There was once a time when a Jermain Taylor fight was a big deal. Taylor was the young man from Little Rock, Arkansas, who dethroned long-reigning middleweight champion of the world Bernard Hopkins on July 16, 2005, winning a controversial split decision at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas.
He was also the young man who went into an immediate rematch with Hopkins and won again, with just as many arguments, five months later.
Hopkins was thought to be done, or at least close to it. At 40, Bernard was aging. But "The Executioner" of course has gone on to win two lineal championships at light heavyweight and become a bigger star than ever before in the six years since losing to Taylor for a second time.
Jermain Taylor hasn't been quite so fortunate, or quite so good at coming back from adversity. And on Friday night at the Morongo Casino Resort & Spa in Cabazon, California, Taylor steps back into the ring for the first time in over two years.
He once headlined HBO World Championship Boxing, a network favorite who was thought to be part of the future of the premium cable network's long-standing boxing brand. Taylor returns Friday on a "special" version of Showtime's B-show, ShoBox, usually reserved for prospects, but occasionally brought out for faded veterans who want to get "another chance."
Taylor, now 33 years old, has been one of the sport's most inconsistent and unfortunate stories since that second win over Hopkins. For whatever reason, he decided to immediately split with the trainer who had been his chief second all the way to the legitimate championship of the world. Pat Burns was fired, and in came Emanuel Steward.
The two first worked together for Taylor's maddening draw with Winky Wright in June 2006, a fight where it was unbelievably clear: In the rounds where Taylor focused on what Steward told him in the corner, he won the round. When he didn't, he lost the round and was thoroughly outboxed by the cagey Wright.
After a stay-busy defense against brave but undersized Kassim Ouma, Taylor was set to face Sergio Mora of "The Contender" in May 2007. But Mora infamously balked at fighting Taylor in Memphis, considering it to be too much of an advantage for the champ. Mora would go on to screw up his own career with that move, but instead of facing hard-punching but limited Edison Miranda, the choice was made by Taylor, against Steward's advice, to face junior middleweight titlist Cory Spinks, a spoiler who could stink out a ring with the best of them.
That's exactly what Spinks did that night in Tennessee, and the anger rising from Steward toward Taylor's own lousy performance was incredible:
But Taylor won clearly, dreadfully dull as it was, and on the undercard, a fighter from Youngstown, Ohio, obliterated Miranda to earn his shot at Taylor's belt. Four months later, Taylor and Kelly Pavlik had a classic middleweight championship showdown in Atlantic City. It was the beginning of the end for Jermain Taylor as a top fighter.
After flooring the challenger early, Taylor was walked down and beaten up by the powerful Pavlik, who would finish off Taylor in the seventh round of a really great fight. Pavlik would again defeat Taylor in a rematch in February 2008, but by then Steward was gone, replaced by Taylor's friend Ozell Nelson.
Ozell did no favors, let alone wonders, in Taylor's next three fights. To finish up an HBO contract that needed to go, Taylor was matched with pal Jeff Lacy for a forgettable fight in November 2008, winning by decision.
After that, Taylor moved to Showtime. Now competing as a super middleweight, he took a fight with unbeaten Brit Carl Froch for Froch's WBC title in April 2009. That night, Taylor put Froch down, and largely was able to outbox him, but in the end, Froch had too much grit, too much stamina, and too much focus. With the fight winding down in the 12th, and Froch needing a miracle, the British star had his American breakout, swarming Taylor, flooring him, and then finishing him off with just 14 seconds remaining in the fight.
Taylor moved on to the Super Six World Boxing classic next, but was easily defeated in Germany by Arthur Abraham, and unfortunately, knocked out violently to end the fight in the 12th round.
Taylor, suffering from a concussion, a "mild" hematoma, and some memory loss after the fight, withdrew from the Super Six after promoter Lou DiBella said he would no longer be associated with Taylor. It was thought then that Taylor was risking too much were he to continue on in the sport of boxing, particularly at the highest levels.
* * * * *
Two years later, and here we are. Taylor was approved by Nevada when he applied for a new license in September, and has reunited with trainer Pat Burns.
Speaking with Michael Woods of ESPN New York this week, another returnee to the Taylor camp, promoter Lou DiBella, said he's optimistic about Taylor's return, but he's going to make sure that coming back is the right move:
"I am going to take a hard look, sure," he said. "I've known him since he was a kid, done every fight of his as a pro, and I think [he should work with me]. And I think Jermain will take a hard look at himself."
DiBella spoke of that jones that sometimes makes fighters contemplate comebacks -- and no one yet knows whether this is the case here -- long past the point of sensibility. "He hasn't got this out of his system," the promoter said.
DiBella also made the key note about opponent Jessie Nicklow, a light punching club fighter who knows what he's doing and is a decent gatekeeper for this comeback attempt: If Taylor is even close to the old Jermain Taylor again, he will handle Nicklow without much trouble.
It's almost 2012. Jermain Taylor is back in boxing. Pat Burns is back in his corner. Lou DiBella is promoting him once again. And he's going back to 160 pounds.
Chances are, those are the only clocks that will be turning back.
* * * * *
My greatest concern is not with Taylor's health. As cold and as terrible as this may sound, I have begun to understand that you cannot parent fighters. These are grown men in a dangerous profession, and they're doing what they're doing because it's what they know how to do. Obviously I don't want to see anyone get hurt, but the risks are real, and in a case like Jermain Taylor's, they're probably higher than they should be for him to be fighting. But he passed a Nevada physical, and it's going to go on.
So past that part, what about just the boxing side of things?
Most importantly in that area, what's the upside here? Where does this go? Does anyone really think Jermain Taylor, after two years out of the ring and some haunting knockouts in his past, is going to once again approach the top of the mountain?
The odds are considerably against Taylor becoming a true factor again. But he's going to try. And given that Jermain Taylor is a likeable fighter who doesn't avoid challenges, I can't help but just hope for the best. I don't see him becoming champion, and I don't see him becoming a threat. But I hope he can prove me wrong, because if he proves me right, then what good is that?
Bad Left Hook will have live coverage on Friday night of the ShoBox triple-header headlined by Taylor vs Nicklow, and we'll also