September 29 -- Boardwalk Hall, Atlantic City, NJ
Winner: Kelly Pavlik TKO-7
A championship fight. A real deal, no BS, championship fight. Jermain Taylor may not have held all of the alphabet middleweight titles, but he was the middleweight champion, as recognized by everyone with common sense. Kelly Pavlik had fought his way up the ranks, destroying Edison Miranda in May on the undercard of a Taylor-main evented HBO telecast, and earned his spot as No. 1 contender.
It had so much storybook stuff going for it. Taylor, the standing champion, the former golden boy who had started to make the skin a little bit green. Pavlik, a humble, down to earth, power punching machine who was, in the minds of many, due to get exposed at the hands of Miranda months earlier, only to have the exact opposite happen.
Jermain Taylor came into his showdown with Kelly Pavlik in poor standing with boxing fans and many journalists. Since conquering Bernard Hopkins in two hotly-contested bouts and fighting to a tough draw with defensive master Winky Wright, Taylor's flame had cooled, as he rattled off routine, unimpressive decision wins over junior middleweight contender Kassim Ouma and junior middleweight titleholder Cory Spinks. The naturally bigger man, Taylor was expected to knock Ouma out, and though he hit him frequently, he couldn't do it.
Then, after a fight with "Contender" season one champion Sergio Mora was scrapped, Taylor got Spinks. I've said the next two things a million times over: (1) It's not Taylor's fault, because Spinks makes most guys look bad with his style, (2) but it was a God awful fight that was rightly booed in Memphis.
The show that night was Pavlik's crushing seventh round TKO of Edison Miranda. The Youngstown, Ohio, native massacred Miranda in the main prelim bout, putting himself in line for a shot at the winner of Taylor-Spinks. During Taylor's ugly-but-successful defense, trainer Manny Steward was overheard telling his charge that they should have fought Miranda, as Steward had wanted.
The biggest part of Taylor's fall from grace (though he did this without losing a fight) is that people always wanted to like Jermain Taylor. Much like Pavlik, he was seen as a humble sort that didn't forget his Arkansas roots when he became a star. The perception had changed, though. People didn't dislike Taylor, but he was facing some harsh criticism, perhaps some of it a bit unfair.
Ouma is a very tough guy, Taylor not knocking him out wasn't the worst thing ever. Spinks is a highly skilled boxer, though loathed by most fans because of the dull nature of his fights. And he also wasn't even close to being the first middleweight (or any other weight) champion to take on guys from lower weight classes. It seemed like Jermain Taylor, unbeaten champion, had more questions to answer than Kelly Pavlik, who had never been tested by a fighter on Taylor's level before.
I picked Taylor. I thought his natural athleticism, skill, and a returning hunger to prove doubters wrong would carry him to a win. I didn't think Pavlik had the footwork or handspeed to beat a focused Taylor, and I expected the champ to retain in a hard-fought unanimous decision. Bad Left Hook staffers Matt Miller and Brent Brookhouse both took Taylor by knockout, and Kevin Gonzalez picked Taylor to dominate. Elsewhere, there was a prevailing sense that "this was it" for Taylor, and Pavlik would end his run as champion. Generally, I think people get ahead of themselves when predicting doom and gloom for a fighter.
HBO dedicated a "Countdown" show to Taylor-Pavlik, marking just the second time that the network had given such coverage to a non-PPV event, the first being Taylor-Wright the year prior. For whatever reason, there was something very intriguing about the little-known Pavlik, who had never been on the big stage in a main event before.
Manny Steward and Jermain Taylor both said, repeatedly, that they didn't see what the fuss was with Pavlik. It didn't seem to me that either of them were trying to run Pavlik down or insult him, and they weren't trying to sell the fight to anyone. It seemed like those two guys, a Hall of Fame trainer and a champion boxer, didn't think that Pavlik was anything more than a hard-punching, average fighter.
Fight night in Atlantic City was home to what seemed like half the population of Youngstown. The crowd was rabid in their support of Pavlik, and they booed Taylor with gusto. The bell sounded, and when they reached center ring, Taylor fired out a looping right hand, then a left hook. He was winging punches all over the place, not connecting, but trying for some sort of highlight reel knockout. He just didn't not settle down, maybe trying to show Pavlik he wouldn't be backed down the way Edison Miranda and his other opponents had been. Pavlik, in response, worked a jab, keeping his head and not letting himself get goaded into a slugfest in the opening minutes of the fight.
Pavlik's trademark straight right started landing, and though Taylor landed some effective left hooks, he wasn't stopping Pavlik's big punch, a simple weapon that nobody has been able to prevent thus far. The two of them traded hard shots until the bell, the round seemingly in Pavlik's favor. Steward told Taylor after the round that he had lost the opener.
Taylor stung Pavlik with a right hand early in the round, then shook him up with a brutal right that hurt the challenger. Seconds later, Pavlik was on the canvas, and I think everyone thought the fight was over. It was vintage Jermain Taylor -- it was pre-Hopkins Taylor, the guy that could knock you out as well as outbox you. It looked like a top rising prospect against a journeyman.
Pavlik was obviously on shaky legs when he got up, which was a feat in and of itself. Taylor came in for the kill, swinging a massive amount of punches at Pavlik, who stumbled again on a right hand but managed to hang on. When Pavlik came forward at Taylor, he was caught again. But he refused to relent, having his wits back. Pavlik ended the round with an offensive charge at the champion, who appeared to have punched himself out. With blood coming from his nose and mouth, Pavlik survived the nightmare second round.
It was when he came out for the third that the momentum started to shift.
Pavlik came out for the next round as if the second hadn't even happened. It caught my attention, and Manny Steward said after the fight that he knew when Pavlik came out so cool and relaxed for the third, that they could be in trouble with this kid.
The straight right landed again, over and over, and Taylor found himself in danger in the corner. Taylor's hand speed allowed him to successfully headhunt on Pavlik, but he couldn't rock him like he did in the second. The straight rights shook Taylor up, and he was again in the corner. Measuring now with his best punch, Pavlik was in firm control when Taylor responded with a sweet one-two to get himself out. It had become, through three rounds, everything it was supposed to be and more. It was a fight.
Taylor took the fourth and fifth rounds by my scoring, and was up two points on my card. Pavlik's straight right was his only truly effective punch, beyond a jab that kept Taylor at bay somewhat. He wasn't able to land much of anything else, as he didn't have the quickness necessary to catch Taylor with combinations. Taylor, on the other hand, was starting to double up on his jab, and did have the hand speed to land flurries.
My favorite commentary line of the year came at the opening of the sixth round, when the great Larry Merchant said, "This must be a pretty good fight, Jim. I've already got five dots of blood on my shirt."
The sixth round was tight, as several rounds had been, but I thought Pavlik took it, though he was looking predictable. He'd feign a left, straight right, paw with another left, and come back with the straight right. Taylor seemed to be figuring it out.
Round seven. And, again, the straight right hand.
How Taylor could never find an answer for one punch is beyond me, but it didn't happen. He continued to get hit with it, and it caught up to him. Two of them landed, and Taylor was hurt. A left hook landed, and Taylor was more than hurt. Getting caught on the chin once more, Taylor crumpled, and referee Steve Smoger jumped in.
The fight was over. The no-BS kid from the fallen steel town in Ohio was the new middleweight champion of the world.
After it was over, Taylor and Steward had nothing but praise for Pavlik, all but admitting they underestimated his power, his resolve, and his overall ability. But in the aftermath, there was a rise in popularity for Taylor even though he lost. He had fought like a champion, against the number one contender and a true middleweight, and this time, he came up short. There was something far more honorable about losing to Pavlik than beating Ouma and Spinks.
And Kelly Pavlik suddenly found himself as the toast of boxing, much as Taylor had a few years previous. You couldn't have asked for anything more, and even Michael Buffer was thrilled with the fight, taking a moment afterward to very heartily congratulate both men on their terrific battle before announcing Pavlik as the victor.
It was also the fight that kickstarted the huge final quarter of boxing's great comeback year. It set a mark for the rest of the big fights remaining, a mark that I don't feel any of them surpassed. And they'll do it again in February. If you ask me, that's a toss-up fight right now. Pavlik did knock Taylor out, but Taylor was winning the fight when he got stopped. It was a perfect style clash.
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