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Posted: Wednesday March 17, 2010 5:44PM; Updated: Friday March 19, 2010 12:21PM
Bryan Armen Graham
Bryan Armen Graham>INSIDE BOXING

Two seconds that shaped a lifetime

Story Highlights

Meldrick Taylor's controversial loss to Julio Cesar Chavez came on Mar. 17, 1990

Taylor was ahead on two scorecards when he lost on a ref's stoppage with :02 left

The once-promising career of the Olympic gold medalist soon fell into disarray

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Meldrick Taylor (center), won Olympic gold in 1984 alongside teammates Pernell Whitaker (left) and Evander Holyfield (right).
George Tiedemann/SI

Meldrick Taylor was blessed with two of the fastest hands in boxing and the foot speed to match.

But it was Taylor's flagrant neglect of those gifts that made him one of the most unforgettable fighters of the modern era. It also made him one of the saddest stories in a sport with no shortage of tragic figures.

"He wanted to fight," recalled legendary trainer Lou Duva, who guided Taylor from 1984 until '92, on Tuesday. Rather than stick and move, relying on the jab, Taylor preferred to win on his own terms -- as a Philadelphia slugger.

A fistic prodigy who captured gold at the 1984 Olympics at just 17, Taylor's meteoric rise included an upset of Buddy McGirt for the IBF junior welterweight title in his 21st pro fight. After four title defenses, Taylor met Julio Cesar Chavez at the Las Vegas Hilton on March 17, 1990.

Taylor was 24-0-1. Chavez was 66-0 with 58 stoppages. They were considered by many the best pound-for-pound fighters in the sport. Cast by HBO's Jim Lampley as "the greatest little fight money can buy," it was the kind of elemental clash between athletes in their prime that only happens once in a generation. When it was over, neither man would ever be the same.

For 11 rounds, Lightning outclassed Thunder. Taylor beat Chavez to the punch again and again, blurring the line between offense and defense. Uncompromising as ever, Taylor insisted on trading punches with Chavez round after round, brilliant combination punching giving no quarter to the warrior from Mexico. But despite landing fewer shots, Chavez delivered the more powerful blows. When the bell rang to end the 11th, Taylor nearly walked to the wrong corner.

With a lopsided lead on two of the scorecards, Taylor was gassed but just needed to finish the fight on his feet. At one point, he missed with a wild left hand and slipped to the canvas.

Twenty-five seconds left. A pulverizing straight right barreled Taylor back three inches. Chavez followed with a four-punch flurry. Taylor scurried toward the corner, where Chavez turned and trapped him with 20 seconds left. Chavez fired three more punches before a heat-seeking right to the temple put Taylor to the canvas with 17 seconds left.

:16 ... :15 ... :14 ...

Taylor was up by the count of six. What happened next has been replayed by fight fans countless times over the past 20 years.

Referee Richard Steele gave Taylor the mandatory eight-count. He asked Taylor, "Are you OK?"

:07 ... :06 ... :05 ...

Again: "You OK?"

Unsatisfied with Taylor's response, Steele waved both arms and Chavez won by a technical knockout. The outcome was a miracle given what observers already suspected and what the scorecards confirmed: that Taylor would have won a split decision if the fight had gone to the judges.

The official time was 2:58 in the 12th round. The perplexed expression on Taylor's swollen face was frozen in time.

The Ring magazine called it The Fight of the Decade, but that honorific seems to understate the far-reaching consequences of the moment. Chavez was elevated from national folk hero to deity-like figure -- boxing's undisputed pound-for-pound champion for the next several years and the most important Mexican boxer of all-time.

The cost for Taylor only began with the junior welterweight title. His life was never the same.

* * * * *

A product of the hard neighborhoods of North Philadelphia, Taylor discovered boxing at an early age. He was instantly hooked.

"I was about eight years old," Taylor recalled Sunday, his speech heavily slurred. "It was called Hennelly Boys Club. It was on Frankford and Kensington."

A quick study, Taylor went 99-4 as an amateur and qualified for the Olympic team. Just two months after graduating from Simon Gratz High, the teenager represented the United States at the Los Angeles Games. On the final day of competition, Taylor became the youngest gold medal winner in Olympic boxing history -- and the most overlooked member of a legendary team that included Pernell Whitaker, Evander Holyfield, Tyrell Biggs and Mark Breland.

Soon after, Taylor signed a contract with Main Events and knocked out Luke Lecce in his pro debut on Nov. 15, 1984 -- the famed "Night of Gold" when six members of the Olympic team fought their first paying bouts on the same card before a sold-out Madison Square Garden crowd. He quickly began cutting a swath through the lightweight and junior welterweight divisions, fighting quality opposition and ducking no one.

"He always wanted to learn," Duva recalls. "He'd work out and he'd box and get done and then sit down and watch Pernell work and some of the other fighters that we had and take moves from them."

But Duva also describes a downside to Taylor's obsession with fistic perfection -- the tendency to overtrain.

"He tried too hard," Duva says. "It was always my contention that he was getting hurt more in the gym than he was in the ring. And I used to tell him that: 'Don't knock yourself out, you're only training!' [Co-trainer] George Benton did a great job with him, but you can only do so much.

"'Out of the ring, get out of the ring!' we had to holler at him. We used to make him hit the heavy bag because if we would have let him, he would have went 20 rounds with four sparring partners. He didn't care."

Brash and confident, Taylor drew comparisons to Sugar Ray Leonard. He was a stylistic precursor to Manny Pacquiao, an impossibly quick 140-pounder with dynamite in both hands who left capable opponents dumbfounded by his blinding speed. After upsetting McGirt for the IBF junior welterweight title, Taylor signed to meet Chavez in a showdown to unify the IBF and WBC belts.

Taylor was, in spite of his dazzling speed, a very Philadelphia fighter -- more Joe Frazier than Willie Pep. He never made it easy on himself. A uncompromising brawler with unrivaled ring intensity, it wasn't in Taylor's genetic code to toss jabs and pirouette out of harm's way.

That determination to mix it up -- to win his way -- may have been his downfall. Why else would Taylor have mixed it up with Chavez in the 12th?

"I remember them telling me I needed the last round," Taylor says. "They didn't want me taking it for granted and leaving it in the hands of the judges. I really didn't know how close it was, I just knew that I wanted to finish strong.

"In actuality, I didn't really need the last round. I just needed to stay away and box."

Duva's recollection of the fateful discussion in the corner between the final two rounds is different.

"I said, 'Look, I think you're winning the fight,'" Duva recalls. "'Go out there, just move around, move around, box him, and don't get into no slugging. And then, just keep moving, just keep moving, just keep moving.'"

"People condemned me, more or less, because I jumped up on the stairs and I hollered to the referee to make Chavez go back into the corner. When he knocked Meldrick down with just a few seconds to go, the rule says you must return to the corner, you cannot stand there. He was right behind him! I'm telling the referee, 'Put him back in the corner! Put him back in the corner!' If he does that, the two seconds are gone and he wins the fight."

The constellation of circumstances -- from the sudden reversal after 35-and-a-half minutes of success to Duva's distraction giving Steele the excuse to stop the fight -- brought ruin to a once-promising career.

After the Chavez fight, Taylor spent nearly a week in the hospital with a shattered orbital bone. He was urinating pure blood; some reports indicated he lost two pints thanks to a cut inside his mouth that was suffered during training.

Just 23, Taylor campaigned on. Impressively, at times. He moved up to welterweight and captured a title belt. But his days at the summit of the sport had passed. A 1992 loss to Terry Norris knocked Taylor from the pound-for-pound discussion for good. He lost a rematch to Chavez in September 1994. Skills diminished, Taylor tried to fight wherever he could get licensed.

In 1998, Taylor was banned from boxing in New Jersey. Even before Taylor's official retirement in 2002, a series of legal troubles began to mount. He took refuge in a radical Christian group known as the Black Israelites and dropped from the boxing radar. It seemed Taylor was a broken man.

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