The second coming of Jermain Taylor

Mark Butcher
15/04/2015 9:00am

For much of his life, Jermain Taylor and adversity have been joined at the hip. The man known as ‘Bad Intentions’ is no stranger to bad times.

Few, outside the fighter himself, felt he would ever reign as world champion again after a grim spell of four defeats in five contests ended with Taylor being diagnosed with a minor subdural hematoma (a bleeding on the brain) after a last gasp KO defeat against the hulking Arthur Abraham.

But, as the spotlight faded, Taylor never stopped believing. Faced with losing the intimate connection to a sport that had provided his salvation during a tough upbringing by a single mother in a gang-infested part of Little Rock, Arkansas, the former undisputed middleweight champion of the world began his hardest fight in the shadows – the seemingly thankless battle to save his once glittering career.

In September, the 36-year-old Taylor returned from the boxing wilderness to defeat unorthodox IBF champion Sam Soliman via a lopsided, unanimous decision registering four knockdowns down the stretch as the Australian battled to overcome a knee injury.

Obscured by questions over his health and right to fight, the human story of Jermain Taylor has perhaps been overlooked. The IBF champion has overcome almost unfathomable obstacles to regain his world title including the much-publicised medical concerns, an ongoing divorce and the shooting incident involving his cousin at the fighter’s Arkansas home (in November, Taylor was charged by Arkansas prosecutors with ‘first degree battery and first degree terroristic threatening’ - Boxing Monthly chose not to enquire about specifics of the incident so as not to prejudice the case). Stressful situations that would vex most people don’t hold the equivalent concern for the former Olympian. 

When Boxing Monthly talked to the IBF champion over the phone from his Arkansas home, the jubilation and excitement was still evident in his voice. World title glory, second time around when so many doubted, is understandably sweet.

“I feel excellent. I came a long way in boxing. I knew all I had to do was show dedication and I would get back my old title. I just stayed in the gym, kept up the hard work and got me another championship,” Taylor told BM. “It’s always better the second time around. This time out I know they didn’t want me to win. They gave up on me. I can smile in their face now. That felt so good. I’m getting a divorce from my wife and it’s just everything all at once, but I‘m happy. Ain’t nothing bothering me right now. I’m on Cloud 9. They can throw everything, but nothing can touch me.

“The fight went exactly how I expected,” said Taylor, whose title winning effort saw a reunion with former trainer Pat Burns. “We knew what Soliman was going to do. He still couldn’t get past that jab. It caught him every time and he realized how strong I was because he walked right into it. I was always in control. I kept my composure and stayed strong. I kept that jab working, even though my right hand was still a little wild, but hey I’ve always done that. 

“I didn’t know who the champ was,” he confessed. “I don’t watch boxing on TV. I’m not an everyday boxing fan. All I know is how important this belt is. I left Pat and returned and, you know what, he’s never said a word about me leaving. He just came back in and said, “Let’s go and win another championship” and I’ll be damned if that isn’t what we did!”

Regarded as one of boxing’s elite fighters following back-to-back wins over Bernard Hopkins in 2005 (victories even more impressive with time), Taylor’s career had faltered due to a flagging motivation that saw him balloon in weight and campaign out of his comfort zone at 168lbs where he lost late debilitating late stoppages to Carl Froch and Abraham, both poignantly reigning world champions today.

Almost 40 pounds overweight in the run-up to the Abraham fight, Taylor was woefully out of shape and at a low point in his life. The prognosis after his gruelling 12th round defeat cast further gloom when doctors stated he would never fight again due to a concussion that left signs of bleeding on his brain.

“It was like okay now…what else can I do? I staked my whole life into boxing,” recalled Taylor. “There’s nothing else I can do or want to do besides box. I have put my career on the line by not training hard, showed up to fights half-assed. I almost lost it all, man. But thank god for getting me back on my feet and thank Al Haymon and those people god put in my life. I’ve been able to get back up.”

The influential Haymon never gave up on Taylor, 33-4-1 (20 KOs), and it is perhaps testimony to the advisor’s powers of persuasion that the Arkansas man has become a champion again, just as he predicted. “Al told me, “Don’t worry about it. We’ll take a couple of years off and we’ll come back and win you a championship.” And look at me, man! That man he’s amazing,” enthused Taylor. “I was beat and knocked down and they didn’t even mention my name in boxing no more and look at me now! I got my belt back and am on my way back to the top.”

After an enforced two-year hiatus between 2009-2011, Taylor was eventually passed fit to box by medical experts after stringent testing. The IBF champion told BM he has no issues with his short-term memory and was certainly lucid throughout our interview. Though he understands some people’s misgivings about his fighting on, Taylor argues it was his decision to make and naturally feels vindicated by his world title victory.

“This is my job. I don’t go to their job bothering them, don’t come to my job bothering me,” said Taylor, who is promoted by DiBella Entertainment. “I support my family and my life. I love my job so whatever happens to me, let that happen to me. Just like a soldier in the army. Those guys know what’s on the line, shit, but they do it anyway and I know what’s on the line. This is my life – ain’t nobody getting in the ring but me and that guy so keep your opinions to your damn self.

“Abraham’s a great champion. He deserved to win. But, man, that training camp was about nothing,” he continued. “I was staying in the sauna all night long trying to lose weight. You know I was not training worth a damn if I couldn’t make weight at 168lbs. It was crazy. I never should have been there. I was starting to get lazy in boxing. And in boxing you can’t do that because you get hurt. I had to learn the hard way. There are people who have died in the ring, but I would never put my life on the line like that.”

While former victim Hopkins was winning the WBC light-heavyweight title, a wired-up Taylor was undergoing exhaustive medical examinations. For Taylor, it felt like the tests would never end, but MRI and MRA examinations at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota and Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health in Nevada showed no signs of lingering injury and the career of the 2000 Olympic bronze medallist was reborn. While outsiders expressed concerns about his health and cast aspersions about his current fighting state, the former champion remained undaunted. This was his life and the dream of redemption burned brightly.

“They hooked me up to so many damn machines. I told myself this is the last time with these damn machines, but I kept getting another call saying I had to go one more time,” recalled the IBF champion. “I had so many check-ups, so many approvals. I almost gave up, but I kept going and thank god I did. It was a blessing. When I heard the news I could fight again I was in Minnesota with my brother. We hugged it out after I was cleared to box again. I never really hugged my brother. I remember saying, “Man, I got another chance. It’s going to be different this time. Me and you are going to be together.” My brother passed away so I’m doing it on my own, but I’m doing it with him on my back. I will never forget that. I wish he was here to share it with me.”

Taylor’s record reveals a veritable ‘who’s who’ of world class fighters. Understandably, he reflects proudly on those two wins over the ageless Hopkins who has since won multiple titles at 175lbs against a clutch of young upstarts.

“I’ve got to give him his credit because he’s still fighting,” said Taylor of his old foe. “He’s almost 50 years old and he’s still in the game. He gives me so much hope because he’s still going. But I could fight him 100 times and I would beat him 100 times. I know he calls himself ‘The Alien’ but then what does that make me? That’s what I want to know!”

A little older and wiser, Taylor feels he originally won the world title when he was too young to grasp its meaning. “I didn’t know what the hell was going on,” he said. “I was a little rushed. I shouldn’t have fought all those champions back-to-back. Give me some easy fights. Give me a couple of knockouts. It was a tough ride and, when you think about it, who could keep that up? I held it together for as long as I could.

“I would keep the same hunger I had for the second fight against Hopkins, that same work ethic,” he continued. “If Hopkins was ever going to beat me it should have been in that first fight – he should have beat me down. In the second fight, there was no way in hell. I whupped his ass so bad. He will never get an ass-whupping that bad I don’t care what he says.”

Friends are plentiful during good times, but in times of struggle too many of these people disappear. The IBF champion learned this important lesson during his world title hiatus as his entourage thinned and faded from view.

“You can’t trust most people because they will let you down,” Taylor told BM. “I’ve never had shit. Everything I got came from hard work and I lost that. I lost that hard work ethic. I got all that money and started thinking I didn’t have to put in that hard work. I just lost all my focus, but now I know I got it back.”

Two former WBO middleweight champions Hassam N’Dam N’Jikam and Peter Quillin appear to be in Taylor’s immediate future. Revelling in his new world title status, the IBF title-holder bullishly declared a willingness to fight anybody. 

“Al knows I don’t give a damn who it is. I will beat the shit out of both of them. Whoever gets in there,” he said. “They ain’t got nothing. I don’t care which one. I’m a beat the snot out of them. I’m already training for whoever they put me in with. I can’t wait to fight a normal fighter, somebody who knows how to box [rather than the awkward Soliman].”

Seven-and-a-half years since he last held a world title, and after being told he would never fight again, the scale of his improbable achievement is dawning upon the fighter along with an appreciation of past glories. “I’m just starting to get that way. I don’t know why, but I’ve been overlooking it,” he reflected. “I’ve let people beat me down. I’ve let the media beat me down. In Arkansas they beat me down. I started to believe that I hadn’t accomplished what I had accomplished. But shit, man, I just started looking around and knowing who I am. I started to realize I’m somebody. I’ve had a hell of a career. Check my resumé! Don’t ever count me out.”