It might be easy to forget this now, but at one time, Jermain Taylor was this close (imagine my thumb and index finger a hair’s breadth apart) to ruling the world.
Taylor stormed through his first 23 opponents with relative ease. A natural middleweight, Taylor cut an imposing figure once the robe came off in his corner. Chiseled, powerful, and athletic, he often looked too big for his class compared to his often over-matched opponents. He was also handsome, likable, and humble. He punctuated every interview with a “yes, sir” that you only hear in the military or from a person like Taylor with old-fashioned manners. He looked like one hell of a package.
Despite his sterling record, there were boxing concerns. He kept his hands low and could be a little robotic with his footwork. There were questions about his defense, stamina, and as typical of prospects growing into contenders, his opposition as well. I still recall Larry Merchant saying one night on HBO when critiquing Taylor, “He has a lot of chinks in his armor, but look at all that armor!”
After stepping up in class with victories over high class fighters Raul Marquez, William Joppy, and Daniel Edouard, Taylor got his title shot against the great Bernard Hopkins on July 16, 2005. BHop was already a legend then and had not lost a fight in over 12 years. While Hopkins has always been a slow starter, he gave a particularly odd performance that night. While Taylor never had Hopkins in trouble, he was so much more active than the champion through the first 6 rounds that he was able to build up a big lead going into the back half of the fight. As the fight wore on, Hopkins’ skill and experience began to take over and Taylor began to look fatigued. Still, Hopkins had simply given away too many rounds for two of the three judges and lost a split decision to the challenger.
Taylor was now a world champion, but the decisiveness lacking from the victory had many questioning its veracity. That was more than a little unfair to Taylor. Had Hopkins’ hand been raised that night the decision would have been just as questionable, if not more. With all the criticism surrounding the fight, Taylor gave Hopkins an immediate rematch, less than 5 months later. Given a second chance, Hopkins curiously fought almost the exact same fight. Once again, sleepwalking through the first half of the fight and imposing his will far too late to make up for all the listless rounds that came before. This time, the judges scored the bout as a unanimous decision victory for Taylor with triplicate scorecards of 115-113.
However, the rematch did little to burnish the image of Taylor as a legitimate champion. The questions about his stamina which may have been more of a murmur before his back to back scraps against BHop became a full throated and legitimate criticisms. Taylor looked gassed by the end of both contests and many felt his two title bout victories said more about BHop’s strategy than they did about Jermain’s performance. In retrospect, this seems deeply unfair. Neither fight resulted in a dominant performance, but who ever looks all that good against Hopkins? Not to mention, this was a near-prime BHop, not the crafty Methuselah defying the hands of time as he fights on the cusp of a half century on earth.
There is exactly one fighter in the history of the sport with two wins over Bernard Hopkins. His name is Jermain Taylor. End of list. For some reason, that’s not seen as significantly as it should be.
It would have been perfectly reasonable for Taylor to step down in class for his second title defense. Instead, he took on the highly skilled, defensive-minded genius known as Winky Wright. If it was hard to look good against Hopkins, it was downright impossible to do so against Wright. That fight ended in a draw, with one judge each favoring Taylor and Wright by identical 115-113 scores and the third judge turning in a dead even card of 114-114. Again, the decision was disputed and Taylor’s champion bona fides were questioned.
After the Wright bout, Taylor replaced his long-time trainer, Pat Burns, with the great Emanuel Steward, in an effort to escalate Taylor’s progression. They would not prove to be a great match.
Perhaps reasonably, Taylor’s team selected his next two fights against high quality opponents who were nonetheless moving up in weight and not considered serious threats. Taylor won a unanimous, if uninspiring decision over former IBF Super Welterweight champion Kassim Ouma and then a troubling split decision victory over Cory Spinks, a once and future Super Welterweight champion himself. While Ouma went out of his way not to make the fight, the light punching Spinks was very competitive and even hurt Taylor late in the fight. Spinks would have seemed like a perfect opponent for Taylor to roll through and look sharp against. However, Spinks’s craft showcased many of the deficiencies in Taylor’s skill set and added a new one. His chin. Because if Cory Spinks can hurt you, anyone can.
Despite fighting four world class opponents after taking the title from Hopkins, Taylor found himself still searching for respect. Why was he unable to knock out Ouma and Spinks? Why in five title fights had he not showcased at least one dominant performance? These were the questions being asked when Taylor took to the ring against Kelly “The Ghost” Pavlik in September of 2007. The fight started well for Taylor and in the 2nd round, he landed a big right hand and multiple follow up blows that sent Pavlik to the canvas. Taylor appeared to be on the verge of the signature win he craved. However, Pavlik survived the round and as the fight wore on, he managed to creep ever more into Taylor’s kitchen. In the 7th round, Pavlik landed a huge right that spirited Taylor across the ring and into the corner. He would not make it out. A series of brutal uppercuts and hooks sent Taylor slumping to the floor and the fight was justly stopped with Taylor leading significantly on all scorecards.
Taylor fought Pavlik again less than five months later. While Taylor ended the fight on his feet, Pavlik was awarded a clear unanimous decision victory. After consecutive losses, Taylor fired Steward and replaced him with Ozell Nelson. As great as Manny was, he could never get Taylor to modify his style and strategy. It didn’t seem to be an issue of stubbornness on Taylor’s part as much as it just appeared that the fighter simply couldn’t make himself overcome his own bad habits. The frustration on Steward’s part during their bouts together was palpable. Steward would tell Taylor what to do, Taylor would reply with his customary “yes, sir” and then go do the opposite. After his termination, Steward would later admit that he just couldn’t get Taylor to do what he wanted him to do.
What has followed since in the career of Jermain Taylor has been positively heartbreaking. Taylor moved up to Super Middleweight and after taking a unanimous decision over the fading Jeff Lacy, he found himself in a title fight against Carl Froch. Like his first fight with Pavlik, Taylor sent Froch to the canvas in the 2nd round with a hard right hand. It was the first time Froch had ever been down. Heading into the final round, Taylor had sizable leads on 2 of the 3 scorecards. All he needed to do was stay ambulatory and the fight would have been his. It was not to be. Froch put Taylor down in the 12th, and even though he was able to make it back to his feet, the onslaught by the British fighter left Taylor crumbling against the ropes before the referee stepped in and save Taylor from further punishment.
Again, Taylor was right on the cusp of something special, only to have it slip from his grasp once more.
Taylor next competed in Showtime’s Super Six tournament for Super Middleweights that included Froch, Andre Ward, Andre Dirrell, Mikkel Kessler, and what was to be his first and only opponent in the tourney, the undefeated former Middleweight Champion, Arthur Abraham. In the 12th round, with only 10 seconds left in the fight and Abraham ahead on all cards, the German fighter scored a devastating knockout victory over Taylor that could only be described as frightening. Taylor eventually got up and was taken to the hospital where he was diagnosed with a severe concussion and experienced memory loss. Whatever Taylor could have been remained in the ring that night.
After a 26 month sabbatical from boxing, Taylor returned and fought a series of journeymen. He didn’t look particularly great against any of them and barely survived a 9th round knockdown against Caleb Truax in claiming a unanimous decision win. KO victories against the 22-15-1 Raul Munoz and the 32-12-4 Juan Carlos Candelo followed, leading to a title shot against nominal IBF Middleweight Champion Sam Soliman. In a barely watchable fight, the title holder suffered a significant knee injury midway through the fight and went into survival mode thereafter. Taylor took a unanimous decision and for the first time in over seven years, could once again call himself a champion. Even if it was only of the alphabet variety.
Jermain Taylor’s ring performance since that first fight against Pavlik has not only been largely lackluster, but deeply concerning. The brutal KO losses to Pavlik, Froch, and Abraham have left the once gifted fighter deeply diminished. Many onlookers wondered aloud whether Taylor should have been fighting at all. Unfortunately, in boxing, you can almost always find at least one sanctioning body that will let a fighter into the ring, regardless of condition. You could also argue those around him could have done a better job of protecting him from himself. This also is a common refrain in our sport.
However, it has been outside of the squared circle where things have truly gone awry. Little more than a month before his fight with Soliman, Taylor was arrested and charged with shooting his cousin twice in Taylor’s Little Rock, Arkansas home. He pleaded not guilty and made bond in time for the Soliman fight, but the disturbing incident revealed concerns about Taylor’s mental capacity.
Long known to be one of the most polite fighters in the game, the reports of erratic behavior that began to trickle out were in opposition to the Jermain Taylor people thought they knew. Stories of moodiness, forgetfulness, and fits of anger began to circulate. Those issues reared their head again recently when on January 19th of this year, Taylor was arrested a second time for gunplay. This time he was charged with five felony counts of aggravated assault and three felony counts of endangering the welfare of a minor, as well as misdemeanor drug possession charge for a small bag of marijuana that was found on his person.
Taylor was to defend his title on February 6 against Sergio Mora. That fight has been called off and an Arkansas judge has ordered Taylor into a state hospital for a mental evaluation. For perhaps the first time in a very long stretch of years, Taylor is exactly where he’s supposed to be. His attorney, Hubert Alexander, may have said it best after the judge’s ruling when he told reporters, “Everybody is saying this isn’t the Jermain Taylor they know. We’re trying to figure out who in the heck it is.”
So much of Taylor’s career can be viewed through the lens of unfulfilled promise. As a prospect and a contender, he was often spectacular. After becoming a champion, his flaws were revealed and never corrected. All of that is true, I suppose. But I think that view on its own is far too uncharitable in looking at Taylor’s stint at or near the top of the fight game. The thing I will remember most about Jermain Taylor is that from the first Hopkins fight to his crushing loss against Abraham, he fought EVERYBODY. In just over a four year period, Taylor fought ten consecutive current or former world champions at or near their prime. He fought guys that no one ever looks good against and he scrapped with guys who have clubs for fists and paid a terrible price for his courage.
That price is in full view now. Jermain Taylor is broken. The rest of his life outside the ring is far more important than anything he did—or god forbid, will do–inside of it. We should remember him as more than a cousin shooting punchline though. In an era when the best fighters and their promoters often avoid the toughest fights to preserve their status, Taylor was different. Taylor was brave. He was almost great. What a pity it has reaped him so little benefit.
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