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Two seconds that shaped a lifetime

Meldrick Taylor was blessed with two of the fastest hands in boxing and the foot speed to match.

But it was Taylor's flagrant neglect of those gifts that made him one of the most unforgettable fighters of the modern era. It also made him one of the saddest stories in a sport with no shortage of tragic figures.

"He wanted to fight," recalled legendary trainer Lou Duva, who guided Taylor from 1984 until '92, on Tuesday. Rather than stick and move, relying on the jab, Taylor preferred to win on his own terms -- as a Philadelphia slugger.

A fistic prodigy who captured gold at the 1984 Olympics at just 17, Taylor's meteoric rise included an upset of Buddy McGirt for the IBF junior welterweight title in his 21st pro fight. After four title defenses, Taylor met Julio Cesar Chavez at the Las Vegas Hilton on March 17, 1990.

Taylor was 24-0-1. Chavez was 66-0 with 58 stoppages. They were considered by many the best pound-for-pound fighters in the sport. Cast by HBO's Jim Lampley as "the greatest little fight money can buy," it was the kind of elemental clash between athletes in their prime that only happens once in a generation. When it was over, neither man would ever be the same.

For 11 rounds, Lightning outclassed Thunder. Taylor beat Chavez to the punch again and again, blurring the line between offense and defense. Uncompromising as ever, Taylor insisted on trading punches with Chavez round after round, brilliant combination punching giving no quarter to the warrior from Mexico. But despite landing fewer shots, Chavez delivered the more powerful blows. When the bell rang to end the 11th, Taylor nearly walked to the wrong corner.

With a lopsided lead on two of the scorecards, Taylor was gassed but just needed to finish the fight on his feet. At one point, he missed with a wild left hand and slipped to the canvas.

Twenty-five seconds left. A pulverizing straight right barreled Taylor back three inches. Chavez followed with a four-punch flurry. Taylor scurried toward the corner, where Chavez turned and trapped him with 20 seconds left. Chavez fired three more punches before a heat-seeking right to the temple put Taylor to the canvas with 17 seconds left.

:16 ... :15 ... :14 ...

Taylor was up by the count of six. What happened next has been replayed by fight fans countless times over the past 20 years.

Referee Richard Steele gave Taylor the mandatory eight-count. He asked Taylor, "Are you OK?"

:07 ... :06 ... :05 ...

Again: "You OK?"

Unsatisfied with Taylor's response, Steele waved both arms and Chavez won by a technical knockout. The outcome was a miracle given what observers already suspected and what the scorecards confirmed: that Taylor would have won a split decision if the fight had gone to the judges.

The official time was 2:58 in the 12th round. The perplexed expression on Taylor's swollen face was frozen in time.

The Ring magazine called it The Fight of the Decade, but that honorific seems to understate the far-reaching consequences of the moment. Chavez was elevated from national folk hero to deity-like figure -- boxing's undisputed pound-for-pound champion for the next several years and the most important Mexican boxer of all-time.

The cost for Taylor only began with the junior welterweight title. His life was never the same.

* * * * *

A product of the hard neighborhoods of North Philadelphia, Taylor discovered boxing at an early age. He was instantly hooked.

"I was about eight years old," Taylor recalled Sunday, his speech heavily slurred. "It was called Hennelly Boys Club. It was on Frankford and Kensington."

A quick study, Taylor went 99-4 as an amateur and qualified for the Olympic team. Just two months after graduating from Simon Gratz High, the teenager represented the United States at the Los Angeles Games. On the final day of competition, Taylor became the youngest gold medal winner in Olympic boxing history -- and the most overlooked member of a legendary team that included Pernell Whitaker, Evander Holyfield, Tyrell Biggs and Mark Breland.

Soon after, Taylor signed a contract with Main Events and knocked out Luke Lecce in his pro debut on Nov. 15, 1984 -- the famed "Night of Gold" when six members of the Olympic team fought their first paying bouts on the same card before a sold-out Madison Square Garden crowd. He quickly began cutting a swath through the lightweight and junior welterweight divisions, fighting quality opposition and ducking no one.

"He always wanted to learn," Duva recalls. "He'd work out and he'd box and get done and then sit down and watch Pernell work and some of the other fighters that we had and take moves from them."

But Duva also describes a downside to Taylor's obsession with fistic perfection -- the tendency to overtrain.

"He tried too hard," Duva says. "It was always my contention that he was getting hurt more in the gym than he was in the ring. And I used to tell him that: 'Don't knock yourself out, you're only training!' [Co-trainer] George Benton did a great job with him, but you can only do so much.

"'Out of the ring, get out of the ring!' we had to holler at him. We used to make him hit the heavy bag because if we would have let him, he would have went 20 rounds with four sparring partners. He didn't care."

Brash and confident, Taylor drew comparisons to Sugar Ray Leonard. He was a stylistic precursor to Manny Pacquiao, an impossibly quick 140-pounder with dynamite in both hands who left capable opponents dumbfounded by his blinding speed. After upsetting McGirt for the IBF junior welterweight title, Taylor signed to meet Chavez in a showdown to unify the IBF and WBC belts.

Taylor was, in spite of his dazzling speed, a very Philadelphia fighter -- more Joe Frazier than Willie Pep. He never made it easy on himself. A uncompromising brawler with unrivaled ring intensity, it wasn't in Taylor's genetic code to toss jabs and pirouette out of harm's way.

That determination to mix it up -- to win his way -- may have been his downfall. Why else would Taylor have mixed it up with Chavez in the 12th?

"I remember them telling me I needed the last round," Taylor says. "They didn't want me taking it for granted and leaving it in the hands of the judges. I really didn't know how close it was, I just knew that I wanted to finish strong.

"In actuality, I didn't really need the last round. I just needed to stay away and box."

Duva's recollection of the fateful discussion in the corner between the final two rounds is different.

"I said, 'Look, I think you're winning the fight,'" Duva recalls. "'Go out there, just move around, move around, box him, and don't get into no slugging. And then, just keep moving, just keep moving, just keep moving.'"

"People condemned me, more or less, because I jumped up on the stairs and I hollered to the referee to make Chavez go back into the corner. When he knocked Meldrick down with just a few seconds to go, the rule says you must return to the corner, you cannot stand there. He was right behind him! I'm telling the referee, 'Put him back in the corner! Put him back in the corner!' If he does that, the two seconds are gone and he wins the fight."

The constellation of circumstances -- from the sudden reversal after 35-and-a-half minutes of success to Duva's distraction giving Steele the excuse to stop the fight -- brought ruin to a once-promising career.

After the Chavez fight, Taylor spent nearly a week in the hospital with a shattered orbital bone. He was urinating pure blood; some reports indicated he lost two pints thanks to a cut inside his mouth that was suffered during training.

Just 23, Taylor campaigned on. Impressively, at times. He moved up to welterweight and captured a title belt. But his days at the summit of the sport had passed. A 1992 loss to Terry Norris knocked Taylor from the pound-for-pound discussion for good. He lost a rematch to Chavez in September 1994. Skills diminished, Taylor tried to fight wherever he could get licensed.

In 1998, Taylor was banned from boxing in New Jersey. Even before Taylor's official retirement in 2002, a series of legal troubles began to mount. He took refuge in a radical Christian group known as the Black Israelites and dropped from the boxing radar. It seemed Taylor was a broken man.

The third man in the ring for Chavez-Taylor, Richard Steele remembers the fight in vivid detail.

"The difference between [Taylor] and Chavez is that Meldrick could win fights on points, as he was doing in this fight," Steele said Wednesday. "But it was like a boy against a man. The boy is winning on points, but the man is really breaking the boy up."

Steele, who has promoted boxing and mixed martial arts since retiring as a referee in 2001, remembers Taylor winning round after round on speed, volume and rate of connection, "but the punches weren't really devastating punches."

"Julio would land one punch for every three, but that one punch was really doing damage," Steele recalls, "and it was really hurting [Taylor]."

Steele remembers thinking to himself in the ring that Taylor could get to the finish line -- right until the famous right-hand that floored him at the end.

"The punch that dropped him just made his whole body go limp," Steele says. "He was just not ready to continue. He never responded verbally or even shook his head or even looked at me, because he was mixed up because Lou Duva was on the apron -- that's what took his attention off of me when he should have been convincing me that he could continue."

Steele says a veteran trainer like Duva should have been aware of the consequences of stepping on the ring apron.

"Once you step on the apron, you've disqualified your fighter," Steele says. "He's had a lot of champions, he knows. He's never supposed to step on the apron because the fight is over. I never wanted to choose that way to end that fight because it was a great fight and the kid gave it all he had. So I didn't want the kid to be able to say my corner disqualified me."

Even if Duva hadn't distracted Taylor, Steele remains confident in the decision to stop the action to protect a hurt fighter.

"He did not respond. He did not make the 10 seconds. He did not beat the count," Steele says. "Beating the count is being in the upright position ready to continue. He never got there."

The controversial nature of the stoppage predictably drew attention to Steele. Critics tried to unearth the rumored relationship between Steele and Don King, who promoted Chavez. The implication: Steele was handpicked to help Chavez win, a suspicion Duva still believes.

Steele, who was inducted to the Boxing Hall of Fame in 2000, laughs at the conspiracy theory.

"I never had coffee with the guy," Steele says. "Don King didn't have anything to say or to do with my selection. That's just a cop-out.

"That's just the way humans are: they're always looking for a straw to discredit when something doesn't go their way."

* * * * *

For the past four years, Gumersindo Vidot has been the Philadelphia representative for the Retired Boxers Foundation, the only 501c3, non-profit corporation that helps downtrodden fighters after they've left the sport. No one in the organization, not president Alex Ramos or executive director Jacquie Richardson, earns a penny for the work, Vidot says.

Several years ago, Vidot got an e-mail from someone who said Taylor was strung out on the street and "drinking forties" on the corner. He attempted to track down Taylor to see if he needed any help.

"When I saw him, I saw this guy who was physically fit, hard as a rock," Vidot recalled Monday, "except he had slurred speech."

Vidot tried to convince Taylor that he deserved a better life after giving so much to the sport. He could get a loan, open a gym, do something. That's when Taylor told Vidot he'd been spending the past decade on his memoirs.

"He says, 'I've written a book, but I've never had anyone to help me out with it to get it published,'" Vidot said. "So I said, 'What's the name of the book?' and he says, 2 Seconds from Glory.

"And I said, 'Wow!' It was a perfect title."

Vidot, who agreed to work as Taylor's agent, read the manuscript and came away very impressed with the ex-champion's level of introspection and self-awareness. But it was filled with controversial racial views that Vidot insisted were self-destructive for a person hoping to regain a foothold in the spotlight.

"He's a unique guy," Vidot says. "The only problem he has is he thinks he is god at times, and he doesn't see beyond that. He's got to see that you're going to need people in life."

Taylor -- as uncompromising in retirement as during his career -- refused to alter the manuscript. After weeks of reflection, Vidot put up the money anyway, despite considerable reservation. It was Taylor's story, not his.

"We never got a reorder from the Hall of Fame and I know why: because people who read it were offended," Vidot says. "People don't want to start slandering Meldrick, so they just don't even respond to it."

In the book, Taylor claims to be a victim of the racial politics in boxing and lays blame on the white power structure in the sport. Vidot believes Taylor's views derive from an affiliation with a local sect of the Black Israelites.

"He's a nice guy, but that religion's got him pretty confused. And you combine that with bitterness -- with losing a fight that he should have won, with no one there for you and talking good about you, just talking bad about you -- I can see him building this shell around you where only Meldrick can fit.

"I feel for him because I know what caused that. I don't agree with his philosophy, but I understand that."

* * * * *

Twenty years after the night in Las Vegas that forever changed his life, Taylor appears to suffer from symptoms of dementia pugilistica, but recalls the fight with complete clarity. He doesn't fail to mention the alleged understanding between King and Steele.

"I definitely was suspicious," Taylor says, bringing up the 1988 title fight Steele officiated between Thomas Hearns and Iran Barkley. When Hearns suffered a third-round knockdown and appeared wobbly and obviously hurt, Steele let him continue. He'd later say a champion should be given the chance to pull himself together -- a chance Taylor feels he never got.

"That guy was out on his feet," Taylor says.

Taylor is still living in North Philadelphia, working as an individual personal trainer and helping people learn how to eat and how to exercise.

"He does pretty good with that, enough to make his ends meet," Vidot says, "but he's still not where he should be."

While his book seems to profile a man who's angry at the world, Vidot insists it's not the real Meldrick Taylor. "The anger is there, but I don't think [the racial talk] is real. It's a defense mechanism," Vidot says. "This is all he's got, but what he's got has a little power to it, because it keeps people away at the same time."

Duva, who calls Taylor "one of the very best" of the 19 world champions he's worked with, last saw Taylor three months ago at a fight in Philadelphia. "He's a little backwards now, by that I mean, I don't think he knows where he's going right now or what's going to happen," Duva says. "He can be a stubborn guy, but he was always a guy you could get around to talking to. I wish him all the best. He deserves it after that career.

"He wasn't the fighter that he was supposed to be."

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