Jermain Taylor, undefeated middleweight contender, is proving to be what many have predicted he would become, the middleweight division’s gathering storm. But he’s not in much of a hurry; he’s not sounding off, decrying his being lost in the detailing of Bernard Hopkins’ late career dealings. Jermain Taylor doesn’t whine, wail or play the victim on camera. All the kid does is dynamite the career aspirations of his peers. Previously unbeaten Daniel Edouard was swept aside by J.T. inside of three rounds on the undercard of the Bernard Hopkins-Howard Eastman middleweight championship title fight in Los Angeles. The talk is brimming with hitting power and increasingly intricate displays of skill patterns. Taylor’s the one new generation fighter who looks a match for world champion Bernard Hopkins. There are whispers already that the Philadelphia Executioner might be tentatively planning his final career outings without including an inter-generational showdown with the young force of nature Taylor.
We must be sure to understand all of the elements here before we accuse the great Hopkins of self-preservation via evasion. In Hopkins’ defense, he did tell boxing fans last year he fully intended to face up to the challenge of Taylor before retiring. We do allow for the champion to have the right to change his mind, even as we would remind him and his faithful fans that he promised to fight Taylor. No one close to boxing would deny that Taylor has now reached the threshold of technical viability and legitimacy, a preening talent in a “Dark Age” of tedious mediocrity, a.k.a. “The Age of Hopkins.” Yet here’s where logistics and monetary calculation stand to get in the way of transitional logic.
Will Taylor be given his shot not just at “winning a belt” but in facing off with the champion of his generation at middleweight? That’s the operative question for all those who care about the legitimate continuity of championship boxing.
No reasonable onlooker begrudged the Philadelphia ring master his $10 million pay-per- view outing against boxing money mogul Oscar De La Hoya. Allowing longtime world-class contender Howard Eastman his shot at career fulfillment, staged as Hopkins’ 20th title defense, we also acknowledge as a defensible defense. Just as we do admit to disappointment in the champion from Philly for having opted to merely master an embarrassing set of challengers since his trouncing of Felix Trinidad in September 2001; thus, with the emergence of Taylor, we expect the showdown at middleweight sooner rather than later or too late. And here is where Hopkins’ rights to cash out his career are weighed against his claims of historical greatness. In other words, how can Taylor be denied his shot at a champion claiming the mantle of Ray Robinson, Carlos Monzon and Marvin Hagler?
No, Hopkins doesn’t need to fight Taylor for the sake of championship or historical validation, but perhaps if only to avoid appearing hypocritical. For no one over the last decade made more noise, cried foul more often, than did Hopkins concerning the specific matter of being denied the big fights, being systematically overlooked.
If there is to be a fight between Hopkins and Taylor, no question all the executive suits at HBO want to get the timing just right. They want Jermain Taylor to step into the ring to face down the mighty Hopkins before the expiration date becomes all too apparent on the career of the now 40-year-old middleweight legend. And Hopkins is currently fielding propositions in lieu of offers from Dan Goossen concerning a possible fight with light heavyweight champion and Hopkins’ victim Glen Johnson, as well as the winner of the forthcoming Felix Trinidad-Winky Wright battle royal.
To keep the pressure on all parties, Hopkins has floated the promise made to his mother that he would retire from the ring at age 40, i.e. no more fights past December 2005 or January 2006. So the expectation of probability oscillates between Hopkins leaving Johnson, Trinidad-Wright or Taylor out of his sweepstakes equation. Not that Trinidad needs Hopkins to make money. Trinidad does want Hopkins, though, for revenge is best served up iced with avenging passion.
Going over Hopkins’ options, Team Taylor’s apprehensions are manifold indeed if we correctly deduce their true desire: beating Hopkins for the championship. For there’s no question that at light heavyweight, should Hopkins actually go up and fight for the unified 175lb title and not force a catch-weight showdown, Hopkins would be in for a frightening struggle to once more best the rock solid and rejuvenated Glen Johnson. Not to mention Trinidad has fully acclimatized to middleweight and will be ready to fight the fight of his life to beat the only man to have beaten him. Winky Wright would present a technical problem for Hopkins and offer an opponent who has many of his own weaponry. For all the fanfare of the champ’s seemingly Dorian Gray youthfulness, Hopkins’ declining punch per round output and defensive first tactical tendencies are the initial signs of ring diminishment.
Still, the general proposition holds true. Hopkins continues to defy the general logic of athletic entropy. Why? Because no one is beating him, let alone challenging his legendary bullishness and psychological gamesmanship, even though the wear is beginning to show through his work ethic proofed physique.
What those in the know at HBO do not want is another missed opportunity to spectacularly transition from one epic era into another, as happened between (failed to happen between) old lion heavyweight champion Lennox Lewis and the good doctor Vitali Klitschko. Taylor looks like a walking Nike commercial in the making and he needs a showdown with Hopkins to maximize his coming of age ascension to superstardom. Blistering Bernard Hopkins would at least give him the opportunity at a transcendent, telegenic moment. And yet 26-year-old Taylor – promoted by Lou DiBella, trained by Pat Burns and managed by Mark Vaz – seems to have settled on a strategy of stealth and incremental progression. They want to insinuate themselves into the title picture, perhaps rightly understanding it’s theirs for the taking, demanding, asking. Well, HBO may have money to control most things, but one should never forget all this depends on Hopkins, a man, a champion, known as much a legend for his managerial idiosyncratic hiccups as for his relentless hunger to win.
Don’t expect Hopkins to feel compelled to do any particular thing. He says he’s a man who has no strings attached. If he’s thought to be predictable because he’ll always take the money, you had better review the last five years of his career. No fighter in boxing talked and thought himself out of more green than B-Hop over that timeframe. Team Taylor may have to declare war after all, make a public assertion of their desires and rights and expectations. If there’s a short list, they had better try and make their case. Can Hopkins’ hand be forced? Can his ego and manhood be called into question over the issue of fighting or not fighting Jermain Taylor? Could Hopkins be taken to task over the issue of Taylor’s legitimacy? Relying on a forced mandatory would be a waste of time and money.
Perhaps Hopkins can finally be as good as his word. Perhaps he’s really a man who loves all challenges, not just marginal challengers; he’s intimated it often enough over the years. Odd the art of leveraging should begin to apply friction against the man who wielded that lever for so long. One wonders if Hopkins is still listening to the voices of consternation and injustice, his old namesakes. Now he’s the guy who has to make the choices of decreeing who rates and who will be passed by. Because Bernard Hopkins is not just a guy with a middleweight belt any longer; he’s not just a guy with an attitude and a leather mask hustling in front of 8,000 fans. He’s the axis point of his time in boxing and the last selections of his career become more than a statistical endgame of a fighter.
Because for the first time in years Bernard Hopkins has a real challenger, primed and ready to take his throne, his more than metaphorical place at the top of middleweight boxing.
Let’s assume that Little Rock, Arkansas’ Jermain Taylor has every bad intention of being the next middleweight champion of the world. And to do that, Taylor fully understands that he must take down the great Bernard Hopkins. This task has become his daunting mission of professional necessity. Outlasting him and just acquiring one of the middleweight belts won’t be the same thing as ascending the Hopkins throne by defeating him in the ring. Sometimes regicide is the necessary act for one who designs to become the rightful king. Then again how acute is Taylor’s knowledge of all those who have gone before him, those twenty that have failed and failed most miserably?
Let’s just say if he still truly needs the opportunity to face down the great Hopkins and he’s as good as his deeds make forecast, he’s probably the man to do the unthinkable, defile a king. He did say he’s not content being the prince and wants to be the king. Of course, words divorced from valid action are mere shadows.
Let’s just hope that Taylor gets his chance to play the strong silent type and gets his just due, his chance to make war against a legend.