Yes, we know that cable pay masters at HBO have a monogrammed play-day all made out for middleweight champion Jermain Taylor on November 25, a Lou DiBella endorsed home court special for the honorary razorback at the Alltell Arena, in Little Rock, Arkansas. The pride of Arkansas boxing would like to think he’s the kind of man of method and mayhem who could realize the serious project of filling a 20,000 seat arena. Yet, though trainer Manny Steward and promoter Lou DiBella want the champion of the middleweights to get in some punch for pay time, get a very public knockout win live on HBO and solidify the symbolic claims of his being champion – before stepping into the contractual webbing of the rematch clause with Ronald “Winky” Wright… well… da champ don’t!
Just punch out a Roy Jones Jr. special against jr. middleweight Kassim “Henry Armstrong” Ouma, that’s the combined wisdom of the mega-part of the inside team at Team Taylor, Inc. Manager to Taylor, Ozell Nelson, ducking heat better than his fighter in not telling those who inquire of him as to what his preference would be, says it’s really up to Jermain; apparently Taylor really has grown up in the last year. He’s being allowed to make his own mistakes from now on. Or so it would seem.
You do have to wonder why Taylor wouldn’t want mix it up with his little friend Kassim Ouma instead of going over to “Winky’s World” and again getting into all kinds of trouble. Wright’s feeling more than a little left out in the cold, if you are talking big money fights of historical or even momentary importance. Of course, Winky’s been feeling left out for most of his counter-hitting, slap-them-till-they’re- silly championship career. All that south-pawing talent, such a fine pedigree to his championship moniker, and yet the reality remains: Wright’s borderline boring, his significance coming to a head, if and only if he’s matched up with someone named Vargas or Mosley or Trinidad or even Taylor. That’s not to say Mr. Wright doesn’t have his groupies; he certainly does. Those are the boxing fans that love art for art’s sake.
And yes, it is also true, that Jermain Taylor for all of his man on a mission hype and Hopkins highlighting hasn’t set the imagination of boxing fans – let alone sports fans – ablaze with the majesty of his reign as middleweight champion. Still, Taylor continues to pay his dues, making the tough outings his legacy within a very sedentary era and generally trying to fight his way into the minds if not yet the hearts of cable subscribers across America.
Whatever you think of the result between Jermain Taylor and Ronald Wright registered June 17 at the FedEx Forum in Memphis, Taylor gave Winky his shot, just as he’d done his best to rip into the legend of Bernard Hopkins’ late career flights of exploitive fancy. Taylor brought the heat and the passion for engagement and Winky supplied the counter beat, those smatterings of applied guile. The two men still feel like champions and seem to want to do it again, pronto. HBO want to set the fight up again, build a rematch into something more than the mildly reactive curiosity the first fight turned out to be.
Remember HBO has a reputation they promised to start and live up to; history for the current executives at HBO meaning pay-per-view numbers dating only back to 1999. That way they don’t have to compare their flat-lined pay-per-view numbers with the Tyson-De La Hoya-Holyfield-Lewis numbers when they really were pushing serious entertainment product, counting by the millions instead of the ten of thousands over 400,000. Besides, HBO has internally planned for a renewal, a generational phase over of talent development. At least they are desperate to! If they could only find some talented fighters with pretensions to stardom!
To do that they need men like Taylor and Wright to buy into product development. Specifically, they need both men to fight this fall and win, ready for reciprocal ringside or live feed commentary as analysis on the other man’s outing. Pool or fireside interviews are a given. Since no innate elements exist to make a Taylor-Wright fight a combustive proposition, then, it will come down to good old manufacturing of the ‘event status’ for market and building up the case for why it’s the only logical move for either man to make, as soon as they have their respective calendar-time filler tune-ups, on HBO, naturally. In this case the fiction of rationalization actually meets near the bulls eye of merit because these two men must do it all again. Not that anyone but hardcore boxing fans care.
Look out for HBO to tell us this week – or later this month – how the pieces of the puzzle in the middleweight division are falling into place for what should be a rousing final determination of the middleweight championship of the world some time soon, i.e. the spring of 2007. In order to create the idea that the next 12 rounds between them might actually look compellingly violent or provokingly like, say, a Pacquiao and/or Morales tilt, better to get them into the ring with someone they might be able to actually pound on, for something less than 12 rounds. Then it might be possible to imagine Taylor-Wright as a battle royal instead of a royal coronation, all ceremony and no contest of champions.
The brilliant DiBella must be shaking his head this week; we can imagine the phone charges he’s piling up trying to talk Taylor off his higher than necessary horse. Because it’s not like Taylor and Wright aren’t going to joust again come spring. There are all kinds of middleweights not under contract to Sugar Ray Leonard that Wright can practice on in the meantime, December 2, live on HBO, presumably HD, can’t you just see it? HBO thinks we who love boxing can see it perfectly. Without anticipation what would elite sports be, golf in the era of Tiger Woods? Then again, at least golf has Tiger Woods and tennis has Roger Federer. What does boxing have? Floyd Mayweather? Jermain Taylor? The question doesn’t seem to make sense because it cannot even be asked rhetorically.
Does it matter that this week Jermain Taylor has been letting it leak that he’d rather get this ‘situation’ with Ronald Wright over with, this rematch of what was for the champion a successful defense and what was for Mr. Wright all wrong, by the numbers wrong. Poor little Kassim and his 120 punch attempts per round; seems you can’t make a spectacle out of yourself by winning or losing and he’s tried both of late. Still, you get the feeling that HBO will want to package this deal with some sugarcoating, Taylor needing to top up the intangibles of his still solid reputation BEFORE fighting to determine if he’s really the master of Winky. And you can bet Jermain Taylor, middleweight champion of the boxing universe, will be listening to an awful lot of sweet nothings in his ear for awhile.
Such an oddity this practice of getting fighting champions to fight. For his part, Jermain Taylor has no problem with taking the more arduous road; he’d rather finish his business with the dangerous Winky Wright. And if Wright has had a few months to forget the hurt endured from the champion’s body barrage, he too wants to go back in and fight the most dangerous opponent in his division, ASAP. Then again, boxing is business and timing dictates the economics for fights that cannot stand outside the consideration of marketing prefabrication. Here we remind ourselves, this is 2006 and boxing itself no longer retains the cultural significance to generate a stand-alone athletic ‘moment’ to enrapture the general public hungry for sporting excellence or novelty. Boxing now has to generate its own particular momentum, the simple operational dynamics of fitting somewhere into the crowded war game architecture of mass entertainment production.
Back at ground level, the fighters make their contingent plans hoping to maximize the profitability of plying their brutal trade. Taylor hopes to make his fortune in becoming the legend after the legend of Hopkins. Wright fights for the dignity of his ever-searching cause to enrich his fortunes, his family and the memory of his excellence over time. All Kassim Ouma can do is wait to see if he really can be the dream that wishing makes truer than fiction.
(Patrick Kehoe may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)