A Grim Anniversary Of The Taylor-Chavez Bout

By Bernard Fernandez
Updated: March 15, 2005

PHILADELPHIA, Pa. — 34 days after I was in Tokyo witnessing the greatest upset in boxing history, 42-1 longshot Buster Douglas’ ninth-round knockout of Mike Tyson, I was at ringside at the Las Vegas Hilton for what proved to be an even more compelling event.

The unification showdown of undefeated junior welterweight champions Meldrick Taylor, the IBF titlist from North Philadelphia, and Julio Cesar Chavez, the WBC champ from Culiacan, Mexico, remains the most enthralling prizefight I have attended. It also is the most controversial and, when you consider the consequences in human terms, one of the most tragic.

For any and all of those reasons, boxing fans everywhere, but particularly those in Philly, should commemorate Thursday’s 15th anniversary of the night that Taylor ascended to his greatest professional height, and almost immediately thereafter began the long career slide that largely has served to rob him of his legacy.

I suggest lighting a candle and saying a prayer.

My contention then and now is that Taylor, who had the fastest hands of any fighter I ever covered (yes, including Roy Jones Jr.), had the prime literally beaten out of him, at 23, by Chavez’ powerful punches.

It also is my belief that Taylor’s blurring combinations and incredible display of courage should have earned him the distinction of being the first man ever to defeat Chavez, then widely regarded as the No. 1 pound-for-pound fighter on the planet.

But Taylor, well ahead on two of the three official scorecards, was knocked down in the closing seconds of the 12th and final round. And with only 2 ticks remaining, referee Richard Steele accelerated the ruination of the 1984 Olympic gold medalist by waving the bout to a very late, but nonetheless premature, conclusion, and awarding a technical-knockout victory to Chavez.

The fight didn’t go out of Taylor’s heart with Steele’s ruling, but there is no question his heart was broken. Even though Taylor later went on to win a second world title, outpointing Aaron Davis for the WBA welterweight championship, he never again was the man he had been on his way into the ring on March 17, 1990.

HBO included the tale of Chavez-Taylor I as one of its “Legendary Nights” series in 2003, by all accounts the most poignant of 12 documentaries about great boxing matchups televised by the pay-cable giant.

It included clips of the pre-Chavez Taylor, energetic and lucid, in contrast to the Taylor of later years whose speech was slurred and reaction time slowed. Nor has Chavez, who added a second victory over the diminished Taylor on Sept. 17, 1994, been spared indignity.

He has squandered much of his fortune and endangered his health by nearly succumbing to the temptations of alcohol. Now 42, he wants to take still another farewell fight, on May 21 at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, against a “safe” opponent (Nicetown’s Ivan Robinson has been penciled in for the gig). JCC’s lingering goodbye can serve no purpose other than to fray his legend further.

Fifteen years after two outstanding warriors left every bit of themselves on a blood-splattered canvas, I know I’ll never forget the thrill of the spectacle. I also wish I could forget the high price each man, particularly Taylor, had to pay for furnishing us those goose bumps.