'I would die for boxing'

BY THE LATE ROUNDS of the 2009 fight that would later make boxing fans cringe at the mention of his name, Jermain Taylor had grown exhausted. Arthur Abraham, a hulking Armenian super middleweight, toyed with Taylor, then finished him off with a right jab to the chin with 16 seconds left in the bout. The sudden finish made the crowd at the O2 World Arena in Berlin buzz manically. As Abraham celebrated, Team Taylor kneeled beside its boxer as he lay frozen like he'd just met Medusa's gaze. An official cradled his head in latex-gloved hands.

A few moments later the former undisputed middleweight champ was up. He composed himself, congratulated Abraham, did a short interview and reflexively told his team he was fine. He ducked through the ropes and made his way back to the dressing room. "What round did I go down in?" he suddenly asked his wife, Erica, a former WNBA draft pick turned teacher and children's author. "The 12th round," she said. A few minutes later, he turned to promoter Lou DiBella. "What round did I get knocked out in?" "The 12th," DiBella replied, growing worried. Then Taylor looked at his wife again. "What round did you say I got knocked out in?" Feigning calm, DiBella spoke first. "We gotta get him to the hospital."

An MRI revealed the reason Taylor's short-term memory was misfiring: a minor subdural hematoma, or brain bleed, the primary cause of death in boxing. Taylor's case wasn't fatal, but the doctors gave him what felt like its own kind of death sentence. "They said with the type of concussion I had, you can never fight again -- ever," he says.

On Dec. 14, the now-35-year-old Taylor will pull on his satin trunks and step into the ring for the fourth time since launching his comeback in 2011. Fueled by a desire for redemption strong enough to overwhelm health concerns, he's become the latest, most high-profile symbol of the type of brain injury that has killed one boxer and put another into a coma in the past two months.

Boxing fans want to see knockouts -- the more devastating, the better. But they don't want to see someone killed in the ring. When news of Taylor's return began to spread back in 2011, reaction on boxing message boards ran 20-to-1 against the idea.

robben1976: this is bad news, I don't wanna see a tragedy

rev_kbs: Dang. I hope he doesnt end up being some vegetable or dead.

For Taylor, fighting is more about pride than prize money, an effort to compensate for the regrets that stem from peaking early in his career and then disappointing. These regrets get after him daily, while he's sitting in traffic or waiting to pick up his dog from the vet. They snatch him awake at night, when he's defenseless in the dark of his home on 40 acres outside of Little Rock, Ark. "I went up the mountain, and when I got there I messed everything up," he says. "I want to be known as that person who got back on top and did it right." No matter how it affects his health.

TAYLOR, WHO adopted the nickname "Bad Intentions" to represent his aggressive style, is easy to be around but hard to get to know. Sometimes he's quiet, other times he brims with Southern-gentleman charm. He's a tough-guy gun enthusiast who won't shoot anything larger than a squirrel, a loner who sometimes longs for his old entourage. He mostly listens to country music but prefers Young Jeezy when he jogs the woods-lined roads around his North Little Rock home. Friendly and thoughtful, he's the type of guy people want to succeed, whatever the challenge. "I applaud him for one last attempt," wrote one fan on the a message board. "It's a brave journey and the odds are against him, but he knows that."

Since returning from hiatus in 2011, he's beaten a puffed up 154-pound security guard named Jessie Nicklow and the 22-16-1 Raul Munoz; been knocked down by Minnesota fighter Caleb Truax before winning by decision; and kept his trainer and promoter interested enough to line up his next bout. It's been slow going: Not many contenders want to be known as either the next guy to send Taylor to the hospital or the first decent fighter in four years to lose to a former champ everyone thinks is washed up.

Saturday at the San Antonio Alamodome, he'll face Juan Carlos Candelo, a 39-year-old Colombian with a 32-12-4 record. Three days before the fight, Taylor says he's ready. "I didn't have my confidence back for the first fights, but I'm feeling great now," he says. "I'm a lot more disciplined. I'm getting older but more mature in my boxing."

If all goes as expected, next year Taylor will likely get the title shot he came back for. That is not a night too many in boxing look forward to. "This is an experiment that should have the plug pulled before something bad happens," Bad Left Hook blogger Scott Christ wrote after witnessing the Truax fight. "If Caleb Truax can get Jermain Taylor in real trouble, good fighters will seriously do him harm."

The urge to end Taylor's comeback underscores how far he's fallen ever since he became the only man ever to beat Bernard Hopkins twice. In 2005, he stunned the world by beating the reigning middleweight champ. Asked for a rematch a few months later, Taylor prevailed again. He has yet to produce another impressive win. Taylor's regrets could fill a book, with chapters for the money and fame that went to his head, his overconfidence after beating Hopkins, and his dysfunctional relationship with Ozell Nelson, his coach/father figure. Taylor grew up the oldest child of a single mother, Carlois Lewis, in a Little Rock neighborhood dominated by gangs; his father, Lee Taylor, split from the family when his son was 5. Most of his friends saw four choices for a better life: basketball, football, Crip or Blood. Taylor had no talent for team sports but found his alternative to gang life when, at age 12, he walked into a gas station turned boxing gym opened by Nelson, a local bricklayer.

"I loved fighting," Taylor says. "Some kids acted bad, but they really were scared. I wasn't scared. I'd go in there and scrape." Nelson told him that if he worked hard enough, he could make the Olympics one day. "I didn't even know what the Olympics was," the boxer says now. By age 22, he had an Olympic medal: a bronze from the 2000 Games.

As he began his pro career in 2001 with a $1.5 million signing bonus from DiBella, Taylor was showcased on HBO as a feel-good story: the hardworking, model-handsome, country-music-loving kid from the mean streets. His partnership with Nelson added even more appeal to the narrative. Who would believe a bricklayer with no boxing experience could coach a kid from Arkansas to the Olympics?

But after Taylor went pro, he and DiBella hired a trainer with more experience: former cop Pat Burns, who had coached at the '96 Olympics and worked with boxing legend Hector "Macho" Camacho. Burns ran no-nonsense camps and demanded Taylor train more than he ever had to under Nelson, who stayed on as assistant trainer. "Ozell was like, 'Man, why is he working you so hard? You ain't gonna have nothing left for the fight,'" says Taylor, who felt torn between the man who had helped raise him and the one who had coached him to a 25-0 record in his first five years as a pro, including the two wins over Hopkins. Eventually, Nelson persuaded Taylor to fire Burns in favor of Hall of Fame trainer Emanuel Steward. After two sloppy wins, a draw and the first loss of his professional career, Taylor dumped Steward and restored Nelson to head trainer.

Taylor says now that Nelson advised him to take fights he wasn't mentally or physical prepared for. "I let this man control my life, control who trains me, control the whole camp, control everything," he says. "I was going down and I could've died in the ring. That man didn't care. Couldn't have."

Yet Taylor agrees with Nelson that the bulk of the blame belongs with him, and with his own desire to take a break from working hard when there were fancy cars to drive and parties to attend. "I never gave it 110 percent, ever," he says. "Always cheated here or cheated there. I took it for granted that I could not work hard and still win. I regret that because everything would be so different." He raked in millions and for a while spent it almost as fast as it came. "Just living the fast life without a care in the world," he says.

He was about 40 pounds overweight when he got the call for the Abraham fight. Images of Taylor's previous two losses were still etched in the minds of boxing fans: that slo-mo of his face rippling loose from his skull as Kelly Pavlik knocked him out; Carl Froch pounding him against the ropes like a hammer tenderizing a steak. Yet he remembers thinking: Wow, I can make all this money? Boom! Rounds on me! When fight week arrived, he was still cutting weight, running on the treadmill and hitting the sauna before weigh-in. There's nothing more chilling, he says, than stepping into a ring knowing you're unprepared to face a man looking to knock you out.

"I threw my first jab against Abraham and it was just like, Bah-yow," says Taylor in a low voice. "I was so weak. I fought that whole fight just off sheer nothing."

Nobody who saw Taylor go down in Berlin -- his third knockout in five fights -- needed an MRI to know he should retire while he could still speak coherently. DiBella quit, citing concerns for the boxer's health. Returning to Little Rock was a reality check. Where were the parades and well-wishers now that he desperately needed a pick-me-up? Where were his boys, the entourage he'd taken to Berlin and plied with gifts? His cellphone was disturbingly silent. There was nothing to distract him from the pounding, debilitating headaches that even a steady dose of painkillers could barely blot out.

But as the pain subsided, regret and anger took its place. It would be unacceptable, he decided, if all people remembered of him were those last few terrible fights. He had never thought about when his career might end, but the idea of being forced into retirement by his own lack of discipline and one bad injury? Spending his 30s chewing on those regrets instead of exorcising them in the ring?

"Hell naw," he says now.

FOR A WHILE, Taylor swallowed his urge to fight, throwing himself into full-time family life. Before getting hurt, his training schedule had sometimes forced him to celebrate Christmas and his children's birthdays over Skype. Now he relished being the chauffeur to dance rehearsals and gymnastics practices and coordinating family RV trips to Disney World.

But one morning about a year after the fight in Berlin, Erica Taylor awoke to an empty bed. Across the room, her husband was putting on his running gear. The couple hadn't discussed a return to training, but when she heard the front door latch shut, she resigned herself to the idea that his comeback had begun.

It wasn't about the money, he says. Even years of free spending hadn't left him broke. He'd paid cash for nearly everything instead of racking up credit card debt and says he set up trust funds for his five kids, who are now 12, 9, 7, 6, and six months. What he needed was a do-over, this time with a clear understanding of what it would take to stay on top.

First, though, he'd need to convince boxing officials that he didn't pose an undue risk. He traveled to the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota and the Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health in Nevada for MRI and MRA tests, and they all came back with no sign of lingering injury. So in September 2011, Taylor walked into a hearing with the Nevada State Athletic Commission, which decided unanimously to grant him a new boxing license.

"I wouldn't be involved again if I thought he was at any kind of increased or unreasonable risk," says DiBella, who agreed to represent Taylor again. "If you stay too long in baseball, your lifetime batting average goes down, but in boxing you may be eating out of a straw."

In 2009, citing no scientific evidence, the Nevada State Athletic Commission overturned a 1972 rule barring boxers with a history of brain injury from being licensed; it instead opted for case-by-case reviews. The sudden rule change was Taylor's opening. It also highlights a glaring gap in doctors' understanding of brain bleeds. "There's no major study documenting that after suffering a hemorrhage, a fighter is, or isn't, at increased risk of another one," says Margaret Goodman, a former chief ringside physician and chairwoman of the commission's medical advisory board. In other words, nobody has any idea whether Taylor is more likely to experience another hematoma than a boxer without a history of brain injury.

Taylor's brain looked healthy -- the Nevada State Athletic Commission's consulting physician, Timothy Trainor, wrote that tests "have demonstrated him to be medically fit to compete in boxing, not discounting the risk of head and brain injury that all unarmed combatants take." But everyone acknowledges the system is a work in progress. "A lot of times a fighter might pass all his tests, but that doesn't mean there's not an issue," says Keith Kizer, executive director of the Nevada State Athletic Commission. "Unfortunately, there's no ultimate test."

While research proceeds, boxers continue to periodically die from brain injuries. According to the Journal of Combative Sport, 488 boxers died between January 1960 and August 2011 -- 66 percent due to head or neck injuries. Heavyweight fighter Magomed "Mago" Abdusalamov, 32, came out of a medically induced coma this week after suffering a blood clot on his brain during a fight at Madison Square Garden last month. Mexican super bantamweight Francisco "Frankie" Leal, 26, died from a brain injury following a fight in October, about 19 months after another knockout landed him in the hospital. Between 1995 and 2005, 10 boxers in Nevada alone suffered brain injuries severe enough to end their careers, while two died of subdural hematomas.

AS HE STARTED HIS COMEBACK, Taylor trained as hard as he ever had, racing to make up for lost time. He stopped skipping early-morning workouts like in the old days and phased out Patron and barbecue. Then he approached Pat Burns, his estranged former trainer, who was convinced by doctors that Taylor was at no greater risk than any other boxer. "You can't say, 'I cannot get in the ring if I could die,'" Burns says. "That's irrelevant. It can happen in your very first fight."

Burns agreed to come back -- if Taylor agreed to a lengthy list of behavior-related promises. "He got a second chance at a lot more than just boxing," Burns says. "If he gets a--h--- -itis again, he's up the creek without a paddle because there won't be a third chance. Hopefully, he's cured."

Three months after the athletic commission approved his return, Taylor stepped back in the ring. Despite a 3-0 record in the two years since, his team and fans haven't been encouraged to see him struggle to put away lesser foes. He hit the rocks once outside the ring too. In May 2012, police reported to a motel near Little Rock after a call about a domestic disturbance between Taylor and an unidentified woman. The woman accused Taylor of rape, then recanted her story before charges were filed. Taylor says he had a relationship with the woman, whom he called a longtime friend. "It was bad," Erica Taylor says. "I can't even tell you how we got through it. If you have love for a person, it doesn't cut off just because they did something stupid."

The mood at training camp in Little Rock has been optimistic. But there are some longstanding knocks on Taylor's technique, like the way he rocks back and forth on the balls of his feet and repeatedly touches his glove to his nose, both of which waste energy. Then, of course, there's one of his biggest defensive weaknesses: his tendency to hold his left hand low, opening himself up to those big right hands. Eight years ago, he could compensate with his speed and agility, but those days may be gone. If he's going to be taken seriously again, he needs to find what Burns admiringly calls the "dog" in him, that ruthless aggression that took down Hopkins. "I'm a mean fighter," he says. "Ain't no boxing, let's fight."

Taylor acknowledges even he sometimes questions whether he can be as good as he used to be. "Pretty much all I worry about is, Can I still do it?" he says. "Sometimes I think: I had it so easy. I won that championship so easy. And now that I want it badder than I ever wanted it, do I still have what it takes to go do it?"

ON FIGHT DAY, Taylor tends to retreat inside himself. He will pose for pictures and greet his ride-or-die cadre of fans decked out in Razorback gear, but by now he knows the emotions it takes to remove his shirt and pit himself against another man in front of thousands, and they're on their way to a boil. A few hours ahead of the Dec. 14 fight, in his dressing room area, he'll sit serenely so that Burns can tape his hands. Young Jeezy will be pumping in his ears to mask the chatter in the room. He'll think of his kids and how the next time he sees them they'll chime, "Daddy are you OK?" And he'll say, "Yeah I'm OK, baby," even if he's "swole up or whatever."

But he's confident he will be OK. When training camp started he was already near the 160-pound middleweight limit, looking like he chiseled his 25-year-old self out of his now-35-year-old body. Under Burns' barked orders, he says he's in 12-round shape. He does worry about his health in a way he never used to, though. "I keep getting knocked out, I'm done," he says. "Because I care about my head. I ain't no fool. If there's nothing else I can do and I worked hard, I'll walk away. I will feel peaceful then."

Out in the arena, Erica will be resplendent in a formfitting dress, exuding confidence right up until her nerves fray. When her husband, dressed in his Razorback red satin robe and trunks, makes his way through the tunnel, she will question herself, like she always does: Why are we doing this? Taylor will take a knee in a corner, close his eyes and pray. This time everything's right. No regrets. Right?

"I read that Martin Luther King said, 'A man who won't die for something is not fit to live,'" he says. "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."

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