Jermain Taylor's win last night over Sam Soliman on ESPN2 marked his return to the legitimate conversation not just at 160 pounds, but in the boxing world in general. For the last five years, since his crushing knockout loss to Arthur Abraham in Germany, the question most asked about Taylor is whether or not he should have been fighting at all.
Mostly, people didn't think so, and with good reason. A brain bleed was revealed on Taylor after that loss to Abraham, and for many, that's enough that a fighter simply should not be licensed again.
But though his win over Soliman was aided by the 40-year-old defending titleholder's own leg betraying him as much as anything special that Taylor did, it was a legitimate win. Injuries happen, and Jermain Taylor probably fought about as well as anyone expected he could. And in his other comeback wins since he started fighting again in 2011, sure, maybe he hasn't looked great against pedestrian opponents, and he was dropped by Caleb Truax, but he did legitimately win all of those fights, too.
It's extremely unlikely that Jermain Taylor is back, because it's just not a good bet that a 36-year-old fighter with some severe punch resistance issues is going to find himself back on top of his game. At one point, Taylor was a pound-for-pound contender, the guy who beat Bernard Hopkins twice and ended the long middleweight championship reign of "The Executioner."
Taylor's win does indeed make him one of boxing's worst titleholders at the moment, but he is a titleholder. He can call himself champion of the world as much as Gennady Golovkin can. (Golovkin, for the record, received his WBA title belt with an interim win over Milton Nunez and then a full title win against Nilson Julio Tapia. Not exactly Hagler and Monzon, either. Not even exactly Sam Soliman.)
But let's cast aside the paper-ness of this title win and really look at things. If we rank the, say, 20 best fighters in the division, is Taylor top 10?
I gave it a go, and I'm arguing that he is. Barely. And there's more that I'll get to in a moment. But here's my quick list:
- Gennady Golovkin (WBA)
- Miguel Cotto (WBC)
- Peter Quillin
- Sergio Martinez
- Martin Murray
- Hassan N’dam
- Daniel Geale
- Daniel Jacobs
- Billy Joe Saunders
- Jermain Taylor (IBF)
- Sam Soliman
- Marco Antonio Rubio
- Felix Sturm
- Matthew Macklin
- David Lemieux
- Matt Korobov
- Ryota Murata
- Dmitry Chudinov
- Curtis Stevens
- Andrey Meryasev
Now, obviously you can quibble about the back end of a top 20, but I figured going to 20 instead of just a top 10 or even a top 15 sort of rounds out the overall picture at middleweight a bit better. The last four guys could be switched out for a handful of different fighters, I suppose, and maybe Macklin is a bit high right now considering he struggled a bit in his last fight. Also, Sturm is headed up to 168 finally.
But that's what I came up with for the moment. The bigger issue than whether or not Taylor is even a top 10 fighter -- and I can't see him higher than ninth, personally, but I have him at No. 10 -- is whether or not he can beat many of these guys.
When the Soliman-Taylor fight was rumored and signed, I noted that I felt it was a safe fight. Soliman (44-12, 18 KO) isn't a puncher by any means, no more than guys like Jessie Nicklow that Taylor fought in the recent past. He's a small middleweight, doesn't sit down on his shots even when both legs are healthy, and he's never been a heavy-handed fighter. If Al Haymon was going to try and find Jermain Taylor a payday and a world title fight, he found the perfect matchup.
A healthy Soliman might have beaten Taylor last night, but I had it even through six rounds. After that, Taylor took over because Soliman couldn't take a light nudge to the head without falling down.
But I put this to you: OK, so let's say Taylor deserves to be objectively or subjectively ranked higher than, I dunno, David Lemieux.
Would you pick Taylor to beat David Lemieux?
Do you want to see 36-year-old Jermain Taylor with a history of brain bleeds and ugly knockouts getting into a ring with a concussive seek-and-destroy puncher like David Lemieux?
Would you pick Taylor to beat Curtis Stevens? Stevens was pretty much smoked last week by Hassan N'dam. But do you want to see Taylor try and take a left hook from Curtis Stevens?
How about Rubio? He can bang. He'll be blown away by Gennady Golovkin in nine days on HBO, but would you pick Taylor to beat Rubio, a tough, gritty veteran with punching power and the ability to pull the trigger still?
Would you pick Taylor to beat Ryota Murata, a five-fight pro who like many of the Olympians from 2012, is fast-tracking and has already beaten some decent, experienced fighters? Murata looks like he's got legit power, and he knows how to box.
If you look at this entire list, and subtract Sam Soliman, then who's the absolute best/safest matchup for Taylor? Is it Sergio Martinez, because he's old and his legs appear shot? If not Sergio, then perhaps Daniel Geale, who I would honestly expect to outbox Taylor thoroughly and possibly knock him out? Geale's no puncher, but Taylor can't take a clean shot so well anymore, either.
The problems for Jermain Taylor have not been solved. He won last night because Sam Soliman got hurt. Soliman was a class act and didn't blame the injury, but clearly the injury was the biggest factor in how this fight played out. For half the fight, Soliman couldn't move. Look at that fight and tell me something Taylor did well -- I don't think there's much there. He was still tentative, he doesn't get his shots off well anymore, there's no consistency to his attack. He was lucky to get a guy who first of all, wasn't a physical threat to him, and second of all, blew out a knee mid-fight.
Taylor will fight on. That might be the worst news of all. He's not going to fight Golovkin, thank heavens, but he may end up fed to one of Haymon's other middleweights, former WBO titleholder Quillin or fairy tale story Jacobs, both of whom are in their primes, are physical specimens, and can thump.
If the IBF actually enforces its mandatory challenger, then Hassan N'dam will be next. Taylor's in no position to vacate a title. The good news is N'dam isn't a big puncher, and he doesn't press the attack much. He likes to lay back and outbox guys from the outside, as he did with Stevens last week. But if he needs to, he will open up, and we saw him put Stevens on the deck.
N'dam might not knock out Taylor, but what from the Soliman fight would tell anyone that Taylor is a threat to N'dam at this point in his career? He didn't fight that well even with an advantage over a guy who couldn't do anything offensively or defensively other than hope to not get hit. Would last night's Taylor really be a challenge for last week's N'dam?
For years now, we've feared the worst when Jermain Taylor has stepped into the ring. Three of his four losses have been hard stoppages against Kelly Pavlik, Carl Froch, and Abraham. And this is not meant to take anything away from Jermain Taylor, either. When he said last night that he's never ducked a fight, he's one of a handful of guys in boxing who can say that and two to five immediate names don't come to mind. He's always been brave, he's always been ambitious, and he's always been willing to fight the best.
But the fear of something going terribly wrong isn't going to go away just because he got the win over Soliman last night. Congratulations to Jermain Taylor for getting back into the mix. Now, the other assorted in the mix are going to be gunning for him. Everyone will see this as a chance to pick off low-hanging fruit and win a world title. There will be no shortage of willing challengers for Jermain Taylor's title.
Of course, he's also going to have to deal with his current legal troubles, as he was recently accused of shooting his cousin in Arkansas.