Taylor v Hopkins II (pic Neil Abramson)
By Thomas Hauser
On July 16, 2005, Jermain Taylor stood in a boxing ring at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas and awaited his fate. He had just fought twelve hard rounds against Bernard Hopkins, the undisputed middleweight champion of the world. In round five, Taylor's head had been split open by a head butt. The gash extended down to his skull and caused significant tissue damage. As the bout progressed, cutman Ray Rodgers's bucket looked like it belonged in a hospital emergency-room.
"I was just hoping I had enough blood in me to finish the fight." Taylor said afterward. Tired and bleeding badly, he fought the final rounds on heart.
"Ladies and gentlemen; we have a split decision," ring announcer Michael Buffer told the crowd. "Jerry Roth scores the bout 116 to 112 for Hopkins."
Taylor's trainer, Pat Burns, patted his fighter's cheek. "Don't worry; that's just one."
"I knew the next one would be for me because that's the way they read them," Jermain said later.
"Duane Ford, 115-113 for Taylor."
"Okay; here we go," Jermain told himself.
"Paul Smith, 115-113 to the winner by split decision and NEW . . ."
"All I heard after that was the cheering," Jermain acknowledges.
"He pulled it off! He pulled it off!" HBO commentator Jim Lampley shouted to a national television audience. "The long reign of Bernard Hopkins is over." In that moment, Jermain Taylor's world turned golden.
The adulation that comes from winning a fist-fight speaks to the primal and enduring nature of the sport. The first few weeks after winning the championship were the equivalent of a little kid opening presents on Christmas morning for Taylor. On July 22nd, a parade in Little Rock honored his accomplishments. Thousand more attended a rally at the end of the route. "That was the best feeling I ever had," Jermain said afterward. "It was amazing that all those people came out just for me."
Next came a trip to New York for an August 2nd meeting with fellow Arkansan Bill Clinton. "That was amazing too," Taylor recalls. "We walked into his office. Bill Clinton was at his desk, reading a book. He looked up. And I'm asking myself, 'Is this real? Am I watching TV or dreaming or is this really Bill Clinton?' He stood up and said hello. We shook hands. And I'm thinking, 'Damn! What am I supposed to say. This man was president of the United States. But he started the conversation. He was very nice. Amazing! That's all I can say. It was amazing."
But Taylor received more than attention. He received affection. The embraces at social gatherings and chance meetings in stores or on the street made it clear to him that people liked him. "It really makes me feel like I'm somebody," Jermain said. "I've loved every minute of this."
Well and good. But a cloud named Bernard Hopkins loomed on the horizon.
Taylor had never been truly tested in his first twenty-three fights. He was against Hopkins. In the ring, Bernard lives by the credo, "By any means necessary." And in their July 16th match-up, he'd employed every tactic and weapon at his command. Defensively, Hopkins backpedaled for much of the night. "That's the way I work; I'm careful," he said later. He was successful in neutralizing Taylor's jab. As the fight progressed, he landed myriad punishing blows. And there was more.
Some fighters throw punches from all angles. Hopkins uses his head and elbows from all angles. "I'm in the hurt business," he says. "I'm not looking to come out of this squeaky clean every time I step into that ring."
The clash of heads that caused Taylor's scalp wound appeared to have been accidental. But regardless of intent, it changed the flow of the fight. In the early rounds, Jermain had been over-anxious and expended unnecessary energy by fighting in an undisciplined manner. "I was in the best shape of my life," he said afterward. "But I got tired because I was chasing him around the ring and wasting punches." Then came the collision of heads and gash.
Ernest Hemingway once wrote, "Courage is grace under pressure." When Taylor was cut, he showed his courage. "Blood was pouring from my head," he said later. "I'd never gone through anything like that before. After the head butt, it was like, 'Boy, these rounds are long.' In the twelfth round, I was dog-tired. No way of getting around it. I said to myself, 'Man, this is it. Either you've got it inside or you don't.'"
To the judges, it looked as though Taylor was trying harder and did more to take the belts than Hopkins did to keep them. "The first fight was too close for comfort," Jermain acknowledges. "But I think I won."
Hopkins thought otherwise. Immediately after the fight, he took to calling himself the "people's champion" and began a non-stop campaign to discredit Taylor's victory. Indeed, Joe Santoliquito (managing editor of The Ring) says that Bernard went so far as to lobby with him to have the magazine withhold recognition of Jermain as middleweight champion. The magazine refused Hopkins's request. And according to Santoliquito, there were repercussions.
"Bernard had promised me he would sign a pair of boxing gloves to be auctioned off to raise funds for the American Cancer Society," Santoliquito revealed. "It had been preearranged, and I brought the gloves to the [August 4th show that Golden Boy East was promoting at] the Borgata. Bernard put me off and he put me off. Finally, he told me, 'Fuck the American Cancer Society. Get Jermain Taylor to sign them.'"
Thus, outside the ring, the battle raged on. "Bernard is like a guy who's going through a divorce," Pat Burns observed. "He had four wives; the WBC, the WBA, the WBO, and the IBF. And one night, they all left him for another man. At first, he couldn't believe it. Then he became angry and, like a lot of people would, lashed out at the other man rather than blame himself. But no matter how Bernard reacts, the bottom line is that Jermain walked off with his women. They're living with Jermain now in Little Rock, Arkansas."
And Charles Jay wrote, "Bernard Hopkins is the former middleweight champion of the world; not because the judges bungled it; not because the entire world is against him; not because he came up against an unbeatable fighting machine. No, Bernard Hopkins is the former middleweight champion today because he made some serious miscalculations. He miscalculated about where he stood in the fight. He miscalculated about his ability to knock out an opponent. He miscalculated about what he had left, which just wasn't enough. Veteran champions with twenty title defenses under their belt and all the experience and savvy that are expected to come with it aren't supposed to make those kinds of miscalculations. Unless, of course, the guy with all that experience was experiencing something entirely different. In this case, it was a real live legitimate middleweight on his way to the top of the ladder and completely unwilling to be intimidated before or after the opening bell. That was something Hopkins hadn't seen in over a decade."
Still, many in the media bought into Hopkins's complaints. And with a contractually-mandated rematch ahead, the prevailing view was that Taylor-Hopkins II would be double-or-nothing. If Bernard prevailed in their second encounter, it would invalidate Jermain's victory in the first. Meanwhile, one got the impression that, wherever Hopkins was on the day of the parade in Jermain's honor, he was hoping for rain in Little Rock.
At the October 11th press conference in New York to formally announce Taylor-Hopkins II, Bernard continued to complain. "Jermain Taylor didn't beat me," he proclaimed. "Duane Ford [the ring judge who cast the deciding vote] beat me. The credible witnesses at ringside thought that Bernard Hopkins won that fight. The only thing I didn't do was finish Jermain Taylor off when I had him on queer street. Everything from round one through round twelve was perfectly executed by Bernard Hopkins. A draw would have been a robbery. Giving it to Jermain Taylor was a rape. Jermain Taylor is the corporate champion. I'm the people's champion. Jermain Taylor got the victory but Jermain Taylor didn't beat Bernard Hopkins."
Meanwhile, Taylor was getting tired of the complaining. Initially, he'd responded to Hopkins's rants with the thought, "That's just Bernard being Bernard. If he doesn't give me respect, that's his problem, not mine. It says more about him than it does about me."
But now, Jermain ratcheted things up a bit. "You lost, man," he said at the press conference. "Stop complaining and take it like a man. A true champion would have said, 'I lost; I'm gonna do better next time.' If you feel you got robbed, do better in the rematch. If you want your belts back, come and take them from me."
Taylor also had some choice words regarding Hopkins's ring tactics.
"When I watched the tape, I saw very clearly how dirty he was," Jermain said. "Hitting below the belt; hitting behind the head; holding and hitting. He uses his head like a third hand. Bernard is an all-around dirty fighter. If I cut you with a head butt, that's not boxing. He cheats to win, and I don't consider that winning a boxing match. I lost all respect for him. He tried every trick in the book, which shows me he's not a true champion. Fight like a champion fights and keep your mouth shut."
Later in the day, Jermain added another thought. "Bernard Hopkins is the type of person you want to beat up," he said.
The rematch was slated for December 3rd at Mandalay Bay Hotel and Casino. It was the last big fight of 2005, and also Hopkins's last chance to leave boxing on his own terms as an active fighter. The week of the fight, Las Vegas was buzzing. And despite Taylor being the champion, the media attention was focussed on Hopkins.
Bernard is a great fighter, who has approached the inevitable end of his career with as much skill in the ring as any aging fighter ever. One month shy of 41, he's old for the sweet science but he doesn't fight like it. "Other men's fists have pounded his features into a perfect face for a fighter," LeRoy Neiman says. "And in the ring, he's close to perfection."
Readying for fights has been Hopkins's life. He has gotten as much out of his natural gifts as possible. He's a superb defensive tactician, who embodies Archie Moore's maxim, "It's not the length of a career that wears a man out; it's the punches he takes."
Hopkins is also very good at beating people up. A punch here; a lot of punches there. Lest one forget, as Gene Tunney observed, "The strongest and best natural defense is a good punch."
During the course of his career, Hopkins has engaged in five defining fights. The first was against Roy Jones, when Bernard didn't takes the risks he needed to take and was outboxed over twelve rounds. Then came a courageous effort when he climbed off the canvas to salvage a draw against Segundo Mercado in the 9,252-foot altitude of Quito, Ecuador. Bernard's signature wins (against Felix Trinidad and Oscar De La Hoya) were against legitimate Hall of Famers, but Hall of Famers who had moved up in weight from 140 and 130 pounds respectively. Then there was Hopkins-Taylor.
Comparing fighters from different eras is a tricky business. Stanley Ketchel, who reigned as middleweight champion in the early 1900s, is justifiably regarded as a great fighter. But if Ketchel emerged unchanged from a time capsule today, he'd find that technique and conditioning had passed him by. Thus, in measuring greatness, one must look to a fighter's core and judge him by the standards of his own era. In that regard, three markers are of particular importance: (1) a fighter's historical impact; (2) his longevity; and (3) his record against other great fighters.
Hopkins scores his highest marks for longevity. One can argue all day about his place among the alltime greats. The bottom line is, set up a middleweight tournament with Hopkins, Sugar Ray Robinson, Marvin Hagler, Carlos Monzon, and Roy Jones Jr. Go further back in time for Ketchel, Mickey Walker, and Harry Greb (who would have taught Bernard a thing or two about dirty). Add Tony Zale, Jake LaMotta, and Charlie Burley. These men would engage in great fights.
Meanwhile, Hopkins is particularly adept at the media game and getting his message out. He's verbally gifted and has a good sense of humor. No fighter but Bernard would think to say, "James Toney is talking about how I'm not on his level. If he's talking about who can eat the most donuts, he's right."
"If I could talk a fight," Hopkins declared in Las Vegas, "I'd have 100 wins and no losses with 100 knockouts." But as Jim Lampley notes, "Bernard is a better talker than listener. And there's a difference between the world as it is and the world as Bernard proclaims it to be."
Thus, while Hopkins calls himself the "People's Champion," his conduct can be at odds with that notion. At the Boxing Writers Association of America awards dinner earlier this year, a fan approached Bernard with a boxing glove and felt-tip pen.
"Mr. Hopkins; would you sign this glove for me?"
"For twenty dollars," Hopkins told him.
"For twenty dollars. Both of us know you can put it on Ebay and make a profit."
The fan took out his wallet and handed a twenty-dollar bill to Hopkins. Bernard took it, signed the glove, and put the money in his pocket. "I'm a businessman," he said. "Other fighters can learn from me."
This is a people's champion?
Hopkins has a vision of the world with himself at the center. His self-adoration is evident. Four days before the Taylor rematch, at a sitdown with reporters, he likened himself as an athlete and trailblazer to Jim Brown, Bill Russell, and Muhammad Ali. Throughout the week, this theme was linked to a constant lobbying effort vis-a-vis the judges for his upcoming fight.
"The judging in the last fight showed I'm not paranoid," Hopkins declared. "Just because a guy is running and looking back over his shoulder doesn't mean no one is chasing him. On July 16th, I exposed the industry to the point where they couldn't hide the dirty laundry anymore. July 16th exposed what I've been saying for years. After July 16th, I felt like some historical people who made great speeches right before they were assassinated."
"I exposed what happens in the sport if you don't play the game," Hopkins continued. "I stood up and looked the system in the face. Very few people can do that. Once you become a person of knowledge and you happen to be an athlete, you become a problem. But if you follow my history, you know that I'm at my best when I have to beat the system. My whole life has been adversity, victorious, adversity, victorious. I've always been up against this type of adversity."
But there was more. With increasing frequency, Hopkins was speaking in an ugly way about Jermain Taylor. Before their first fight, he had demeaned Taylor's ring skills. This time, he was demeaning Jermain's intelligence and character.
In a November 22nd conference call, Hopkins called Taylor "an impersonator who he thinks he's a champion" and added, "Just because you got the belts doesn't mean that you actually earned the belts." Then, for good measure, Bernard labeled Jermain an "idiot" and said he was "not intelligent."
It brought to mind a moment that occurred on February 5, 2003, when Hopkins testified before the United States Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation in support of a bill to establish a federal boxing commission. Like the other witnesses, Bernard was asked to read a prepared statement explaining his views after which he would answer questions. Hopkins began to read, and it became apparent that he was struggling. A high IQ (which he presumably has) and good reading skills are two very different matters. Bernard never finished reading his statement. Midway through it, he stopped in frustration and told the senators that he would be happy to answer any questions they might have.
Now, in Las Vegas, Hopkins branded Jermain Taylor as "ignorant." At his Tuesday sitdown with reporters, he went further, declaring, "The establishment can control him. They got their boy who they can control. He's a yes-sir no-sir type of guy. There's modernized slavery and there's out-and-out slavery. Things have been tweaked as time goes on, but some people's hearts and minds haven't changed. I'm the guy in the fields. He's the guy who would be in the house."
The following day, at the final pre-fight press conference, Hopkins stayed on message. After likening himself to Hannibal "coming through the ocean on his elephants to attack the Italian people," he declared, "What a perfect script for Bernard Hopkins. This is the last stage of greatness. In boxing, when it's young versus old, young prevails but I'm different. I'm the Robin Hood of boxing. Physically, I can't knock out the system, but I can knock out the system politically. Whatever Jermain Taylor brings to the table, Bernard Hopkins is going to make sure that it backfires on him. I know everything about Jermain Taylor. I got this guy down pat. Jermain Taylor is a four or five-round fighter. He's a frontrunner. I'll get him hurt and finish him. When I leave boxing as an active fighter, I'll be taking Jermain Taylor's future with me."
Later, when Taylor was out of earshot, Hopkins called him "an ignorant fool" and "punk" and added, "The lack of intelligence that Jermain Taylor has; this guy totally don't get it." He also proclaimed, "Jermain Taylor gets the impression that, because he's in the house, he's special. But come Saturday night, he'll be out in the fields again."
Taylor was apprised of, and shrugged off, the insults. But there was concern in the Taylor camp that Bernard's incessant complaining about the decision in their first fight would have an impact on the judges in the rematch. In truth, the first-fight controversy primarily involved one round; Duane Ford's scoring of the final stanza for Jermain. But the threat implicit in Hopkins's constant criticism of Ford was, "Score the rounds you think are close for me. Because if you don't and you happen to be way off on one, I'll expose you to ridicule."
Thus, when it was his turn to speak at the final pre-fight press conference, Pat Burns took the microphone and said, "Bernard is trying to fight this fight outside the ring. He knows he can't intimidate Jermain, so he's trying to intimidate the judges. I'm confident that won't happen."
Then Taylor had his say. "A true champion takes his loss, goes home, and says, 'I'm going to do better next time,'" Jermain said. "But Bernard can't do better. He's an accurate puncher, but he's not a big puncher. He doesn't have the power to knock me out. If I'd been hurt last time, I'd say I was hurt. He caught me with some good shots but he never hurt me. I was tired more than anything else, and I don't think he can do anything different this time. Bernard should have gotten out when he was on top. Now it's too late."
And there was one last exchange between the fighters that spoke volumes. In an obvious attempt at verbal intimidation, Hopkins suggested that Jermain hug his wife and daughter before going into the ring on Saturday night in case he didn't come out whole.
"He told me to hug my wife and kids," Taylor said in response. "What's he gonna do? Kill me? Come on, man. This is a sport. I'm a fighter. I ain't trying to kill nobody. I'm sick of this man crying."
Then Taylor took a tape recorder out of his pocket, announced, "This is what Bernard Hopkins sounds like," and pushed the "play" button. The wails of an infant mixed with laughter from the media resounded throughout the room. Next, Jermain produced a doll dressed in pink with "Cry-Baby Hopkins" written on its pajama top. There was more laughter.
Hopkins maintained a stone-faced silence. He might enjoy making fun of other people but he doesn't like being the butt of other people's jokes.
"This idiot doesn't know that, when he steps in the ring, he might not come out the same as when he went in," Bernard fumed afterward. "He don't get it. This idiot can't even grasp what I'm saying. I'm letting him know, this is the boxing game, buddy. When you go to war, and that's what I call it, you might not come back. I'm pretty sure that Leavander Johnson believed when he came to Las Vegas that he was going home."
Leavander Johnson, of course, was another piece of the puzzle and part of a subplot that surfaced from time to time during the build-up to the fight. Taylor was promoted by Lou DiBella, who had once been Bernard's promoter and had also promoted Johnson. DiBella and Hopkins despise one another and at times seem as obsessed with each other as Captain Ahab was with the white whale.
"If you're a promoter in this business and you don't have a superstar, you have nothing," DiBella once said. Hopkins had been DiBella's superstar. Then he left him, made ugly allegations of financial wrongdoing, and wound up on the wrong end of a $610,000 jury verdict in a libel action that DiBella brought against him in federal court.
A lot of people think that Hopkins agreed to the first Taylor fight because of his desire to destroy DiBella. Bernard seemed to say as much prior to that bout when he declared, "Everybody in their lifetime has the experience where they want to get revenge" and added that beating DiBella's fighter would be "like a second erection." When asked about Hopkins's motivation for for facing off against Jermain the first time, Bouie Fisher (Bernard's longtime trainer) laughed and said, "You can use your own imagination on that one. All I'll say is, when you put personal opinions in business, it doesn't work."
After Hopkins-Taylor I, DiBella declared, "As far as Bernard is concerned, I feel like that horrible chapter of my life is finally over."
But it wasn't; not really, not for either man. In response to Hopkins's constant complaining that he'd been robbed by the judges, DiBella proclaimed, "Bernard knows a lot about robberies since he committed dozens of them before going to prison for five years; but in this case, he's wrong."
When potential sites for Hopkins-Taylor II were discussed, Memphis was mentioned because of its proximity to Arkansas. Four thousand fans from Jermain's home state had travelled to Las Vegas for Hopkins-Taylor I, and it was assumed that they'd travel in even greater numbers to Memphis.
"Hopkins can't even sell a fight in [his home town of] Philadelphia," DiBella opined at the time. "They'd have to have it in Graterford prison for the crowd to be on his side."
Then, on September 17th, Leavander Johnson was killed in a fight against Jesus Chavez, who is promoted by Golden Boy. Hopkins has an equity interest in Golden Boy East and, like DiBella, was on site for the Johnson tragedy. It was a sobering moment for both men and they agreed to cool the rhetoric between them. But at the final pre-fight press conference for Taylor-Hopkins II, Bernard's complaining was too much for DiBella. Talking the microphone, he looked Hopkins in the eye and told him, "Since the last fight, you've been a whining crying sore-losing baby."
And there was one more issue of note swirling around Taylor-Hopkins II. Bouie Fisher wasn't there. The 77-year-old trainer is one of the most respected men in boxing. He began working with Bernard in 1989 and guided him to greatness. Three years ago, they had a falling-out and Fisher filed suit claiming that he'd been underpaid $255,000 for Hopkins's title fights against Keith Holmes, Felix Trinidad and Carl Daniels. Sloan Harrison trained Bernard for his 2003 title defense against Morrade Hakkar. Then the case was settled and Bouie returned to the fold.
Hopkins claimed that Fisher was no longer in his camp because of medical problems. "Bouie is sick," the fighter said. "It's a personal thing so I'd rather not go into detail, but he's been sick since like three fights ago. People always want to bring negativity into the situation but let's call this for what it is."
Then, in a November 21st interview with Bernard Fernandez of the Philadelphia News, Fisher put the lie to Hopkins's story. "Bernard is a very difficult person to deal with," Bouie said. "He wants all the glory. He wants all the credit. He wants all the money. It's all about him, him, him. He's made some bad decisions in the past, and this is another one. The devil is always busy; the devil finds a way. I would be with Bernard right now if he was paying me right."
In Fisher's absence, Naazim Richardson assumed the role of lead trainer. "Brother Nazim is a world-respected guy," Hopkins told reporters on a teleconference call eleven days before the fight. "He's been the energy in the gym for the last nine or ten years. He's a guy that's been sort of fifty to sixty percent of the strategy. He's been the youth of this thing. He holds the pads; he holds the bags; he comes up with the movements. Bouie is seventy-plus-years-old. He can't hold pads or I'll knock his arm off."
Regardless, Fisher's absence made it difficult for Bernard to style himself as a good guy, and questions about the trainer's absence seemed to make him uncomfortable.
"Why did you fire Bouie?" Kevin Iole of the Las Vegas Review Journal asked during the November 22nd conference call.
"Who said I fired Bouie?"
"Can we talk about the Jermain Taylor fight?" Hopkins pleaded. "I'm fighting Jermain Taylor, and Jermain Taylor is fighting Bernard Hopkins. People are coming to see this fight. They're not coming to see Naazim Richardson, Bouie Fisher, Pat Burns, or Lou DiBella."
On fight day -- Saturday, December 3rd -- Jermain Taylor awoke at 6:30 AM. He ate a light breakfast, watched television, and took a short nap. At 2:30, he went downstairs to Raffles Cafe for a final pre-fight meal with family and friends.
When Taylor-Hopkins II was announced, Bernard had been installed as an 11-to-10 favorite. Now the odds were 6-to-5 in Jermain's favor, reflecting the view that the match-up was too close to call. As Jermain's wife, Erica, passed around color photos of their eleven-month-old daughter, Nia Jay, Pat Burns considered the night to come.
Burns had been on the receiving end of some sniping after Hopkins-Taylor I, with critics suggesting that Jermain faded late in the fight because he'd been overtrained. But Jermain had reported to camp for that bout at 187 pounds and been required to work hard simply to make weight. This time, he'd begun training at 171 pounds and tipped the scales at the official weigh-in at 159.
"There were some Monday-morning quarterbacks and a trainer or two with big names who wanted to get their hands on Jermain," Burns acknowledged. "They made comments that they could do a better job than I'd done and strategically zeroed in on someone they thought was a weak link in the chain. But Jermain stood by me. I'm still here."
Burns had watched Hopkins-Taylor I on tape more than a dozen times, stopping and rewinding within rounds each time. "The first time, I looked at it as a fan," he said. "Then I studied it for Bernard's strong points and weak points; Jermain's strong points and weak points; what Jay Nady allowed and didn't allow. I watched it three times with Jermain, and Jermain looked at it a lot on his own. Bernard was a better fighter than Jermain that night. Jermain did not fight a good fight, but he made up for it with tenacity, speed, and power. I agree with the judges. I thought Jermain won seven rounds to five."
As for the night ahead, Burns opined, "I think Bernard is a better fighter now than he ever was. His coordination, reflexes, and balance are amazing for a forty-year-old man; and when he was in his physical prime, he didn't have the ring savvy he has now. But Bernard doesn't do much when you're genuinely aggressive against him. He's very cautious about getting hit and only throws punches when it's safe. And Bernard's problem is that he can only fight in spurts because time has caught up with him. So he might do a few things differently tonight to make it appear as though he's fighting more aggressively than last time. But I expect him to fight pretty much the same way he did then."
As for what Taylor might do differently, Burns offered, "Jermain learned more in the last fight than anything I could have taught him. Nothing can match the experience he got that night. He has much more potential for improvement over last time than Bernard does. One key thing we've worked on is for Jermain to worry less about throwing big power shots and concentrate more on utilizing his hand-speed and foot-speed."
What about head butts and other borderline Hopkins ring tactics?
"We've worked on that," Burns answered. "Seeing something on tape when you're preparing for a fight is different from going through it. Jermain has learned from experience now how Hopkins fights. If Bernard uses his head tonight, he might get an elbow in the eye."
Meanwhile, Taylor was looking forward to battle. "I'm a lot more relaxed than I was before the last fight," he said over a large bowl of pasta. "I'm not as worried; I'm much more confident. I still feel like I have a lot to prove, but there was more pressure on me last time. Bernard has a sneaky righthand, but I know now that he has no power. And Bernard is scared of getting hit. That's why he ran those early rounds and why he doesn't fully commit on his punches. I took his best last time. He hit me with his best punch when I was tired, and I still beat him. That's all he has, and he hasn't seen my best yet."
As the meal progressed, it became clear that the Taylor camp considered it significant that Bernard's most vicious attacks on Jermain's intelligence and character had been launched behind Jermain's back (at solo sitdowns with the media on Tuesday and Wednesday and during Thursday's satellite interviews).
"Bernard is trying to build his confidence by tearing Jermain down," Burns said. "But he's afraid to do it face-to-face."
That led to an observation by Dennis Moore, a Little Rock police detective who has known Taylor since Jermain was in sixth grade. Moore handles security for the Taylor camp and is ideal for the job. He's low-key and doesn't throw his weight around, but he has a presence that exudes authority and demands respect.
"Bernard is talking about the last fight like he's trying to convince himself," Moore posited. "There are bad calls in every sport. You might complain at the time; but after a while, you let it go. You don't complain forever. When did you ever hear a true champion complaining like this? Can you imagine Muhammad Ali or Michael Jordan or any true champion complaining like Hopkins has done. It tells me that he's strugglng with some serious doubts inside."
The lunch ended shortly before four o'clock. "Is there a party tonight?" someone asked as Team Taylor was leaving the table.
"Yeah," Burns answered. "In the ring right after the fight."
Two hours later, at 5:55 PM, Jermain Taylor entered dressing room #4 at the Mandalay Bay Events Center. With him were Pat Burns, Dennis Moore, training assistant Edgardo Martinez, Ozell Nelson (who had trained Jermain as an amateur), Joey Burns (Pat's brother), and cutman Ray Rodgers.
Initially, the small talk concerned Rodgers and his wife of two days. Ray is part-owner of a Little Rock company that sells and installs dry-wall for commercial construction projects. He has known Taylor since Jermain was twelve and been in the fighter's corner for all of his professional fights.
Rodgers became a widower in 1987, when his wife of 28 years died of breast cancer. That same year, he started seeing "the beautiful Carole" whose husband had been killed in an automobile accident four years earlier. They'd been a couple ever since. Finally, after eighteen years, Ray asked Carole to marry him. The proposal came on their flight to Las Vegas and took the form of, "After the fight, let's go back to Oklahoma [where Ray was born] and get married."
"Why don't we get married here?" Carole countered.
"She thought I was kidding," Rodgers said in the dressing room. "But we got off the plane and went to the courthouse. At three o'clock on Thursday afternoon, we were married by the county clerk right here in Las Vegas. I feel like a new man now."
The dressing room was eighteen-feet-squared with industrial carpet, hardwood benches, and a half-dozen chairs. A large gray sofa had been brought in for the occasion. "Let's get that sofa out of here," Burns said. "We'll need the space to warm up."
Two members of Team Taylor carried the sofa to the corridor. Jermain took off his warm-up jacket, sat on a folding metal chair, and stretched his legs out on another chair in front of him. He said nothing. From time to time, he leaned back, closed his eyes, and visualized the battle ahead.
At 6:35, Marc Ratner (executive director of the Nevada State Athletic Commission) entered the room and announced, "The Governor of Arkansas will be coming in before the fight to see Jermain."
"If the Governor is coming, get his ass in here now," Burns said. "I want no distractions later on."
Five minutes later, Ratner returned with Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee and the Governor's wife. Jermain rose to greet them. "We're so proud of you," Huckabee said. They posed for a photo.
"Now how do I say this as politely as I can?" Burns began.
"I know," Huckabee said with a smile. "Get the hell out of here."
At 6:55, Naazim Richardson came in to watch with a commission inspector as Burns taped Jermain's hands. After the right hand was taped, Richardson objected that a seam in the tape extended more than the permitted three-quarters of an inch past one of Jermain's knuckles.
"I'm not re-taping," Burns said.
Ratner was summoned.
"I asked when I was doing this if it was okay," Burns explained. "No one objected and I'm not rewrapping."
Ratner examined the tape. "There's no advantage or disadvantage," he ruled. "It's okay."
Ratner left. Burns turned to Ray Rodgers to break the tension and put Jermain at ease.
"How long have you been married now, Ray?"
Rodgers looked at his watch. "Fifty-two hours and a couple of minutes."
At 7:13, the taping was done. At 7:15, referee Jay Nady entered the room. Nady had been the third man in the ring for Hopkins-Taylor I. The Taylor camp felt that he'd let Hopkins get away with too many fouls, but they were pleased that he'd been assigned to the rematch. Nady was a strong no-nonsense referee who, like Jermain, would have a better understanding of Bernard's ring tactics the second time around.
Nady gave the pro forma instructions. Then Burns took him aside.
"I think you're a great referee," Burns said. "But I also think that last time you let Bernard get away with more than he should have. I have full confidence in you. All I'm asking is that you enforce the rules the way they're written because, if you don't, it will give an unfair advantage to the guy who breaks them."
"Last time, I missed a few head butts," Nady acknowledged. "I've seen the tape. I'll watch for that."
At 7:25, the final undercard bout ended. Jermain put on his trunks. "How much longer?" he queried.
"You won't go until eight o'clock," an inspector told him. "Maybe a few minutes later."
Jermain began to pace back and forth, occasionally shadow-boxing to loosen up. At 7:50, he gloved up.
"Let's do a set of mitts," Burns ordered.
Edgardo Martinez moved to the center of the room with pads on either hand. Jermain began to punch. Burns looked on, offering instruction.
"You want to make that forty-year-old man use his feet. Make sure you keep him moving . . . Step it up [Jermain's punching grew more intense] . . . We're getting there . . . That's it . . . Very good . . . Good short righthand . . . I like it . . . Very good; one more time . . . Be short . . . You know he's going to drop away from the righthand, so come back with the left . . . When he leads with his head, forearm up or a short stiff jab . . . Hands and feet working together . . . Speed kills. You're too damn fast for him. You'll pick him apart with speed . . . . [Taylor fired a short sharp right] . . . Oooh; beautiful! Goodnight, Charlie . . ."
But one thought went unspoken. In boxing, a single punch can change everything. That's all it takes to crack a rib, open a cut, or break a hand and send months of fine-tuning down the drain. Hitting Bernard Hopkins would be more difficult than hitting the pads with Edgardo Martinez holding them. And unlike Martinez, Hopkins would be punching back.
Minutes later, the fighters were in the ring. Taylor was dressed in white with red trim. Hopkins was wearing black trunks, a black robe with a large red "X" on the back, and a black executioner's hood. Michael Buffer made the introductions. The last words he'd spoken with the same two men beside him had been the high-point of Jermain's life. Now, 140 days later, the middleweight championship of the world was again at risk. Within an hour, Buffer would announce either that Jermain Taylor had successfully defended his title or that he was a former champion.
The fight that followed was a tactical one. That's the way Hopkins wanted it and he had the skills to make it that way. For most of the night, he fought defensively, keeping Taylor at bay with the threat of nasty counterpunches. When he spotted a flaw or momentary lapse, he attacked. His most effective punch was a lead righthand that he landed whenever Jermain stood flat-footed in front of him. But overall, Hopkins fought the same way he'd fought in July; one punch at a time. After six rounds, he'd landed only 40 punches and trailed on the judges' scorecards 60-54, 59-55, and 59-55.
The difference this time was that there was no big Hopkins comeback. Jermain was more disciplined and fought a more measured fight than the first time around. He was largely successful in using his forearm to ward off head butts. Except for one lapse late in the fight, he tied Hopkins up on the inside, thereby preventing Bernard from landing sharp clean punches as the fighters came out of clinches. And this time, there was no scalp wound caused by a head butt.
After round ten, when it seemed as though Hopkins had taken at least three of the previous four stanzas, Pat Burns told his charge, "You got to throw some punches now. You're just sitting there waiting to counterpunch him and it's not going to work. Suck it up."
Properly counseled, Taylor went after Hopkins more aggressively in round eleven and landed his most damaging blows of the fight.
Then came the decision. "Ladies and gentlemen," Michael Buffer intoned, "we go to the scorecards. All three judges -- Dave Moretti, Chuck Giampa, and Patricia Morse-Jarman -- score the bout identically, 115 to 113, all for the winner by unanimous decision and . . . STILL undisputed middleweight champion of the world, Jermain 'Bad Intentions' Taylor."
After the fight, Taylor returned to his dressing room and sat heavily on a long wood bench. Hopkins's lead righthands had left their mark. His face was bruised and swollen around the left eye. "I'm proud of what I did tonight," Jermain said. "Bernard is a very good fighter, tough, it's hard to hit him." Then Taylor smiled. "Next time I'm against Bernard Hopkins, let's play water polo or something."
Off to the side, several team members were talking about the judges' scoring. Each judge had given rounds one, two, three, six, and eleven to Taylor, and rounds seven, nine, ten, and twelve to Hopkins. That made it five rounds to four in favor of Jermain with three rounds up for grabs. Each judge gave two of those three swing rounds to Taylor. If anything, when it came to his pre-fight complaining, Hopkins had overplayed his hand.
"Bernard does that sometimes."
The speaker was Bouie Fisher, on the phone from his home in New Jersey. It was three days after the fight, and Hopkins's former trainer was in a reflective mood.
"I didn't see the fight while it was happening," Bouie said. "I was home in New Jersey, looking at the news on TV. A few people called while it was going on. When it was over, my daughter called and told me the result. The next day, she brought a tape by and I watched it. Bernard did the same thing as in the last fight. He lay back too much and, in certain instances, he should have fought more. There were things that could have been done and should have been done. Bernard had a little more in his arsenal than what he put out. But then again, maybe Jermain didn't let him put it out."
"Jermain did a good job," Bouie continued. "He was more confident than last time. His defense was better. Pat Burns did some excellent work with him. I can see Jermain getting better all the time. He's a great young man surrounded by good people. He wants to learn. If he stays with the things that got him to where he is now, he'll get even better. He can carry the load."
"Boxing is a great sport," Fisher said, turning to his own experiences with the sweet science. "It will always be a great sport. It's not easy; that's for sure. There's nothing easy about boxing. There's plenty of heartache. A lot of tears have been shed in this business. But I'm proud to have been part of boxing history, and I'm proud to have been with Bernard. I think he's one of the best middleweights since Sugar Ray Robinson. Marvin Hagler might have been tougher; but skillwise, Bernard could have fought with Hagler. Bernard's problems came when he began to think he knew everything there was to know. I'm still in school with boxing. No one ever learns everything there is to know about boxing. But I had a nice run with Bernard. It could have been better here and there. But I believe that right is right and, if you do right, everything will be fine. Right now, I'm sitting in my home, looking out the window at the sun melting the snow. I'm happy; I'm content. My health is good. This afternoon, I'll be in the gym teaching some young kids how to slip a jab. Everyone should be as happy as I am now."
Every decent person in boxing wishes Bouie Fisher well. And a lot of people in the sport are developing a similar fondness for Jermain Taylor. He's one of the best "feel good stories" of 2005. The more people get to know him, the more they like him.
In July of this year, Taylor beat The Man. Now he's positioning himself to be The Man. He's not there yet. He's still a few big wins away from superstardom. That might, or might not, happen. "There's a lot of unfinished business," Pat Burns acknowledges. "Jermain has enormous talent, but he's not as good a fighter as he could be and will be in the future." Still, beating Bernard Hopkins twice in one year is a pretty good accomplishment.
Meanwhile, Taylor is looking to the future. "I daydream about sitting in a lazy-boy chair someday with enough money that I don't have to work anymore." he says. "Just living in a big house with my wife and kids on a lot of land; a lot of land."
That probably will happen. Taylor-Hopkins II engendered approximately 410,000 pay-per-view buys. That means the gross income to Team Taylor will be roughly $5,000,000. Pat Burns, Jermain's management team, and Lou DiBella are entitled to forty percent of the total. Jermain's share will be in the neighborhood of $3,000,000. After taxes, that's about $1,800,000. Conservatively invested, $1,800,000 will yield $90,000 a year forever.
In other words, if Jermain Taylor handles his money wisely and doesn't spend wildly, he'll have a financial cushion for life. Let's hope the feel good story continues.
Thomas Hauser can be reached by email at email@example.com