Dirrell and Taylor Go Down to the Crossroads

There was a strange sort of synergy wafting through the air during ESPN’s Wednesday night Boxing “Special”—which considering the quality of the fights that evening really stretched the meaning of that word. Nonetheless, the two most compelling stories of the night were the bookends of the evening, Andre Dirrell and Jermain Taylor.

Both fighters entered the night with something to prove. Taylor’s questionable title shot against the unlikely belt holder, journeyman Sam Soliman, seemed undeserved, but an undeniable opportunity. Whereas Dirrell has been on a more patient, or perhaps simply less fortunate path.

Both fighters are graduates of Showtime’s Super Six tournament that served as a coming out party for Andre Ward. The results of that tourney for Dirrell and Taylor were much different.

Dirrell entered the Super Six as less of a known quantity, but as a genuinely exciting prospect. His pre-tourney fight against Carl Froch in the “Cobra’s” backyard of Nottingham, England showcased why fight fans should be excited about Dirrell, but also exposed some questions about his fortitude. Dirrell’s superior hand speed and movement flummoxed Froch for much of the fight. However, his caution and avoidance of Froch’s power left room for some home cooking for the Englishman and resulted in a questionable split decision in favor of the Brit. Dirrell did seem to learn from his mistakes when he took on Arthur Abraham in his first—and last—fight of the Super Six. Dirrell put the German on his back for the first time in his esteemed career and was up significantly on all three cards when Dirrell slipped on a wet spot on the canvas and was struck in the head by Abraham while on one knee in the 11th. Dirrell was unable to continue and Abraham’s blow was judged to be an intentional foul, resulting in a DQ win for Dirrell.

A win against a champion like Abraham should have catapulted Dirrell’s career. Instead, there were questions about Dirrell’s courage—some believed he was overacting from the illegal punch—which were only belabored when Dirrell dropped out of the tournament citing neurological issues stemming from the Abraham fight. Many believed he simply didn’t want to fight the surging Andre Ward.

Since then, Dirrell’s activity has been inconsistent to be kind. Dirrell had a 21 month layoff between Abraham and a 2 round TKO victory over Darryl Cunningham. 14 more months went by before he entered the ring again, this time scoring a unanimous decision against Michael Gbenga. Another 18 months passed before Dirrell’s 5th round KO of Vladine Biosse. Since the biggest win of his career, Dirrell had fought three times in over four years against less than A level competition going into Wednesday’s ESPN showcase.

Taylor was once considered a potential superstar in the world of professional boxing. Handsome, humble (well, pre alleged cousin shooting), and athletically gifted, Taylor had a pretty remarkable run of opponents over a five year period, starting with former light middleweight champion Raul Marquez in June of 2004. That 9th round TKO victory was followed by a unanimous decision over former middleweight champ, William Joppy, and then a 3rd round TKO of Daniel Edouard. Taylor would then score the two biggest wins of his career over the great Bernard Hopkins. BHop had not lost a fight in over twelve years when the two took the ring on July 16 of 2005. Hopkins was surprisingly tentative, giving many early rounds away before rallying in the back half of the fight. It was not enough in the judge’s eyes and Taylor took a highly disputed split decision. The two fought again less than five months later and the rematch went much the same way. Again, the judges ruled in Taylor’s favor, this time unanimously.

Taylor should have been set up for greatness at that point, but some funny things happened on the way to immortality. Taylor’s deficiencies began to be exposed. Fighting with his hands low, a curious lack of stamina, and even his chin became suspect. A draw against the nearly impossible to look good against Winky Wright and two uninspired victories over Kassim Ouma and Cory Spinks did nothing to dispel concerns. As Larry Merchant once said of Taylor, “He has a lot of chinks in his armor, but look at all that armor.” Unfortunately, those “chinks” became more glaring as Taylor’s competition improved.

A TKO defeat against Kelly Pavlik brought the chickens home to roost. Pavlik overcame a 2nd round knockdown to overwhelm Taylor in the 7th, forcing a stoppage by the referee. The rematch less than five months later ended with Taylor on his feet, but the decision was both clear and unanimous for Pavlik.

Taylor did defeat a diminished Jeff Lacy nine months later in a less than stellar performance. The win did however qualify Taylor for a title shot against Carl Froch. A potentially triumphant evening for Taylor ended in bitter disappointment. Leading on two judges’ cards 106-102 going into the 12th and final round (the 3rd judge had Froch up by the same score), all Taylor needed to do was end the fight upright and he would have held the WBC super-middleweight title. The same flaws that had dogged Taylor, shoddy defense, a shortage of gas, and his ability to take a punch reared their head once more when Froch scored a dramatic TKO just moments from the fight’s end. Taylor would enter the Super Six as a question mark. He left as a casualty.

Again, with just seconds left in the fight, Taylor was laid out by Abraham with a brutal straight right hand that left Taylor severely concussed and suffering from post-fight memory loss. Taylor dropped out of the tournament three months later, without a second fight. After five years of fighting top flight opponents and suffering three devastating knock out losses, there were questions of not only would Taylor fight again, but should he.

Taylor did indeed return to the ring after a two year layoff and had won four consecutive fights against modest opposition going into Wednesday night. Many questioned not only Taylor’s right to fight for a title, but the medical wisdom that cleared him.

It’s fair to say that both Dirrell and Taylor are at a similar point in their careers at this moment. Both fighters have had long layoffs since their highest moments of relevance and each have serious concerns about the state of the space betwixt their ears.

Dirrell was up first. His opponent, the game but lightly regarded, Nick Brinson, gave Dirrell some early trouble with his activity and moxie, but the former bronze medalist poured it on in the 4th and took a TKO victory against his overmatched opponent. Overall, Dirrell looked sharp and fast despite a slow start. If he wants it, there are probably some very good fights out there for him in the super middleweight division.

Taylor’s night went much differently than Dirrell’s. Fighting against Soliman–of whom it must be said, looked just happy to be there—Taylor won a unanimous decision over a 40-year-old champion of questionable stature who was deeply diminished by a 7th round knee injury. While Taylor did knock down his Aussie opponent four times in the bout, the skirmish exhibited more hugging than fighting and Soliman could barely stand up to a stiff breeze after hurting his knee. Still, after all this time, Taylor now finds himself a world champion once again, the proud (I assume) holder of the IBF middleweight title.

On a night when Taylor found himself back on top, holding a major boxing organization’s top title at his weight class, it would be tempting to say that he had the better night. Looking forward, I fear the opposite is true for Jermain. I would contend the worst possible result came to fruition for Taylor. Sometimes when you win, you lose, and I believe Taylor did just that on Wednesday night. The bad news for Taylor is now he may just have to fight someone of true A level quality. All the same shortcomings that have dogged Taylor’s career are still in effect, only now he is 36 years old and has shown erratic behavior outside of the ring while dispatching well-matched opponents inside of it. A bout with Cotto, Golovkin, or Quillin might result in a sizable payday for Taylor and one hell of a lengthy hospital stay.

Dirrell on the other hand could be ready for greater competition with a couple more tune ups and maintained activity. Fights with Froch and/or Abraham could be out there and Dirrell has shown well already against both. He has a bit of a name as well as some game left. Unfortunately for Taylor, he seems to only have the former. Wednesday night was a perfect example of how belts and titles matter far less than how you looked and the quality of your competition. Considering that, I suspect most of us would much rather be Andre Dirrell than Jermain Taylor.