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Posted: Monday September 20, 2010 4:13PM ; Updated: Monday September 20, 2010 5:11PM

Brooklyn's finest agree: Taylor could have been one of the greats

Story Highlights

Leon Taylor was a vastly talented amateur whose career was hijacked by drug use

Local legends like Mark Breland and Riddick Bowe vouch for Taylor's greatness

These days, Taylor trains fighters at Chelsea's Mendez Gym and in New Jersey

By Jason Keidel, Special to SI.com

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Brooklyn's Leon Taylor was once considered one of New York's most promising boxing talents, but a drug habit derailed his career.
Mel Barlow/Special to SI.com

Boxing was the ancient street salvation, where kids with a good hook took it to the gym and some avuncular graybeard adopted the class chump and chiseled him into world champ. It happened often on the streets of Brooklyn in the late 1970s, to a battalion of gifted young men like Mike Tyson, Mark Breland, Riddick Bowe ... and Leon Taylor.

Who?

Leon "Cat" Taylor, the greatest fighter never known, more Earl Manigault than Sidd Finch, a man who left a legion of legends awestruck before his peripheral appetites thwarted his singular gift.

Now, at 47, with two decades between his prime and pasture, Taylor talks in a deep boom, as though the lone remnant from a violent past, a warning to potential predators. He speaks in an odd lisp, his tongue dwelling in a two-finger gap in his lower teeth, courtesy of a bullet that shredded his face. His incisors jut like goal posts from his gums.

His eyes are alert, though the left is in an eternal squint covered by bushy eyebrows penciled with gray. Though Taylor hasn't fought professionally in over 15 years, he shares none of the retired athlete's enmity for fitness. He looks like he can bang. He walks down streets with a slight street bop, like someone who doesn't need to kick ass because he already has.

When presented with the conga line of champions who crown him, he says, "Aw, I was all right."

And that's how you know it's true. There's no hubris, no fantasies -- only a savant's humility and reticence to parade his brilliance. And since he won't tell you how good he was, let those who dared to dance on canvas with him paint the montage.

* * * * *

Many of Taylor's troubadours reside in Gleason's Gym, the home and soundtrack of pugilism, run to the percussion of speed bags, the hard whip of jump rope, the staccato squeak of sneakers, and the leathery thud of heavy bags tougher than the men hitting them.

It is so violent and visually fertile that it's easy for an overly refined white boy to be intimidated by the scene, respecting the ethos of manhood only in theory. Perhaps he sees these men as discarded crooks for whom the gym is a pseudo cell, framed by these blood-red walls, trucked from jail to gym, the only place that will have men who leaned on physical brutality to survive. An amalgam of convicts resting between crimes.

Look again. Out of the ring they are far more likely to hug than harm. In truth, these men are much like us sans the corporate refinements, walking microcosms of the human condition. They live. They bleed. They cry, and they die.

Every gym has a stoic. Harry Keitt, a former heavyweight, assumes that part in Gleason's. Perhaps no man in Gleason's -- or on the planet -- can relate to Taylor's plight more than Keitt, whose life was amply archived in the acclaimed 1999 documentary On the Ropes. He's on the back nine in his journey from crackhouse to penthouse and currently trains middleweight contender John Duddy. Keitt has been clean since 1987.

When he speaks his eyes pivot across the room, eyes sharpened by darkness. Keitt walks and talks with a scowl, yet he may have the best sense of humor in the room.

He is the first to echo Taylor's gifts. "Leon got caught up in the drugs the way I did. He had everything. But after the Golden Gloves, he just went in a different direction. Leon was a Hall of Fame talent. He came out of prison, hadn't fought in years, and beat up Alex Stewart in sparring."

That is no small matter. Stewart was 24-0 with 24 knockouts at the time. Taylor reluctantly acknowledges the event. "The only thing that could beat Leon Taylor," Keitt says, "was the street."

Keitt pauses to say hello to one of his fighters, then invokes a 12-Step maxim. "I saw Leon a few weeks ago. It's always great to see him. I don't want him back in Gleason's. It's about people, places, and things for him."

Separating the myth from the man. Taylor remembers everything that happened but can't tell you when. There are plenty who will.

* * * * *

When boxing was an important sport, Mark Breland was an important boxer.

Breland, amateur nonpareil, is the only boxer to win five consecutive Golden Gloves titles and an Olympic gold medal. The laconic, former welterweight champion has the respect of everyone in the room. He had a stable of fighters he has since forgone to concentrate on heavyweight Deontay Wilder.

The other trainers tease Breland by strolling across the room and start conversations with him, knowing that his whisper will never reach them. Breland often responds with a grin and a middle digit.

Breland recalls being with Leon Taylor in the back of classrooms as freshmen at Alexander Hamilton High School practicing combinations when the teacher was scribbling on the board, then scuttling back to their seats and writing notes about ring tactics, passing them back and forth. It was the genesis of Taylor's boxing journey.

Cat: a nickname given Taylor by a cousin and later stuck because of his quickness in the ring. Taylor won the only Golden Gloves tournament he entered, in 1979, fighting as a middleweight in Madison Square Garden. Sadly it's also the only title he ever won.

"Honestly, I didn't want to fight Leon," Breland says. "We'd slip each other's punches or hit each other and the crowd would go 'ooh' and 'aah'. So then we had to slug it out because our instincts kicked in. Once we got too good they wouldn't let us fight anymore.

Taylor won the Golden Gloves without Breland in '79 because Breland was too young to enter at the time. "I expected Leon to become champion before I did," Breland says. "We were going to win the Olympics together." Once Taylor turned pro he moved up to light heavyweight, though he was about to become a heavyweight on the street.

Two years removed from his last fight, a rusty Taylor lost his pro debut in 1981. Then he won his next eight fights -- most of which on autopilot. "I took my talent for granted," Taylor says. "I stopped training. I knew I could just win without working at it. I just fought for the money, to get high."

It's a story told over generations. At a certain age life forks and some go straight (Breland) and some bend (Taylor).

"Of all the people I grew up with," says Taylor, "I think I hurt Mark the most. We were supposed to do great things together. But Mark did good. Really good. I'm proud of him."

When Taylor began to tumble, Breland drove around Brooklyn looking for his friend. "I'd find Leon somewhere and be like, 'What are you doin', man?' and he'd be embarrassed, like, 'Aw, man, you know how it goes.'"

With his own career blooming, Breland focused more on himself. By the time he won the gold in 1984, Taylor was well into disappearances his friends diplomatically coined "vacations" -- a euphemism for drug binges. "I'd call his pops or his brother," Breland says, concluding with stunning humility. "Leon was a better fighter than I was. He beat up all of us -- Riddick, Harry, me ..."

* * * * *

Sparring people he could have beaten, dazzling and puzzling, a thousand contradictions -- the thematic river that runs through Taylor's life.

Taylor's talent and torment is astonishing, but it's not the most compelling component about him or his life. The most baffling paradox in Taylor is that no matter the wreckage he created, nearly everyone still loves him. He is that impossible hybrid of menace and kindness.

Because he is so biologically daunting you are able to imagine him tearing through a town on savage coke binges. Then you speak to him and watch him help so many people for so little money. Since we're all imbibed on Original Sin, it is easy to brand every man a contradiction -- but few have been as good and bad as Taylor.

Leon Taylor was born on Jan. 2, 1963, in Brooklyn. Raised by Steve and Betty Taylor, there was nothing abnormal about his rearing.

"He was a little mischievous," his father says, a near-universal fatherly refrain. Steve took Leon to a gym when he was 14, to get both father and son in shape. And Leon took to boxing instantly.

Taylor first trained under George Washington, the boxing Yoda of Bed-Stuy, named after a president but regarded as a king who nursed many raw young men to stardom. "As soon as I walked in the gym, he called me 'Champ,'" Breland recalls.

Washington dispensed the renowned "Cherry Tree Special" -- a three-punch combination designed to put the enemy to sleep.

"Two jabs and a right," says Breland.

"A jab, left hook, and a right," says Keitt.

"A jab, left, and right," confirms Riddick Bowe. "And when you got it right, George said, 'That's my baby!'"

Taylor says he applied a mutation of said special to Michael Spinks in sparring, dropping one of the great light heavyweights in history -- Spinks never lost a pro fight at light heavyweight -- while sparring in the early 1980s.

Spinks doesn't recall the moment, but he doesn't deny it. "Leon gave me hell," Spinks says. The pair often fought at Spinks' camp in the Catskill section of New York. "I couldn't catch him, couldn't hit him. No lie. We had hellish fights in sparring."

Hellish -- a fitting metaphor for a man who spent many days in scalding spiritual water. "Leon got shot in the neck," Spinks says, "and was sparring with me a week later."

Taylor remembers. He was standing at the corner of Kingston and Bergen in 1984 when the stray bullet hit. He lifted his shirt to show the wound. "It hit me in the right shoulder and came out of my neck. I can't believe Mike remembers that." It was one of four times Taylor was shot.

Taylor says he first tried cocaine on March 18, 1983, after fighting in Atlantic City on a card headlined by Spinks. During the post-fight party a fellow fighter dropped a pack of cigarettes next to Taylor. "I'd never seen that," Taylor recalls, referring to a pack of smokes from a colleague.

If the former was a surprise, the latter is a stunner. "I walked into the bathroom and the guy comes out of the toilet, sniffing off his fist." Taylor shakes his head in amazement. "I asked him what that was. He says, 'You don't want any of this.'"

But he did. Taylor shared the powder with the fellow boxer, igniting a swath of destruction normally reserved for artistic expression.

Taylor's addiction was predictably linear -- going from powder to pipe when sniffing wasn't enough -- though his means of procuring drugs were atypical. Once he guzzled his fight purses he needed other means to obtain money. He operated in a criminal element otherwise seen on The Wire -- robbing drug dealers and liquor stores (sans ski mask).

"I used to go into nightclubs," Taylor says. "They'd have bottles of Moet waiting for me, and I'd start to party. And if anyone started talking [trash] to me or one of my boys I'd start knocking people out. I mean, several at a time. They'd just get in line and I'd knock 'em out."

The leeches who saw this talent in Taylor thought he'd be good for armed robberies. "They had guns, but they didn't want to shoot anyone. So I'd be the muscle. If the cashier acted up, I'd just knock him out. We did that a lot. I had fast hands."

His hands. You can look at them for hours. A fighter's fists serve as a form of human archeology, each scar and bump a bookmark. His gnarled knuckles and meaty palms have been put to great and galling use. They belong to a bear more than a man.

By the time Taylor was fully addicted and entirely uninterested in boxing, he was arrested and convicted of three counts of armed robbery. He spent about two years (1988-89) in prison.

* * * * *

 
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