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Jermain Taylor still rebuilding his reputation

Jermain-taylor-kelly-pavlick50_mediumJermain Taylor at one point was one of the hottest properties in boxing, a young champion with two wins over the legendary middleweight Bernard Hopkins. And Taylor might never live it down.

Though the close wins over Hopkins are still disputed by many, Taylor beat him twice officially, in two close fights where he clearly was able to trouble a man who hadn't had any problems with his opposition in some time. He had a lot going for him: Youth, skill, hard work, and a great, easygoing personality. Had HBO had their druthers, Taylor might be taking over as the flagship fighter of the network by now.

Instead, here we are nearly four years after the first win over Bernard Hopkins, and Jermain Taylor's career is at another crossroads. On April 25, the former middleweight champion will take on 168-pound titlist Carl Froch in Connecticut, televised by Showtime. It could tell us a lot about where his career's headed.

Between Hopkins and Froch, Taylor's schedule has been picked at by some. Though he did take on and draw world-class middleweight Winky Wright, he then fought a couple of guys who had been campaigning at 154 pounds in Kassim Ouma (an easy decision win) and Cory Spinks (a boring decision win). In all fairness to Taylor, he did try to fight "Contender" season one champ Sergio Mora, but Mora didn't agree to terms, and Spinks was his replacement.

Maybe he was feeling the heat from fans starting to say he wouldn't fight real middleweights. Maybe he just didn't really know what he wanted to do anymore. He had fired his trainer, Pat Burns, and hired Hall of Famer Manny Steward, a partnership that began with the Wright fight, an erratic performance from Taylor, and had come to a near-boil during Taylor's lackluster win over Spinks. On the undercard that night, a young fighter from Youngstown, Ohio, named Kelly Pavlik had beaten big puncher Edison Miranda to a pulp. During the late rounds of Taylor-Spinks, Steward remarked to Taylor that he told him he should've fought Miranda.

Not exactly the most constructive corner advice.

Taylor faced Pavlik in September 2007, and it was boxing history. Though he rocked and decked Pavlik early in the fight and was leading on all three scorecards, Taylor was hurt on a vicious right hand in the seventh round. Searching for a breather, he found himself pummeled on in the corner until referee Steve Smoger jumped in to stop it.

One of the best fights of the decade ended with Taylor's first professional loss, a pounding at the hands of a fighter he and Steward had publicly declared was no big deal. Following the loss, Taylor and Steward parted ways, and Taylor replaced him with Ozell Nelson, who had been there his entire pro career. Nelson took Taylor into a rematch with Pavlik in February 2008, and though he fought better, he lost a 12-round unanimous decision.

Middleweight wasn't an option anymore, and the bloom was off the rose. Taylor had made his intentions to move up to super middleweight clear before he fought Pavlik the first time, perhaps looking for a megafight with Wales' Joe Calzaghe. But the Pavlik losses meant that wouldn't happen.

After nine months off, he was back in the ring in November against ex-super middleweight titlist Jeff Lacy, who himself had seen better, more promising days. Taylor was rocked in the bout, but his overall performance was very strong. The two former roomates left what they had in the ring, with Taylor taking a wide decision, Lacy winning just one round on two official cards and two on the third card.

But if a faded Lacy was a tune-up -- and he was -- who would be the real step into the division? Calzaghe retired shortly after, having beaten Roy Jones Jr. the same month that Taylor beat Lacy. Mikkel Kessler had not just burned some American TV bridges, but was having problems with his promotional people. HBO didn't want a fight with Froch, who was barely known in the States.

In stepped Showtime, and now we have a fight. Froch, at 31, is actually a little older than Taylor, but with just 24 fights, all wins, on his pro sheet. He made some fans around the world and a few believers as well with his December victory over Jean Pascal in a shootout that gave him the vacant WBC super middleweight title. Now, after talking big for years about anyone that he might possibly have been able to fight, he faces his first world-class opponent -- in theory, anyway.

Though Froch's somewhat plodding style has been knocked at times, I really have more questions about Taylor than I do about Froch right now. Where did Jermain's power go? He buzzed Pavlik pretty well the first time around, but Taylor hasn't stopped an opponent since beating Daniel Edouard inside of three rounds. That was on February 19, 2005.

Basically what I mean is, I know what Froch can and will do. He's going to go in there, he's going to look to hurt Taylor, and he's going to try to make a firefight. It worked well against Pascal, who like Taylor had the speed advantage. Some might say that Pascal is no Taylor, but I'd counter and say Pascal probably puts punches together better than Jermain does when he's at his best (and Pascal was at his best), and point out that Jermain hasn't really looked good offensively in a long time. This might be the fight where he gets it back. It also might not. As stationary as Froch can be, he's better than Jeff Lacy.

It's one of those fights where I struggle greatly trying to pick a winner. We're a week away from this fight and I haven't come close to making up my mind. In that regard, it's quite interesting.

But I do know that a big win for Taylor goes a long way toward getting back some of the reputation that has dwindled in recent years. Still in his physical prime, Taylor is almost an afterthought at this point. Maybe he shouldn't be. Maybe he should. We'll see what the Froch fight can tell us about his immediate future.

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