The Essential Stories: Meldrick Taylor - two seconds from glory
THE ESSENTIAL STORIES – An outstanding boxer and the heir to Sugar Ray Leonard, Meldrick Taylor could have become the big star of the late twentieth century. But in 1990, the American welterweight lost to the undefeated Mexican champion Julio César Chávez.
Two seconds were what separated the American boxer from a quite different place in the history of his sport. Indeed, Two Seconds From Glory is the title of Taylor's autobiography, published in 2009. Two seconds he will never get back.
It was the fight of his life – an unforgettable match-up of undefeated champions and one which could have cemented Taylor's position in the pantheon of boxing's greats. He could have been crowned the best pound-for-pound fighter of his generation, across all divisions. Instead, the bout became his cross to bear. In two seconds, Taylor lost everything – and never truly recovered.
Just 17 and a golden boy at the Olympics
Until the fateful evening on March 17, 1990, Taylor was enjoying a stratospheric rise towards stardom. His first success was steeped in gold and followed his selection to represent his nation in the Los Angeles Olympics of 1984.
In a Team USA considered the most exceptional in history for its strength in depth, Taylor competed in the featherweight division. Clearly aided by the dual absence of Cuba and the U.S.S.R., who had boycotted the Games, Uncle Sam notched 11 medals from 12 competitions, nine of which were gold. Even those who did not stand atop the podium would go on to become professional stars in the future – such as Virgil Hill and, most notably, Evander Holyfield, who only managed a bronze medal in the Californian sun.
Taylor provided the cherry on the cake with a gold medal on the last day for the USA. But he was not among the stars who garnered the most media attention at the time. Those fighters who made more ripples were the likes of Pernell Whitaker, known as Sweet Pea, and the most talented of all: Henry Tillman, who won the heavyweight gold, and Mark Breland, the welterweight supremo who was already an amateur star.
But Taylor had time on his side. At Los Angeles, he was the only boxer under the age of 20 and the youngest by far: Whitaker and Frank Tate were both 20, Holyfield was 22 and Tillman was 24. Taylor, meanwhile, was only 17 years old in the summer of '84, making him one of the youngest Olympic champions of all time.
The new Leonard?
Youth seemed to be the ace up Taylor's sleeve. The Philadelphia native had barely turned 18 when he started his pro career in November 1984, in New York's Madison Square Garden. That was the evening all the Olympic gold medallists from that explosive Team USA started their march to glory. And very quickly, "little" Meldrick Taylor would tower above the rest.
"At Los Angeles, he was the 'baby' of that team," the Boston Globe journalist Ron Borges said in the HBO documentary Legendary Nights in 2003. "He was a vastly talented fighter. But you had much bigger names on that team, much older guys. Once he came a pro, he quickly became the class of that class. Meldrick became the star. He developed faster. He was flashier. He could do everything. A lot of people thought he was the new Ray Leonard."
It's easy to see why the comparison was made. With his phenomenal arm speed and fleet foot movements, the fledgling star of US boxing irresistibly evoked Leonard. "Meldrick Taylor was dazzling," the ESPN commentator Al Bernstein said in the same documentary. "I don't know if there's been too many fighters in the last twenty-five years who were any more fun to watch."
Philadelphia through and through
Taylor was from the Philadelphia school of boxing. There's more to Philly than Rocky Balboa; there's Joe Walcott, Joey Giardello and, of course, Joe Frazier – to name a few. If Philly's a true boxing hinterland, it's also a city with a proper pugilistic identity. Born and raised in the Pennsylvanian city, Taylor subscribed to this tradition – one where boxing was a combat in every sense.
As Taylor himself explained ahead of the fight that would change his life: "A Philadelphia fighter is basically [one with] a lot of heart, a lot of desire, [and who] comes to fight every minute of every round." Taylor did not want to hear that he had boxed well; the real compliment was to be told that he had fought like a dog.
Following Frazier's footsteps, Taylor always considered himself a fighter first, and boxer second. Perhaps, according to another journalist who knew him well, Bernard Fernandez of the Philadelphia Daily News, this was his major fault:
"His greatest strength and perhaps greatest weakness was he was a Philadelphia fighter. What Meldrick wanted to be, in a way, was Joe Frazier. And despite his fabulous technique, he too often wanted to throw himself into a street brawl in the ring – even if it wasn't to his best advantage. But it's what made him the outstanding fighter that he was in the eyes of the public and the media."
On March 17, 1990, however, this innate philosophy would prove his downfall.
On the road to glory
An Olympic gold medal around his neck aged 17, Taylor had not yet turned 22 when he became IBF super-lightweight world champion by defeating defending champion Buddy McGirt. An awesome puncher, McGirt was in control in the first round. It was a severe test of Taylor's mettle, but he prevailed: "He shook me, but I proved I could take a good shot. McGirt thought I was a weakling. He thought he could overpower me. Physically he thought he was stronger."
The fallen champion admitted he had underestimated his opponent. McGirt said he tried "to get respect early, but he was hitting 100 to 1. So, I said to myself, 'Woop, I got to change tactics.' But nothing worked."
McGirt showed courage to cling on, making it a point of honour not to be floored by his young rival. But in the 12th round, exhausted, swaying on his feet and bleeding from a cut above his eye, he was spared the KO, but not the defeat, by the intervention of his trainer who jumped into the ring to put an end to the fight.
Dan Duva, Taylor's promoter, could not help but twist the knife in what would become a famous ringside tirade: "A funny thing happened to Buddy McGirt on the way to superstardom. Meldrick Taylor passed him up today."
Five weeks after Tyson's defeat
Had he beaten Taylor, McGirt would have then faced Julio César Chávez. After winning the super-featherweight and lightweight belts, the Mexican had his eye on moving up a division. Only a few contractual details remained, but the principle of a fight in Madison Square Garden in January 1989 had been accepted by both parties.
But after September 3, 1988, when he so clinically despatched McGirt, Meldrick Taylor felt he was ready to assume Chávez's crown. His promoter Dan Duva had already started stirring the pot: "I think that Chávez will not be prepared to face Meldrick. He will avoid him, because he knows that he can't handle his speed."
The fight would take place – but not for another year and a half. In the meantime, Chávez won the WBC super-lightweight belt while Taylor retained his IBF title on three occasions before being side-lined with a knee injury. But the two men could not avoid each other for ever. The date and place of their fight was set: March 17, 1990, in the indoor arena of the Hilton Las Vegas. Because the venue was too small to satisfy the intense demand for tickets, giant screens would be installed in the palace ballroom.
At the end of the first winter of the new decade, the boxing world was also just recovering from a seismic shift that caught everyone with their guard down – not least the man at the epicentre of the shock. Five weeks earlier, in Tokyo, in one of the biggest upsets in boxing history, the unbeaten heavyweight Mike Tyson was knocked off his lofty pedestal, found out in the 10th round as much by his own weaknesses as the strength of James Buster Douglas, the little-known journeyman who sent him sprawling to the canvas.
Thunder Meets Lightning
Alongside Tyson, Julio César Chávez – a quintessential Mexican fighter who would take three to land one – was widely considered to have been one of the most dominant boxers of his generation, all categories combined. Taylor, too, was held in high esteem despite his young age. Jim Lampley, anchoring for HBO on the night of the fight, set the scene: "It's fair to say that Chávez and Taylor are among the five best boxers on the planet across all categories. This fight can be one of the most memorable for a very long time. The greatest little fight that money can buy."
Of course, Lampley would say that. Tyson's defeat had not just caused a sporting stir, it was an industrial disaster for the American TV network, who had just signed up for Iron Mike's next seven fights. HBO now needed to make Chávez versus Taylor a major event. But the broadcaster was lucky: the super-lightweight world championship bout had blockbuster written all over it, with all the ingredients for an unforgettable prize fight. And with Tyson's throne unoccupied, the winner would become the new king of world boxing.
No fight had been as eagerly anticipated since Marvin Hagler v Sugar Ray Leonard in April 1987. There was everything to make the mouth water in this confrontation of styles between two proud boxers who were both unbeaten and at the height of their powers. Journalist Ron Borges talked of Taylor's Jaguar coming up against Chávez's SUV, while HBO dubbed the fight "Thunder Meets Lightning" as an allusion to the punching power of Chávez and the fast hand-speed of Taylor.
Meldrick Taylor et Lou Duva.
Image credit: Getty Images
It would be the 26th fight for the 23-year-old Taylor, who had drawn one and won all the rest of his previous 25 bouts. Meanwhile, Chávez was on a 10-year winning streak, the 27-year-old having never tasted defeat in 66 fights. No boxer in the past half-century had remained undefeated for so long.
For Taylor, it was a real litmus test; he needed to beat a lionheart like Chávez if he wanted to be a box-office superstar. But Chávez, too, faced an unprecedented challenge. Never had the Mexican come up against such an adversary nor been under such a spotlight. His critics knocked him for the calibre of fighters he had previously faced; after all, half his victories had come before he turned 20 and were on Mexican soil – simply to allow him to make a name for himself. Only one of his 15 title defences – against Edwin "Chapo" Rosario in 1987 – could have been considered a challenge worthy of his talent.
With great frankness, Taylor's eccentric coach Lou Duva, the father of promoter Dan Duva, ridiculed the Mexican one week ahead of the fight: "66-0? That's a joke. Chávez's record is more like 4 or 5-0, no more. The rest means nothing." Chávez clearly needed to beat a big American fighter to receive in the U.S. the same recognition he had at home.
The 'home' crowd cheers on Chávez
If Chávez had never faced someone of the same class as Meldrick Taylor, this major danger also presented a huge opportunity for The Lion of Culiacán. With Hagler and Leonard retired, Thomas 'The Hitman' Hearns growing old, and Tyson on the canvas, Chávez dreamed not only of being considered the best, but also of being an international star and the new gold standard of boxing. An idol in his country, he had even started to take English lessons to help promote his image in the United States. But first, he had to beat Taylor.
His young opponent was both respectful and confident ahead of the fight: "I see Chávez, a great pressure fighter with good combinations, a relentless fighter. But I see me offsetting that attack. I have skills to beat Chávez with my own hand speed and foot speed. I'm going to frustrate him. He has never met an adversary as fast as me. I'm at the beginning of the prime of my career. I think I'm going to really excel in this fight. It's going to propel me as the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world. It's going to make me a superstar."
The long wait came to an end just after 10 p.m. on Saturday, March 17, 1990. Chávez was first to climb into the ring at the Hilton to much fanfare. In theory, the Mexican folk hero was boxing "away from home". But it didn't seem that way: it is estimated that 7,000 of the 9,800 spectators were Mexican fans.
Meldrick Taylor's entrance was more chaotic after a problem with the sound system, making his animated trainer incandescent with rage. "Where's the f***ing music?" Lou Duva cried. "Put on the music or we're not going in!" Finally, America the Beautiful by Ray Charles came on. In Taylor's corner, dressed in a suit and holding an American flag in his hand, stood Evander Holyfield, who had come to welcome his former stablemate from the class of '84.
More like Leonard than ever before
Finally, it's time. Referee Richard Steele brings the two protagonists to the centre of the ring. A former boxer himself, Steele has overseen 45 world championship bouts and is widely considered to be one of the best referees on the planet. He has only one fault – at least, in the eyes of Taylor's entourage: rumour has it that he's close to Don King, boxing's big cheese and the promoter of most the big stars at the time. Including a certain Julio César Chávez…
The connection was enough for Lou Duva to try, in vain, to challenge Steele's place in the ring. "I objected to Richard Steele being the referee," Duva admits in Legendary Nights. "Not that he wasn't competent – I thought he was competent – but in Vegas, there had been some questions as to how he had handled some of the fighters who were at that time Don King fighters."
At the end of the fight, Steele will be at the heart of one of the biggest controversies in the history of a sport that is certainly not lacking in controversy. But before those two seconds grab the headlines, the Chávez-Taylor bout certainly lives up to its billing. Taylor starts like a bull seeing red. He is outstanding, quicker than ever, more like Leonard than ever before. Sugar Mel' Taylor hits new aesthetic heights with his efficient rapid-fire flurry attacks. Chávez could be in for a long night…
Teaching Chávez a lesson in boxing
Of course, the Mexican is in the front row to judge Taylor's performance. Never has Chávez been so rattled in the ring. He finds himself overwhelmed and incapable of getting into a rhythm, losing round after round accordingly. At the end of the fifth, Taylor, conscious of the masterpiece that he is writing, throws his gloves skyward in celebration. One of the three judges that night in charge of scoring the fight, Jerry Roth, cannot believe what he's seeing: "After a few rounds, I thought that Taylor was well and truly on top. He was giving Chávez a lesson in boxing," he later said.
Growing concern mounts in Chávez's corner, especially with his trainer Cristobal Rosas, who implores his fighter to turn things around: "You're fighting for your family, for your country! Come on! You're losing this fight – do something! You are better than him, but you can't afford to lose another round."
But lose other rounds he does. After three-quarters of the bout, Chávez seems to be hopelessly behind on points. And yet the pendulum is starting to swing in the other direction. He may not be as flamboyant, and his style isn't exactly spectacular, but the hard-hitting Chávez is doing a good job of sucking it all up and wearing down his opponent. In the sixth round, Ray Leonard, a consultant for HBO, notices "a slice under the left eye of Meldrick Taylor". Lampley also remarks that, "every once in a while, we see a little trickle of blood out of Taylor's mouth," although adds that it "doesn't seem to bother him".
Pendant neuf rounds, Meldrick Taylor domine Julio Cesar Chavez
Image credit: Getty Images
Winning the battle, losing the war
But the tide's turning; doubts are beginning to eat away at the insides of Taylor. Nobody knows it at the time, but right at the end of the second round, a fierce hook by Chávez had dealt Taylor a "blowout fracture" of the orbital bones surrounding his left eye. If you study the footage, you can see the American shake his head violently before the start of the third round as if to check that everything is fine. He would admit later on that he had "a funny feeling all over my face".
Between the ninth and tenth rounds, the story changes once again. Both of Taylor eyes are almost closed, his vision diminishing with every round. Ron Borges would later sum up the apparent contradiction of what was unravelling in the ring: "Taylor won round after round. But looking at him, you would say, 'What's happened to this guy?' He looked like somebody put him through a glass window. By my calculation, Chávez had not won any rounds, but in his own way he was punishing Meldrick."
Everyone can now see that Taylor is suffering. But the referee Richard Steele can even hear the bone-crunching noise of Chávez's destructive punches. "I knew that Taylor was leading," Steele later said, "but at the same time, the blows delivered by Chávez were so strong that they were breaking the bones in his face and body. A large part of the audience did not appreciate what this young man was going through."
Knockout or nothing for Chávez
But there was only one way for Julio César Chávez to keep his aura of invincibility alive: an unlikely KO in the twelfth. After the fight, the scorecards would show that two of the judges had the American in the lead at the end of the eleventh round: 107-102 for Dave Moretti and 108-101 for Jerry Roth. The third judge, Chuck Giampa, however, credited the Mexican with a one-point lead (105-104). But on points, Taylor would have won. Everyone knew this and Chávez understood, too, even if, after the fight, he would question the judges' scoring: "Those two who had me so far behind, I think they are blind. It was a close, even fight. If they had me behind one or two points, that's OK – but not seven points."
After taking a late jab in the face at the bell, a woozy Meldrick Taylor walks towards Chávez's corner at the end of the eleventh before Richard Steele, pulling his arm, sends him in the right direction. "He doesn't have a lot left, Larry," Jim Lampley says to his colleague Larry Merchant in the commentary box.
Meanwhile, Lou Duva tried to rally his fighter, shouting: "Mel, this is the last round of the fight of your life!" Inexplicably, Taylor's trainers seem to be giving Taylor a false impression of the state of play going into the final round. "You need this round – the fight is hanging on this round," says George Benton, before Duva chips in: "You wanna be champion of the world? Now beat him."
They could not be more wrong. The commentators have the "fading and battered" Taylor in line to win by a unanimous decision. In the last three minutes of high drama, Meldrick Taylor should keep moving rather than swinging punches. He should go on the defensive, try to hang on to his "desperate but determined" opponent. All he needs to do is stand tall, stay upright. But Taylor's Philly fighter instincts kick in. He's a brawler at heart. He wants to "fight every minute of every round". Because it's in his blood. And so, fired up by his camp, he goes out all guns blazing – but simply shoots himself in the foot.
Watching ringside, Ray Leonard is perplexed. "You'd expect the aggression to be with Chávez, but it's more so with Taylor. He fights as if he's behind on points," he says. Is he going to make the same mistake as Billy Conn? In 1941, facing the undisputed king of heavyweights, the living legend Joe Louis, Conn was leading convincingly on points after 12 rounds. Rather than manage his efforts, he continued to push forward until he was knocked out in the thirteenth. Conn never became the heavyweight world champion.
The final round
Three minutes separate Taylor from legendary status. Before the start of the final round, right in front of the bitter gaze of Chávez, he raises his arms one last time. But the American is in a sorry state. As Merchant summarises: "Both of Taylor's eyes are closing, blood continues to pour from his nose and mouth. But if he stands up, he wins."
Two minutes from the end, Taylor fails to connect with a wild left hook and loses his balance. Exhausted, he slips to the canvas. He quickly gets up, but it's a revealing moment – even if glory is still within his reach. "Maybe two minutes left of Julio César Chávez's historic unbeaten streak," Merchant says. The Mexican stays patient but can't find an opening.
One minute from the end, Chávez doesn't look like he has the means of delivering the KO he needs. "It's more pawing than punching." Merchant again. As for Taylor, he's still showering down blows. On the front foot, he's by far the most aggressive of the two – against all logic.
Twenty-four seconds from the end, Chávez catches his rival with a rasping right jab. Rather than protect himself, once again Taylor rushes on Chávez, driving him into the corner. Aware of the danger, the Mexican pivots on his heels and shunts the American against the ropes. He then lands a thunderous right hook that catches Taylor flush on the jaw. He wobbles and collapses. There are just 16 seconds remaining.
The Mexican fans erupt from the stands. But their man has no control over what follows. For him, the fight is over. Everything now depends on Taylor's ability to pull himself up off the floor. Richard Steele has already counted to six when Taylor, leaning his right arm on the ropes, stands up. The referee's count has reached nine.
No fight is worth a man's life
Steele looks at Taylor. "Are you OK?" Then again: "Are you OK?" In the absence of an answer from Taylor, who instead looks towards his corner, Steele stops the fight. HBO's on-screen graphics indicates that there are four seconds remaining. But the official clock records the stoppage of the match at two minutes and fifty-eight seconds into the last round. Taylor has just lost a fight that he would have won two seconds later. He was two seconds from glory.
"This is one of the most unusual calls by the referee in the whole history of the sport." Larry Merchant doesn't mince his words. Indeed, such a thing had never been seen before. A boxer, two seconds away from a certain victory, stopped when he had already got up. "What?" says an incredulous Meldrick Taylor as the decision sinks in. Lou Duva, going berserk, has already rushed into the ring to protest.
Duva's actions will form the basis of one of the many talking points. Richard Steele will explain that he saw the trainer climb into the ring at the time of his count: "It reinforced my decision – I thought that he wanted to put an end to the fight." But Duva, until his death in 2017 at the age of 95, would swear that he did not enter the ring until after Steele's decision – to express his anger with the call. The footage is inconclusive.
Interviewed in the ring after the fight by Larry Merchant, Steele steadfastly defends his decision: "I stopped the fight because Meldrick had took a lot of good shots, a lot of hard shots, and it was time for it to stop. […] No fight is worth a man's life."
Nerves of Steele
Taylor never accepted Steele's stance. Chávez, in the opposite corner during the count, would not have had enough time to land another blow. If the decision was to protect Taylor's health, it would have made no difference had Steele let the fight continue for those two extra seconds.
Until the end of his career, Steele would regularly be subjected to whistling from fans, but he never backed down. Even today, he is convinced that he made the right call. He considered the situation for what it was: a man who had been to hell and back, who was punch drunk, disfigured and incapable of resuming the fight, even if he did not really have to. Steele may be blamed for not taking the full context into account, but taken in isolation, his decision made complete sense.
Not that he was bothered about context. If the decision he made would have been the right one at any other time in the fight, why would it not be correct two seconds from the bell? "I'm not the time-keeper. I don't care about the time," Steele said afterwards, admitting he had not paid attention to the red lights flashing in the four corners of the ring, indicating the 10 last seconds of the bout. "I was looking at [Taylor's] condition. And when I see a man that has had enough, I'm stopping the fight."
Revisiting the episode in Legendary Nights, Steele told HBO: "Taylor went down like there was no more life in him. I asked him twice – 'Are you alright? Are you alright?' – and he could not continue."
Support on the night for Steele came from former referee Harold Lederman, a consultant on HBO. "Taylor did not respond and that's very obvious. When you are referee, if the guy doesn't respond, you have no choice but to stop the fight, because Meldrick Taylor could have been very seriously hurt. Therefore, Richard Steele made the right call without question. It's a shame that it had to happen, but I agree one-hundred percent with the referee in this case."
A hell of a way to lose a fight
It goes without saying that Taylor's camp did not agree with Steele's call. "Bulls***!" Lou Duva snarled in the ring immediately after the fight. "I don't believe that there. The kid got up at six. Meldrick was nodding at him. He was OK. You got to give the guy a chance, it was a title fight. He wasn't getting hurt out there. We were winning the fight for 11 rounds, two minutes and 58 seconds. Then the referee took it away from us. It's a hell of a way to lose a fight."
Quizzed by Larry Merchant in the ring, Taylor denied that Steele asked him if he was alright. "There's no way in hell he should have stopped the fight. I was leading on the scorecards going into the last round. I got hit by a good punch. I went down. I got up. He didn't say anything to me, didn't say 'Are you OK,' count, or give me no kind of directions. I nodded my head, 'I'm OK, I'm OK.' And he still stopped it."
After spending two days in hospital, including undergoing a CAT-scan for brain damage, Taylor gave a press conference with the two Duvas. The now ex-IBF champion had still not come to terms with the result: "I can't believe [Steele] would do a thing like that in a fight of this magnitude. If I have to lose, I would have liked to lose being knocked out, not able to get up. I was winning. It's ludicrous."
La conférence de presse de Meldrick Taylor, deux jours après le combat.
Image credit: Getty Images
A chilling medical report
No matter the outcome, Meldrick Taylor paid a high price. Dr Flip Homansky was the official ringside physician at the Nevada boxing commission and first to examine him after the fight. His prognosis would send shivers down the spine: "He had a facial fracture, he was urinating pure blood. His face was grotesquely swollen. This was a kid who was truly beaten up to the face, the body and the brain." A lacerated lip caused Taylor to lose and swallow two pints of blood, while bleeding in his kidneys led to dehydration.
Two seconds from defeat, Julio César Chávez had somehow kept his winning run alive. Conscious of having walked the tightrope, he paid his respects to his victim while stressing his own greatness: "He was hitting harder, he was faster, I was very tired, but I had more heart than him. Meldrick is a great fighter, a very smart boxer. For every punch I gave, he came back with three. He's the hardest boxer I have faced, and he deserves a rematch."
The fight transformed Chávez into a living legend in his country. He would remain unbeaten for 90 fights (89 victories, one draw) until finally tasting defeat in January 1994 against Frankie Randall – only to dominate him four months later during an epic rematch.
That same year, in September, Chávez, true to his promise, agreed to another fight with Taylor. While initially a competitive fight, it had nowhere near the drama of the first bout. Having briefly become the welterweight world champion in 1991, the American, despite a fast start, was a shadow of the great boxer he once was. In this second title shot against Chávez, he seemed much older than his 28 years. After a brutal sixth round, Taylor's legs became rubbery and the referee stopped the fight in the eighth. There were no claims of injustice that day.
Chavez - Taylor, la revanche, en 1994.
Image credit: Getty Images
Two executioners, one irreversible decline
Meldrick Taylor continued boxing until 2002 but he never truly recovered from that fight. He would forever rue those two seconds. Both inside and outside the ring, his life propelled him onto a downward spiral, and he soon became marred in financial and legal problems. Most worrisome was his speech, which became extremely slurred and at times nearly incomprehensible, as emphasised by the troubling interview the 37-year-old Taylor gave to Legendary Nights in 2003.
Stories about boxers tend to end badly. Since March 17, 1990, Meldrick Taylor's story became one of physical and psychological pain – indelible marks left behind by his two executioners, Julio César Chávez and Richard Steele. Even if neither man can exactly be reproached for their role in Taylor's downfall.
"No fight is worth a man's life," Steele said. He was right. But what boxer, in the ring, in the heat of a fight between opponents vying to write a chapter in history, can ever accept that? "I'm ready to leave my life in the ring, and that's not a figure of speech." The man who spoke these words was not Meldrick Taylor, but Julio César Chávez.
Written by Laurent Vergne, translated by Felix Lowe