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Meldrick Taylor Was Once Young and Beautiful

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Late last week I was looking through the list of eligible boxers to be considered for the International Boxing Hall of Fame. I ran my finger past the names of the 2018 nominees. Thinking who had a career worthy of enshrinement.

Vitali. Yes.

Erik Morales. Yes.

Ricky Hatton. Yeah, I think so.

Donald Curry. Hmmm…need to think on that one.

And then I came across the name that has haunted me for all my years as a fan of professional boxing.

Meldrick Taylor.

I could feel my shoulders slump as I said his name aloud to no one in particular. In a hushed tone, “Meldrick Taylor.”

Followed by “damn”.

See, I try not to think of Meldrick Taylor. Because it hurts. I was only 13 when I saw Taylor (as a part of maybe the greatest American Olympic boxing squad ever) win gold as a featherweight in the 1984 games. Taylor was only 4 years older than me at the time. And he was electric.

His gifts were extraordinary at such a tender age. His feet were light. His hands blinding and full of force. He was athletically off all charts. Having nothing left to prove at the amateur ranks, Taylor went pro at the age of 18, barely an adult.

He stormed through the first 20 fights of his career with a draw against Harold Davis Jr. being his only blemish. He then TKO’d Buddy McGirt on September 3, 1988 to take his first belt – the IBF Welterweight title. Just a little over a month before his 22nd birthday.
It was then he decided to take on the fearsome Mexican giant, Julio Cesar Chavez. A human wrecking ball with a 69-0 record who hit with hurt while seemingly made of stone.

On March 17, 1990 in a pitched Las Vegas atmosphere, Taylor dominated the all-time great for much of the fight. His superior hand and foot speed flummoxed Chavez. It was a stunning sight. All of Taylor’s gifts were in full flight.

As the fight went on Taylor kept putting rounds away. However, despite outlanding Chavez with ease, the amount of punishment Taylor took from the blows that did find their way to his head and body became apparent. It was one of those fights that if you walked in on it in the 11th round and based your perceptions only on the way the two fighters looked, you would probably have thought Chavez was winning.

You would be wrong.

Heading into the 12th and final round, Taylor was up on two cards by scores of 108-101 and 107-102. The third card, by Chuck Giampa, had Chavez up 105-104, and is impossible to make sense of.

Despite an obvious lead to all but Giampa, and clearly being in a rapidly diminishing physical state, Taylor’s trainer, Lou Duva, told Taylor he needed the round to win the fight.
Instead of playing it safe, Taylor came forward, paying a brutal price. The punishment piled up until Chavez dropped Taylor with 17 seconds to go in the fight.
What followed in those final precious few seconds is among the most discussed and argued about moments in the history of boxing.

Taylor got up almost immediately. Badly hurt, holding a rope, and swaying. He took an 8 count. Appeared to look over at his corner while Richard Steele asked him if he was okay. Just as Taylor’s head turned towards Steele, the veteran referee ended the fight with 2 seconds on the clock.

There can be no doubt that Taylor was hurt badly. That if the round had gone on 30 seconds more he would have likely been knocked out. However, Steele stopped the bout after asking Taylor only once if he were okay, at a time when if he had stepped away and let the fight continue, Chavez would likely not even have had a chance to wind up, let alone finish another blow.

As tragic as that moment was for Meldrick Taylor, what followed was even worse.
Taylor was hospitalized after the fight. The doctor who attended to Taylor said he had suffered a facial fracture, was urinating pure blood, and had suffered brain trauma.
Taylor fought for 12 more years after that fight, which Ring Magazine named fight of the year, and later fight of the decade. Chavez went on to burnish the credentials of his already legendary career, but Taylor was never the same.

He did go on to take the WBA Welterweight title with a unanimous decision against Aaron Davis 10 months later. He defended that belt three times before suffering a devastating TKO loss to Terry Norris 14 months later. That was his last fight as top-flight boxer.

He was 25 years old.

He fought Chavez one more time on September 17, 1994. A shell of the fighter he used to be, he somehow lasted 7 full rounds with Chavez until being TKO’d in the 8th.

He took 10 more fights after that against largely nondescript boxers and lost 4 of them. He finally retired in 2002 after a loss to Wayne Martell. Long after he had any business in the ring.

A few years later, HBO ran a documentary on the Taylor/Chavez fight as a part of their Legendary Nights series. I watched the Taylor/Chavez piece with rapt attention. I could remember everything about that fight. How Taylor danced and stung Chavez. Overwhelming him with physical talent and superior skill. It was an astonishing display.
It was a bit like watching the film version of the Titanic. Where you view it, and begin to hope for a different ending. One where Taylor survives the 12th and has his hand held over his head and scores one of the greatest victories in the history of the sport.

But just as that ship does sink, so does Taylor slump into that corner and has his all but certain destiny taken from him just two seconds before the rapture.

Late in that HBO documentary, we see a then present-day Taylor. In a sad looking room. Answering just a few questions by the interviewer. Taylor’s speech is so unintelligible that the filmmakers had to run subtitles beneath his chin.

And it absolutely breaks your heart.

Because Meldrick Taylor was not just a great boxer. He was a levitational force. Among the most gifted pugilists to ever step through the ropes.

Meldrick Taylor was beautiful.
After watching the HBO piece, I have assiduously avoided any articles or footage of that fateful night in Las Vegas. It’s simply too painful to see or read about.

That night was an end to promise. An end to a future so bright you had to squint to look at it.
That night, Chavez stole Taylor’s career and Steele stole his victory.

At minimum, he deserved to have the latter.

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About David Phillips