Two seconds that shaped a lifetime (cont.)
The third man in the ring for Chavez-Taylor, Richard Steele remembers the fight in vivid detail.
"The difference between [Taylor] and Chavez is that Meldrick could win fights on points, as he was doing in this fight," Steele said Wednesday. "But it was like a boy against a man. The boy is winning on points, but the man is really breaking the boy up."
Steele, who has promoted boxing and mixed martial arts since retiring as a referee in 2001, remembers Taylor winning round after round on speed, volume and rate of connection, "but the punches weren't really devastating punches."
"Julio would land one punch for every three, but that one punch was really doing damage," Steele recalls, "and it was really hurting [Taylor]."
Steele remembers thinking to himself in the ring that Taylor could get to the finish line -- right until the famous right-hand that floored him at the end.
"The punch that dropped him just made his whole body go limp," Steele says. "He was just not ready to continue. He never responded verbally or even shook his head or even looked at me, because he was mixed up because Lou Duva was on the apron -- that's what took his attention off of me when he should have been convincing me that he could continue."
Steele says a veteran trainer like Duva should have been aware of the consequences of stepping on the ring apron.
"Once you step on the apron, you've disqualified your fighter," Steele says. "He's had a lot of champions, he knows. He's never supposed to step on the apron because the fight is over. I never wanted to choose that way to end that fight because it was a great fight and the kid gave it all he had. So I didn't want the kid to be able to say my corner disqualified me."
Even if Duva hadn't distracted Taylor, Steele remains confident in the decision to stop the action to protect a hurt fighter.
"He did not respond. He did not make the 10 seconds. He did not beat the count," Steele says. "Beating the count is being in the upright position ready to continue. He never got there."
The controversial nature of the stoppage predictably drew attention to Steele. Critics tried to unearth the rumored relationship between Steele and Don King, who promoted Chavez. The implication: Steele was handpicked to help Chavez win, a suspicion Duva still believes.
Steele, who was inducted to the Boxing Hall of Fame in 2000, laughs at the conspiracy theory.
"I never had coffee with the guy," Steele says. "Don King didn't have anything to say or to do with my selection. That's just a cop-out.
"That's just the way humans are: they're always looking for a straw to discredit when something doesn't go their way."
* * * * *
For the past four years, Gumersindo Vidot has been the Philadelphia representative for the Retired Boxers Foundation, the only 501c3, non-profit corporation that helps downtrodden fighters after they've left the sport. No one in the organization, not president Alex Ramos or executive director Jacquie Richardson, earns a penny for the work, Vidot says.
Several years ago, Vidot got an e-mail from someone who said Taylor was strung out on the street and "drinking forties" on the corner. He attempted to track down Taylor to see if he needed any help.
"When I saw him, I saw this guy who was physically fit, hard as a rock," Vidot recalled Monday, "except he had slurred speech."
Vidot tried to convince Taylor that he deserved a better life after giving so much to the sport. He could get a loan, open a gym, do something. That's when Taylor told Vidot he'd been spending the past decade on his memoirs.
"He says, 'I've written a book, but I've never had anyone to help me out with it to get it published,'" Vidot said. "So I said, 'What's the name of the book?' and he says, 2 Seconds from Glory.
"And I said, 'Wow!' It was a perfect title."
Vidot, who agreed to work as Taylor's agent, read the manuscript and came away very impressed with the ex-champion's level of introspection and self-awareness. But it was filled with controversial racial views that Vidot insisted were self-destructive for a person hoping to regain a foothold in the spotlight.
"He's a unique guy," Vidot says. "The only problem he has is he thinks he is god at times, and he doesn't see beyond that. He's got to see that you're going to need people in life."
Taylor -- as uncompromising in retirement as during his career -- refused to alter the manuscript. After weeks of reflection, Vidot put up the money anyway, despite considerable reservation. It was Taylor's story, not his.
"We never got a reorder from the Hall of Fame and I know why: because people who read it were offended," Vidot says. "People don't want to start slandering Meldrick, so they just don't even respond to it."
In the book, Taylor claims to be a victim of the racial politics in boxing and lays blame on the white power structure in the sport. Vidot believes Taylor's views derive from an affiliation with a local sect of the Black Israelites.
"He's a nice guy, but that religion's got him pretty confused. And you combine that with bitterness -- with losing a fight that he should have won, with no one there for you and talking good about you, just talking bad about you -- I can see him building this shell around you where only Meldrick can fit.
"I feel for him because I know what caused that. I don't agree with his philosophy, but I understand that."
* * * * *
Twenty years after the night in Las Vegas that forever changed his life, Taylor appears to suffer from symptoms of dementia pugilistica, but recalls the fight with complete clarity. He doesn't fail to mention the alleged understanding between King and Steele.
"I definitely was suspicious," Taylor says, bringing up the 1988 title fight Steele officiated between Thomas Hearns and Iran Barkley. When Hearns suffered a third-round knockdown and appeared wobbly and obviously hurt, Steele let him continue. He'd later say a champion should be given the chance to pull himself together -- a chance Taylor feels he never got.
"That guy was out on his feet," Taylor says.
Taylor is still living in North Philadelphia, working as an individual personal trainer and helping people learn how to eat and how to exercise.
"He does pretty good with that, enough to make his ends meet," Vidot says, "but he's still not where he should be."
While his book seems to profile a man who's angry at the world, Vidot insists it's not the real Meldrick Taylor. "The anger is there, but I don't think [the racial talk] is real. It's a defense mechanism," Vidot says. "This is all he's got, but what he's got has a little power to it, because it keeps people away at the same time."
Duva, who calls Taylor "one of the very best" of the 19 world champions he's worked with, last saw Taylor three months ago at a fight in Philadelphia. "He's a little backwards now, by that I mean, I don't think he knows where he's going right now or what's going to happen," Duva says. "He can be a stubborn guy, but he was always a guy you could get around to talking to. I wish him all the best. He deserves it after that career.
"He wasn't the fighter that he was supposed to be."