It’s been a while since we’ve seen Jermain Taylor in the ring; it’s been even longer since we’ve seen him look good.
The former middleweight champion is now 33 and has been away from the sport since losing by a frightening 12th-round knockout to Arthur Abraham in the opening bout of Showtime’s Super Six World Boxing Classic tournament.
Taylor (28-4-1, 17 knockouts), of Little Rock, Arka., laid in a hospital bed in Berlin for days after the KO, suffering from a severe concussion and short term memory loss. Even after he was released, doctors advised him to remain in Germany for a few days until the acute symptoms subsided.
It was Taylor’s third knockout defeat in a stretch that saw him lose four out of five. At that point, it did not appear likely that we’d ever see Taylor back in the ring again.
Yet Taylor will do exactly that on Friday, making his return to the middleweight division against Jessie Nicklow (22-2-3, 8 KO), of Baltimore, Md., in a ten-round bout at the Morongo Casino Resort & Spa in Cabazon, Calif. The bout will headline a special installment of ShoBox: The New Generation, which will be supported by the return of former super middleweight contender Andre Dirrell against Darryl Cunningham.
“It’s great to be back in boxing,” Taylor told members of the media on a recent conference call. “I took a few years off but now I’ve got my focus back. I’ve been boxing for 22 years and I’ve never taken a break from boxing. This just woke me up.”
Behind Taylor will be a number of familiar faces, not least of whom is Pat Burns, the original head trainer with which Taylor first rose to prominence. Under Burns, Taylor’s jab, athleticism and innate sense of timing brought him to the pinnacle of the middleweight division. With Burns in tow, Taylor twice defeated long-reigning middleweight king Bernard Hopkins, ending his 20 title defense streak in the summer of 2005.
Perhaps the most surprising player in Taylor’s comeback is promoter Lou DiBella, who had recused himself of that role following the loss to Abraham citing concerns for the fighter’s health. The decision to support Taylor wasn’t one that was easily reached, DiBella said, but one that came after being assured by doctors that Taylor was at no greater risk than any other fighter.
“It was a process and a lot of conversations I had with Al Haymon and knowing that Jermain had been going to some top neurologists in Arkansas and had been checking his health and well-being,” said DiBella, who also promotes THE RING’s middleweight champion Sergio Martinez. “Then it became clear that that was going to extend to places like the Mayo Clinic and I received a copy of the medical report from a doctor in Germany that was CC’ed to the Nevada State Athletic Commission.
“I had a conversation with one of the top neurologists in the world where he was asked if Jermain were his own kid, would he let him get in the ring. His response was, no, he would not let his own kid fight under any circumstance but if you’re asking if Jermain Taylor is any different than any other fighter or if there is any risk then I can’t tell you that.”
While it’s easy to look at Taylor’s past with concern and suspicion, it’s just as easy to see the reasons for Taylor’s desire to resume his career. Aside from the paydays, Taylor’s life has been shaped by boxing. It brought him to the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, where he won a bronze medal. It has made him a revered sports figure in Arkansas, where he is generally regarded as their greatest prizefighter. It has made Jermain Taylor “Jermain Taylor.”
“I had every intention of getting back in the ring; I just missed boxing,” said Taylor. “I was never worried about what was wrong with me. I know my family was concerned, but this is what I love. This is what I’ve done my whole life. It’s who I am.”
Even if Taylor is not the same fighter who dominated the division during the middle part of the last decade, his presence injects much-need star power to a division lacking in name value. All of Taylor’s losses – to Kelly Pavlik, Carl Froch and Arthur Abraham – were against world-class competition, making a return to relevance all the more possible.
Still, there are many obstacles in his way, beginning with the 24-year-old Nicklow. Nothing about “The Beast’s” record jumps out as threatening, which includes a fourth-round TKO loss to Fernando Guerrero and a loss to a man named George Rivera who is now 13-7 as a professional.
What Nicklow presents is an aggressive, if modestly-skilled, opponent who will try to test his adversary’s heart by forcing a fast pace.
“If Jermain is not where he should be then I’ll be the first one to show it,” same Nicklow.
More than just beating Nicklow, showing some signs of the fighter he was would bring legitimacy to his comeback. Nicklow may be the perfect fighter to bring it out of him.
“Everybody loves a comeback and everybody loves a comeback story,” said Taylor. “Everybody makes mistakes. That’s why I love boxing so much. You can be down and then come back and win a championship and everything is great.”
Photos / Emily Harney and Ed Mullholand-Fightwireimages.com
Ryan Songalia is a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America (BWAA) and contributes to GMA News and the Filipino Reporter newspaper in New York City. He is also a member of The Ring ratings panel. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. An archive of his work can be found at www.ryansongalia.com. Follow him on Twitter: @RyanSongalia.