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Kelly Pavlik vs Jermain Taylor: The story of a middleweight classic

Kelly Pavlik
Chris Farina/Top Rank
On this day in 2007, Kelly Pavlik and Jermain Taylor engaged in brutal warfare

IT was the night Atlantic City discovered life after Arturo Gatti. On September 29, 2007, Kelly Pavlik and Jermain Taylor played rock ‘em sock ‘em with each other’s faces in the most cartoonishly brilliant middleweight title fight in years. A little more than two years after Bernard Hopkins’ age of austerity was ended, Pavlik and Taylor turned back the clock to produce a fight straight out of the eighties.

That was a time when “the matches themselves transcended the squalor of the business side of the sport and focused only on the men who fought”, as Pete Hamill wrote in the foreword to George Kimball’s Four Kings. And given the squalid aftermath of Taylor’s wins over Hopkins, when the then-41-year-old Hopkins went from calling his loss “a robbery” to “a rape”, Taylor’s fight with Pavlik was a necessary balm. Hopkins had taken to calling Taylor the corporate champion before their second fight, but there was nothing corporate about this. Forget the business of boxing: under the electric blue of the Boardwalk Hall’s barrel chest ceiling, this had all the gorgeous severity of a bloodsport at its best.

Taylor and Pavlik had crossed paths some years before in the trials for the 2000 US Olympic team. Kelly Pavlik, then a gangly 17-year-old, lost narrowly, turning professional a short time after on the bottom of a card in California. Taylor went on to claim the bronze in Sydney. When they met again in 2007, Taylor was the middleweight champion with an exclusive deal to fight on HBO, while Pavlik, fresh from savage stoppages of Jose Luis Zertuche and Edison Miranda, was the division’s likeliest contender. Expectations were high.

Kelly Pavlik
Pavlik and Taylor had an epic rivalry Chris Farina/Top Rank

And then it started. Taylor came out second, sloping down to the ring while Lil Wayne’s Duffle Bag Boy coughed and spluttered from the speakers, but it was Kelly Pavlik’s entrance to Korn’s cacophonous Here to Stay which set the tone – brash, aggressive, implacable – for the night. “This state is elevating, as the hurt turns into hating”: though Pavlik and Taylor hardly disliked each other, heavy metal proved an appropriate orchestra.

When the bell rang, Jermain Taylor immediately made his intentions clear. Long regarded a frontrunner, “Bad Intentions” moved straight to centre ring, where he sent out a little flirt of a left hand before hurling a huge right. Ten seconds later and he buckled Pavlik with a left hook and shorter right – a cue for Taylor to swing for the Youngstown fighter, who dipped into mid-range and started jabbing back. Then Pavlik caught Taylor with a hard right, backing him up against the ropes while the crowd, overwhelmingly in favour of the challenger, roared in approval. With a minute to go in the opener, Pavlik was firmly in gear, throwing out his favourite jab-cross combination. “It’s a basic f***ing fight to this kid,” Kelly’s trainer, Jack Loew, barked in the corner.

But if the first was basic, the second turned things thoroughly labyrinthine for Pavlik. Fighting frenetic as a kerbside drunk through the opening three minutes, Taylor had collected himself between rounds, and started the second dipping elegantly from a jab to land a hard counter right. Forty seconds later and Taylor dipped away again before jellying Pavlik’s legs with another huge right, this time straight on the target and delivered with vicious force. As Kelly Pavlik’s head struggled to communicate with his limbs, Taylor lashed him with combinations, crumpling his contender to the canvas with a whole minute and 40 seconds to go. “That’s it!” shouted Lennox Lewis on commentary.

With his legs practically rubber, Pavlik tried swarming Taylor to the ropes. But once referee Steve Smoger had hauled him off, Taylor had Pavlik stumbling across the ring and trying to keep his balance like a first-time skater on ice. Surviving the next onslaught, Pavlik dragged himself through the round long enough for Taylor to grow frustrated, punches that had been taut with violence seconds earlier looking slack by the end. “What an assault,” broadcaster Jim Lampley cried, “and what a survival!”

Pavlik was phlegmatic in the corner. “It was a good shot,” he told Loew, in the most lucid tone of the whole night: “I’m all right.” Biting down on his mouthpiece, Pavlik fought grimly determined through the next, churning out more punches – 99 all told – in a concerted effort to back Taylor up. This ran the risk of Taylor countering again, but it was also Pavlik’s best chance of survival: Pavlik tended to have two modes – standing and punching – and his flat feet and still head gave Taylor plenty of target when he was doing the former. The wild stuff was his best chance, and he knew it.

When the sixth round started, commentator Larry Merchant knew he was seeing something special. “This must be a pretty good fight, Jim,” he said. “I’ve already got five dots of blood on my shirt.” Pavlik had had his nose broken by Taylor sometime in the second. But even though the scorecards hadn’t registered it, with Taylor well in front for all judges, and even though Merchant’s shirt told its own story of the fight, Pavlik was, by the seventh, coming on strong. And when he suddenly cracked Taylor with a huge right that froze the champion in centre ring, Pavlik’s moment arrived.

Backed into a corner, arms limp from hurt, Taylor was a sitting duck to Pavlik’s onslaught, which arrived swift and booming as a sudden storm. After several blows thundered home, including two massive uppercuts from either hand, Taylor crumpled to the floor in a mess. Like that, it was over.

Kelly Pavlik
Kelly Pavlik punches Jermain Taylor in the fourth round of their championship fight in Atlantic City Action Images/REUTERS/Teddy Blackburn

THE AFTERMATH

“THIS state is elevating, as the hurt turns into hating.” After Hopkins’ first loss to Taylor, the former champion painted his opponent as an “establishment” fighter. “I’m the guy in the fields,” Thomas Hauser reported Hopkins as saying, “and he’s the guy who would be in the house.” But Taylor came from a darker place than Hopkins dared mention. When he was just 19, Taylor returned home from an amateur tournament to learn that his grandmother had been killed by his uncle, who subsequently took his own life after confessing to the crime. “That’s a heavy thing, to have two people in your family die within the same week,” Taylor told the New York Times in 2000. “It hits you hard. I didn’t know whether I should hate my uncle or I should forgive, or just go on with my life and not even think about it.” At that time Taylor still had another uncle in prison.

In May 2016, however, Taylor is due in court charged with nine felonies. If found guilty, he faces up to 54 years in prison. That night with Pavlik seems more distant than ever.

“I liked Jermain, I always have,” Hauser told Boxing News. “He always seemed to be a very decent guy who came from a very hard background. My feeling is that his life took a turn for the worse when he left Pat Burns. I think Pat Burns was the ideal trainer for him. He knew how to motivate Jermain, he didn’t try to coach him things he couldn’t do in the ring.

“And Pat also kept Jermain on the right course. Pat’s a former police officer, he really cared about Jermain, and he was constantly talking with Jermain, about the importance of being a good husband, and a good father, and taking responsibility. When Jermain was lured away from Pat and went up to Detroit, he got into a lot of things that he shouldn’t have, and that was the start of his downfall.”

After losing to Pavlik a second time, Taylor wound up getting stopped in the final few seconds of a scorcher against Carl Froch in 2009, before Arthur Abraham put him in hospital with a brain bleed on the fast track to retirement. He returned in 2011, eventually winning another title belt in a horrible fight against Sam Soliman in October 2014. But Taylor was never the same fighter.

“I don’t think Jermain should have fought after Abraham,” Hauser said. “He had suffered bad knockouts, so what’s the point? You’re just gonna get beaten up. I don’t think his problems are solely the result of moral turpitude. I think that he probably has some sort of chronic brain problem that can lead to behaviour like this.”

“Boxing is a sport that really takes a toll on your brain and body,” Hopkins told BN. “And maybe making good decisions is not accurate when you take those types of blows. If you talk to doctors they would tell you that it’s a possibility – because of boxing, injury, years and years of this and that. Everybody’s body absorbs punches different. That’s a good argument. Am I saying that’s an excuse? No, but it’s something you have to talk about and understand.”

Hopkins beat Pavlik at a catchweight just 13 months after Kelly’s first win against Taylor. Though “The Ghost” would return to defend his middleweight crown twice after, his loss to Sergio Martinez in April 2010 sent his career into a tailspin. A short comeback, without long-term trainer Loew, was ended in 2012, when Pavlik took early retirement. Like Taylor, he’s also had numerous run-ins with the law. In January this year, he was charged with assault by pellet gun.

“Pavlik was there as one of the potential superstars in the division,” Hopkins said. “But I believe that getting that success early – a lot of people cannot take that pressure. Only they can tell you what the reason is, but when you analyse things, I believe you can make a good argument that the early limelight and all the other ingredients, whether it’s personal – I think it’s one of those things where it becomes overwhelming to these guys, and I don’t mean in boxing but in life.

“I think Pavlik got too much, too quick,” he continued. “And I don’t mean money, I mean fame, I mean pressure, I mean all the things that you have to keep in order as every year passes, and you become bigger and bigger. Only very few people – in all sports, but especially boxing – can keep that focus and discipline, year after year.”

“Fighters come from hard places,” said Hauser. “Most fighters come to the ring with some form of emotional damage, and eventually that caught up with Kelly. But you know, it’s sort of sad when you think that nine years ago they had this extraordinary fight, and then after that they had a substance abuse problem – it’s very sad to me because I think they’re both very decent people. I like both of them.”

Ultimately for Jermain Taylor, if not for Kelly Pavlik, and so many others too, boxing provided a refuge that was eventually exhaustible, and which in the process exhausted him. “Boxing is ugly and vital,” as Bart Barry wrote recently, “and often its vitality grows in proportion to its ugliness.” But after all the ugliness, sadness, and sheer meaninglessness of their post-fight lives, there is still that one night, deep and vital, etched into the memory, a night to recall long after the lights went down and the crowds went home.

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