Meldrick Taylor learned his craft in a Philadelphia gym, which means he never learned to take a step backward. From the beginning of his career, he has been a warrior, and that aggressive style served him well through 25 fights until last March 17, when he went to graduate school in Las Vegas. The professor that night was wise old Julio Cèsar Chàvez, who taught Taylor, the 23-year-old undefeated International Boxing Federation junior welterweight champion, that when you are winning a fight going into the last round, you don't engage in any foolish attacks. Behind on points, Chàvez stopped a charging Taylor with two seconds left in the 12th round.
Last Saturday night in Atlantic City, Taylor proved to be an excellent student. Far ahead on all three officials' cards against World Boxing Association welterweight champion Aaron Davis, Taylor came out for the final round wearing track shoes. If he wasn't thinking of Chàvez, as he claimed later, then he must have been thinking of Carl Lewis. To catch Taylor, Davis would have needed a motorcycle.
"We told him to stay away from trouble, but that wasn't exactly what we had in mind," said a laughing George Benton, Taylor's trainer. "I told him I wanted him moving in a circle, to keep turning Davis, and not to jump on him. I didn't want him to run like that."
This was to be a stern test for Taylor. In his first fight after losing to Chàvez, he had not looked sharp while winning a 10-round decision last August over lightly regarded Primo Ramos. "Forget how he looked," said co-manager Lou Duva before the Davis fight. "He did what we hoped he'd do; he got his confidence back. After a knockout, you don't send a fighter in against a cannon. Now he's ready for anybody."
As a cannon, Davis qualified, having gone unbeaten in 32 fights, with 20 knockouts. He won the WBA title last July by knocking out Mark Breland—like Taylor a 1984 Olympic gold medalist. Davis had nearly a five-inch advantage in height and a 10-inch edge in reach over the 5'6½" Taylor. Of course, he shouldn't have called Taylor a sissy in the week leading up to the fight at the Convention Center.
"He's got a big mouth," said Taylor. "He's called me a lot of names. He's mad because he's the champion, but I'm the one getting all the attention. He's aware people don't take him seriously. I'm excited about getting back in the ring and showing him I am still a great fighter. Then we will see how big his mouth is."
The angry Taylor punished the 3-to-l underdog champion with a savage body attack right from the opening bell. The lanky Davis needs room to punch; staying inside, Taylor gave him none. Blistering combinations, four, five and six punches at a clip, fired with blinding speed—rips to the body followed by uppercuts to the head—built a wide lead for Taylor. Not even being penalized a point for low blows by referee Arthur Mercante in the second round slowed Taylor.
Davis, a tough 23-year-old from the Bronx, recovered to mount an offensive in the middle rounds of the fight. Then he fell back again in the face of Taylor's assault. Though the judges had no problem picking a winner—Vincent Rainone and Phil Newman scored it 116-111, Frank Cairo 115-112—each of the game fighters earned his $525,000 purse.
"This is my weight: 147," said Taylor, now 26-1-1, after the fight. "I had a lot of problems making 140 pounds. Against Chàvez I fought the last three rounds dehydrated. I fought those rounds on heart alone. Even though I lost, as far as I'm concerned, I won. I beat him at his own game—inside. Now I feel more powerful. I want Chàvez to come up and fight me at this weight. I think we are the two best fighters in the world. Let him come up and we'll find out who is the best."
In June or July, Taylor is expected to make his first welterweight defense, against Luis Garcia of Venezuela, who is 21-0 and the WBA's top contender. "Then the only guy he wants is Chàvez—at 147 pounds," said Dan Duva, Taylor's promoter. "But we're not going to chase him. If Chàvez wants to make a lot of money, he has our phone number. He can call us."
At that, Taylor grinned. If the phone doesn't ring in Duva's office soon, the fighter from Philadelphia just might make a call himself. "Hey, Julio, what have you got planned for September...?"