There was a time when Jermain Taylor was one of my favorite fighters, in and out of the ring. In his glory years, he fought Bernard Hopkins twice and beat him both times. The fights were close. The decisions could have gone either way; particularly in their first outing. But no one would dispute the notion that Taylor tested Hopkins in ways that no one other than Roy Jones had before.
Then things turned sour for Taylor. Listening to the wrong people, he dumped trainer Pat Burns (who’d taken him from his first pro fight to the undisputed middleweight championship of the world). In 2007, after three lethargic title defenses, Jermain was knocked out by Kelly Pavlik. That ushered in a two-year period in which his ring ledger showed four losses in five fights, including three brutal knockout defeats and a brain bleed that Taylor suffered at the hands of Arthur Abraham in the opening round of Showtime’s 168-pound tournament.
Taylor withdrew from the “Super Six” tournament after his loss to Abraham and spent the next two years away from the ring. During that time, his weight rose to over 200 pounds. There were issues with drinking and women and run-ins with the law that seemed to result from stupidity rather than malicious intent. Pat Burns (who never lost his fondness for Jermain) put the matter in perspective, saying, “He’s furious at the people who he now knows exploited him. And it spills over into how he feels about the rest of the world.”
In December 2011, Taylor returned to the ring. He needed that structure in his life and he needed the money. Burns agreed to train him. Over the next two years, Jermain won four fights against club-fight-level opposition, raising his record to 32 wins, 4 losses, and 1 draw.
Then, on May 31, 2014, Sam Soliman of Australia won the IBF 160-pound belt by decisioning a shopworn Felix Sturm. That set the wheels of cynicism into high gear. Taylor’s manager (the ubiquitous Al Haymon) arranged for third parties to pay an outsized purse to Soliman to defend his belt against Taylor. It was an investment, part of an effort by Haymon to wrest control another 160-pound weight class bauble.
Soliman was the ideal beltholder for a diminished Taylor to challenge. The Aussie is one month shy of his forty-first birthday and had lost eleven times. He’s also a light puncher with only 18 knockouts to his credit in 56 fights.
Soliman-Taylor was slated for October 8 at the Beau Rivage Resort & Casino in Biloxi, Mississippi. Media reaction to the proposed fight was largely negative.
First, there was a school of thought that Taylor didn’t deserve a title shot. He hadn’t fought at 160 pounds since 2007 and hadn’t beaten a world-class middleweight (as opposed to a blown-up super-welterweight) since 2005.
Second, although Jermain passed a battery of tests at the Mayo Clinic and Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health, his prior brain bleed was cause for concern. Team Taylor said that Jermain was at no greater risk for injury than any other fighter. A number of doctors, including Margaret Goodman (former chief ringside physician for the Nevada State Athletic Commission and a foremost advocate for fighter safety) disagreed.
And there was another particularly troubling issue.
On August 26, Taylor was arrested at his home in Maumelle (a suburb of Little Rock) and charged with two felonies — first-degree domestic battery and aggravated assault – after shooting his cousin in the leg.
Lieutenant Carl Minden of the Pulaski County sheriff’s office issued a statement to the media recounting the incident as follows: “Mr. Taylor’s cousin and another individual came to his residence, and there was some sort of altercation. At some point, Mr. Taylor retrieved a handgun and fired several rounds. His cousin was struck multiple times. The cousin is alive and in serious condition at an area hospital.”
Minden further stated that, when the police arrived at Taylor’s home, Jermain was “very cooperative with our investigators. He was very calm, and there were absolutely no difficulties.”
Piecing together information from multiple sources, it appears as though Taylor and his cousin had been at odds, a situation that was exacerbated when the cousin borrowed Jermain’s truck and damaged it in a traffic accident. On the night of the shooting, the cousin appeared uninvited at Taylor’s home with a second man (who a source says had recently been released from jail). Jermain ordered them off his property. They wouldn’t leave, so Erica Taylor (Jermain’s wife) called the police. Meanwhile, Jermain took a gun and fired some warning shots in the air, at which point the cousin said that Jermain didn’t have the guts to shoot him. Taylor, who may well have felt physically threatened by then, shot his cousin three times in the leg.
One day after his arrest, Taylor was released on $25,000 bail. The court allowed him to leave Arkansas to train in Florida and fight Soliman in Mississippi.
Under the law, there’s a presumption of innocence until proven guilty. That said; if Taylor had been playing in the National Football League, it’s unlikely that he would have suited up on October 8. Further by way of analogy, Michael Phelps was arrested in Maryland on September 30 on suspicion of driving under the influence of alcohol. One week later, USA Swimming suspended him from competition for six months.
When fight night arrived, Taylor vs. Soliman was a sloppy ugly mess. Jermain fought tentatively and looked older than his 36 years. His timing was off and his punches had no pop. He looked like damaged goods. Fortunately for him, Soliman was damaged goods. The Aussie had hurt his right knee in training and acknowledged after the bout that he’d almost pulled out of the fight. He should have. It would have spared fight fans twelve horrible rounds of boxing.
People who were channel surfing and tuned in to Taylor-Soliman without the audio could have been forgiven for thinking that they were watching two club fighters in a walkout bout. Virtually no clean punches were landed, nor was there much effective aggression or ring generalship. As the rounds dragged on, Soliman’s damaged knee became more and more of an impediment. He kept falling down, occasionally helped on his journey to the canvas by a jab or glancing blow from Taylor. Neither the referee, the ring doctor, or Soliman’s corner had enough sense to stop the nonsense. And Jermain was unable to end it.
Taylor won a unanimous decision. Neither fighter would last three rounds against Gennady Golovkin. Of course, neither Soliman nor the current version of Jermain Taylor would have lasted three rounds against Taylor in his prime.
That brings to mind the thoughts of Pat English, who, at the start of Taylor’s comeback, declared, “As one of the attorneys who litigated the Stephan Johnson wrongful death case, this is extremely troubling to me. These people are taking a boxer with all the classic symptoms of being ‘shot’ and who has had a brain bleed and allowing him to come back. This is a disaster waiting to happen. Stephan Johnson died after being allowed to fight after suffering what the scans showed to be a likely brain bleed. Do we want to repeat that? There are times when one simply should not be silent.”
One might add that medical tests aren’t the only indicator of when a fighter should retire. Just because a boxer passes a “head test” doesn’t mean that he should be in the ring. Muhammad Ali received a clean bill of health from the Mayo Clinic before he fought Larry Holmes. There comes a time when the dangers inherent in boxing outweigh the benefits to be gained from fighting.
Hassan N’Dam N’Jikam is currently the mandatory challenger for Taylor’s IBF belt. But this is boxing. “Mandatory” challengers can be put on hold. And Al Haymon can be expected to maximize his investment.
The most cynical ploy, and possibly the most profitable, might be to match Taylor against Floyd Mayweather. Remember; the sanctioning bodies have already massaged their rules to allow Mayweather to hold 147 and 154-pound titles at the same time. One can surmise that Floyd would love to claim he has duplicated Henry Armstrong’s feat of simultaneously wearing three crowns. Of course, when Armstrong did it, there were only eight world champions.
Meanwhile, Jermain Taylor will soldier on.
“It wasn’t pretty,” Pat Burns said ten hours after Taylor-Soliman. “But Jermain won. He’s the guy getting on the plane and going home with the belt.”
And as for Jermain’s personal future?
“I think he’ll be okay,” Burns answered after a moment’s reflection. “I hope he’ll be okay. But it’s hard to tell.”
Thomas Hauser can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. His next book (The Final Recollections of Charles Dickens) will be published later this month by Counterpoint.