2. March 17, 1990 – Julio Cesar Chavez (68-0) KO 12 Meldrick Taylor I (24-0-1), Hilton Hotel, Las Vegas, Nevada
Mention the words “Chavez Taylor One” to a boxing fan and one will get an immediate and visceral response. While the fight itself was an incredible spectacle, the controversial ending was what set it apart from most other superfights. Like Leonard-Hagler and the first three Pacquiao-Marquez fights, Chavez-Taylor I will forever divide boxing fans into two intractable camps.
When referee Richard Steele criss-crossed his arms in front of a dazed Taylor with just two seconds remaining, he irreparably changed the course of three careers – and three lives. Steele’s decision enabled Chavez to record his 69th straight victory, add a second version of the 140-pound title to his mantle and vaulted him past the recently defeated Mike Tyson for the number-one pound-for-pound ranking. On the other hand Taylor lost his perfect record, lost out on the glory of grabbing the number-one slot himself and was denied the signature accomplishment of ending Chavez’s historically long unbeaten streak. As for Steele, he faced controversy, criticism and seemingly endless boos.
That polar opposite result extended to the fighters’ lives beyond that fateful St. Patrick’s Day bout. Chavez went on to Hall of Fame enshrinement in 2007 while an embittered Taylor descended into a professional, physical and financial nightmare. Though Steele couldn’t have known at the time, his decision added a chapter to the Chavez legend while effectively ending the glorious first phase of Taylor’s career.
Up until the final moment, the fight exceeded the enormous promise. That was saying something because Chavez-Taylor I was as magnificent a pairing as has ever been made, both in terms of their respective standing in the sport and in the physical and stylistic differences. They were an almost perfect anatomical match as the 5-foot-7 Chavez’s 66-inch reach earned him half-inch edges in both categories.
While Chavez owned the heavier punch and the deeper world-class pedigree, Taylor possessed supersonic hand and foot speed as well as the toughness inherent in his Philadelphia heritage.
“My ‘will’ will probably figure out in this fight,” Taylor said in the HBO pre-fight package. “Chavez is a great champion; he’s determined and he has a lot of pride. See I’m a fighter that rises to the occasion. If I have a challenge out there and somebody says I can’t do it and has doubts about me, I’m going to do it. I’m at the beginning of the prime of my career and I think I’m going to really excel in this fight. It’s going to propel me as the best fighter pound-for-pound in the world. It’s going to make me a superstar.”
Chavez, already a superstar, ironically said humility played a vital role in retaining his stature for this long.
“I’ve always had in my mind that in the ring every opponent is a champion and that I’m a human being like anyone else and we are exposed to defeat,” Chavez said. “Fortunately, I’ve always prepared myself consciously 100 percent, as each one of my fights lead to bigger and more important fights, and I think that’s why I have remained undefeated.”
The indoor arena at the Las Vegas Hilton was filled to its 9,300 capacity, and hotel officials estimated that 75 percent of the tickets were sold to Mexican and Mexican-American patrons that thirsted for a Chavez victory. They not only invested their hearts and souls but also their hard-earned cash as they drove up the odds from 8-5 to 11-5 in Chavez’s favor in the hours before the fight.
The strategies were no mystery to anyone. Chavez needed to apply heavy pressure and unleash his trademark body attack to slow Taylor’s movement while Taylor aimed to move in, out and side-to-side to keep Chavez off balance while piling up points with machine-gun flurries. Throughout Taylor’s training, the fighter worked inside a ring with a circle drawn on the canvas within which Taylor had to remain. The ropes and corners were considered toxic territory, and with Chavez as the opponent that was a most wise decision.
As the fight began Taylor stayed true to his strategy as he moved in small semi-circles in both directions and flicked half jabs to establish range while Chavez stalked behind winging hooks. Chavez was a notoriously slow starter and while he was deeply aware of this flaw he couldn’t do much to prevent it. He used the early rounds to gather reconnaissance while Taylor sprinted to an early lead. In round two, however, Chavez slipped in a short lead right that reopened a cut on Taylor’s lower lip that he suffered in training. The sight of Taylor’s blood ignited Chavez into action as three solid rights and a hook penetrated in the round’s final 20 seconds. For the first time Taylor seemed ill at ease as he wiped at his face and blinked his eyes.
What no one but Taylor knew at the time was that those Chavez rights fractured the orbital bone under the left eye. While Taylor owned the mathematical advantage Chavez had created the foundation for the late-round success to come.
As the rounds passed Taylor continued to dazzle with his sonic bursts but Chavez continued to doggedly pursue and do the little things that went unnoticed to the untrained eye but inflicted mounting damage. It wasn’t until round six that Chavez could claim his first round but by then the damage to Taylor was becoming visually obvious. George Benton repeatedly warned Taylor about expending too much energy early but even as both eyes showed lumps and his mouth gushed blood he continued to impose a hard pace on himself, and on Chavez.
The eighth saw a curious tactical shift by Chavez, who bounced on his toes and circled Taylor, who won the round largely by default. The move pushed Chavez’s cut man Jose “Buffalo” Martin to a near coronary.
“You’re standing too straight up,” he screamed at Chavez. “Do it for your family, give it all your heart! You’ve got to give it all you got! For the love of God, throw everything you’ve got!”
Chavez did just that in the ninth, but not before fielding a blitzkrieg of lightning punches from Taylor. As Taylor slowed, Chavez hit his stride and solidified the wearing-down process that began back in round five.
In the 10th Chavez countered Taylor’s flash with brick-loads of substance. His full-shouldered rights and triple hooks hammered Taylor, whose body language exposed his growing fatigue and distress. With a large lead on two cards, the fight was now a one-man race between Taylor’s will and his body’s ability to obey it.
Taylor tried his best to beat the rejuvenated Chavez off him with blazing combinations but Chavez, still desperate to close the gap, continued to deliver his bludgeoning blows. The momentum was such that Lou Duva and George Benton felt that Taylor couldn’t afford to rest on his laurels entering the final round.
“Mel, this is the last round,” Duva said. “The whole fight is hanging on this round. Do you want to be champion of the world?
“You need this round,” Benton added.
Despite the pain and exhaustion that gripped him, Taylor pushed himself fully while Chavez curiously held back for the first two minutes. But once Chavez shifted into high gear, the results were historic.
A Chavez right shook Taylor to his core with a minute remaining and a hook to the jaw caused Taylor to break into a faux wobble. Chavez landed more bombs, then strangely backed off to survey the damage. It was as if he were waiting for the right moment to put the final strokes on a masterpiece and to hell with those who demanded that he hurry.
With 24 seconds remaining both men set themselves to throw rights. Chavez’s got there first and hardest and Taylor’s body shuddered again. Instead of backing away and running out the clock, Taylor barreled forward toward the corner pad. Chavez then pivoted hard to his right, reset his feet and delivered a heavy, pinpoint right to the face that sent Taylor crashing to the floor.
Just 16 seconds were left on the clock and the crowd exploded into rapture as Taylor struggled to regain his feet, doing so as Steele tolled five. Meanwhile, Chavez was walking toward his own corner – an obvious rules violation – but Steele’s focus was rightly invested in assessing Taylor’s condition.
After counting eight, Steele placed his face inches from Taylor’s and yelled, “Are you OK? Are you OK?” Taylor’s proper action would have been to nod demonstrably or say something – anything – to show Steele that he was still alert and functional. At the most critical moment, however, Duva climbed onto the ring apron, which caused Taylor to glance to his right instead of answering Steele. Taylor’s failure to answer Steele in a timely manner moved the veteran referee to close his eyes, wave his arms and stop the fight – with only two seconds left on the clock.
Just like that, the fight was over. But the chaos and controversy was only beginning and the points of dispute will never, ever be squared to the satisfaction of all sides.