Former undisputed middleweight champion Jermain Taylor found himself in a surprising place Wednesday night: once again challenging for a world title.
Taylor, 36, made the most of his opportunity. He scored four knockdowns en route to a unanimous decision victory over Sam Soliman at the Beau Rivage Resort and Casino in Biloxi, Mississippi.
Taylor (33-4-1, 20 KOs) captured Soliman's title by scores of 116-111, 115-109 and 116-109.
"I heard it before," said Taylor, a native of Little Rock, Arkansas, in regard to hearing his name announced as a world titlist. "And I'm hearing it again."
Taylor, who ended Bernard Hopkins' historic middleweight title reign in 2005, fell on hard times following four defeats over a five-fight stretch from 2007 to 2009, including one in which he suffered a small brain bleed.
He passed a number of rigorous medical tests entering Wednesday's fight, but aside from health concerns, many questioned whether he should be allowed to fight at all. Taylor was charged with a pair of felonies in August after allegedly shooting his cousin multiple times during a domestic dispute.
While Taylor's journey back to a title fight was improbable, there's little question he benefited from a knee injury suffered by Soliman in Round 7, which proved to be the turning point in a close fight.
"[Soliman] is a warrior. He did the same thing I would have done," Taylor said. "You have to keep fighting in this sport."
The injury left Soliman visibly limping and unable to plant his right leg for the remainder of the bout. Although the Australian native showed heart in making it to the final bell, he suffered four official knockdowns due mostly to a lack of balance. In addition, he fell to the canvas repeatedly over the final five rounds.
Soliman (44-12, 18 KOs), who won his first world title in May at the age of 40, refused to blame his injury.
"I [injured myself] a little bit in training and I nearly had to pull out of the fight," Soliman said. "Absolutely no excuses because if he wasn't as good of a fighter as he was -- a former undisputed world champion -- I would have been able to come away with the goods.
"[Taylor's] performance -- you can't take that away from him. The knee was fresh and fine as I was fighting so it wasn't an old injury that came back because of bad luck."
The victory was the fifth straight for Taylor, who began a comeback in 2011 after more than two years away from the sport.
The first half of the fight was dominated by holding and mugging on the inside from both fighters as neither was able to establish control. But things changed quickly in Round 7 when Taylor scored his first knockdown as Soliman appeared to slip after absorbing a jab.
Soliman was knocked down again the following round as his leg gave out after Taylor landed a right hand in close. Taylor scored his third knockdown in Round 9 by catching Soliman flush with a right hand as he was backpedaling, which caused referee Bill Clancy to have the ringside doctor examine Soliman's knee.
By Round 11, Soliman was in survival mode. He was ruled down a fourth time after a right hand appeared to land on the back of his head, disrupting his balance again.
The victory puts Taylor in position to land a big fight, likely against one of two former middleweight titlists who seated ringside: Hassan N'Dam, who became Taylor's mandatory challenger by defeating Curtis Stevens on Oct. 1, or unbeaten Peter Quillin, who vacated his title.
Quillin, like Taylor, is managed by powerful adviser Al Haymon.
"I just thank God and Al Haymon," Taylor said. "Thank you Al Haymon! We did it, baby! We coming home with the belt. Who is next?
"I want whoever Al Haymon puts in there. Whoever Al Haymon says, that's who I am going for. I have never dodged anybody in my career."