This is how tight this Showtime super middleweight tournament is: Arthur Abraham is the man to beat in the opinion of a great many; Jermain Taylor is the worst of the six in the opinion of a great many; and I don’t at all think it’s obvious who’s going to win when they meet Saturday.
You know what it makes me think of, Abraham-Taylor? It’s got a little “No Country For Old Men” kind of plot going on. Abraham is Anton Chigurh, the sophisticated assassin with the eerie grin who hunts patiently and takes his good sweet time before he goes all nastily efficient, and he gets there no matter how many chunks you take out of him. Taylor is Llewelyn Moss, the tough hick you take for granted who builds up head starts and is on his last chance to make big money.
It’d be a good fight anyway, a match between one of the 20 best fighters in the sport (Abraham) and a guy who not long ago was considered one of the 10 best (Taylor, but as the opening bout of the tournament, it has cache it never would otherwise. Have I mentioned lately how much I’m looking forward to this thing?
Through all his ups and downs over the last four years, a few things about Taylor have remained constant: 1. He has been as brave as anyone, maybe braver than everyone, in his selection of opponents; and 2. Even when he’s lost, even when people thought he got a lucky decision, he’s always fought the top men close. He made that big leap up in 2005 from fighting merely competent opposition to ending Bernard Hopkins’ historic middleweight title run, then went right back in with him again and won, and as if he couldn’t get his fill of tricky veterans who make you look bad even if you come out with the win, he fought to a draw with Winky Wright. They slowed him down a little by putting him in against two smaller men he beat, Kassim Ouma and Cory Spinks, but even Spinks was of the strain of tricky veteran who makes you look bad win or lose. After that it was back-to-back losses to the #1 man at middleweight other than him, Kelly Pavlik, almost winning the first fight by early knockout before losing by late knockout, then barely losing the rematch by decision. In his first super middleweight bout, he took on and beat a top-5 caliber man in Jeff Lacy, and in his last fight, was beating the even higher-ranked Carl Froch before losing by last-minute KO.
I realized just now left out one of the constants: 3. Taylor always fades late. For all his athleticism, for all his Olympic pedigree, his fatal flaw has been stamina. The Taylor camp thinks it’s all about his training. He used to not take it seriously, they say. Now he’s taking seriously, they say. They say it every training camp, don’t they? I’ll believe it when it happens. But I think part of the problem is mental. It’s been said, most often of Oscar De La Hoya, that a fighter who’s tense in the ring exhausts himself more quickly. Taylor always looks nervous. When he gets his opponent hurt, he doesn’t seem to know what to do. When things are going poorly for him, he seems to panic. It’s too bad someone who shows so much heart in whom he chooses to fight breaks down mentally so routinely. When he’s pumping that excellent jab, he looks like the goods. When he puts together combinations, he looks like the goods; his power has been questioned at times, but he decked Pavlik and Froch both by letting his hands go, and each of them can take a shot. When he concentrates on defense, he’s not bad there, either. But too often, it’s all come crashing down in the second half of his bouts. It’s why he finds himself so doubted right now – even if his native Arkansas, so erratic in its support of him, is more pro-Taylor than not for the time being.
Whereas Taylor always looks like the goods, at least early in fights, Abraham doesn’t look like much at all, especially early in fights. And whereas Taylor has gone down about the hardest road possible, Abraham frankly hasn’t fought much of anybody. It’s easy to forget that Taylor, even coming off a knockout loss and in the low esteem he’s currently held, is by far the best opponent of Abraham’s career. The best guy Abraham fought prior was Edison Miranda, twice. Miranda in 2006 was a feared power puncher, not yet defeated, but it’s fair to say he wasn’t as good as his knockout record would suggest, and he got beaten by the likes of Pavlik and Andre Ward, another Super Six tournament man; the latter did it with ease. Still, we learned something about Abraham in that first Miranda fight: Even if you break his jaw in several places, break it so badly it later requires two titanium plates and 22 screws to fix, he has the kind of fortitude that he’ll keep going (although it must be said that at one point, he appeared to signal he wanted to quit only to change his mind). Oh, there have been some other pretty qualified opponents along the way, guys who probably deserved to be ranked in the bottom half of the top-10 of his division like Raul Marquez or Howard Eastman, but nobody like Taylor. Not really even close. Hell, Taylor’s own win over Marquez is amongst his least notable.
Abraham doesn’t have flashy speed. It’s passable, maybe even better than that. And he fights more methodically than he does anything else, stalking forward with his arms held high to block punches. But he’s a sight to behold once he dispenses with his customary three rounds of waiting, calculating, sizing up. It’s because he hits very, very hard. His knockouts are destructive, with at least three of them counting amongst the best of the year in each year he landed them. You may think you’re beating him because you’re punching and he’s not, but mostly he’s blocking what you’re shooting, and before long, he’s dropping heavy, accurate technically sound bombs on you, particularly his straight right and his left hook. Still, that he’s not fought anyone all that good is enough to wonder how he’ll do against someone who is. There’s a size question, too. He’s moving up from middleweight, and in height and reach, he is the smallest of the men in the tourney. And at some point, giving away all those early rounds may come back to bite him on the ass.
I’ve often thought someone who was fleet of foot enough and/or long enough to keep Abraham at a distance when he makes his late charge could pull out a decision win, especially if his chin would hold up to Abraham’s power. Taylor’s long enough, and fleet of foot enough. It’s why I don’t rule him out. It’s the chin part that worries me. I don’t expect much of a brownout of Abraham’s power because he’s moving up in weight. If anything, I expect it to be even better. He’s struggled to make middleweight for a long time, and when he fought at a contracted 164 pounds in the Miranda rematch, I thought he was even more destructive than before. Granted, that’s four pounds below the super middleweight limit, but I think it was a taste of what we could expect.
So the question becomes: Have Taylor’s two knockout losses made him more vulnerable to being knocked out again, or where they reflections of him running out of gas and ending up more vulnerable to big punches than he would be otherwise? I just don’t have enough faith that Taylor has solved his stamina problem, and I have plenty of confidence in Abraham’s power. So I expect this fight to look like most other Abraham and Taylor fights. Taylor starts well, finds himself increasingly in trouble and can’t hold on until the end to pull out a decisive win. Abraham starts slowly, works himself into the fight and pulls out the decisive win. A Taylor decision win is possible, but we also mustn’t forget that he’ll be in Germany, Abraham’s home turf, which will make that harder. I also think Taylor’s team might be underestimating Abraham, saying he’s “nothing special,” and that could be a bad idea. Because more likely than not, I see Taylor on the receiving end of yet another crushing late knockout.
If I’m wrong, the tournament gets so much more interesting. A favorite finds himself in a hole he has to dig out of. An underdog suddenly might look like he shouldn’t have been underestimated.
Tomorrow I’ll preview the second fight of the Showtime doubleheader, Carl Froch-Andre Dirrell.