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Chavez-Taylor: A look back at one of the greatest fights in boxing history

Julio Cesar Chavez

By Alden Chodash: “This is one of the most unusual calls by a referee in the whole history of the sport.”

With emotions running high on both sides at the Hilton Hotel, the unexpected climax initially caught most observers off guard. Just as it seemed that time had run out on Julio Cesar Chavez’s legendary 68 fight unbeaten streak, referee Richard Steele waved off the contest with officially 0:02 left on the clock.

HBO’s Broadcast team (Jim Lampley, “Sugar” Ray Leonard, Larry Merchant, and Harold Lederman) were especially stunned, as they saw Meldrick Taylor winning at least the first nine rounds of the fight. Ringside scorer Harold Lederman was the first dissenting opinion from the HBO team, as he noted that referee Richard Steele had “no choice” but to stop the fight when Taylor was unable to answer Steele’s critical question “Are you ok?”.

But what’s a legendary fight without a little bit of controversy? Pryor-Arguello had the black bottle, Holyfield-Bowe had the “fan man”, and Tunney-Dempsey had the “long count”. While the outcome of Chavez-Taylor remains one of the most unsettling rulings for a number of boxing fans, Richard Steele behaved exactly how a referee is supposed to; focusing only on the fight and not the event.

Taylor was able to get off to a quick start early, initially using lateral movement to keep Chavez from getting set, but eventually applying his hand-speed and combination punching to sustain the upper hand in close quarters. However, this was not a shut-out through the first nine as the HBO team had claimed. Chavez may not have been landing as frequently on Taylor, but his punches were more impactful and often cleaner, as evidenced by the injuries sustained on Meldrick’s face. By round 10, Taylor, now beginning to visibly wilt down the stretch, delivered his last hurrah: a furious exchange of punches that Taylor punctuated with a cracking right hand. But it soon after became clear that Taylor would have to struggle to make it to the finish line as Chavez began to tee off with well-placed right hands and left hooks with progressively less coming back from his opponent. To Taylor’s credit, he didn’t sit on his lead in the championship rounds as Oscar De La Hoya infamously did against Felix Trinidad; he instead chose to weather the storm in the worst location possible: in close range with Chavez.

To Chavez’s credit, the Mexican hero was so confident in his ability to close that he was even willing to bounce on his toes while he looked for openings on his increasingly vulnerable opponent, who had officially built up an insurmountable lead. There is little debate as to whether Chavez won rounds 10 and 11, but he did not appear desperate in doing so as he slowly picked apart Taylor in preparation for the 12th.

By the last three minutes, even HBO commentators were beginning to wonder whether or not Taylor had enough left to finish the fight. Shockingly, Taylor’s cornermen Georgie Benton and Lou Duva admonished their man that “It’s all hanging on this round here”. Perhaps the event had blind-sighted them to the fact that sitting right in front of them was a fading, fatigued champion with a facial fracture and enough swelling to make it difficult to see all the punches coming. Further, across the ring was an anxious bull who was knowingly behind on points, not noticeably busted up, and ready to do anything to unify the 140 pound division for his homeland of Culiacan, Mexico.

Surprisingly, Chavez did not play the role of the bull in the last round; he instead was the matador. As advised, Taylor came out aggressively, looking to close strong and engage Chavez for lack of a better strategy, or maybe because, as Bernard Fernandez claimed, he was “too much of a Philadelphia fighter”. Either way, it didn’t take long for Chavez to begin to pick Taylor off with counter punches and, with 25 seconds left to go, Chavez scored with a jarring right hand that had Taylor in a world of trouble. All of a sudden Chavez smelled blood, and Taylor facilitated the process by staggering forward and punching back rather than holding on.

A straight right hand made Taylor look like a rag doll as he collapsed to his heels, and eventually to the seat of his pants. “1, 2, 3, 4, 5”, Taylor was up, using the ropes to hold himself up. “6, 7, 8, are you ok? You ok?” Taylor, who briefly glanced at Steele before turning to look at Lou Duva on the ring apron, never responded to Steele’s critical questions. As a result, Richard Steele made the right call, acting objectively on principles.

However, as Steele stated in his post-fight interview with Larry Merchant, Taylor’s inability to respond to Steele’s questions was only part of his reasoning in calling a halt to the fight. Meldrick’s overall condition, ranging from his severe facial injuries to his inability to hold himself up without the ropes, was indubitably indicative of a man who would have no business continuing to fight. If the fight was stopped at any other point in the fight, Steele would likely not face nearly as much backlash from the media as he did. What made Steele’s decision so commendable is the fact that of all the distractors from Taylor’s condition that so many ringside observers had been influenced by (i.e. the crowd, the 10 second flasher, cornermen on the ring apron), Steele was not swayed from his duties in any way. He remained focused on Taylor throughout the count, analyzing his state of being, and making a judgment call in one of the biggest events of the year.

“I never regretted what I did”, said Steele in an HBO Legendary Nights interview years later, reflecting on his 1990 decision. The ending, while controversial, shed light on another side of the fight that many had overlooked. Chavez had once again broken down a high level opponent with ring intelligence, sustained aggression, and extraordinary ring generalship, just as he had against Edwin Rosario and Roger Mayweather. Taylor’s flashiness made it hard to recognize and appreciate Chavez’s artform at first, but when fans look back at the fight knowing it resulted in a 12th round stoppage, it gives the match a much different feel. Even when Taylor was winning the majority of the first nine rounds, Chavez’s well placed two for every four taken were all gradually winning the fight for him, slowly but surely.

For Taylor, there was absolutely no shame in his defeat, especially considering how he went right at one of the most dangerous fighters in the world. Unfortunately, Taylor’s losing effort marked the beginning of the end for his career as a world class fighter, and also for his health. While Taylor won a world title less than a year later against Aaron Davis, the following year he was knocked out twice in devastating fashion, once against the larger Terry Norris, and then against the unheralded Crisanto Espana. Taylor got an eventual rematch at Chavez in 1994, but Chavez dispatched him in eight without nearly as much difficulty. Today, Meldrick suffers from chronic brain injury as a result of the punishment he took in the ring. With the tragic turn Taylor’s life took following his first defeat to Chavez, it’s unfortunate to consider how close he got to his career-defining victory.

Chavez-Taylor was voted the Ring Magazine Fight of the Year for 1990, and eventually was named the Fight of the Decade by the same publication. What makes the event so memorable is how every actor performed up to par, carrying out their roles to their utmost ability. Chavez and Taylor engaged in one of the most technically brilliant wars the pugilistic world has ever seen, and the third man in the ring Richard Steele made one of the most professional decisions ever seen from a referee.

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