristobal Rosas said through HBO translator Ruben Castillo. “Two jabs. You go first. You threw a good left hook. Work inside and don’t get frustrated. Don’t get excited.”

Meanwhile, Taylor’s corner was happy with their man’s performance and wanted to see more of it.

“Just keep on making that little circle,” said Benton.

“Give me a little more snap on that jab,” added Lou Duva.

The pattern continued in round two as Taylor circled and stabbed with speed and fluidity. Chavez stalked purposefully, but at a pace that seemed plodding compared to Taylor’s kinetic energy. Chavez closed his eyes and rolled them in frustration after Taylor easily avoided Chavez’s attempt to bull him into the ropes.

Chavez slipped in a short lead right that not only got a rare rise from the crowd but also reopened a cut on Taylor’s lower lip that he had suffered in training. The injury sparked instant retaliation as Taylor banged two rights to Chavez’s hip, a right uppercut-left hook to the face and a snappy hook following a Chavez miss.

The sight of Taylor’s blood also ignited Chavez as he fired accurate one- and two-punch offerings. Three solid Chavez rights and a forceful short-range hook crashed through Taylor’s defense in the final 20 seconds. For the first time Taylor seemed ill at ease as he wiped at his face with his gloves and blinked his eyes.

What no one knew at the time was that those rights fractured the orbital bone under Taylor’s left eye. As he stood in the corner for the start of round three, Taylor vigorously shook his head from side to side to deal with the strange sensations.

Both men accelerated their attacks in the third. Taylor’s bustling combinations were too fast for Chavez to avoid but the Mexican’s iron resolve allowed him to walk through the blows and continue his dogged pursuit. He continually threw right hand leads, but they found air most of the time. Taylor even trumped Chavez at working the body, for his multi-punch bursts out-shined Chavez’s singular hammers.

Every so often, however, Chavez broke through with damaging shots and his continual aggression forced Taylor to work hard every second to keep the Mexican off him.

“Let him have his fun now,” Chavez’s style seemed to say. “Taylor will have to stop sometime and when he does, that’s when I’ll get him.”

In the meantime, Taylor threw and landed more, as well as initiating and finishing most exchanges – all of which allowed him to put rounds in the bank. After tasting another at-the-bell right, a confident Taylor marched to his corner with both arms upraised, convinced that he had total command of the early action.

The CompuBox statistics backed up his belief, for he threw 287 punches to Chavez’s 116 in the first three rounds and the disparity in landed punches appeared similar.

Taylor’s flashy punches highlighted by scything right uppercuts carried the start of round four. Chavez had yet to position Taylor on the ropes and Taylor’s offensive diversity and intelligent movement had rendered the great Chavez nearly impotent. Taylor not only had the answer for every Chavez question, he produced it even before Chavez could open his mouth to ask it.

Taylor worked up and down Chavez’s anatomy with dizzying precision while ducking and dodging most of Chavez’s return fire - but not all of it. Chavez still slipped in enough heavy-handed shots to make Taylor stop for an instant to deal with the jolts of pain that reverberated throughout his facial structure.

Still, Taylor was doing more than enough to win the rounds and that was good enough for Benton and Duva.

“Now you’re boxing beautiful!” Duva shouted as he wiped the blood from Taylor’s lower lip. Meanwhile, ace cut man Ace Marotta applied an ice bag to Taylor’s swelling left eye.

Benton, however, offered a cautionary – and ultimately prescient – word of warning.

“Settle down,” he said. “Don’t let the guy carry you too fast.”

“You have to throw punches to back this guy up, Mel,” Duva added. “I don’t want this guy stealing the rounds from us, you hear?”

The action shifted to close quarters in the fifth and Taylor again began strongly behind double hooks and right uppercuts. Chavez, however, had the fight he wanted and he got in his share of power shots, all the while bodying Taylor to create room for his vaunted body punches and short lefts and rights over the top. With a minute remaining Chavez landed his best punch to date – a left hook that snapped back Taylor’s head – and added several others to end the closest round of the fight so far.

Sensing his man was five rounds down cut specialist Jose “Buffalo” Martin cranked up the urgency.

“We’ve lost this round,” he yelled. “We can’t afford to lose any more rounds. Throw punches with him; you can’t wait for him. You’re better than him, Julio. Throw punches until he falls on his bottom. He’s inflating.”

Taylor’s CompuBox lead was growing as he out-landed Chavez 168-78 while out-throwing him 488-206 through five rounds. Chavez knew it was time to get to work.

A devoted group of Chavez fans tried to lift their hero with a chant early in the sixth. Not everyone joined in, for many sat in nervous silence. That silence was broken when some of them booed down a Taylor counter-chant.

Meanwhile, Chavez cranked a good double hook to the body and jaw and he won an exchange highlighted by a short right that wobbled Taylor for the briefest of moments. Taylor wasn’t throwing nearly as many punches; his machine-gun bursts were more sporadic and his slower pace and movement made for an easier target for Chavez. “J.C. Superstar” was finally stringing punches together while doing a better job of evading Taylor’s incoming. Taylor still felt good enough to throw – and land – a bolo right, but for the first time Chavez claimed a round for his own.

The damage to Taylor was only starting to manifest itself as ice bags now were applied to both eyes and a towel was used to wipe away blood from his mouth. Benton again warned Taylor about fighting at too torrid a pace.

Taylor ignored that counsel as he started the fight’s second half much as he did the first. Two body shots preceded a crisp hook to the jaw that landed flush. Chavez took them unflinchingly and drove his own solid hook to the body. That ignited a thrilling and extended exchange at close quarters that saw Taylor’s volume trump Chavez’s heft. But once Taylor slowed down, Chavez went about the unglamorous business of wearing Taylor down.

Chavez used his brute strength to lean on Taylor, his iron jaw to absorb the return fire and both hands to pound the body and rake Taylor’s increasingly lumpy face. Chavez’s tactics – and Taylor’s rugged Philadelphia mindset – was slowly turning the tenor of the fight.

Taylor was still throwing and landing more but Chavez now was creating inroads that he hoped would pave the way toward victory. In round seven Taylor threw 103 punches but Chavez unloaded 72. The gap was closing, both statistically and mathematically.

The eighth saw a curious tactical shift by Chavez as he bounced on his toes and circled Taylor, who was rooted at ring center. Taylor landed a rapid-fire volley and Chavez responded by lowering his gloves and glaring at his rival. Taylor won the round – by far the most uneventful of the fight – largely by default.

Chavez’s relative inaction lit a fuse in Martin, who went to the verbal whip while seeming on the edge of a coronary.

“You’re standing too straight up!” he screamed. “Do it for your family, give it all your heart! You’ve got to give it all you got! For the love of God, throw everything you’ve got!”

The action accelerated on both sides in the ninth. Taylor started the stanza by whipping in dynamite combinations that threatened to overwhelm Chavez. But the youthful veteran coolly handled the mini-crisis and went back to work with his short-range hammers once Taylor’s opening flurry fizzled.

Chavez chipped away at Taylor’s lead early in the round as well as his stamina over the long haul. Chavez’s shots popped Taylor’s head and riddled his rib cage, all the while exacting untold damage, but damage nonetheless. Taylor responded to the pain as only a prideful fighter could, by firing back passionately and with breathtaking velocity. A series of body blasts ended with a rocket-like right to the jaw by Chavez, sparking yet another serving of torrid infighting that continued until round’s end.

Chavez’s corner sensed that their man had finally hit his stride and wanted to see even more.

“Go for the opportunity,” Martin said. “ He’s slowing down. For your family.”

Taylor again launched an early attack in the 10th behind a smacking right and a right uppercut-left hook to the chin, after which he fell inside with Chavez. It was here that Chavez solidified the foundation he began in the fifth by countering Taylor’s eye-catching bursts with brick loads of substance. He hammered full-shouldered rights to the head and strung together as many as three hooks in a row. Taylor’s body language signaled that fatigue and distress had finally gripped him, but his heart continued to drive him into the teeth of Chavez’s buzz saw.

A right buckled Taylor’s legs and his upper body slumped forward as Chavez raked him with compact blows. Taylor’s legs no longer had their earlier spring and for the first time it looked as if Taylor was in danger of losing.

From this point forward Taylor was in a one-man race: His willingness to compete versus his body’s urge to collapse under the weight of Chavez’s punishment.

The sole arbiter was the clock and each second had to feel like three to Taylor. In this gambling town, could Taylor last long enough to cash in the chips he worked so hard to collect in the early going or would Chavez come from behind and take everything away with the turn of a single card?

Each man, indeed, was all in.

The 10th was the most dominant round yet for Chavez and momentum was on his side.

“What’s going to be interesting in these next two rounds is to see how Taylor handles it because this is the toughest fight he’s ever been in,” HBO analyst Larry Merchant astutely observed as the 11th round began. “Whether there’s fatigue, whether he can stand up to this great champion who is just not going to give up.”

With a champion’s resolve, Taylor tried to beat Chavez off him, doing so with blood flowing from his wide-open mouth and both eyes badly swollen. A savage right snapped Taylor’s head back and a hook seconds later did likewise. Taylor’s speed no longer inhibited Chavez from going about his brutal work.

Back and forth they went, tearing into each other with uncommon fury and precise purpose, yet neither was willing to cede even an inch of territory or competitive will. With every passing second the drama built and everyone was left to wonder how this pulsating contest would finally conclude.

During the final rest period, Chavez had to know he needed something magical to overcome what had transpired in the previous 11 rounds. Though encouraged by the strides he made in the middle and late rounds, he had only three minutes to produce a miracle. He had to find something that would not only preserve his share of the 140-pound title but also his 10-year winning streak – the fourth longest from the beginning of a career in history.

It helped his cause that he had a woozy opponent in front of him, one that nearly walked to the wrong corner following the 11th round bell.

“You’ve got to go for this round,” Martin said, stating the obvious. “When the bell rings you’ve got to go throw your punches.”

Though Duva and Benton suspected Taylor was ahead, experience told them that the judges’ scorecards – especially those rendered in Las Vegas – might not necessarily reflect the action that preceded it. Therefore, they figured this was no time for their charge to rest on his laurels.

“Mel, this is the last round,” Duva intoned. “The whole fight is hanging on this round. Do you want to be champion of the world?”

“You need this round,” Benton added, pointing his finger for emphasis.

Meanwhile, Taylor was in his own world, a world of fatigue and pain mixed with ambition and resolve. All he needed was to last three more minutes and the boxing world was his. He would forever be known as the man who shattered the great Chavez’s undefeated string and among the elite few who could legitimately call himself the world’s best pound-for-pound boxer.

Taylor pawed at his face after Chavez slammed in a right hand and his foot slipped on the sweat-soaked beer logo at ring center. Despite his weakened state, Taylor drove himself inside and rumbled with the expert rumbler, both because of choice and necessity. Taylor fell to the canvas after missing with a wild hook, telling everyone just how tired he was.

Curiously, Chavez showed no undue urgency, but he was by far the stronger man, fully in control of his faculties and his arsenal of weapons. To the frustration of his corner and fans, however, he wasn’t seizing the moment the way a true champion would and as the round passed its midway point it appeared that Chavez didn’t have what it took to pull out the fight.

With a minute to go, however, the dynamic started to shift. Chavez nailed Taylor with a right that shook the IBF champion to his Philadelphia core while lifting the crowd into a frenzy.

A hook clipped the jaw, causing Taylor to break into a faux wobble. Chavez landed several more bombs, then curiously backed off to survey the damage. It was as if he was waiting for just the right moment to put the final touches on his masterpiece, and to hell with those who demanded that he hurry.

With 24 seconds remaining both men set themselves to throw rights. Chavez’s got there first and hardest and Taylor’s body shuddered once more. Instead of backing away and running out the clock, Taylor barreled forward toward the corner pad. Chavez then pivoted hard to his right, reset his feet and delivered a full-blooded right to the face that sent Taylor crashing to the floor.

Just 16 seconds were left on the clock and the crowd exploded into rapture as Taylor struggled to regain his feet, doing so as Steele tolled five. Meanwhile, Chavez was walking toward his own corner – an obvious rules violation – but Steele’s focus was rightly on assessing Taylor’s condition.

After counting eight, Steele placed his face inches from Taylor’s and yelled, “Are you OK? Are you OK?” Taylor’s proper action would have been to nod demonstrably or say something – anything – to show Steele that he was still alert and functional. At the most critical moment, however, Duva climbed onto the ring apron, which caused Taylor to glance to his right instead of answering Steele. Taylor’s failure to adequately answer Steele’s question moved the veteran referee to close his eyes, wave his arms and stop the fight – with only two seconds left on the clock.

Just like that, the fight was over. But the chaos and controversy was only beginning.

The Post-Mortem

“Unbelievable! Unbelievable!” Lampley yelled. “Richard Steele stopped the fight with fewer than five seconds to go. You’re going to watch Lou Duva go crazy now! You’re going to watch Lou Duva go absolutely berserk!”

And berserk Duva got as he bounded into the ring, pointed his finger at Steele and spewed venom as only he could. But even his prodigious vitriol couldn’t be heard over the din that erupted in the arena.

Meanwhile, an elated, relieved and exhausted Chavez accepted congratulations from his corner. He pumped his fist, raised his arms and blew kisses as he was carried around the ring. Less than 20 feet from this celebratory scene, there was confusion, consolation and consternation.

The center of the controversy said he did the only thing he could do to preserve the fighter’s health.

“I stopped it because Meldrick had taken a lot of good shots, a lot of hard shots, and it was time for it to stop,” he told Merchant. “I’m not the timekeeper and I don’t care about the time. When I see a man that’s had enough, I’m stopping the fight. I asked him if he was all right and I didn’t hear him say a thing. But I was looking at his condition, mainly. That’s what I was interested in.

“There’s no fight worth a man’s life,” he continued. “I don’t care what it is, or how many I do, when I get tired of seeing a man get pound, pound, pound, and I think he had enough, I’m going to stop it.”

Duva didn’t buy Steele’s contention that he shouldn’t have been aware of how much time was left in the round and that his fighter should have been given extra consideration given the situation and the stakes.

“I don’t believe that,” he said. “Forget that he didn’t know the time, they’ve got to give the guy a chance. This is a title fight, he wasn’t getting hurt out there.”

Taylor, of course, agreed.

 “The fight was just two seconds from the 12th round,” Taylor said. “There’s no way in hell he should have stopped the fight with me leading on the scorecards going into the last round. He caught me with a good right hand. I got up and he didn’t say anything to me. He said, ‘are you OK?’ and he didn’t give me no kind of direction in the corner and he stopped the fight.”

“I know I was ahead because I threw a lot cleaner shots, a lot more flurries,” Taylor continued. “Even into the last round I got a little careless, exchanging punches instead of staying away with the jab. But still, the fight was that good that it should have went the 12 rounds. I most definitely want a rematch because this fight should have been mine, it should have been in the basket. I was leading on the scorecards. I don’t understand it.”

The victor had little to say in the wake of his miraculous victory.

“I felt very, very tired,” Chavez said through Castillo. “Meldrick’s a great fighter who’s a very quick fighter and an intelligent fighter. He deserves another opportunity.”

If Taylor had his choice he would have fought the second fight then and there, but his body barely survived the first one. Taylor was sent to the hospital immediately after the fight, and for good reason. Not only did he suffer a facial fracture, he had swallowed two pints of blood. Still, Taylor’s stature was greatly enhanced by his brave performance, and while Chavez took over the number-one spot in the pound-for-pound rankings, Taylor settled in at number two.

While Taylor eventually got his rematch with Chavez, it took place exactly four-and-a-half years later. Both men had gone through the wringer in that time; Taylor had won and lost a 147-pound belt and suffered knockout losses to Terry Norris and Crisanto Espana while Chavez’s aura of invincibility was badly compromised by Pernell Whitaker, then officially removed by Frankie Randall.

Chavez regained the WBC belt via a rules technicality and Taylor was the first defense of his second reign. Again, Taylor sprinted out to an early lead but Chavez eventually hammered his foe into an eighth round TKO.

No one, even the third man, exited the Las Vegas Hilton the same person.

While the fighters suffered physical ravages, Steele’s reputation also was victimized.

Long regarded as among the world’s top referees, the combination of the Chavez-Taylor stoppage and the controversial halting of the first Mike Tyson-Donovan “Razor” Ruddock fight the following year convinced many that Steele had lost something off his fastball. For more than a decade afterward the introduction of his name would trigger a storm of boos.

Despite the controversy that swirled around it, Chavez-Taylor I was named Ring Magazine’s Fight of the Year for 1990 and eventually won Fight of the Decade honors, beating out worthies such as Riddick Bowe-Evander Holyfield I, Michael Carbajal-Humberto Gonzalez I and Arturo Gatti’s wars with Gabriel Ruelas and Ivan Robinson.

It is a fight that deserves its place in history’s pantheon, for Chavez and Taylor invested every fiber of their beings in pursuit of victory. They were true to the sportsman’s code and because of that Chavez in victory and Taylor in defeat each enjoyed his finest hour.

E-mail Lee Groves at lgroves@hughes.net