No Different: Jermain Taylor Unravels

“I read that Martin Luther King said, ‘A man who won’t die for something is not fit to live.’ I was like, dang. You know, I would die for boxing. I know that’s dumb. You’ll say, ‘You got your kids — your family.’ I know. But still, you died fighting. Jermain Taylor is a boxer.” – Jermain Taylor, 2013

It comes as no surprise that Jermain Taylor finds himself once more in legal trouble on the heels of winning another middleweight belt almost a decade removed from his initial title reign, but the above quote simply makes sense in too many sick ways. Past the nagging wound that boxing tears wider as time goes by, beyond the ring, Taylor is pushing himself closer to the loading dock of boxing’s martyrium. That his latest attempt at ruining his life came on the day celebrating Martin Luther King, Jr., this past Monday, Jan. 19, makes his ability — and perhaps even desire —  to “die for boxing” all the more palpable.

Considering his recent history of strange social media posts (which have been largely comical) and domestic issues, much of the reporting on what could be Taylor’s stroll through the depths of pugilism’s unforgiving residual effects, has been dumbed down to weak, TMZ-level sensationalistic news. And this, despite the inconscient rants that leaped from the page and rose to another level last August when Taylor shot his cousin at the former champion’s residence in Little Rock, Ark.

The initial effect of Monday’s incident was the cancellation of Taylor’s first defense of his IBF belt against Sergio Mora, Feb. 6 on ESPN2, which was no doubt a serious blow to Taylor’s ongoing comeback, and the network’s schedule early in the year. But with the full scope of Taylor’s dangerous behavior laid bare, a link between Taylor’s profession and its track record of grinding out damaged goods was bound to be made.

Later on Monday evening, former Ring Magazine editor and current ESPN boxing columnist Nigel Collins did exactly that, and compared Taylor’s current behavior to that of former heavyweight champion Riddick Bowe on Twitter:

It’s difficult to find a better comparison, really. In 1998, Bowe kidnapped his own family and assaulted his estranged wife Judy in a desperate and illogical attempt to reunite them under one roof, essentially reaching a personal nadir that was shocking in its severity, and landed him in prison.

But for Bowe, the change may have been much more difficult to see as it happened; he behaved erratically inside the ring and out for years before some unfortunate switch flipped and he became more violent.

In 1991, Elijah Tillery was disqualified when a punch from Bowe after the bell led to a brawl that saw Tillery showing off  his martial arts skills before being dragged over the ropes and swarmed by Bowe’s people. In 1994, Bowe blatantly socked Buster Mathis, Jr. after the latter took a knee to get a break from the onslaught (though the bout was strangely ruled a No Contest). The same year, he punched Larry Donald at a pre-fight press conference while the two were jawing at each other. And in 1996, Bowe sluggishly endured two beatings at the hands of Andrew Golota, who famously disqualified himself, both times, with multiple, brutal low blows. Then in 1997, he joined the United States Marines before washing out in just a few days.

It’s possible that along the way many thought Bowe was simply a controlling hothead and couldn’t foresee such an acute escalation. In hindsight, though, the signs were likely there all along.

A significant difference is that Taylor was, literally and figuratively, a model citizen upon his rise to fame within boxing; he modeled for Everlast’s new ad campaign in the mid-2000s that seemed geared toward a younger demographic, he had a multi-fight contract with HBO, and a potent human interest story followed him where he went. Taylor’s wife Erica balanced success as a basketball player at Louisiana Tech University and motherhood, and Taylor’s role as thoughtful warrior paterfamilias within that unit was not missed by the HBO commentating crew.

After Taylor’s defeat of former belt-holder William Joppy, almost exactly 10 years ago, his post-fight interview with HBO’s Larry Merchant was respectful, lucid, introspective and contained surprisingly intelligent tactical analysis. It was a perfect snapshot of exactly what HBO wanted Taylor to be, and it was what most fans knew of him.

When Taylor controversially won the middleweight title from Bernard Hopkins, the knockout wins stopped coming and the noise died down when Taylor’s victories became increasingly difficult to defend. Unimpressive defenses against Winky Wright, Kassim Ouma and Cory Spinks walked him into a bruising stoppage loss in 2007 to Kelly Pavlik, who has become another tragic figure, and perhaps not coincidentally.

By 2009, just a touch longer than two years from the day he was crushed by Pavlik, Taylor had been stopped twice more, in both cases after sustained beatings in the 12th round. When Taylor was taken to a Berlin hospital and eventually diagnosed with a brain bleed, his promoter Lou DiBella quit, citing concerns over Taylor’s health, and Taylor dropped out of Showtime’s Super Six tournament and unofficially retired.

Where Taylor and Bowe’s tales converge again likely begins at their respective comebacks. Both struggled in their second comeback fights against opponents that were supposed to make them look good, both fought in at least one Southern state known for lax regulation, and both were medically cleared to fight despite several major red flags. Defenders of their comebacks could also point to the fact that they’d both only ever lost to good fighters, in Bowe’s case, one fighter: Evander Holyfield.

At Bowe’s hearing to be sentenced for kidnapping and more, his attorney asked the court for leniency, claiming Bowe’s judgment was a result of taking too many punches to the head. In 2001, Bowe was charged with domestic assault, stemming from an incident with his newer wife Terri. And because boxing’s structure is fractured and its regulatory process is woefully fallible, Bowe was licensed to fight by the Oklahoma commission in a comeback against journeyman Marcus Rhode in 2004 after he was released from prison.

Even though Bowe had legally claimed boxing drove him to violence against his family, and despite continued violence at home, he was again given a license to fight — presumably because it was a profitable show for the Fire Lake Casino. Bowe was then licensed in California, a state with seemingly more strict regulations, and fought the nondescript Billy Zumbrum, barely winning. He fought again in Germany, beating unknown Gene Pukall by decision, and hasn’t fought since. He was thrashed in a kickboxing match not long ago, probably for the money, but he’s managed to stay out of the news and on his cringe-worthy and occasionally offensive Twitter feed.

Since Taylor never officially retired, the door was open for him to make an attempt to return in late 2011. After a series of tests by the Mayo Clinic and the Nevada State Athletic Commission deemed Taylor faced no greater risk than your average fighter, he was licensed to fight in California, then stopped the relatively harmless Jessie Nicklow in eight rounds. But there was an extra slap to face of concerned parties: also on the same ShoBox card as Taylor-Nicklow was Andre Dirrell, who had also dropped out of the Super Six amid reports of “neurological problems,” beating Darryl Cunningham on the Gary Shaw Promotions card.

And DiBella came back to handle Taylor as well.

Upon Taylor’s being granted a license unanimously, Dr. Margaret Goodman, well-known in boxing circles as an experienced fight doctor, called the decision “unconscionable.” She continued, “If the physicians and the commission had reviewed all of Jermain’s performances, they would not have been able to come to this conclusion.”

By that time, the only potential sign that Taylor had experienced impairment from his knockout losses was a police visit in 2011 when Taylor busted the window of his mother’s car. And potentially underlining the idea that a fighter is always only one punch away from peril, it wasn’t until Taylor suffered a hard knockdown against Caleb Truax in April of 2012 that his sanity appeared to truly disintegrate. In the post-fight interview, Taylor delivered bizarre support for himself while watching the knockdown he suffered on video replay.

The following month, police were called to a motel in Maumelle, not far from where Taylor lives, where an unidentified woman accused him of rape. The woman changed her story before charges were filed, and Taylor earned two more stoppage wins before the end of 2013, the final one being against his only recognizable comeback opponent, the sincerely shot former contender JC Candelo. While the punches no doubt added up, Taylor was still being brought along in a controlled setting.

Taylor was penciled in to fight Sam Soliman, which was announced in early August, 2014. In the midst of training, in late August, police were called to Taylor’s residence, where he had allegedly shot his cousin more than once, non-fatally, and fired his gun at others present. Taylor was arrested for aggravated assault and first degree battery. Apart from seriously injuring someone, incident number three should have also meant that a clear pattern was beginning to emerge, but Taylor was allowed to travel to Florida and train for the Soliman bout. It took place at the same venue where Truax flattened him in round 9, and Taylor triumphed when Soliman suffered a freak knee injury or six.

The most memorable thing about Taylor-Soliman, however, was the completely vacant and borderline homicidal look on Taylor’s face when the two weighed in. It was certainly more internet meme than clear-cut evidence, but it was unsettling enough to bear repeating.

This past Monday, according to ESPN, Toya Smith said Taylor fired a gun into the air at a Martin Luther King Day celebration, before putting it to her husband’s temple, and she said Taylor would have killed him had she not stepped in, because Taylor thought one of her children dropped one of his championship belts. Said Smith, Taylor, who appeared to have been drinking, “was pointing at the kids, so I jumped in front of him again and said, ‘Please don’t shoot my kids.'”

Taylor, a grown man who made his own decisions, now sits in jail for having violated the terms of his August release. But one wonders how many entities may have failed Taylor along the way.

Dr. Timothy Trainor, who in 2011 vouched for Taylor at his licensing hearing, and even the NSAC itself; District Judges Wayne Gruber and Alice Lightle, who both granted Taylor bail after clearly proving to be a danger to others and possessing firearms; and Lou DiBella, Taylor’s promoter, who said in 2009, “It is out of genuine concern for [Taylor] and his family that I am compelled to [part ways with him]. … It is my belief that the continuation of Jermain’s career as an active fighter places him at unnecessary risk,” then re-joined Taylor’s team when he made a comeback. And then DiBella said of his most recent debacle, “We’re very concerned over his mental state and his health.”

At only one of those points could Taylor truly have been derailed before setting foot in a boxing ring, though — Stateside, at least. If he couldn’t get licensed to fight by a commission, then he wouldn’t fight. Not in the United States, anyway.

When Bowe was granted a license to fight Zumbrun in California, Thomas Hauser wrote for the New York Sun, “State athletic commissions are guardians of boxing, and letting physically impaired fighters step into the ring is bad for boxing. More than simply hurt the sport’s image, it debases the sport. In sum, it’s the obligation of a state athletic commission to deny a physically impaired fighter a license to fight.” Hauser also noted the poetry of Bowe, a fighter who almost certainly should not have been licensed to fight, tangling with a fighter who had already been part of a bout in which one fighter lost his life.

Time was a perhaps a significant difference between Taylor and Bowe, as the latter had been out for eight years before coming back. Bowe was denied a license in a number of states before California allowed him to lace up gloves again and get paid. The system almost worked, in his case.

In the end — and it may have been the catalyst necessary to ignite Taylor’s mangled fuse — Taylor has been made to deal with the fact that he failed himself. It’s a difficult enough assignment for a healthy, stable person. For a fighter happily displaying video of himself acting so cartoonishly that it almost appears as if he slips into odd fugues on-camera, it may be impossible.

The licensing of fighters who have no business stepping into a ring and lax communication is but one way fighters are failed, and but one crack in a nearly-broken system. Quite simply, there is no incentive for a fighter to stop fighting. There is no pension, no support system or institution stepping in when a fighter who knows no other profession and has no way of making money needs help. There is no incentive for promoters to work together, or for non-participants to not excise their pound of flesh.

On the eve of Brandon Rios vs. Mike Alvarado III, observant fans and media could drench themselves in the cognitive dissonance created by a fight between two men who may or may not already be significantly battle-scarred and on the verge of serious damage — a fight pairing two men who, when combined in a ring, produce explosive results. It’s a situation where, stripped of flowery language, we eagerly anticipate the for-hire obliteration of brain cells, memory and life between two men who could perhaps really use what little they have remaining.

In short, it’s boxing. But there is room for greater concern and care for the lives of fighters, who must live after boxing. And there is always an end.

When Duk-Koo Kim was matched against Ray Mancini in 1982, the WBC had already begun conducting an investigation into potential side effects of having 15 rounds title bouts rather than 12. Kim passed away as a result of injuries sustained in the bout, tragically and very publicly. This, and other factors, led to the shortening of world title bouts to 12 rounds, but the WBC also became the first sanctioning organization to mandate electroencephalograms for all fighters competing for their belt.

It took a tragedy and a series of costly setbacks to institute EEG tests in boxing. Casting a more discerning eye toward Jermain Taylor when he attempts to get another license to box could be the chance to do something before another tragedy happens.

It is unclear whether the remedy is a centralized governing organization or better officials, or perhaps the help of an objective set of doctors. But networks are capable of refusing to televise fighters who, by action or examination, are considered riskier than others. That move would suggest boxing is less a business, and more a collection of human beings that nobody wants to see die, though.

But if the sport of boxing is one in which fighters are granted licenses regardless of risk, behavior and history, then a potentially grave error is being made.

“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.

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About Patrick Connor

Patrick Connor is a long time boxing fan and historian. He is additionally a voice actor and co-host of TQBR Radio, Queensberry-Rules' boxing podcast. Follow him on Twitter, Instagram and Vine: @VoiceOfBeard