Every sour thought you have about Jermain Taylor, the fighter, is probably right. The one-time burgeoning star middleweight (160 lbs.) has gotten worse, not better, over time. He makes too many mistakes in the ring. He’s an athlete who just happens to be a boxer, and he gets by too often on instinct. He struggles with focus and concentration. But the one thought you can’t have about Taylor, the man, is that he’s a chicken. He’s not. It’s why he’s fighting Kelly Pavlik again Saturday night, five months after Pavlik hit him so hard he ended up unconscious in the corner looking like The Scarecrow from The Wizard of Oz after a tumble, limbs splayed sadly. It’s a bold, “all-in” move with his career that has made this rematch the first deeply important, relevant and potentially thrilling fight of 2008 — and one of the year’s most meaningful no matter what comes next. These are the two best middleweights around, even though owing to a technicality stipulated in the rematch contract, it’s not a “middleweight” fight. Pavlik is one of the 10 best active fighters around, or close to it, regardless of division. Taylor’s lingering not far behind, but assuredly in the top 20. Pavlik is a contender for the unofficial title of “most exciting fighter to watch.” And their styles — not to mention their respective abundance of guts — mesh in a way that assures fireworks. Their first fight, in September of 2007, was among the handful of best fights of the year. It was an all-out brawl, but the kind where strategy was in serious play. HBO’s Jim Lampley said early on — perfectly encapsulating what was happening — “They’re corners are going to tell them to box. But they want to fight.” Unless you’ve lived under a rock, you know that Pavlik narrowly averted his own oblivion in the second round when he hit the deck and was badly, badly hurt, but recovered to dig his way back into a fight he was losing and KO Taylor in the seventh. Only the situations both find themselves in have changed. Taylor is still the gifted, hard-hitting, fast athlete who frequently lacks a clue in the ring. That combination has gotten him pretty far, even if his wins are bruised fruit: disputed back-to-back victories over living legend Bernard Hopkins; a disputed draw with Hall of Fame-bound Winky Wright; unimpressive victories over formidable, but far smaller, Cory Spinks and Kassim Ouma. Pavlik is still the less athletic of the two, but unbelievably powerful. His high punch output, sturdy chin, will to win and ability to finish off a hurt opponent have led him to conclusive knockout victories over Taylor, of course; highly-feared contender Edison Miranda; and lesser but still viable contenders in Jose Luis Zertuche and Bronco McKart. Where Taylor was once the rising star, Pavlik — with his white, Midwestern pedigree but a fighting style any boxing fan has to love — is now on the verge of a superstardom that has the potential to surpass anything Taylor might have achieved. Taylor’s fortunes with his primarily Arkansas fan base have fallen and risen on a peculiar arc, first incredibly high after his wins over Hopkins, then increasingly diminished with each successive win, then back on an upward arc after his brave but losing showing against Pavlik. The situations are different in other ways, besides. They are fighting at 166 lbs., because Taylor believes he has outgrown middleweight and struggles with his stamina there — although Pavlik has suffered from similar problems melting his tall frame under the division limit. Taylor has dropped his gifted trainer, Emmanuel Steward, with whom he never jelled, in favor of his long-time adviser and novice trainer Ozell Nelson. He has apparently adapted some of Pavlik’s old school training techniques, like walloping on a giant tire with a sledgehammer. He says he didn’t train very hard for Pavlik the first go-round, but has now. Almost all of these new situations benefit Pavlik over Taylor. There’s something sad in Taylor imitating Pavlik’s training techniques; it shows the kind of lack of confidence that beset Taylor a few fights back and has plagued him continually since. Taylor should have gone back to his old trainer, Pat Burns, but is instead putting his career in the hands of someone who’s not really a trainer at all. If Taylor isn’t just making excuses and actually didn’t train hard for Pavlik… that’s a worrisome mindset, unlikely to be resolved just because, as Taylor himself said, a “butt-kicking” awoke him from a kind of career slumber. To top it all off, there’s little to indicate that Taylor will suddenly hold his left hand up high like he needs to for blocking punches (instead of keeping it well below his waist); that he will stop moving backwards as the fight progresses (something he said he wouldn’t do against Pavlik but ended up doing); that he will know how to finish off Pavlik if he gets the opportunity (instead of swinging wildly and running out of energy); or that he will remember to use his shotgun jab (the one that carried him to the top to begin with). You never know. Maybe Pavlik, despite still seeming incredibly down-to-earth, has let his newfound status as Ohio state sports hero — throwing out the ball at a Cleveland Indians playoff game, the like — go to his head. Maybe, by talking so openly about how successful he was with his double-jab strategy last time, he’s telegraphed too much and Taylor can adjust. But… My prediction: …is a Pavlik knockout, around the same round. He is too good, too focused, and people who have seen him fight above 160 lbs. say his power is even scarier. Confidence: …is lower than last time, when I predicted a Pavlik blowout. Don’t sleep on what Taylor is capable of just because he was knocked out in their first meeting. Pavlik said if Taylor comes out slugging, he’ll get knocked out quickly. But Taylor might win by early knockout, if he’s brave enough. Taylor might win a decision, if he doesn’t let his bravery get the best of him and boxes smartly. I put my confidence percentage at about 70. My allegiance: …is with Pavlik. I’ve liked him since I saw him dismantle McKart. He’s tough, he’s personable, and he’s exciting in the ring. He’s among my top five favorite active fighters. If you tune in to see Pavlik fight Saturday night, odds are good he’ll become one of yours, too, if he isn’t already.