Boxing was the ancient street salvation, where kids with a good hook took it to the gym and some avuncular graybeard adopted the class chump and chiseled him into world champ. It happened often on the streets of Brooklyn in the late 1970s, to a battalion of gifted young men like Mike Tyson, Mark Breland, Riddick Bowe ... and Leon Taylor.
Leon "Cat" Taylor, the greatest fighter never known, more Earl Manigault than Sidd Finch, a man who left a legion of legends awestruck before his peripheral appetites thwarted his singular gift.
Now, at 47, with two decades between his prime and pasture, Taylor talks in a deep boom, as though the lone remnant from a violent past, a warning to potential predators. He speaks in an odd lisp, his tongue dwelling in a two-finger gap in his lower teeth, courtesy of a bullet that shredded his face. His incisors jut like goal posts from his gums.
His eyes are alert, though the left is in an eternal squint covered by bushy eyebrows penciled with gray. Though Taylor hasn't fought professionally in over 15 years, he shares none of the retired athlete's enmity for fitness. He looks like he can bang. He walks down streets with a slight street bop, like someone who doesn't need to kick ass because he already has.
When presented with the conga line of champions who crown him, he says, "Aw, I was all right."
And that's how you know it's true. There's no hubris, no fantasies -- only a savant's humility and reticence to parade his brilliance. And since he won't tell you how good he was, let those who dared to dance on canvas with him paint the montage.
* * * * *
Many of Taylor's troubadours reside in Gleason's Gym, the home and soundtrack of pugilism, run to the percussion of speed bags, the hard whip of jump rope, the staccato squeak of sneakers, and the leathery thud of heavy bags tougher than the men hitting them.
It is so violent and visually fertile that it's easy for an overly refined white boy to be intimidated by the scene, respecting the ethos of manhood only in theory. Perhaps he sees these men as discarded crooks for whom the gym is a pseudo cell, framed by these blood-red walls, trucked from jail to gym, the only place that will have men who leaned on physical brutality to survive. An amalgam of convicts resting between crimes.
Look again. Out of the ring they are far more likely to hug than harm. In truth, these men are much like us sans the corporate refinements, walking microcosms of the human condition. They live. They bleed. They cry, and they die.
Every gym has a stoic. Harry Keitt, a former heavyweight, assumes that part in Gleason's. Perhaps no man in Gleason's -- or on the planet -- can relate to Taylor's plight more than Keitt, whose life was amply archived in the acclaimed 1999 documentary On the Ropes. He's on the back nine in his journey from crackhouse to penthouse and currently trains middleweight contender John Duddy. Keitt has been clean since 1987.
When he speaks his eyes pivot across the room, eyes sharpened by darkness. Keitt walks and talks with a scowl, yet he may have the best sense of humor in the room.
He is the first to echo Taylor's gifts. "Leon got caught up in the drugs the way I did. He had everything. But after the Golden Gloves, he just went in a different direction. Leon was a Hall of Fame talent. He came out of prison, hadn't fought in years, and beat up Alex Stewart in sparring."
That is no small matter. Stewart was 24-0 with 24 knockouts at the time. Taylor reluctantly acknowledges the event. "The only thing that could beat Leon Taylor," Keitt says, "was the street."
Keitt pauses to say hello to one of his fighters, then invokes a 12-Step maxim. "I saw Leon a few weeks ago. It's always great to see him. I don't want him back in Gleason's. It's about people, places, and things for him."
Separating the myth from the man. Taylor remembers everything that happened but can't tell you when. There are plenty who will.
* * * * *
When boxing was an important sport, Mark Breland was an important boxer.
Breland, amateur nonpareil, is the only boxer to win five consecutive Golden Gloves titles and an Olympic gold medal. The laconic, former welterweight champion has the respect of everyone in the room. He had a stable of fighters he has since forgone to concentrate on heavyweight Deontay Wilder.
The other trainers tease Breland by strolling across the room and start conversations with him, knowing that his whisper will never reach them. Breland often responds with a grin and a middle digit.
Breland recalls being with Leon Taylor in the back of classrooms as freshmen at Alexander Hamilton High School practicing combinations when the teacher was scribbling on the board, then scuttling back to their seats and writing notes about ring tactics, passing them back and forth. It was the genesis of Taylor's boxing journey.
Cat: a nickname given Taylor by a cousin and later stuck because of his quickness in the ring. Taylor won the only Golden Gloves tournament he entered, in 1979, fighting as a middleweight in Madison Square Garden. Sadly it's also the only title he ever won.
"Honestly, I didn't want to fight Leon," Breland says. "We'd slip each other's punches or hit each other and the crowd would go 'ooh' and 'aah'. So then we had to slug it out because our instincts kicked in. Once we got too good they wouldn't let us fight anymore.
Taylor won the Golden Gloves without Breland in '79 because Breland was too young to enter at the time. "I expected Leon to become champion before I did," Breland says. "We were going to win the Olympics together." Once Taylor turned pro he moved up to light heavyweight, though he was about to become a heavyweight on the street.
Two years removed from his last fight, a rusty Taylor lost his pro debut in 1981. Then he won his next eight fights -- most of which on autopilot. "I took my talent for granted," Taylor says. "I stopped training. I knew I could just win without working at it. I just fought for the money, to get high."
It's a story told over generations. At a certain age life forks and some go straight (Breland) and some bend (Taylor).
"Of all the people I grew up with," says Taylor, "I think I hurt Mark the most. We were supposed to do great things together. But Mark did good. Really good. I'm proud of him."
When Taylor began to tumble, Breland drove around Brooklyn looking for his friend. "I'd find Leon somewhere and be like, 'What are you doin', man?' and he'd be embarrassed, like, 'Aw, man, you know how it goes.'"
With his own career blooming, Breland focused more on himself. By the time he won the gold in 1984, Taylor was well into disappearances his friends diplomatically coined "vacations" -- a euphemism for drug binges. "I'd call his pops or his brother," Breland says, concluding with stunning humility. "Leon was a better fighter than I was. He beat up all of us -- Riddick, Harry, me ..."
* * * * *
Sparring people he could have beaten, dazzling and puzzling, a thousand contradictions -- the thematic river that runs through Taylor's life.
Taylor's talent and torment is astonishing, but it's not the most compelling component about him or his life. The most baffling paradox in Taylor is that no matter the wreckage he created, nearly everyone still loves him. He is that impossible hybrid of menace and kindness.
Because he is so biologically daunting you are able to imagine him tearing through a town on savage coke binges. Then you speak to him and watch him help so many people for so little money. Since we're all imbibed on Original Sin, it is easy to brand every man a contradiction -- but few have been as good and bad as Taylor.
Leon Taylor was born on Jan. 2, 1963, in Brooklyn. Raised by Steve and Betty Taylor, there was nothing abnormal about his rearing.
"He was a little mischievous," his father says, a near-universal fatherly refrain. Steve took Leon to a gym when he was 14, to get both father and son in shape. And Leon took to boxing instantly.
Taylor first trained under George Washington, the boxing Yoda of Bed-Stuy, named after a president but regarded as a king who nursed many raw young men to stardom. "As soon as I walked in the gym, he called me 'Champ,'" Breland recalls.
Washington dispensed the renowned "Cherry Tree Special" -- a three-punch combination designed to put the enemy to sleep.
"Two jabs and a right," says Breland.
"A jab, left hook, and a right," says Keitt.
"A jab, left, and right," confirms Riddick Bowe. "And when you got it right, George said, 'That's my baby!'"
Taylor says he applied a mutation of said special to Michael Spinks in sparring, dropping one of the great light heavyweights in history -- Spinks never lost a pro fight at light heavyweight -- while sparring in the early 1980s.
Spinks doesn't recall the moment, but he doesn't deny it. "Leon gave me hell," Spinks says. The pair often fought at Spinks' camp in the Catskill section of New York. "I couldn't catch him, couldn't hit him. No lie. We had hellish fights in sparring."
Hellish -- a fitting metaphor for a man who spent many days in scalding spiritual water. "Leon got shot in the neck," Spinks says, "and was sparring with me a week later."
Taylor remembers. He was standing at the corner of Kingston and Bergen in 1984 when the stray bullet hit. He lifted his shirt to show the wound. "It hit me in the right shoulder and came out of my neck. I can't believe Mike remembers that." It was one of four times Taylor was shot.
Taylor says he first tried cocaine on March 18, 1983, after fighting in Atlantic City on a card headlined by Spinks. During the post-fight party a fellow fighter dropped a pack of cigarettes next to Taylor. "I'd never seen that," Taylor recalls, referring to a pack of smokes from a colleague.
If the former was a surprise, the latter is a stunner. "I walked into the bathroom and the guy comes out of the toilet, sniffing off his fist." Taylor shakes his head in amazement. "I asked him what that was. He says, 'You don't want any of this.'"
But he did. Taylor shared the powder with the fellow boxer, igniting a swath of destruction normally reserved for artistic expression.
Taylor's addiction was predictably linear -- going from powder to pipe when sniffing wasn't enough -- though his means of procuring drugs were atypical. Once he guzzled his fight purses he needed other means to obtain money. He operated in a criminal element otherwise seen on The Wire -- robbing drug dealers and liquor stores (sans ski mask).
"I used to go into nightclubs," Taylor says. "They'd have bottles of Moet waiting for me, and I'd start to party. And if anyone started talking [trash] to me or one of my boys I'd start knocking people out. I mean, several at a time. They'd just get in line and I'd knock 'em out."
The leeches who saw this talent in Taylor thought he'd be good for armed robberies. "They had guns, but they didn't want to shoot anyone. So I'd be the muscle. If the cashier acted up, I'd just knock him out. We did that a lot. I had fast hands."
His hands. You can look at them for hours. A fighter's fists serve as a form of human archeology, each scar and bump a bookmark. His gnarled knuckles and meaty palms have been put to great and galling use. They belong to a bear more than a man.
By the time Taylor was fully addicted and entirely uninterested in boxing, he was arrested and convicted of three counts of armed robbery. He spent about two years (1988-89) in prison.
* * * * *
Then there's former heavyweight champion Riddick Bowe, who fondly calls Taylor "Country Boy" because of a twang Taylor acquired during summers he spent in North Carolina as a kid. Bowe dove into superlatives. "He was the greatest thing on two feet," Bowe says of Taylor. "He could slip, roll, parry ... he could box, he could bang, he could do it all.
Bowe says he squatted ringside for hours watching Taylor and Breland and brands himself a quasi-combination of the two.
"I'm gonna tell you something," Bowe continued. "Leon could leave the gym for six months, come back and whip every ass in there. He's better than me and Mark Breland put together. It's the God's honest truth. If I could've had Leon's hands I would've cut mine off."
Toward the end of Taylor's pro career he sparred with Bowe, following him from the Catskills to Oregon to Las Vegas, preparing him to defeat Evander Holyfield in their first fight. Taylor, who bears an alarming resemblance to Holyfield, was arrested before Bowe-Holyfield II, the only pro fight Bowe lost.
Then Bowe departed with a numbing declaration. "Leon Taylor had the greatest talent of anyone I've ever seen in boxing."
Bruce Silverglade, proud papa, handyman, and curator of Gleason's for 30 years, ponders Taylor with parental contempt and sadness. He sees all these fighters as his family. Forgive the cliché, but Taylor is the one who got away.
"Leon was hanging with Mark Breland, and many people thought he was better than Mark," he says. "Leon had potential, but did not realize his potential. I've seen it many, many times. If you're talented as a junior you far exceed your peers, and that's a terrible thing, because what happens is you win without training hard. You rely on natural talent, until your peers mature and they've trained hard. Then you lose."
Silverglade endured a botched business transaction with Taylor in 1999. "I was doing a lot of agent work, matchmaking for fighters. I got a call late on a Thursday from someone in Madrid who needed a fighter that weekend. I called Leon into my office and asked if he was interested in the fight. He said he was. I gave him $100 to take a cab home, get his passport and some clothes, and then go to the airport.
Silverglade paused. "Instead of going to the airport," he says, "Leon robbed a liquor store, got arrested, and went to prison."
"Whenever you see Bruce," Taylor says, chuckling, "he'll ask for that $100."
Despite his disapproval, Silverglade makes a salient distinction. "It's easy for me to sit here and be critical," he says. "But I'm not in his shoes. It's very difficult for people who don't know that environment to understand the mentality. I'm a white, Jewish guy with money in my pocket. I haven't lived in the projects, particularly in the 1970s and '80s when it was much more of a zoo. I can tell them to save money for a rainy day, but many of them think they'll be dead by 30."
The result of that robbery landed Taylor in prison from 1999 until 2004. He has been crime-free since. "I didn't smoke, drink or do drugs while I was away," Taylor says. By then his boxing career was long over, with an incongruous record of 13-6.
* * * * *
It is a solemn Sunday in Brooklyn, the latest in a string of sunless days.
We emerge from the subway onto the corner of Nostrand and Fulton, before a rainbow of dollar stores, bodegas, and fast-food shacks. Taylor points left to the avenue climbing up to the clouds. "You could get anything you wanted there back in the day," he says, "and I did."
People instantly float to Taylor, giving pounds and bumping shoulders. Brooklyn knows Leon Taylor, and his name still rings like Paul Revere through the streets.
Five minutes later, a dark SUV rolls past us and stops across the street. We pluck open the doors and Taylor greets Breland with a handshake. "What up, boy?" he says.
"Not hard to find a white guy with a black guy on Fulton," Breland retorts.
We park on Pacific Street, walk a few yards and bend right into an alley that has been converted into a courtyard. Taylor's parents are holding court. On the left is Steve Taylor, Leon's father, a gentle man with an easy white smile.
Behind them are eight grills with tarps wrapped over them and a few concrete blocks stuffed with soil and popping evergreens. Steve did all of the work to make it a home. Steve is a man who cares about things -- most of all, his son. "We'd like him to call us more," says Steve Taylor, who works in commercial real estate. "Even once a day is not too much."
Taylor's parents live in the same apartment in which they raised him: a humble home of hardwood floors and French doors. The Taylors sit and gaze warmly upon their son. Steve is smiling. Betty is smiling. Frankly, these are parents any child would want. So you wonder how Leon came from them. It is understandable. But Taylor is just a glaring emblem of the male dynamic, who acted out on things most men leave to the imagination.
To his credit, Taylor does not sing the expected ghetto hymn of parental abandonment, does not see his failure as the shards of shattered home, a rap lyric as pretext for destruction. "My parents loved me," says Taylor, "and I loved them."
* * * * *
Taylor says he's been clean for over three years. He trains over a dozen people (nearly none of whom pay him) at Mendez Gym in the Chelsea section of Manhattan. By all accounts, he is always on time and on point.
"Super guy," says Tom Colicchio, of Top Chef fame, one of Taylor's paying customers. "I tore my ACL a while ago, and when I was ready to spar again I was told to enter the ring with Leon. I thought they were joking. Everyone knows what a legend he is." Colicchio laughed at the memory.
"I think I hit him once. You know you've done something special when you hit him."
Taylor works at Mendez from 6 a.m. to 9 a.m., and then jumps on a bus from Port Authority to New Jersey to train other fighters. No more "vacations" for Cat. "He calls himself 'Cat' now because he said he's crawling back to the good life," says Betty Taylor. Leon recently trained heavyweight hopeful Adam Kownacki, but the relationship died in the thorny portal of boxing politics. Whenever a fighter falls, even for five seconds and still wins the fight, the unrenowned trainer is the first to get the hook. If your name isn't Angelo Dundee or Emmanuel Steward, your job security hangs on the elastic moods of management.
On this June afternoon, Leon Taylor presides ringside, his swollen elbows folded on the edge of the sky blue canvas. He springs up when he disapproves of his fighter's approach, his hoarse baritone drowning the room.
You must sit still in a gym to absorb its rhythms. Its inhabitants are very territorial, if not provincial. You will not find one person in one gym who compliments another. "I don't like Gleason's," they will say, without giving a valid reason.
Envy? Maybe. Mendez has all the bona fides of a boxing gym. Six heavy bags hang like sausage from rusty chains, the walls lathered with pictures and posters, and the requisite hangnails of vanilla paint dangle by the ceiling.
It is not Gleason's. It can't be. But it's home. And it's safe. And sometimes safe is best. We need Leon Taylor safe. He is the good after the bad, the American dream in retrograde, a man to be measured beyond the rigid words on a rap sheet. This Cat has more lives.