Jermain Taylor: The Homecoming

Taylor slams Ouma (pic Neil Abramson)
Taylor slams Ouma (pic Neil Abramson)
By Thomas Hauser
Some fighters have their hometown behind them. Jermain Taylor has an entire state.

Arkansas isn't known for boxing. Sonny Liston, Tommy Freeman, and Taylor are the only undisputed world champions to have been born there. But unlike the other three, Jermain has lived his entire life in Razorback territory. "Arkansas is my home," he says. "It's where I'm from. It's where my wife is from. It's where I want to raise my kids. I've been all over the world now, and I can honestly say that I've never been to a place that I love more than Arkansas."

The love-fest is mutual.

"Little Rock can be a tough place," says police detective Dennis Moore, who has known Taylor since the fighter was in sixth grade and now travels to fights with him as his security guard and friend. "But Jermain has become a real role model in Little Rock. The gyms are full and there are kids without athletic gifts who are conducting themselves differently because of the way Jermain conducts himself. Just by watching him, they see the way a person should treat other people."

"Jermain is very conscious of the image he projects," adds Pat Burns, who trained Taylor for the first 25 fights of his pro career (more on that later). "You can see it in the way he dresses and the way he handles himself on every occasion."

"I never had a world champion in Little Rock to look up to or go see train when I was young," Jermain says. "But in the amateurs, I had this feeling inside me that said, 'Don't think you can beat me just because I'm from Arkansas. I can fight.' There are more gyms in Arkansas now than when I started, and I know I can take some responsibility for that."

The game plan visualized by Team Taylor for Jermain's December 9th middleweight title defense against Kassim Ouma was simple. This was the second world championship fight ever held in the state (the first was in Hot Springs on March 11, 1903, when the legendary Joe Gans knocked out Steve Crosby in eleven rounds). Jermain would enter the ring at Alltel Arena; there would be 18,000 screaming fans in attendance; and "The Pride of Little Rock, Arkansas" would destroy his opponent.

"Nine thousand people traveled from Arkansas to Las Vegas for Jermain's two fights against Bernard Hopkins," promoter Lou DiBella said. "Now Jermain is coming to them."

"I love fighting at home," Jermain declared. "It won't really hit me until I make that walk to the ring, but it's a good feeling. When I step out of the dressing room, everybody will be calling the hogs [the ritual chant of support in Arkansas]. When the fight starts, there's going to be so much energy on my side. Every professional athlete dreams of performing on a big stage with his hometown supporting him. Coming home as a world champion is a dream come true for me."

Travellers arriving at Little Rock Regional Airport during fight week were greeted by a large cardboard cutout of Taylor. Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee proclaimed December 9th "Jermain Taylor Day". The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette planned a special four-page supplement for fight day. But the homecoming wasn't all joy and bliss.

One week earlier, thousands of sports fans had journeyed to Atlanta to watch the University of Arkansas play Florida in the SEC championship game. Many of these fans would also be going to Orlando for the Razorbacks' January 1st bowl match-up against Wisconsin. These trips cost money at a time when budgets are strained by Christmas shopping. And Arkansas running back Darren McFadden was invited to the December 9th Heisman Trophy presentation ceremony in New York (the first finalist ever from the University of Arkansas).

Thus, in the weeks leading up to the fight, Razorback football fever dominated the sports pages to the detriment of fight coverage. Ticket sales were further undermined when HBO sold closed-circuit rights to a buyer who resold them to bars throughout the state. That meant fans without HBO at home could still watch the fight on television in a social setting for the cost of a few beers.

Ultimately, 10,119 fans paid in excess of $1,000,000, making the live gate for Taylor-Ouma the highest for any indoor sports event in the history of Arkansas. Still, the turnout was less than expected. And to some, the fight itself was a disappoinment.

Ouma's life story is well-known in boxing circles. Kassim has a contagious smile that belies the horrors he has endured. Born in Uganda, kidnapped by a rebel army shortly before his sixth birthday and forced to live as a child soldier, he tortured and killed to survive. At age nineteen, he fled the country. "Boxing is not a war," he says. "The fear I had when I was little was life and death. For any mistake, I could die. Boxing is a game to me."

The hallmark of Ouma's ring style is aggressive non-stop action. In his previous ten fights, he'd averaged the extraordinary total of 104 punches per round. "I'm going to fight my fight and see if Jermain can keep up with me," Kassim said. "Once I start up, I don't stop. I'm going to be Kassim."

But Taylor was a 6-to-1 favorite going into the fight. Ouma had never fought above junior-middleweight, while Jermain has been a big middleweight for his entire career. Taylor was unbeaten in three bouts against Bernard Hopkins and Winky Wright, both of whom are superb defensive tacticians. Ouma, by contrast, is relatively easy to hit and presumably didn't have the power to keep Jermain at bay.

Internally, the Taylor camp was predicting a knockout in four or five rounds.

"A knockout isn't the most important thing for me but it would be nice," Jermain acknowledged. "Kassim has a lot of experience, but I don't think he can handle my power. Kassim likes to get into a flow. If that happens, he can be tough but I don't plan on letting him get into his flow. I feel I have the best jab in boxing. Everything comes off the jab. My jab will give Kassim problems. I plan on keeping it in front of him all night long. Once he feels my power, I don't think he'll want to mix things up very much. I don't think he can hold up to my power."

At the final pre-fight press conference, Russell Peltz (Ouma's co-promoter) played into the story-line, telling the assembled media, "I'm here representing little Kassim Ouma, the little junior-middleweight who's in town to fight big Jermain Taylor."

"They keep talking about how he's so little," Taylor countered when it was his turn to speak. "If he's so little, he shouldn't have took the damn fight."

On fight night, Jermain arrived at the Alltel Arena wearing a black Everlast warm-up suit with white piping and gold trim. Two fans who had paid $5,000 each to the Leavander Johnson Fund to have their photos taken with him were escorted in and out of the dressing room. The normal rituals followed. Taping hands. Warming up. There was no music. For much of the time, Taylor sat silently on a folding metal chair. At one point, an HBO television monitor showed a video of him in a Little Rock barbershop interacting with fans. Jermain smiled. "I love seeing myself on television," he said. The video ended and he fell silent again.

Then came a question that indicated just how much the issue of ticket sales was preying on Jermain's mind. "How is the walk-up crowd?" he asked publicist Norman Horton.

"Good," Horton told him.

Early in the promotion, Jermain had said, "If you don't have your hometown behind you, you have nothing." Now he just nodded.

This was Taylor's sixth pro fight in Arkansas and his fourth at Alltel Arena. It was also the first time in four championship bouts that he entered the ring as a clear betting favorite. The crowd was loud with cries of "pig sooey" resounding throughout the night.

In round one, Jermain was the aggressor. He seemed much bigger, much faster, and much stronger than Kassim. But Ouma is a tough cookie. As the bout progressed, he showed he could take Taylor's punches and was like a piranah fish nipping at dolphin.

In round five, Jermain suffered an ugly cut on his left eyelid from an accidental head-butt. He also abandoned his jab for long stretches of time. Despite a huge reach advantage, he landed fewer than five jabs per round. He held his left hand too low, threw a lot of wild punches, and tired in the second half of the fight. Neither man was seriously hurt.

This observor scored the bout 117-111 for Taylor. The judges reached a similar conclusion by 118-110, 117-111, and 115-113 margins.

Taylor won; that's the bottom line. And bottom lines are important in boxing. But all is not well and good in Little Rock. More specifically, Jermain appears to be regressing as a fighter. He's 28 years old. These should be his peak years. He was getting better with every fight through his second encounter with Bernard Hopkins in December 2005.

The first step backward came in his June 2006 draw against Winky Wright. "I watched that tape over and over and I see all the mistakes I made," Jermain said afterward. "It was the worst fight that I ever could have fought."

Against Ouma, once again, Jermain showed fewer boxing skills than he did against Hopkins. He has marvelous physical gifts and lots of courage. He deals well with adversity. Each time it looks as though he's in trouble, he bites down hard and fires back. But his physical gifts are more difficult to harness than Pat Burns's critics thought they'd be.

Burns was removed as Jermain's trainer after the second Taylor-Hopkins fight. There was a lot of talk then about his being an "amateur" but the real reason for his ouster was that he lost a power struggle that he'd sought to avoid with Ozell Nelson (the father figure in Jermain's life). Now Nelson, who trained Taylor as an amateur, has that role again. Emanuel Steward serves as a hands-on strategist, adviser, and chief second on fight night.

Steward is one of the best in the business but it might be that he's spread too thin. For starters, he serves as an expert analyst for HBO. Training for Taylor-Wright began on May 1st. It was a short camp; roughly six weeks. Three days after it began, Emanuel flew to Las Vegas to do commentary for HBO's telecast of Oscar De La Hoya versus Ricardo Mayorga. His schedule also required him to be in Boston for Hatton-Collazo and Atlantic City for Hopkins-Tarver (one week before Taylor-Wright).

For Taylor-Ouma, Emanuel arrived in camp less than four weeks before the fight. His work with Wladimir Klitschko kept him occupied until then. Thereafter, HBO obligations pulled him away for Pacquiao-Morales III in Las Vegas, Marquez-Jaca in Hidalgo, and Wright-Quartey in Tampa (one week before Taylor-Ouma).

In addition to his work with Taylor and Klitschko, Steward also trains and manages Kermit Cintron, Johnathan Banks, and Andy Lee. He has other business interests as well. 2006 has been a good year for him. His five fighters have had a collective record of 14 wins and a draw in 15 fights.

When Emanuel is absent, Ozell Nelson is in charge of Taylor's training camp. Nelson is less demanding of his fighter than Burns was and is more inclined to work to Jermain's comfort level.

Many successful fighters in their prime treat boxing, not just as a job but as a lifestyle. When Taylor isn't actively training for a fight, his mind is far from the sport. He goes to the gym every few weeks for a light workout. If he gains too much weight, he runs a bit. But his exercise between fights is largely limited to playing volleyball and taking long walks with his dogs. Boxing isn't part of his daily routine. He takes boxing seriously. "I'm motivated very much against anyone I fight," he says. "When the time comes that I'm not motivated anymore, then it's time to get out of the boxing business." But the truth is, the Jermain Taylor who beat Bernard Hopkins twice was a better fighter than the Jermain Taylor who fought Winky Wright and Kassim Ouma.

Ozell Nelson and Pat Burns should settle their differences now for Taylor's sake. Ozell might feel as though he has the upper hand at the moment. But as long as Jermain keeps regressing as a fighter, everyone who truly cares about him loses.

And Jermain is 28 years old. He should take an active role in the reconciliation process.

There's an over-emphasis these days on boxers "looking good." The spectacular knockout, the all-action fight. The issue here isn't looking good; it's boxing well. Taylor isn't boxing as well now as he did a year ago. His career is at stake and so is his health.

When a fighter regresses, he gets hit more.

On November 11th, HBO televised the heavyweight title fight between Wladimir Klitschko and Calvin Brock. As part of the show, it aired an excerpt from Laila Ali's bout against Shelley Burton. Muhammad Ali was visible on camera during the telecast, and Jermain was troubled by what he saw. Afterward, he wondered aloud how many times a fighter has to get hit in the head to be like that. At the final pre-fight press conference for Taylor-Ouma, he referred to Ali and declared, "I don't care about the hall of fame or being number one. I care about supporting my family. That's why I'll take the risk. I'm fighting so my family can live right."

Jermain's face has aged more than eighteen months in the past eighteen months. Cuts and swelling around his eyes, particularly the left one, have become a regular part of his fights. Soft-tissue damage beneath the skin around his left eye might be a permanent problem. One gets the impression that boxing is becoming more of a job for him. The youthful exuberance and zest for combat that drove him before the Hopkins fights seems diminished.

There was a lot on Jermain Taylor's mind an hour after Taylor-Ouma. He was sitting in a long black limousine with his wife, Erica, beside him. They were on their way to the hospital so the cut on his left eyelid could be properly sutured. Dennis Moore was with them.

Erica rested her hand on Jermain's leg.

Jermain sat silent for most of the ride. When he talked, it was about the fight. "That motherfucker has a hard head," he said. "I beat his ass, but the little bastard took it. I kind of like him."

Shortly before midnight, the limousine arrived at University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences. Jermain was ushered into a medium-sized room and lay down on a gurney with hisĀ arms crossed across his chest. Dr. James Yuen came in and examined the wound.

"It's not the first time you've been cut, is it?" the doctor asked.

"No, sir."

Yuen filled a syringe with anesthesia.

A nurse checked Jermain's blood pressure.

Yuen looked at the dozen non-essential personnel who had gathered in the room. "We're going to have to charge an observation fee," he said.

Most of the onlookers left.

Two minutes before midnight, Yuen inserted the point of the syringe in the skin beside Jermain's eye. After the anesthesia took effect, he irrigated the wound with a saline solution before cleaning out the coagulent and other foreign particles. Then he put a sterile drape over Jermain's face and the stitching began.

Dennis Moore stood by the door. Erica sat on a chair by her husband's side.

Five sutures closed the gash from the inside. When that was done, Yuen applied Dermabond to the surface skin. "It's a medical superglue," he explained. "Is there a specific pain medication that you prefer?"

"Anything that will put me to sleep."

A nurse handed Jermain several pills. At 12:23, he signed his discharge papers and shook hands with the doctor.

"Thank you, sir."

"Good luck," Yuen offered.

Thomas Hauser can be reached by email at
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