In the last seconds before the 12th and final round of last Saturday night's super lightweight title fight in Las Vegas, Lou Duva was hunched over the puffy, battered face of Meldrick Taylor, screaming at his fighter above the din of the crowd. Duva, Taylor's comanager, pleaded with Taylor to do what he had been doing so flawlessly for 11 rounds against Julio Cèsar Chàvez, the WBC's undefeated super lightweight champion.
"Get close to him!" Duva shrieked. "Stay inside. Don't stand up and let him hit you. Do like you've been doing: Put your head on his chest and keep turning him around."
Taylor, the finely chiseled 23-year-old U.S. Olympic 126-pound gold medal winner in the 1984 Games, and at the moment the IBF's 140-pound champion, was putting on the most smashing performance of his life. From the opening bell he had been beating Chàvez to the punch, leaning on him and at times forcing him backward with flurries of hooks, jabs and straight right hands in bewilderingly quick combinations.
Chàvez, a 27-year-old native of Culiacàn, Mexico, had arrived at the Hilton Center with a record of 68-0, including 55 knockouts, and with the reputation of being, pound for pound, the finest fighter in the world. But now, suddenly, near the close of a tumultuous evening during which many in the crowd of 9,130 were waving Mexican flags, repeatedly chanting Chàvez's name and rising whenever he landed a punch, it seemed clear that all Taylor had to do was survive the last round to seize Chàvez's title.
Then Taylor made the very mistake that Duva feared he would. With only a minute to go in the fight, Taylor backed away from Chàvez and stood up. Seeing his opportunity, Chàvez staggered Taylor with a quick, powerful overhand right to the face. Chàvez is a relentless, remorseless fighter when he has an opponent in trouble, and now he was stalking a weary, wounded Taylor like a cat circling its prey.
With 25 seconds left, Chàvez caught Taylor with another right hand. Badly shaken again, Taylor reeled after Chàvez along the ropes. Chàvez landed a hook and a grazing right hand, then missed with an uppercut, which Taylor countered with a weak, pawing jab. Dropping the jab as it fell short, Taylor left himself open, and that was all Chàvez needed to rescue the hour.
Setting himself, Chàvez drove a vicious right over the jab. It struck Taylor on his left cheek and sent him collapsing on his back in a neutral corner, the back of his head nearly striking the ring post. He reached out his hands to grab a strand of rope. Slowly, groggily, Taylor found his feet as referee Richard Steele, standing squarely in front of him, picked up the count from the timekeeper at five. At almost the same moment, the red light began flashing on top of the ring post, indicating that fewer than 10 seconds were left in the bout.
Meanwhile, Duva began climbing the stairs leading to Taylor's corner, screaming at Steele that one of his own assistants had told him that time had already run out in the fight. Duva was pursued by Kenny Bayless, an inspector from the Nevada State Athletic Commission; had Duva set foot in the ring, Taylor could have been disqualified by Steele.
Afterward, Steele said he had not known how much time remained in the fight. "I don't think about time when I'm in the ring," he said. "I think about the fighter's condition." Steele also said that he had not seen the red light blinking, despite the fact that it was going on and off directly behind and above Taylor's left shoulder. As he finished his standing eight-count, Steele was looking hard at the only two things that mattered at that point: Taylor's eyes.
"Are you O.K.?" Steele asked him. Taylor, who later said that he could not hear the question above the noise, did not answer.
"I saw a great fighter who was beaten," said Steele. "His eyes, his condition, told me that he'd had enough. Meldrick Taylor got up, but I was not going to let him take another punch." Only two seconds were left in the fight when Steele raised his arms in the air and waved the bout to an end.
Duva went berserk. Figuring that his boxer was probably winning on points, Duva leapt through the ropes and went racing over to confront Steele. "Unbelievable! Unbelievable! What the hell are you doing?" he yelled. "What did you stop it for? He was on his feet at five!"
Steele did not respond. He simply turned and walked away. As security guards climbed into the ring to protect the fighters, the spectators stood by their seats and applauded for several minutes in a moving, almost reverential tribute to Chàvez and Taylor.
In the weeks leading up to the bout, many boxing observers had thought it might rank among the best fights of the past 10 years, and it more than fulfilled those expectations. At times the battle recalled the barn-burning, give-no-quarter featherweight title fights of the late 1940s and early '50s between Willie Pep and Sandy Saddler. The matchup was ideal, with the older, more cunning and implacable Chàvez, who hits hard from both sides, against the younger, quicker Taylor, a Philadelphian who entered the fight with a 24-0-1 record, including 14 knockouts, and who has two of the fastest hands in the sport.
Chàvez is a destructive body puncher, particularly when he has an opponent on the ropes. Thus, Taylor spent most of his 12 weeks training for the fight by working the center of the ring and by staying out of the corners. Chàvez never did pin Taylor on the ropes. Instead, Taylor took the fight to the middle of the ring, spinning off the ropes whenever he found himself there, and leaning on Chàvez as he worked the body and head with hooks and uppercuts. At times, as the two boxers drove their heads into each other's shoulders, Chàvez and Taylor looked like two horned animals locked in bitter territorial combat.
With Taylor winging the jab and moving in circles around the center of the ring, Chàvez lost the first round on the scorecards of all three judges. From his seat at ringside, Taylor's promoter, Dan Duva, Lou's son, exhorted Taylor to control the fight from the center. "Make him back up," Duva kept saying. "Get off the ropes. Get out. Turn and walk away. Don't stand in front of him."
Chàvez pursued Taylor, looking for a chance to fire the overhand right, and he and Taylor battered each other inside with hooks. By the second round, Taylor was bleeding from the mouth. Chàvez was hitting harder, but Taylor was scoring repeatedly with his jab and hook. He was throwing more punches and making Chàvez miss. Taylor dominated the early rounds, and then the fighters quickened the tempo in the fifth. In the sixth, the predominantly Latin crowd began chanting their man on: "CHA-vez! CHA-vez!"
Although Taylor was winning, he was suffering the more visible punishment. In the middle rounds his left eye began to close, and his face became swollen and lumpy. His mouth and nose were bleeding, and his white satin trunks were streaked with his blood. But Taylor never stopped moving and banging away. He would land an average of 38.1 punches a round to Chàvez's 21.5, and 128 jabs to Chàvez's 37. By Round 8, doubling up on the hook, Taylor had Chàvez backing up, and Dan Duva was yelling, "Now you got him, Mel! This is your time in history!"
The action intensified in the ninth. Both men worked the body in close with hooks and uppercuts and with winged shots as they came out of the crouch. For the first time they appeared tired, but then in the 10th Taylor put on his show of the night. Looking to seal his apparent win, he scored early with a right hand-left hook combination, which snapped back Chàvez's head amid a halo of sweat spray. Chàvez recovered quickly, boring in and driving Taylor back with a jarring right hand to the head. However, as he had been doing all night when he was tagged, Taylor began firing punches from all points on the compass. He raked Chàvez with three fast right-left combinations, scored again by doubling up with a left hook, caught a hard right by Chàvez and banged Chàvez with a right of his own.
There they stood, in the middle of the ring, furiously snapping punches at each other—lefts and rights, jabs and uppercuts. At the bell, the crowd was on its feet and cheering wildly in appreciation of a truly remarkable show. The fighters went at it again in the 11th, pounding each other at center ring, until the bell finally rang, and Taylor, now tasting victory as surely as the blood in his mouth, threw his arms in the air in triumph as he walked back to his corner.
And that, somewhat poignantly, set the scene for the final moment, when Steele waved the fight over. With a pained expression on his face, and in a moment of tenderness rarely seen in a prize ring, he gently held the cheeks of Taylor's disfigured face in the palms of his hands.
Chàvez emerged with only a couple of nicks, on his nose and left eyebrow. Taylor landed 457 punches, Chàvez 258, but Chàvez was never really hurt. Taylor was, though had his corner instructed him simply to dance away from Chàvez in the 12th, instead of trying to get in close, Taylor would have won the fight. Judge Jerry Roth had Taylor ahead 108-101, and Dave Moretti had him in front 107-102. The third judge, Chuck Giampa, though seen at ringside by numerous witnesses, had Chàvez ahead 105-104. The wisdom of having three judges was never more apparent.
Chàvez had never been in a fight like this one, and it humbled him. "He was faster than I," said Chàvez. "He was stronger than I. I had the idea he would fight that way [inside]. I could not develop myself the way I wanted. I was very surprised at his hand speed. Meldrick Taylor deserves a rematch. He is a great fighter."
If there was little jubilation in the Chàvez camp, among Taylor's seconds there was outrage. "Meldrick was up at five, and he was looking straight into Richard Steele's eyes," said Dan Duva. "Sugar Ray Leonard was down two times against Thomas Hearns, and they let him fight. It was clearly a bad call."
"It's a hell of a way to lose a fight," said Lou Duva. "After 11 rounds, two minutes and 58 seconds. Steele took the fight away from us. He had no right to stop it."
Lou Duva ought to reconsider his own actions in the bout's final chaotic seconds. In a Sunday afternoon press conference Taylor admitted that Duva's manic attempt to storm the ring may have diverted his attention from Steele. Taylor said that he turned to look at Duva as Steele intoned his eight-count. With his manager at the ring apron, Taylor may well have thought the fight was over, and in his muddled state he may not have been responsive to the referee's questions.
The damage inflicted upon Taylor was graphically evident the next day as he faced the press behind dark glasses, his face swollen and bruised. He had spent the night in Valley Hospital, where it was discovered that he had suffered a small fracture in the bone behind his left eye. He was also given a transfusion to replace the two pints of blood he had lost. Taylor said that he had endured blurred vision from the third round on and that he had been unable to see Chàvez's right. Nevertheless, he was defiant. "My head was really clear." he said of Steele's decision to stop the fight. "I wasn't wobbly. It was a very traumatic thing for me. It was ludicrous."
Taylor and the Duvas will never be satisfied, but the action by Steele, one of boxing's most respected officials, was one that he alone was in a position to take. No matter the round or the score, Steele deemed Taylor unfit to absorb more punishment, and he did what he had to do. He did his job.