Friday February 15th, 2008

Maybe if Jermain Taylor were a stronger man, we wouldn't be here today. It was nearly five months ago when Taylor, then the undefeated and undisputed middleweight king, took on an unheralded fighter from Youngstown, Ohio named Kelly Pavlik, a man known for his concussive right hand but lacking any kind a resume behind them.

Taylor battered Pavlik for the better part of two rounds that night in Atlantic City, eventually dropping him with a series of vicious combinations early in the second. As referee Steve Smoger began his count, the words "outclassed" and "overmatched" were frantically scribbled in ringside reporters notebooks as Pavlik, seemingly finished, lay prone on the mat.

But miraculously, Pavlik summoned the strength to get up. Unfortunately for Taylor, he did not have the energy to put him back down.

For the rest of the round, Taylor chased his woozy opponent around the ring, loping feeble punches in the general direction of Pavlik, who grew stronger by the second. When the round ended, Pavlik knew he had taken Taylor's best shot, while steadfastly believing that a visibly winded Taylor had yet to see his. That shot came in the seventh, when Pavlik uncorked a devastating right hand that sent Taylor staggering into the corner. He followed it up with a combination that left the Hollywood champion crumpled on the canvas and left the world with a new middleweight champ.

Which brings us to today. Pavlik-Taylor II. The rematch.

Certainly the second fight between Pavlik (32-0) and Taylor (27-1-1) lacks the cache of the first. There is no title at stake -- the two will fight at a catch-weight of 166 pounds. Pavlik's camp is already making plans to unify the middleweight titles because they know, win or lose, Pavlik will still have them.

But for Taylor, the stakes may be higher than a belt. He may be fighting for his career.

What's that you say? How can a man who less than a year ago was undefeated and the darling of the division have such a steep fall from grace? For starters, if Taylor, 29, gets flattened by Pavlik, 25, again he will lose all of his box-office appeal. Few fight fans like a fighter who can't punch and even fewer enjoy watching someone who can't take one. Taylor could be the double-whammy. It has been nearly three years since Taylor scored a third-round knockout of Daniel Edourd. If you haven't heard of Edourd, well, you're not the only one. Since then, Taylor has scored decisive but unimpressive victories over Cory Spinks and Kassim Ouma and went 24 rounds playing hide-and-don't-punch with Bernard Hopkins. Taylor needs to prove that his glittery record is not a product of inferior competition.

"[The title] is not important to me at all," said Taylor. "I just want the fight to begin. I don't care what weight or whether it's for the belt or not. I just want to get in there and get back what I lost with Kelly, because I know I can beat the guy."

Taylor will have to if he hopes to score another big fight. Finished as a middleweight, Taylor is eying a move to super middleweight, a division recently vacated by Joe Calzaghe. High-profile fights at 168 pounds are few and far between, so Taylor may have to make the jump to light heavyweight, a division currently occupied by talented but beatable stars like Hopkins, Roy Jones and Antonio Tarver. A fight with one of them later this year is conceivable -- if he can beat Pavlik.

Taylor has a pamphlet full of excuses as to why he lost to Pavlik in September. He didn't train hard enough. He underestimated him. He wasn't on the same page with Hall of Fame trainer Emanuel Steward (the last one is believable given that Taylor has never listened to Steward, who he has replaced in his corner with former trainer Ozell Nelson. Steward, ironically, will be calling the fight for HBO Pay Per View). The list goes on.

According to Taylor, those excuses are gone. "This camp, it's all work," said Taylor. "I'll be honest with you. It wasn't like that at the last camp." For the first time, Taylor is training just a few miles from the site of the fight in Las Vegas. He has gotten back to basics with Nelson, who first discovered Taylor and guided him through the amateur ranks. "It took a butt-kicking to get back on track," Taylor said. "But I'm back on track, and there ain't no one that can beat me when I'm at the top of my game."

And if he finds himself in a similar situation, with Pavlik on the ropes and the fight in the balance?

"If I get him in that position again, I'll finish him," said Taylor. "I wasted a lot of energy, energy I really didn't have. I threw a lot of stupid punches. I should have put them together a lot more better."

Taylor had better hope he can put his punches together. Because if he can't, his career could be in pieces

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