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Remembering Chavez-Taylor

Even without the miracle finish, it would have been the fight of the decade. Even without the right hand that ended it and even without a referee's controversial decision to call it off, we still today would recall Julio Cesar Chavez' win over Meldrick Taylor on St. Patrick's Day in 1990 among the great prizefights of the era. Even without the livid cornermen and the back-and-forth at the press conference afterward, without the pain and romance of a split-second mistake regretted for a lifetime, we still would remember this fight. It was that good. Indeed, the way it ended, the sheer suddenness and agony of it, made it memorable. But it was everything that came before that made it great.

It is not entirely easy, now, in retrospect, when we see what became of Chavez and especially of Taylor, to articulate how special they were 17 years ago. Chavez was still an indomitable punching machine, undefeated in 66 fights, already a three-division champion, already a legend, already maybe the best prizefighter Mexico ever produced, which is saying quite a lot. He was 28 years old, three years removed still from the nightmare in San Antonio when Pernell Whitaker, who maybe was better all along, undressed him in front of thousands who knew as well by the end as Chavez did that Chavez didn't deserve the draw the judges gave him. And it wasn't until '94, a full four years after his miracle win over Taylor, that "The Lion of Culiacan" would officially be defeated for the first time, when Frankie Randall beat him up and outpointed him in Las Vegas.

Nobody had seen yet the Chavez who whined his way to a win against Randall in their rematch, or the one who pouted against the bigger, younger, faster, stronger Oscar De La Hoya in a pair of bloody losses. We hadn't seen Chavez yet as the poor loser that age and circumstance brought out in him. We hadn't seen him fold at the fists of Kostya Tszyu, as impotent and compliant as a kitten, as frail and defenseless as a frayed, toothless old alley cat. We hadn't seen him yet get old.

In 1990 Chavez was still Chavez, the best fighter on the planet; a smooth, fearless, relentless punching machine as inexorable and indefatigable as the weather. Many did it flashier than he did and with more explosions and drama, but there wasn't a fighter in the world whose performances carried so heavy a sense of inevitability. There simply wasn't any means by which he could be stopped or defeated. He knew it. We knew it. His opponents did, sooner or later. Roger Mayweather, several times a world champion himself and twice a knockout loser to Chavez (and today Floyd Mayweather's head trainer) described Chavez this way to writer Steve Farhood just before the Taylor fight:

"He's only 5'7" and his skills are average, but he's the most determined fighter I've ever seen. He doesn't jab his way in, he walks straight in. He'll walk right into the lion's den, right up to the lion. In cutting off the ring, he'll take chances. He knows he has to. He has the ability to take the shots a guy's going to give him when he's coming in. He's probably got the best chin in boxing."

It was against this Chavez, this inexhaustible force at probably the top of his game or maybe just a shade past it, that Taylor, just a baby at 24 years old and with only 25 fights, had to contend. He was only four years younger than Chavez was but he might as well have been in diapers in terms of his experience. This great gap in tenure neither intimidated nor worried Taylor, whose upbringing in one of the toughest sections of Philadelphia - not to mention a superb amateur background, which included a gold medal at the 1984 Olympic Games - permitted neither weakness nor undue anxiety. Taylor said years later that he saw Chavez' greater experience as an advantage, that people expected more of him as a three-division champion, and that the pressure was all on him. Taylor knew that even if he lost, if he fought well, his stock would rise because of Chavez' stature. And if he won, he'd be seen as the best fighter, pound-for-pound, in the world. Despite Chavez' great advantage in experience, it was nearly a pick'em fight when they entered the ring. It was because Taylor's talents were undeniable. His pro career had gone almost flawlessly, the only blemish being a draw against Howard Davis Jr. Otherwise he'd been perfect, a dazzling combination of whirring hands, old-fashioned Philadelphia tenacity and top-notch offensive skills.

Two years before the Chavez fight Taylor stopped Buddy McGirt to win the IBF junior welterweight title and then took out John Wesley Meekins, Courtney Hooper, Jaime Balboa and Ramon Flores. Was he as learned as Chavez was? Hell no. Did he hit as hard? No again. But he was younger. He was faster. He was bigger and stronger and had every reason to be hungrier. And most of the time, he was dazzling. The only thing people didn't like about him was he stood still and fought too much when he didn't have to, relied too much on his Philadelphia roots to get him through tougher fights when he didn't have to. His supporters wanted him to box Chavez, to move against him, to use the ring. That was never the plan. Not from day one.

"We're going to have to keep Chavez from attacking. But you can't run from him. You have to box him in a circle," Taylor's trainer, George Benton, told KO magazine before the fight. "You can't be throwing bombs. You throw small stuff at him. I'm not looking to knock this guy out. Chavez has got a good chin and Meldrick's not a one-punch puncher."

In front of 9,130 spectators at the Hilton Center in Las Vegas, Taylor executed Benton's plan exquisitely. He didn't run from Chavez the way so many others had; he stood right in Chavez' wheel house and outpunched him. His hands were faster and not by a little. He could get off three or four or five punches and spin away before Chavez could load up a hook to the body or head. It was shocking but true; the closer the fighters were to one another the better Taylor did, punching and turning, punching and turning, his feet as nimble and as smart as his fists.

"I was very surprised with his handspeed," Chavez admitted later. "Sometimes he was punching and I didn't even know where I was." Taylor wasn't hurting Chavez, but like Benton said, he didn't have to. He just had to be better. And for much of the fight he was. HBO's Harold Lederman had Taylor winning nine of the first 11 rounds.

For all of Taylor's flashy exuberance, however, Chavez was getting good work done too, and from the unlikeliest place: the outside. Lead right hands and thudding left hooks caught Taylor time and again in mid-combination or before he could turn this way or that. Taylor was landing the flashier, showier punches and more of them but Chavez' blows here heavier and far more damaging. Indeed, after the fight Chavez was unmarked. Taylor spent the night in Valley View Hospital, suffering from dehydration, blood loss (a cut inside his mouth caused him to swallow two pints), bleeding in his kidneys, and a fracture of the orbital bone surrounding his left eye.

Even without the miracle finish, it would have been the fight of the decade. Even without the right hand that ended it and even without a referee's controversial decision to call it off, we still today would recall Julio Cesar Chavez' win over Meldrick Taylor on St. Patrick's Day in 1990 among the great prizefights of the era.

Nevertheless, Taylor led on two of the three scorecards heading into the 12th round; by six and four points on the cards of Jerry Roth and Dave Moretti, respectively. Chuck Giampa had Chavez up by a point. After the 11th round, which Roth and Moretti scored for Taylor, Lou Duva, in Taylor's corner, gave his rapidly fading charge wholly inaccurate advice: "The fight is hanging on this round, Mel. Do you want to be a world champion? Fight him." Taylor did, when it certainly would have been smarter to keep his distance or even to hold. But Duva couldn't have known the scores. Indeed, most of the ringside press had the fight much closer than did Lederman, Roth or Moretti. Many had Taylor leading by a mere two points.

What happened in the 12th is by now well known. With 24 seconds left in a close round, Chavez landed a crackling right hand that hurt Taylor and sent him stumbling into a corner. Chavez flurried and missed until another pinpoint right exploded on Taylor's chin and dumped him in the corner with 12 seconds left.

HBO's Larry Merchant said calmly, "If he gets up, he probably wins the fight."

Taylor pulled himself up at five. Referee Richard Steele asked him if he was all right. He asked him again. Taylor looked off to his right at Duva, who was screaming from the corner. Steele waved his arms over Taylor and stopped the fight. Two seconds remained on the clock. Two seconds.

"Unbelievable! Unbelievable! Richard Steele has stopped the fight with less than five seconds to go!" shouted Jim Lampley from ringside.

"I can't believe they stopped that fight!" agreed Merchant.

Questioned afterward, Steele defended his decision. "I stopped it because Meldrick had taken a lot of good shots â€" a lot of hard shots and it was time for it to stop. I'm not the timekeeper and I don't care about the time. When I see a man has had enough I'm stopping the fight. There's no fight worth a man's life."

Afterward he two sides bickered back and forth at the press conference. The Taylor camp's story about why Taylor didn't acknowledge Steele's question changed with every telling. Duva used all of his considerable presence to berate the officiating and to demand an immediate rematch.

Lost in the drama of the moment was how special a fight it had been up to that point. Back and forth the two had gone, Taylor faster, Chavez more damaging, first Taylor then Chavez, then Taylor again. It was every bit the fight we'd all hoped it would be, the fight KO called on its cover beforehand The Best Matchup in Five Years. Later The Ring named it Fight of the Year and 10 years after Fight of the Decade. It was that special with or without the ending and if you ever wondered if Chavez had ice running through his veins he answered the question afterward when he said, "I never lose hope or get desperate no matter what happens. I knew that I was in better shape than Taylor because I trained hard for two months. You may not believe it, but I always had it in my mind that I could still knock him out. Even at the end."

We all wanted a rematch soon after, maybe everyone except for Chavez, but it didn't happen until four years later. That probably was by design. By that time Taylor had lost most of what had made him special. Most of it he'd left in the ring that night on St. Patrick's Day, and Terry Norris and Chrisanto Espana and few others took what was left over. Chavez stopped him in the eighth round. The truth is Chavez wasn't the same guy either by then. Whitaker had embarrassed him in San Antonio and he'd gone back and forth with Randall. He still was a superb fighter but was already in full decline, no longer flush with youth and invincibility.

Taylor's stock plummeted further still shortly after the rematch. He took more beatings, lost to clubfighters and began to slur profoundly, becoming what we all fear our favorite fighters will become. He fought far too long before retiring, finally. Chavez fared much better but got old like we all do. A final loss to a mid-Western clubfighter convinced him to retire too eventually. It didn't end wonderfully for either Taylor or Chavez, but few men ever in their lives have a night as good as the one they had on March 17, 1990. That we got to share it with them makes us pretty lucky, too.

"We're going to have to keep Chavez from attacking. But you can't run from him. You have to box him in a circle," Taylor's trainer, George Benton, told KO magazine before the fight. "You can't be throwing bombs. You throw small stuff at him. I'm not looking to knock this guy out. Chavez has got a good chin and Meldrick's not a one-punch puncher."

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