"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."
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.