Chavez vs Taylor: The Two Seconds That Changed Everything
There are not many more controversial calls in boxing history than the one Richard Steele made in 1990. Meldrick Taylor was just two seconds away from a certain victory over the legendary Julio Cesar Chavez. Arguably the best fighter of his time, no defeat in 68 fights, the relentless marauding Mexican fighting machine Chavez had no equal. But Taylor thought he was and more.
Taylor, the unbeaten former Olympic champion, dazzled with speed of foot and hand, blistering combinations. In many ways, the polar opposite of Chavez. Taylor and Chavez were both world champions, both held claim to be the best light-welterweight on the planet. In Las Vegas, they would settle plenty, certainly for far more than the WBC and IBF titles that were on the line. The fighters held court and served up one of the best fights of any decade, but all the talk post-fight was about the call the referee made in those final crucial seconds of that brutal savage fight.
Just one month after Mike Tyson had suffered his first reversal in Tokyo, Chavez was on the verge of losing for the first time in his career. Somehow, one judge had him winning as the 12th round got underway, an incredible and astonishing viewpoint of a fight that was as about as clear to score as any fight could be. The two other judges scored it as most people saw it, Taylor was up by 5 and 7 points. In simple terms, Taylor just had to survive to win.
Taylor suffered even in apparent victory, his face badly swollen, both eyes virtually shut, a broken orbital bone, a busted lip, swallowing his own blood, beating Chavez came at a price. Taylor was winning the majority of the rounds, but also taking a systematic beating in the process. One he never fully recovered from.
Taylor was only 23, a career on the rise, but this one fight changed everything, two seconds changed everything. Taylor needed those two seconds more than we ever realised at the time, he was never the same fighter ever again. The savageness of the fight left a mark that never left, this was his moment, his glory. It was the sort of fight where a piece of you stays in the ring of battle, the prime now in the rear view mirror.
Even though he was winning, he was doing it the Philly mentality way, that came at a price. He wanted to beat the great Mexican at his own game, the Philly way. His team told him he needed the last round, he didn’t, with different advice he might have got those two precious seconds he badly needed. But Taylor had the great Philadelphia tradition in his heart, would different corner instructions have changed anything?
The war continued into that pivotal 12th round, Taylor could and needed to dance, at one point he swung, missed the intended target and fell to the floor. Dancing wasn’t on his mind. But Chavez knew what he needed to do, with 24 seconds left on the clock he found what he was looking for. Both fighters threw right hands, Taylor with his body now failing him, came off second best. Chavez landed first, Taylor was hurt but fought on instinct, Chavez found one more brutal right hand, and the former teenage Olympic champion crumpled to the floor.
Taylor bravely beat the count, Steele asked if he was OK, twice, but Lou Duva had noticed Chavez wasn’t in a neutral corner. Duva had tried to buy his fighter time, but he cost him those crucial two seconds. Taylor was distracted momentarily and didn’t respond as Steele yelled at him, the referee unaware of the commotion waved the fight off. A questionable call or a humane wrong, the fight continued long after the final bell.
Arguments raged with as much fury as the two fighters exchanged punches in their epic showdown. Accusations, the blame game, Steele passionately defended his decision. Should Steele have known there was only two seconds left. Should that even matter?
Chavez praised Taylor in the bitter aftermath, saying his opponent was stronger and faster than he was and deserved a rematch. The Philadelphia fighter did get his rematch, but not until 4 years had elapsed. By that time the fire had dimmed in many ways, and the ending was predictable, Taylor wasn’t the same fighter. After 8 rounds Chavez had prevailed once more.
Boxing has a way of writing a script that no writer could ever dream up. That kind of drama we saw in the first fight simply couldn’t be scripted. The fight was gripping, absorbing in the way the two fighters waged war for personal supremacy. Chavez kept winning until fight number 90, like many, he fought way past the time he should have stopped.
Taylor won a world title at welterweight, but couldn’t recapture the same magic. The Chavez fight had cost him far more than we ever could have known at the time. The effects of the fight and a way too long career took a heavy toll on the former Olympic darling. The slurred speech an all too common narrative, an uncomfortable truth of the sport they once graced. Boxing could have done more, the blind eye turned, the damage to the fighter irreversible. The sport moves on, the fighter can’t, a different fight and one he will never win.
The first fight with Chavez now carries new meaning and significance, and so does that call from Richard Steele. Long considered the wrong call, maybe, with the passing of time it becomes very much the right one.