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Middling champ

Too bad it's hard to get excited about Jermain Taylor

Posted: Sunday December 4, 2005 5:26PM; Updated: Sunday December 4, 2005 5:26PM
Jermain Taylor
Jermain Taylor won the first fight in July by split decision, and the rematch was almost as close.
Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images
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So Jermain Taylor is now officially, definitively, doubly the best middleweight in the world, right? Well, sure. After all, Taylor has two wins over all-time great Bernard Hopkins -- the second of which, last night's 12-round unanimous decision at Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas he even deserved (albeit narrowly). He holds the WBC, WBA and WBO championship belts, is undefeated in 25 bouts, with 17 knockouts and, at 27 years of age, is (relatively) young, strong, well-conditioned and very marketable. Too bad he's not a better fighter.

Admittedly, it's hard to look too good against Hopkins -- even an aging B-Hop, who in Saturday night's rematch seemed to be working with no great urgency, as if he and Taylor were engaged not in a single bout for the world title, but were instead, like chess masters, playing out a 24-game match over a series of weeks or months. Surely, over that span Hopkins' superior skills (even eroded as they were), his right leads, his inside work, his evasiveness, his ring generalship, would open a gap on the one-dimensional Taylor. Unfortunately for Hopkins, however, this was boxing, not a board game, and in one 12-round match he simply couldn't do enough of all those things he does better than Taylor to beat the younger, stronger man.

For his part, Taylor showed that he had certainly gained confidence since his first outing against Hopkins, four and a half months ago. He seemed far less tense in the early rounds (even brazenly banging Hopkins behind the head during a clinch in the first round) and he carried his strength all the way through the fight. Hopkins never hurt him and even when Hopkins flummoxed Taylor with a rare combination later on, Taylor settled down quickly. But what he settled down to was an uninspiring and fairly ineffective performance: he outjabbed Hopkins (64-29, according to the stats), but seldom put his punches together. His right hand, when he threw it, was a little straighter this time than it was in the first fight, though more than once Taylor reverted to his amateurish looping shot. Only in the 11th round did Taylor show a little fire, landing a good winging hook and a right uppercut. Still, he didn't come close to knocking Hopkins down and he seemed content to bring it in from there.

Afterwards, Hopkins, though maintaining that he won the fight -- "I think that I did enough to prove that I am still the champion," he said, adding in characteristic fashion, "I don't think I get the right type of respect" -- seemed more concerned with his legacy. He said that he believed he would be considered "among the top middleweights in history." Then Hopkins raised the question that boxing fans, and HBO executives, must now be pondering: "Right now Taylor is probably the best middleweight," said the man who for more than a decade carried that distinction, "but will Jermain Taylor do for the next 10 or so years what I did?"

That seems unlikely, though it also seems likely that Taylor will be around for a while. With the possibility of a third Hopkins bout mercifully all but ruled out ("I'm not going to be around much longer," said Hopkins, presumably speaking professionally, not actuarially), Taylor will probably make his next appearance back in his hometown of Little Rock -- where he is a superstar -- against a less challenging opponent. After that, the No. 1-ranked WBC contender, Winky Wright, looms as the highest-profile contender. Wright, who is expected to handle Sam Soliman this coming Saturday night at the Mohegan Sun, is a very skilled, very experienced, very durable southpaw, who can make anyone look bad. In his most recent outing, he pitched a shutout against former champion Felix Trinidad. Still, Wright is not a huge puncher and, like Hopkins, he may not be able to do enough to shut Taylor down. And you can be certain that Taylor and his people won't make that fight until they think they can handle Winky, who at 34, is not going to keep getting better. Beyond that, Taylor could always move up in weight to challenge 168-pound champion Jeff Lacy. But such a venture seems premature at best, suicidal at worst.

And so we have what we're always hoping for, an undefeated, attractive champion, who cemented his position with a win over a truly great predecessor ... and it doesn't feel all that great. Here's hoping that Jermain Taylor grows into his position.