With 25 seconds to go on St. Patrick’s Day 1990, Meldrick Taylor looked like the winner. He’d outboxed, outpunched and outfought Julio Cesar Chavez for 11 rounds, two minutes and 35 seconds. He was busted up – bleeding lips, swollen eyes and battered insides – but the surefire winner. All he had to do was stay upright for 25 more seconds. That’s when Chavez connected with a right hand that wobbled Taylor, then dropped him with a follow-up right. Taylor managed to push himself up, as the clock ticked down to the final bell. But, when referee Richard Steele twice asked him if he was OK, a dazed Taylor failed to respond. And, in a sequence that would be analyzed and examined like the pugilistic version of the Zapruder film, Steele stopped the fight. Time left on the clock: two seconds.
And while Chavez isn’t Irish – he’s the consensus greatest Mexican fighter of all time – he had the luck of the Irish with him that night in Las Vegas, unifying the WBC and IBF junior welterweight titles and pushing his record to 68-0. And Taylor left the Hilton Center with a Shamrock-sized hole in his heart – never coming close to the brilliance he exhibited that night in the ring. It remains one of the greatest, most controversial, most scrutinized, most glorious fights in boxing history.
Thirty-three years ago today, March 17.
Years after Chavez-Taylor, Richard Steele continued to be lustily booed by crowds. The feeling was that he’d robbed the Philadelphian of a victory. Taylor, who went into the fight 24-0-1, had built a significant lead on two of the three scorecards and would’ve won a split decision. It was a win that some say Taylor “deserved.”
But Steele, who was never quite the same outstanding ref after this fight, made the right call.
Certainly, it was hard not to feel bad for Taylor as he stated his case through a hideously swollen face. He fought with a champion’s heart. But, ultimately, Team Taylor had no one to blame but itself. No one took anything from him, and no one owed him anything. The sad reality is that he failed to maintain the same intense focus for the final three minutes that he did the previous 33. And his career trajectory may have been altered as a result.
It was Taylor’s corner which instructed Taylor to be aggressive in the final round, even though he clearly had a lead. It was Taylor who, rather than answering the question that Richard Steele was asking inches from his face, looked away. And it was his trainer Lou Duva who climbed onto the ring apron, distracting Taylor in the most crucial moment of the fight.
Chavez, meanwhile, reiterated his greatness. Most focused on the controversy, but it was Chavez who engineered one of the all-time great finishes in sports history. To those who say he got lucky on that St. Patrick’s Day – perhaps. But it was he who weakened Taylor throughout with brutal whacks to the body. It was he who meticulously chipped away with subtly powerful right hands and left hooks to the head. It was he who let Taylor at times punch himself to exhaustion.
And, in the end, it was Julio Cesar Chavez who delivered that final, crunching right hand that dropped Taylor on the seat of his white Franklin trunks. If you look at the alternate view – the one from across the ring rather than above a corner – you’ll see Taylor went down awkwardly. Almost in a sickening way. His body went limp and the life seemed to drain out of him. We’ve seen that many times before, from Benny Paret to Duk Koo Kim to Kiko Bejines. After the sustained punishment that Taylor endured, you have to wonder what would’ve happened had Chavez connected with one more big shot. It might’ve ended in more than controversy. It could’ve ended in tragedy.
Would Chavez have had time to deliver that blow? Unlikely. But, even though the lights were blinking indicating the final 10 seconds of the fight, Richard Steele had no way of knowing whether there were two seconds left – or six seconds left. He had a hurt and unresponsive fighter in front of him, and his concentration was rightly focused on the task at hand. He was the one closest to him. And referees are paid to see those subtle signs that could spell the difference between life and death. Steele saw those signs. Maybe, Meldrick Taylor is alive today as a result. (Click on this fine piece by David Phillips on Meldrick Taylor, from the NYF archives. Also, HBO put out a solid look back at the event.)
The controversy will forever rage. But those who saw it will never forget it.
Thirty-three years ago, March 17.