The bookies are listing this fight as roughly dead even, and the majority of the media seems to agree. What they all have failed to factor in is that Jermain Taylor is mad. Very mad. While a lot of fighters come into the ring angry, Taylor's Hall of Fame trainer says his boxer is not someone you want to face when his blood is up.
"I've been around a long time, and I have had a lot of different kinds of guys, but Jermain Taylor is without a doubt the meanest guy I have ever trained," said Emanuel Steward.
To put that in context, Steward was the trainer for one of toughest, most feared fighters in history, Tommy Hearns. Steward has led 27 different fighters to world titles. Among the champions he has trained at various points in their careers are Julio Cesar Chavez, Lennox Lewis, Evander Holyfield, Leon Spinks and Sugar Ray Leonard.
What also must be factored in is that for the first time Taylor is training in isolation at Steward's gym in the Pocono Mountains. There are no diversions. You train. You eat. You sit up at night slinging the bull with other fighters and then you go to bed. Once in a while, Taylor goes fishing with Steward. The gym he trains in is filled with tough guys who show no respect for belts or reputations. Taylor's entourage of sparring partners includes power-punching welterweight champ Kermit Cintron, and a pair of can't miss, hard-hitting prospects in Andy Lee (middleweight) and Jonathan Banks (cruiserweight).
One man who knows what it means to train in the Poconos -- where many of the all-time greats camped for decades -- is Lewis, the former undisputed heavyweight champion and now HBO commentator.
"Nobody loses coming off the mountain. There is something about the Poconos, the isolation, that makes you a better New York fighter. I never lost a fight when I trained up there and I must have gone there about eight times," Lewis said.
The first time Steward was able to pry Taylor out of his comfort zone down South, was for the Winky Wright fight in June of last year. Taylor flew north to Steward's famed house of pain, the Kronk in Detroit. What impressed Steward most while watching Taylor go to war with the fighters who call the Kronk their house, was not his power, jab or ability to throw wicked combos, although he did do that quite well.
"I see a certain amount of toughness in Jermain," Steward said at the time. "It was his mental toughness that interested me from the beginning. I had seen it in those two fights with (Bernard) Hopkins. Forget all of that nice, Southern-type personality. I see a real, real tough guy inside of Jermain Taylor."
So what exactly has Jermain Taylor so riled up for this fight?
Ever since beating Hopkins twice, Taylor has not fought like the mean and hungry fighter people expected to see dominate the division. He fought well in a draw with Wright, but not inspired. Then he took on two junior middleweight fighters moving up to 160 pounds in Kassim Ouma and Corey Spinks. Taylor did just enough to win both fights, but showed little to deserve his ring alias, "Bad Intentions." The fights were boring.
As a result there has been a change in the way Taylor is perceived in Little Rock, where he was born and raised and still lives with his wife and two young daughters. Up until his last two fights, he was a larger-than life hero much beloved by Arkansas fans. That has changed. When he goes out on the street, he finds himself being heckled and derided for taking on weak challengers. His lifelong advisor and father figure, Ozell Nelson was not spared the fans' wrath, either.
At a press conference for this bout, Taylor said his fights of late have been so unpopular that Nelson can't go the supermarket without being hassled.
"People see him in the grocery store and start throwing eggs at him," Taylor said. "It's hard to take. I'm not going to say it doesn't get to me, especially when you live in a little place like Arkansas. The worst thing was after the fight with Cory Spinks. I was listening to the radio and the people on the (Little Rock) station were wondering whether I was a real champion or not."
Things reached the boiling point last May at a press conference for the Spinks fight. Also on the podium was both Pavlik and Edison Miranda, who were fighting each other on the under card. For weeks, Pavlik had been harshly derisive of Taylor in several media interviews, as had Miranda, and both did so again at the press conference.
When it came time for Taylor to speak, he glared at Pavlik and Miranda, then gripped the podium with white knuckles, fighting in vain to control his anger. This rage was something new to the attending media, who considered Taylor a mild-mannered man who was soft-spoken and polite outside the ring.
"I don't do all this talking -- 'I'm gonna do this, I'm gonna do that.' I will walk up to you and punch you in the mouth!" he said.
Taylor pounded his fist on the podium while looking at Miranda. "Don't stand up here and do this (trash talk). That don't mean nothing to me. When I get in the ring I don't play. I stuttered as a kid a lot, somebody walks up (talking trash)..." Taylor thumped the podium again and put his fist to his head. "...and he's bleeding before he knows it. I'm a fighter, that's what I do. These guys (Pavlik, Miranda) are good, but they don't have the dog in them. In the fourth round of the first Hopkins fight I was tired. My hands were hurting and my legs were tired. I felt like quitting. But that dog in me won't let me quit."
When Taylor was done, the media audience looked stunned. A clearly emotional Steward went to the podium and said to the crowd: "You have just seen the real Jermain Taylor."
During a recent teleconference before he broke for training camp, Taylor showed his new-found motivation when asked if the rumor that he was going to the Poconos was true.
"I'm open to go anywhere. If Manny says Poconos, that's where I'm going. He says Egypt, we going to Egypt," Taylor said.
This was a far cry from the Taylor who turned down invitations to come to Spain and the Swiss Alps when Steward was training Wladimir Klitschko for fights with Ray Austin and Lamon Brewster earlier this year. Had he gone, he would have been in isolation sparring with Steward's best fighters, including Klitschko, who both Cintron and Lee got some rounds with in an attempt to make the heavyweight champ faster in the ring.
What changed Taylor, says Bob Papa, the Boxing After Dark announcer, was all the criticism.
"Jermain usually doesn't pay attention to what goes on in the sport. He's not a boxing junkie. He fights and goes home and forgets about it. But now people even in his home town are saying he's going to lose to that white guy (Pavlik), the white guy is going to kick his ass. Manny told me it was like a light bulb went off in his head," Papa said.
Since going to the Poconos, Taylor has flourished, Steward said. He has shown a new intensity, a ferocity in his sparring that prompted the trainer to say recently, "I would not want to be Kelly Pavlik."
If Taylor brings out his inner junkyard dog when he steps into the ring to face Pavlik, how will that affect his brash young opponent, who has yet to fight anyone close to the champion's level? By all accounts, Pavlik seems unfazed. When told, for example, that Taylor has never been knocked down, Pavlik replied, "He has never been hit by Kelly Pavlik."
Stylistically, Taylor and Pavlik make a perfect match. They are both aggressive, which is the type of opponent each prefers to face.
Pavlik's main asset is having what they call in boxing "heavy hands," which is not meant literally. Heavy-handed fighters usually have broad shoulders and a strong chest, which translates into punching power. Pavlik's other major assets include a solid amateur background and a style which involves throwing a high volume of punches.
If Pavlik has a weakness, it this : He never moves backward, always coming forward, and if his opponent does not back off, Pavlik has a tendency to bend down -- giving up his height -- and get caught up in an inside fight. That could prove to be a key in this bout.
Taylor has shown that when in tight quarters he likes to buzz his opponent with a stinging right upper cut. Pavlik has never been knocked down in a fight. But just as the challenger says Taylor has never been hit with a Pavlik punch, the same can be said in reverse.
Taylor also enjoys an enormous edge in big-fight experience. Besides Hopkins -- who is one of the most dominant fighters of his generation -- and Wright, Ouma and Spinks were champion caliber boxers, even if they were fighting above their best weight class. Taylor also owns victories over former world champions William Joppy and Raul Marquez, albeit when they were past-prime.
The only big name on Pavlik's resume is Miranda, whom he gave a beat-down to, stopping him in seven rounds. Miranda, however, has said he was drained of energy for the fight because of his struggle to make the weight, and he did look lethargic in the ring. He has since moved up to super middleweight.
It seems appropriate for this Taylor-Pavlik bout to repeat an age-old saying: "It's not the size of the dog in a fight, but the size of the fight in the dog." Taylor is bringing his junkyard beast for this fight. It remains to be seen what Pavlik has in his kennel.
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