GOING into the 12th round at the Hilton Hotel in Las Vegas, he had a busted lip and a fractured eye. He had lost nearly two pints of blood. Later, he would spend a night in hospital receiving blood transfusions. Still, Meldrick Taylor was two scorecards up – 108-101 and 107-102. He’d landed nearly 450 punches. There was surely no way he could lose. Except there was.
The rest is history, even if it’s history that won’t quite rest. With two seconds to go, and Taylor, staggering like a drunk in a dark corner, woozy, swollen, knocked down but back on his feet, referee Richard Steele stopped the fight.
After, there were press conferences, noise, complaints. In the immediate moment, Lou Duva, Taylor’s manager, stormed the ring, fury and shock and disappointment mangling his face, “bullshit” the best word he could summon, but the real trauma was Taylor’s. As Steele went to hold him, smiling tenderly, Taylor said it simplest and best: “What?”
Capturing the mood, even his opponent, Julio Cesar Chavez, was solemn after the fight. “He was faster than me, he was stronger than me,” journalist William Nack reported him as saying. “I could not develop myself the way I wanted. I was very surprised at his handspeed. Meldrick Taylor deserves a rematch. He is a great fighter.”
The rematch would happen, Chavez stopping Taylor in 1994 in an eight-round thrashing, but ultimately it would prove nothing. In hindsight, those final four rounds did not lead simply to one end but were themselves a series of endings, as Taylor’s body and talent were claimed punch by punch by Chavez and his sport. At 23, drained of blood, his career was finishing at the same time as the fight.
And while Steele’s decision seemed incredible at the time, Taylor’s future thereafter makes it look increasingly prescient. Though he would win another world title, decisioning an unbeaten Aaron Davis in 1991, Taylor was poor in his three defences, and as soon as 1992, after stoppage defeats to Terry Norris and Cristano Espana, he was being urged to retire. As with all things messy and disordered in the past, history has a way of imposing a certain logic.
The fight – for the unified world super-lightweight title – remains a classic. Chavez, 68-0 (55) at the time, from Culiacan, Mexico, entered as the best fighter in the sport: in the past three years, he’d stopped Edwin Rosario and Roger Mayweather in dominant wins. And Taylor? He was 24-0-1 (13), a Philly fighter if ever there was one, “unequalled” in his speed, according to trainer George Benton, even if he lacked quite the thud of the harder-hitting Chavez, 27.
“Mexicans and guys from Philly have the same kind of reputation,” Duva told Bernard Fernandez for the Philadelphia Daily News beforehand. “Tough guys who are going to give everything they have. You almost have to kill them to get them out of the ring.”
Like Ray Leonard on his better nights, Taylor was a guy who could have run laps if he’d wanted to, but preferred instead to work the centre of the ring: he was a prizefighter in the truest sense, who fought for his prize first and talked about it second. And owning the centre of the ring up close was no bad tactic against Chavez, even if it seemed a contradiction. Against the ropes, where Chavez loved to pound away, Taylor would have been cornered like Simone Mareuil in Un Chien Andalou, the young girl whose eye is slit open by a razor. From the centre, where he stood slightly crouched like a coiled spring, he could leverage his punches better, and he could also count on giving Chavez interest back on every shot he threw: it took Chavez as much time to throw one as Taylor to throw three.
But it might also be true that it took Taylor three punches to land anything so hard as Chavez’s one.
No matter that Taylor caught the Mexican with over 450 punches, Chavez was barely marked up at the end. In contrast, Taylor looked more like Joe Frazier after 14 rounds with Muhammad Ali in Manila than he did a guy who had all but carried the fight.
“I see myself outclassing him all the way with my handspeed and, surprisingly, my strength,” Taylor predicted beforehand. “He’s confused. No one’s ever fought him the way I’m fighting him. I’m hitting him with combinations, bam, bam, bam! And then I’m gone. He throws a punch and I’m not there.”
No one had ever fought Chavez the way Taylor did, and yet no one had fought Taylor like Chavez.
A minute before the end, blood leaking into his kidneys, energy draining to nothing, Taylor finally stood up and backed away, pain and exhaustion unwinding his body, when Chavez leapt past a jab to whack him down with an overhand right. Taylor would get to his feet, but it wouldn’t be enough.
“I’m 100 per cent sure I did the right thing,” Steele told Boxing News a few years ago. “Taylor was taking so many punches, which did so much damage to him. The public did not realise how bad it actually was. I stand by what I did. The medical report [on Taylor] shows I was right. The kid was never the same after that fight.”
On another night he might have escaped with victory, even if not his health. But it was not to be. Meldrick Taylor was stopped by Julio Cesar Chavez with two seconds to go, the first end in a career that would keep on ending, as a death fugue or a dirge, long after that night.