Taylor takes on Pavlik, naysayers in Vegas rematch
By Lyle Fitzsimmons
Boxing Contributing Editor
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -
If given the choice, most would take the career Jermain Taylor's had.
He won an Olympic medal as an amateur hotshot and was unbeaten in 23 fights as a pro prospect.
He's the lone two-time conqueror of middleweight/pound-for-pound elitist Bernard Hopkins and had emerged unscathed through four title defenses against foes with a combined 157-11-2 record and belts in five weight classes.
Presumably, it was a resume that provided some benefit of the doubt.
But now, it seems to read a bit differently for the 29-year-old Arkansas native.
In five months since a sudden TKO loss to Kelly Pavlik in Atlantic City -- a bout Taylor unanimously led at the time of its stoppage -- all the acclaim he'd garnered from those dominant years has gone the way of his WBC and WBO 160-pound hardware, leaving revisionist history in its wake.
And just as suddenly, Pavlik, who was on the deck in the second round and might have been rescued by a referee less patient than Steve Smoger that night, is being breathlessly lumped into the same sentences as the division's, and the sport's, all-time greats.
"For me, the middleweight championship is like sacred trust," said Bob Arum, Pavlik's promoter, in a recent conference call, referring to ex-kingpins Marvin Hagler, Carlos Monzon and Thomas Hearns as his favorites. "Kelly combines the best of those three guys."
Kelly Pavlik upset Jermain Taylor five months ago.
"I really believe he has the tools to be the best of any of them. That's saying a lot."
A lot, indeed... but nothing Taylor particularly feels like hearing.
Especially about a guy he let off the hook.
"It comes with the territory and I accept that," he said, in a recent 'FitzHitz' online interview. "I could have looked great and knocked everyone out and there still would have been talk about how I did not look good. I don't pay any attention to that kind of talk."
"I have no excuses about the last fight. Kelly beat me and I give him credit for that. I fought Kelly when we were amateurs and I won the fight. I may have underestimated Kelly a little. For him to get up after the second round and come back and win shows he was in great condition."
As for Taylor's condition, he expects it to be markedly better in Saturday's bout, to be fought at the 166-pound non-title weight stipulated in the initial fight's rematch clause.
It will mark his first foray beyond the 160-pound limit since pre-title days, which included 12 wins and 10 knockouts at weights ranging from 160 1/2 -- in a one-sided decision over ex-champion William Joppy -- to 164 1/2, for a 54- second erasure of former world title challenger Alex Rios.
And win, lose or draw on Saturday, Taylor said he'll not be returning to middleweight.
"I don't want to get ahead of myself about who I will be fighting next. My focus is on Kelly Pavlik," he said. "However, I can say that I will be moving up to 168 pounds after this fight. I have fought at 160 pounds my entire career and it's time to move up."
In addition, any title chases at 168 and beyond will come without the services of trainer Emanuel Steward, with whom Taylor worked for bouts with Winky Wright, Kassim Ouma, Cory Spinks and Pavlik, but showed little progress from the level he'd reached in the wins over Hopkins.
Ozell Nelson, his lead cornerman through 2005, reassumes the top spot Saturday.
"Manny is a Hall of Fame trainer and a friend of mine," Taylor said. "It was not a matter of style. The chemistry did not flow over from training camp to fight time. I have Ozell Nelson, who has been with me my whole career, and if it weren't for him I would not be where I am today."
"I learned a lot being with Manny for four fights. Sometimes a loss can be good for a fighter. And I believe that will be the case with me because I will have extra motivation to avenge my defeat and prove to myself that I can come back in a big way."
FitzHitz says: Taylor by decision.
Elsewhere on the Pavlik-Taylor undercard from Las Vegas, two super flyweight title fights and a familiar name await those springing for the $49.95 pay-per- view price tag.
In a 12-rounder for the WBO's 115-pound belt, incumbent Mexican champion Fernando Montiel makes the sixth defense of his second reign when he faces countryman Martin Castillo.
A former three-defense holder of the WBO's flyweight crown, Montiel moved up to win his first championship at 115 with a sixth-round TKO of Pedro Alcazar in June 2002.
He lost that title in defense No. 2 against Mark Johnson seven months later, but regained it with a seventh-round stoppage of Ivan Hernandez in April 2005.
He's gone 5-1 since, with the only loss coming via split decision in a try for Jhonny Gonzalez's WBO bantamweight belt in 2006.
Castillo turned 31 last month and is 5-2 lifetime in title bouts, including a multi-fight run as WBA super flyweight champion from 2004-2006.
Also, southpaw Cristian Mijares defends his WBC crown for the fourth time against Los Angeles native Jose Navarro.
Mijares, unbeaten since 2002, won the title with a 10th-round stoppage of Katsushige Kawashima at the Ariake Colosseum in Tokyo in January 2007.
He defended it with a decision and two KOs over the rest of the year, including a first-round stoppage of Franck Gorjux in October in Cancun, Mexico.
Navarro has dropped three title fights in his last eight outings -- including a split-decision loss to Kawashima for the WBC belt in 2005, a unanimous nod to Masamori Tokuyama for the same hardware in 2006 and another unanimous verdict to Dimitri Kirilov for the vacant IBF crown in October.
The televised portion of the card opens with an eight-round junior middleweight bout between second-generation prospect Ronald Hearns and 29- year-old Missouri native Juan Astorga.
Hearns, 29, the 6-foot-3 son of former multi-division champion Thomas Hearns, is 17-0 with 13 knockouts overall, including six wins and four stoppages in 2007.
His last fight, on Nov. 29, was an eight-round unanimous decision over James Buggs.
Astorga was unbeaten through 12 bouts as a pro before a 10th-round TKO at the fists of Joey Gilbert last May in Reno. He's won two straight since, including a sixth-round stoppage of John Vaughan on Jan. 18 in Kansas City.
Never mind this "Sunshine State" business.
For me anyway, Florida's new nickname should be "Land of Literacy."
After a frigid 10-year stretch in suburban Philadelphia -- during which I'd started probably 100 books and finished almost none -- my nearly nine-month stay in the shadow of "The Swamp" has already allowed me to plow through several from start to finish.
And among those poolside conquests have been a pair of boxing gems.
I mentioned t Boxing -- a few months back, after I had a chance to interview the legendary trainer by phone from his nearby home in Tampa.
His book was everything I'd assumed it would be and more, coming predictably full of stories about famous charges Ali and Leonard, along with other less- told tales about Willie Pastrano, George Foreman and Dundee's older brother, promoter Chris Dundee.
A thoroughly interesting 336-page read that I recommend highly, especially for big fans.
I finished the second book -- The Onion Picker: Carmen Basilio and Boxing in the 1950s by Gary B. Youmans -- while enjoying a Sunday afternoon beachside retreat in the Gulf Coast hamlet of Cedar Key, 51 miles southwest of Gainesville.
At a more manageable 214 pages it was ideally suited for a one-day read, relating a host of behind-the-scenes tales about Basilio, both through Youmans' own narrative and the use of stacked quotes from foes, trainers and other relevant personalities of the day.
And the more it referred to the perpetually gloomy weather in Syracuse -- Basilio's home base in his glory years as welterweight and middleweight champion -- the happier I was to be perusing it some 1,203 miles to the south.
Still, regardless of locale, it's another quality collection.
Not as cohesive or polished as Dundee's work with Bert Sugar, and irritating at times with its serial misspelling of middleweight Bobo Olson's last name -- incorrectly listed as "Olsen" throughout -- but still a solid choice for a ring junkie on one of the sport's less-heralded greats.
As I enter this week's final round, I'm feeling a bit melancholy.
Don't get me wrong, it's a great time to be a fan, with the Pavlik-Taylor return bout kick-starting a stretch that'll also include next week's heavyweight unification, the following week's Vazquez-Marquez trilogy and a March/April of tasty matchups like Maskaev-Peter, Diaz-Campbell, Marquez- Pacquiao II and Cintron-Margarito II.
But when Saturday's date -- Feb. 16 -- actually sinks in, I'll realize it's been another year without the person who planted the seeds for my love of the sport in the first place, when I was a rambunctious blonde-mopped paperweight back home in Western New York.
My father, Bernard C. Fitzsimmons, died on Feb. 16, 2002, at age 72, far too young for a guy who deserved a few more golden years as payback for an honorable life of service to his country in Korea, dedication to his employers at Occidental Chemical and role-modeling to his family -- four sons, two daughters -- at home.
I miss him every day -- but I do have good memories.
I'll never forget sitting alongside him in his favorite recliner, struggling to stay awake as I watched my first live TV fight -- Ken Norton vs. Duane Bobick from Madison Square Garden -- then a few months later hearing him tell tales from the 1960s as we saw Muhammad Ali first lose and then regain the heavyweight title from Leon Spinks.
We watched hundreds of fights from dozens of venues over the years as I grew into a fan and eventually a writer, culminating when I surprised him with tickets for a live card featuring local heavyweight Joe Mesi -- at our hometown Niagara Falls Convention and Civic Center -- the night before what turned out to be his final birthday.
And all these years later, more so than how good Mesi looked against a faded contender or what ever became of the guys on the undercard, I remember just sitting there with my dad, tossing back a hot dog and a couple beers, and happily reveling in one of the many strong bonds I'd grown up sharing with him.
He might not be in the recliner Saturday night, but I will be -- and I'll be thinking of him.
Lyle Fitzsimmons has been a professional sports journalist since 1988. He is a periodic contributor to the Dave Smith Show on Sporting News Radio (radio.sportingnews.com), provides 'In The Ring' boxing commentary for Speeding Bullet Network (speedingbulletnetwork.com) and is available for free- lance print, radio or TV assignments at firstname.lastname@example.org.